“The Tragedy of Living Cautiously: When Towers Crumble”Dr. Mike Massar Luke 13:1-9 Year C – Third Sunday in Lent
The Witness of Scripture:
The term “9/11″ is one that is associated with other dates of infamy and tragedy – December 7, 1941 or November 22, 1963. People who were alive at those times can remember exactly where they were. I mean one of the “ice breakers” I used to employ when doing student work was “What were you doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated?” I knew it was time to move out of student work when students were too young to remember or hadn’t even been born yet. (They considered Kennedy more in terms of ancient history — more like Washington or Lincoln – than recent history!)
But for these times is there a more universal sharing of experience than 9/11/2001? Nearly everyone in this room can remember where they were and what they were doing on that difficult day when planes crashed into towers and other buildings and the loss of life was so painfully present.
Looking at our text, I think back to that evening of 9/11/01 when we had a community-wide service at First Baptist, Tyler, sponsored by the Tyler Clergy Association. I remember asking Anwar Kalifa to come as a representative from the Muslim community and how nervous he was, and rightfully so. But there was anxiety everywhere that evening and it was in that sanctuary where people came to give their fears and concerns over to God.
Well, on this day we find ourselves once again in the sanctuary and turning our cares and concerns over to God. Interestingly enough, our text takes place in a time when calamities have struck Jerusalem and people are trying to make sense of it all.
The disasters that are alluded to here are:
(1) A tragic slaying of some Galileans who were in the Temple making sacrifices to Yahweh. Pilate had been tipped off that these Galileans were revolutionaries, men intent on seeking to overthrow Rome. Pilate had his men stationed in the Temple area, disguised with robes put on over their military garb. When the Galileans arrived the Roman soldiers tore off their robes and slaughtered the Galileans and many innocent bystanders right there in the Temple.
(2) The second disastrous incident alluded to was the “eighteen men upon whom the tower fell.” This related to the fact that these eighteen men were working on an aqueduct built by Pilate. This aqueduct had towers which inclined the water to pass along. One of these towers collapsed and killed the people underneath. These people were called sinners, primarily because they were being paid by money that Pilate had conscripted from the Temple, which was a deemed sinful act by the people of that time. Thus, the eighteen were considered to be accomplices much like the tax collectors of that day and time.
News of both of these tragedies must have been circulating as Jesus was making His way to Jerusalem. The questions posed were theodical in nature . . . that is, they dealt with the problem of pain and suffering, the nature of evil. In our day and time they could be phrased “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Or that haunting line out of Archibald McLeish’s play, J.B. – “If God is God He is not good; If God is good He is not God.”
I want you to notice in this passage of Scripture how deftly Jesus moves from the hypothetical question of the issue of evil and suffering and moves it to an existential issue that has eternity all about it. He moves from the question of the judgment of others to the call for personal repentance.
Now, one more thing about this passage that helps us understand its importance. It has to do with agriculture. The fig tree is a tree that normally takes three years to reach maturity.
But if a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years, chances are that it won’t bear fruit at all.
The powerful overtone of this has all kinds of implications for people who take from the soil of faith and yet never give fruit in return. Jesus is quite emphatic with this parable that God is the God of second chances, but the human reality is that because our lives are limited by time there is a limit to our second chances.
With that recognized tension in the text I invite you to stand and give reverent attention as we seek to listen for God’s Word as found in the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, beginning with the verse numbered “1.”
I remember meeting Philip Yancey at the C.S. Lewis Conference in Oxford several years ago. It was before 9/11and during a time when the foreign press was constantly criticizing America. I guess that is why I wasn’t necessarily surprised to read what Yancey wrote in Christianity Today after 9/11.
He wrote: “I have never been especially patriotic. I’ve traveled too much overseas, I guess, and have seen from afar the arrogance and insensitivity of the United States. September 11 changes my attitude. I choked up when Congress sang ‘God Bless America’ and when the Buckingham Palace guard played the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ and when firemen gave their testimonies and when David Lettermen, of all people, had to comfort, of all people, and when people held candles in front of their sad faces looking for loved ones. I felt a surge of loyalty unity with my country that was new to me. Scott Simon put this feeling into words in a National Public Radio editorial after the World Trade Center crumbled. “Patriotism is not based on a blind belief that the United States has no need to change. God knows we need to change in many ways. Our love for America rests on the belief that the changes that are needed are more likely to occur here than anywhere else in the world.” (Yancey, Philip; Christianity Today; October 23, 2001).
The news of the day it seems was that in the Temple people were worshiping God, going about their spiritual business when out of nowhere Pilate’s soldiers pulled their weapons and killed terrorists, sure enough, but along with the terrorists were many good Jews seeking to worship God.
The news of the day it seems was that workers working on Pilate’s aqueduct from the reservoir of Siloam were killed when the tower they had built collapsed.
The news of the day it seems was that on a crystal clear morning jets, full of terrorists but also full of good people simply on their way, crashed into the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
The news of the day it seems was that on a Sabbath morning a hurricane by the name of Katrina came twisting and turning into the Gulf Coast wreaking havoc like has never been seen. People — good and bad — were taken from us and we are left feeling more helpless than ever before.
