Third Sunday in Lent – Luke 13:1-9
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
When I was eight years old, I had a friend who died in an accident. His name was Timmy. We heard that Timmy and a couple of other friends had wandered onto a road construction yard and were playing among some large heavy culverts that were stacked in a pile. Somehow one of the culverts came loose and rolled on top of Timmy and crushed him. I remember talking to my parents about Timmy and death. Why? Why did that happen? My parents tried to give me an answer that they really didn’t have. I suppose what I was really wondering was- if this could happen to Timmy, could it happen to me? And maybe what I really wanted to know was whether God loved Timmy and whether God loved me. Now that was a question that my parents could answer- Yes. Yes, God loves Timmy and God loves you. My Dad gave me a hug and a pat on the head, and somehow that was enough for me.
The Bible gives different answers to the question why bad things happen. 1. Bad things happen because we make bad choices. 2. Bad things happen for no reason at all. So let’s look at the first one. 1. Bad things happen when we make bad choices. There is the view that basically says that if you make good choices and obey God, blessings will follow. If you make bad choices and disobey God, bad things will happen. It’s a rather simple worldview, and one we parents teach our children all the time. If you study hard and get good grades, you can get a good job and do well in life. If you don’t apply yourself, if you break the rules, if you play do alcohol or drugs, you can really make a mess of your life. There’s a lot of truth in that, isn’t there? We can all think of examples of people who have been blessed for their hard work, and those who have made bad choices that have dramatically changed their lives. Like a high school senior who decides to drink and drive the night before her graduation and dies in a tragic car accident.
In Jesus day, the Pharisees totally embodied this way of thinking about God and life. Everything happened for a reason. If you were blessed, it was because God had blessed you for your obedience. If you were cursed, it was because there was some sin in your life that God was punishing you for.
This theology is alive and well today. Have you ever been sick or ever received a diagnosis of cancer and wondered to yourself, am I being punished for something I’ve done? Have you ever had tragedy strike and you lose someone precious to you, and wonder to yourself if God isn’t making you pay for your sins? You don’t have to look far to find preachers who embody this theology. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, they said it was because God was punishing the city for its great sins. Really? Does God work this way? Is God like some divine watchdog keeping track of our sins deciding when we need a little punishment to get us back on track? We can see plenty of places in the Bible where the authors claim that God does indeed behave this way. But is this the kind of God we see revealed to us in Jesus?
The problem with this theology is that it works some of the time, but not all of the time. There are times when we are blessed for our good choices and pay the price for our bad choices. But sometimes life doesn’t work that way. There are times when good people suffer and bad people prosper. Why is it that sometimes bad things happen to good people? Or why do good things happen to bad people? This leads us to the second answer the Bible gives us. Sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. In our Bible reading today, Jesus questions the Pharisees’ way of thinking about God. He mentions two current events where people died. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you… Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you….” According to Jesus, sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. God isn’t punishing those people. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Do you remember when the earthquake struck Haiti? Were the people of Haiti worse sinners than all the others who had no earthquake? “No,” Jesus said! Or the people of Paradise California whose whole town burned up? Or the people of Nebraska suffering from terrible flooding? The insurance industry considers floods and earthquakes as “acts of God,” but not Jesus. Or let’s get closer to home. Gabby Brown, is she a worse sinner or her parents worse sinners because she is suffering from leukemia? “No!” says Jesus.
Actually, the Bible gives us a third reason that bad things happen. 3. Bad things happen because there is evil in this world. We saw that this past week in the shootings in New Zealand. The hatred expressed by white supremacists is just plain evil. If your religion tells you to hate someone, then you need to get a new religion. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors and to love our enemies.
Jesus tells us here that there is an attitude we should have as we go through this life. And that attitude is repentance. Repentance means to feel sorrow for our sins. Repentance means to feel sorrow for the evil not only in our hearts, but also for the evil in the world. Repentance means to literally change your mind, change the way you see yourself and your world. Repentance means to see ourselves and the world as God sees it, and then work to make that a reality in our lives.
Next Sunday we are going to have a community prayer service to for Gabby Brown. This will be a brief service where we will gather to pray for Gabby and her stem cell transplant. We will sing, light candles and pray.
We all ask that question, “Why?” We may not get a good answer to our question, but what God does give us is Jesus, who reassures us of God’s love for us. In his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us that God’s love is stronger than death. We may not have the answers to all of life’s questions, but we have Jesus, and that is the best answer of all.