Sermon for Lent 3C, preached by the Rev. Daniel Ulrich on Sunday, February 28, 2016.
Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3, 5).
We’ve all heard it asked before. We’ve contemplated it ourselves. As we watch the nightly news, as we read the headlines on the internet, as we talk with co-workers around the water cooler, we wonder at its answer. WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE? This question is usually one of the very first ones asked when tragedies strike. When the unthinkable happens, we want to know why. Why they always happen to good and decent people?
This question is a difficult one. People have been wrestling with it for thousands of years. However, this isn’t really a good question. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, this is a wrong question, because it is a question that is built on false assumptions.
First, it assumes that life is governed by Karma, the idea that you get what you deserve. If you’re good, then life will reward you with good things. You’ll be blessed with happiness, health, and wealth. But, if you’re bad, if you’re selfish and unkind, then life will punish you with bad things. Your life will be filled with all sorts of difficulties, disappointments, and struggles.
Karma comes from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, but it’s made its mark here in the west. It’s even influenced the way we think about God. When bad things happen, we assume God is punishing us for specific sins. This is what the people in our Gospel reading today thought.
They came to Jesus and told Him about people who were killed by Pontius Pilate, their blood mixed with their sacrifices. Obviously these victims were being punished for their sins by dying such a horrible death! But what did Christ say? He asked, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:2-5). The victims of Pilate and those who died in the tower collapse weren’t being punished for specific sins they had committed. They weren’t greater sinners than anybody else.
We like Karma because it makes sense. We can understand it. It’s only fair that you get what you do. We like it because it puts us in control. If we’re good and do right, then we’ll be rewarded. We’ll have earned the blessings we get. We can make God give us good things by being good, by being outwardly righteous.
Of course, this is a false assumption. We see that life doesn’t work out like that; you don’t always get what you deserve. We all know of good and honest people who’ve suffered great tragedy, and dishonest people who seem to have it all. God doesn’t reward and punish us for what we do.
The second assumption that this bad things to good people question makes is that there are actually good people. We all like to think that there are good people in this world, people who are considerate and who put others before themselves, people who genuinely want to always do the right thing. And we can point to people like this. They obey the laws, the help neighbors out when they’re in need, they consider others and their feelings, the donate money and volunteer hours. We see their good works and consider them good. We look at those sitting in the pews next to us and we know they’re good; they’re in church after all.
But do these things make us good people? Before men they do, but not before God. Our “good” outward actions don’t make us good people in God’s sight. Nothing we say or think or do makes us righteous before God. The prophet Ezekiel spoke God’s Word saying, “The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses…and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins” (Ez 33:12). The good that we do counts for nothing before God. It can’t cover our sin.
All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. Every day we sin, and we sin much. All of us can l point to unrighteous actions. We’ve all hurt the feelings of loved ones. We’ve abandoned responsibilities given to us. We’ve said words that aren’t perfectly uplifting. We’ve had vengeful, hateful, and lustful thoughts. Even our motivation for doing good things have been tainted with selfish desire. Before God, no one is good.
Finally, the last false assumption of this difficult question is that God doesn’t know what He’s doing. This is the ultimate form of idolatry. It places us in God’s place, above Him. We think we know more than God. We think we could manage life and creation better than Him. If God really knew what He was doing, He wouldn’t let bad things happen. He wouldn’t have allowed Pilate to kill those Galileans, and He wouldn’t allow terrorists to attack. He would’ve kept that tower from falling, and He would keep natural disasters from destroying communities. He wouldn’t let those who we think are innocent suffer, especially young children. We’re like the people of old who say, “The way of the Lord is unjust,” but in reality, it’s our ways that are unjust (Ez 33:17).
When tragedies occur, we feel like God’s abandoned us, that He’s punishing us. This is the farthest thing from the truth. Even when the bad things happen, God is still with us. He is still faithful and merciful to us.
He mercifully calls us to repentance. God hates sin, but He doesn’t delight in the death of a sinner. As He said through His prophet Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ez 33:11). God doesn’t want us to continue in our sin, on the path to destruction. He wants us to turn from it and repent. That’s why He allows tragedies to happen, so that we might see the punishment that awaits are sin and be rescued from it.
Remember what Jesus said in our Gospel, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:3, 5). When people came to Jesus and told Him about Pilate’s victims, Jesus explained that this tragedy wasn’t a sign of God’s punishment and judgement of the specific sins of the people. Instead, this was a sign of God’s judgement on all sin, on all our sin. All tragedies, whether they’re tragedies of violence, natural disasters, terrible disease, or anything else, they’re a judgement against the world’s sin. But God mercifully uses these tragedies and bad things to call us back. He allows them to happen so that we’re reminded of our personal sin and our need for a Savior, a Savior who mercifully intercedes for us and saves us from our sin.
When the people came to Jesus, He told them a parable. It was a story about a fig tree that didn’t produce any fruit. The owner of the vineyard told the vinedresser to cut it down, but the vinedresser pleaded with the owner. He asked for more time, to let the tree be for another year so that he could work on it in the hopes that it would produce fruit in the future. This may seem like a strange story to tell immediately after hearing about a mass murder, but it fits with Jesus’ words.
This parable is a story that illustrates God’s patience with us. Like the fig tree, we don’t produce the good fruit that God expects. He comes and comes and comes and we have nothing to offer. All we have is our sin, and like the tree, we deserve to be cut down. We deserve to have towers fall on us; we deserve to have our blood spilt and mixed with our sacrifices; we should suffer all sorts of temporal punishments because of our sin. But thanks be to God, because of His mercy, we don’t. This punishment we deserve is stayed by His hand, and instead, He punishes His Son, so that we might be spared, just as the fig tree. We’re spared so that we might repent, so that we might flee from our sin and trust in God, receiving His gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life in Christ.
Jesus is the only truly good and righteous person to ever live, and yet He suffered the ultimate bad thing for you. Sentenced to death under Pontius Pilate, Jesus suffered God’s full wrath and judgment against sin. Even though He was innocent, He took your punishment on the cross. He did this willingly, so that you wouldn’t have to suffer this death. He did this out of perfect love for you. He had no alternative motive. This was a perfect sacrifice. God gave up His Son so that He can mercifully forgive you your sins, so that He can mercifully give you everlasting life through water, through word, and through bread and wine. Even though we don’t deserve it, God is still faithful to us. He still mercifully loves us and doesn’t want us to die. He wants us to live with Him forever, and that’s why He sent Jesus Christ to be your Savior.
When we look around the world, we see a lot of bad things happening. We look at our friends and family and we see them suffering. We look at our lives and point to tough times and we ask, “WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN?” They happen because we live in a sinful world. But even when tragedies strike, God still loves you and is faithful to you. He uses these bad things to call you back in repentance, to call you back to Him, so that you might escape everlasting death and have eternal life in Jesus Christ. In Jesus name…Amen.