The news of the day it seems comes with a fateful regularity of tragedy and loss.
And the question which forms on our lips is: “Why?” “Why do such calamities happen?”
And just as quickly, I suppose, some come up with an answer that is as old as Job — “Well, we don’t know what it is they have done but they have obviously sinned greatly and now are getting what they deserve.”
You see, one of humankind’s favorite ways of looking at the world is that people who are doing the right things are rewarded and those who are not doing the right things are punished. It is basically the philosophy of Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, & Zophar – in that book which deals extensively with this question.
And this way of thinking comes up over and over again in the Bible, especially in relation to Jesus. You remember the blind man encountered by Jesus and His disciples? The disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned — this man or his parents?” They asked that question because they bought into the philosophy that God blesses the good and punishes the bad.
We are no different, are we? We, too, have a hard time seeing past such a black and white philosophy. That’s why even church folks in the wake of a tornado tragedy felt compelled to decry judgment by associating a stricken community with Sodom and Gomorrah. And even as we are repelled by such callousness there is that age-old question lurking in our subconscious — “Why did God allow this to happen to those people? What did they do?”
Thornton Wilder, the great writer, examines that question in his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The story tells of a little village in South America. Each day, the villagers made their way across a bridge to go to the fields. One day, without warning, the bridge snapped. Six persons fell to their deaths.
There was a priest in the village who said, “Aha! I will do research into these people’s lives and show why those six people were on the bridge when it fell. I will prove beyond a doubt that if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you, and if you do good things, good will be done to you.”
He studies every aspect of their lives and came to a conclusion: Those six people were no worse, no better than anyone in the village. He came to the conclusion that God does allow the sun and rain to fall upon the good and the bad.
But even today that answer doesn’t satisfy us, does it? We want to know why such things happen. Ministers are called to the hospital where they sometimes come upon a family leaning on one another, their eyes filled with fears and tears. “Yes, she is still breathing, but it doesn’t look good.” And then come the questions looking for the answer to why — “Was she driving too fast? Did she have her mind on something else? Was she wearing a seat belt?”
We want to know why and that is the question on our minds today as we come to Jesus for some explanation of the tragedies. But we should be careful to take note. Jesus doesn’t answer these questions, at least not in the clear-cut way we would imagine. Rather Jesus says, “Now then, do you think these people are worse offenders than you?
I tell you; unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” And we are taken aback. Why, the wind is knocked out of us. It seems so uncaring, so unkind.
But look closely here. Notice that Jesus seeks to direct us to a question which is much more personal and ultimate. The question is not about unfairness — how can bad things happen to good people like us? The question is not about justice. What do I deserve?
No, the question is more important than all of that. The question is the cruciform — how do we stand before God?
In fact, Jesus is so forceful as to call us to our own repentance. And the truth is, we don’t like to repent. We don’t like to admit that we have fallen short of God’s expectations. We, who live in such a narcissistic age . . . we, who live with the world revolving around us . . . can’t imagine our own duplicity and sinfulness. In fact, as Richard Niebuhr said so many years ago, we “Christians in America would like to believe in a God without wrath that saves a world without sin through a Christ without a cross.”
We have trouble with such theodic questions because we have so tamed God that God is more like our own Divine Butler, giving us what we ask for rather than seeing ourselves as the servants of the Master of the Universe.
Arthur Ashe, who became ill and eventually died of the AIDS virus which he contracted in receiving blood during an operation was once asked by a reporter, “Do you ever get angry and ask God ‘Why me?’” Ashe shrugged and said, “No. I mean I didn’t ask that question when I was given the ability to play tennis like few others. So why would I ask that question now?” (Ashe, Arthur; Days of Grace)
And we shake our heads because we are so used to the questions of do people really get what they deserve. Jesus abruptly answers our questions with a command that makes us shudder. He says, “What makes you think you are better than those who have suffered? I tell you that unless you repent you will have a fate as bad or even worse.”
Duke writer, Reynolds Price, once told a story about a man he knew, a distinguished psychiatrist, who had suffered a terrible automobile accident. The accident left him as a complete quadriplegic, utterly helpless and dependent on his family, depressed and suicidal. He told a group about his first days when he returned home, and could find no good reason for living.
In great desperation, he wheeled himself into a bedroom and locked the door. He held a revolver in his hand, ready to take his life. For the first time in many years he fervently prayed, “God, I can’t go on like this. God, I will make a deal with you. I am willing to go on living, for the sake of my family if You will only do two things for me: (a) give me some relief from the pain and (b) help me to control my bladder.”
The psychiatrist said that in a few moments after praying it was as if he heard a thunderous reply: No deal! You either take life as it is or die. The psychiatrist said that it scared him half to death. It wasn’t what he had expected to hear from God at all. He put his revolver away and never considered suicide again. He went on to live life as it was given to him, living many prosperous years, living to tell of this encounter with a demanding, living God – Whose ways are not always our ways and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
Therefore, let us turn our attention away from the calamities of the day and look to our own souls.
Where are we with God?
What is it that is damning up our souls?
What is repentance anyway?
1. True repentance means that you realize a wrong has been done against God and fellow man. The son whom we call the “prodigal” “came to himself” and realized what he had done.
2. But repentance is more that recognition. There must be a movement toward cleansing. In the Old Testament people put on “sack cloths and ashes.” In the New Testament there are public expressions of an inward desire to change. Zacchaeus responds to Christ by standing and giving of who he is and what he has. It is an act of repentance.
3. And repentance results in a changed life, after all. Repentance is more than a feeling.
Over and over again in the Good Book it says that we must bear fruit that befits repentance.
Evangelical social activist, Ron Sider, tells of a time in his church when an interracial group of young women from Teen Challenge came to speak. One beautiful young woman by the name of Regina shared a wrenching story of incest, physical abuse and drugs. Regina felt utterly worthless. She was deathly afraid of God because she thought God would treat her the same way that all men had. However, after a wretched life of eight abortions and then attempted suicide she met Jesus. And through Teen Challenge she began to put her life back together. She now feels born again. And her life is now spent in bringing others to God through Christ Jesus. (Sider, Ron; One-Sided Christianity? Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World; pp. 101-102.)
Now, I would suppose that most of us would feel a bit uneasy about such a testimony in our church. Why, it would be even more uneasy if it were someone we knew. And yet, it is such repentance that builds the church.
Today, in the midst of our questions, Jesus doesn’t so much answer our questions per se. Rather, He calls us to question ourselves. What is it that we need to repent of?
But then Jesus tells a most interesting story. He tells of a fig tree that up to that point in time has not born such fruit. He warns us that the time is coming when unfruitful trees will be cut down. And we are reminded of the prophetic preaching of John the Baptist who talked about such trees being cut down and cast into the fire,and we shiver with such judgment.
But in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, He reminds us that one of the mercies of God for us is that there is still time. And perhaps God’s greatest mercy to us is time — time to learn from our mistakes, time to start over.
Christians have a word for this sort of mercy — repentance. The Greek word is metanoia, which is where we get our word metamorphosis, a change in form. Repentance becomes merciful when a sinner changes form, turns to God, starts over and bears fruit for the Kingdom.
I don’t care what you have done before you got here. It doesn’t matter how you have messed up your life, made a mockery of all the gifts God has given you. What matters is that we recognize this and repent. You see, there is still time. God is giving us one of the greatest of gifts — time to make things right. Now, will you use that gift? Will you take the time to use the time that God gives? In self-examination, in honest confession, in joyful turning, will you become who God intends you to be? The good news is: there is still time.
Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. In a sense He was on His way home when people peppered Him with these concerns. However, before their questions Jesus addressed them about the signs of the times. He talked about how we think we know things like weather and politics and the likes.
But the question that hangs in the air this morning is His: “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Do we really know what time it is?
Steward Hiltner, the marvelous pastoral theologian used to tell about a state-run mental hospital where truly hopeless cases were relegated to a back ward. The psychiatrists and other medical staff avoided this ward, making only the bare minimum of calls and writing off the patients there as unsalvageable. Then a woman’s group from a local church began, as a matter of compassion, to visit the patients in the hospital. No one bothered to tell them that the patients in the back ward were abandoned cases, so they visited them regularly, bringing flowers, fresh baked cookies, prayer, cheerfulness, and mercy.
Before long, some of the patients began to respond, a few of them even becoming healthy enough to move to other wards. At one level, this was merely a church group doing what church groups do. At another level, it was a sign for the times. The sign of the times is that there is yet still time for God’s people to act like God’s people.
Perhaps today God has spoken to you in such a way that you want to make a life-turning change. Perhaps today God has spoken to you to use the time you have in, with and through this community of faith.
As a vital part of our worship, we are going to pause and take the time to listen to God’s prompting. If God has spoken to you in such a way we invite you to respond because, trust me, God’s people need to hear what you have heard.
About the writer: Dr. Mike Massar serves as Co-Pastor of the University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After growing up in Midland, TX, Mike attended Baylor University where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree. He has done graduate work at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mansfield College at Oxford, and completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at The Graduate Theological Foundation. He has done post-doctoral study in screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Mike and his wife, Lisa, have 3 adult children.
Scripture and Music
Year C – Third Sunday in Lent.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
There’s a Wideness in God s Mercy
O Jesus, I Have Promised
Jesus, My Lord, My Life, My All (Bob Burroughs)
Here’s One (Mark Hayes)
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need (Mack Wilberg)
Create in Me a Clean Heart (Mueller)
The Best of All Rooms (Randall Thompson)
A Rose Touched by the Sun s Warm Rays (Jean Berger)
Set Me As A Seal (Rene Clausen)
Ho! Everyone Who Is Thirsty
My Soul Is Athirst for God (A.R. Gaul)
No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus (Charles Weigle)
O Rest in the Lord (Mendelssohn)
His Eye Is On the Sparrow (Charles Gabriel)