While we’re focused on avoiding death and pain, Jesus urges us to focus on life – our own, that is.
[This week the preached version differed from the written version more than usual.]
Third Sunday in Lent (Year C) – February 28, 2016 – Luke 13:1-9
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
What Are You Waiting For? – Pastor Evan Davis
Did you hear about those people around Appomattox and Waverly whose homes were so badly damaged, and four people were killed, earlier this week? I feel for them. It’s a tragedy. Did you hear about the 3 people killed and 14 wounded in a mass shooting in Kansas on Friday, or the six people killed in another shooting in Kalamazoo, Michigan, just five days earlier?1 I think the families of the victims there may quite understandably be asking, “why us?” Why our loved ones?
Are we asking the same thing? Why did this happen to them? Did they….do something? Something wrong, you think? What makes us different? How can we avoid the same fate? How do we reassure ourselves so that we can go about our days without the terrible fear we might end up victims of yet another random mass shooting, terrorist attack, or tornado? Maybe we think we’re more careful. Maybe we think we’re adequately prepared…we know what to do, how to hide or escape or take cover. Maybe we have weapons and know how to use them. Maybe we think we don’t go to so-called “bad neighborhoods” or dangerous countries or whatever it is.
Some people have brought up to Jesus the breaking news of his day. They’re talking about current events. Apparently, Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had murdered some Jews who were simply bringing their precious sacrifices to the temple, and not only that, he mingled their blood with that of their sacrifices. But why these Galileans? And then they raise the news that the tower of Siloam (may have been part of the Jerusalem city wall2) fell on 18 innocent people and killed them. People felt that surely they must have done something wrong.
But I’m sure you realize as you listen to these scenarios what Jesus is going to say: No, I tell you – these people didn’t do anything wrong. They weren’t any different from you.
What Jesus is doing is unequivocally pulling the rug out from under our attempts to believe we’re different from those who suffer. One day we might be under the tower as it falls, or in the path of the tornado. One day you or I might be in the place where someone consumed by anger or hate or sadness kills indiscriminately. Serving God with all our heart and praying earnestly will not save us from the suffering of this world. I want you to hear this clearly: people who suffer have NOT angered God. They have NOT done anything wrong. In this world, it just happens. How many of our loved ones have we lost far too early to illness or injury or accident? Or I could put it another way – don’t we believe that God loves those people in Appomattox and Waverly…those people in Kansas and Kalamazoo? How about our brothers and sisters around the world and around the corner who will be cold or hungry tonight? Of course we don’t believe their situation is God’s punishment.
We have to face an uncomfortable truth: We cannot control our fate. Sometimes tragedy just strikes, on any of us who are both saints and sinners. Cancer does not discriminate. Neither do tornadoes. We are all the same. We Americans are no different before God than Syrians or Zambians or Brazilians or Russians or Chinese. Jesus does not explain why things happen to some people and not others and so surely I cannot. Here’s what he does do – he joins us in this life and takes the very same suffering upon himself. If God himself declares by his actions that he is no different from those who suffer, but rather that he is the suffering one, the dying one, then we are no different either, no matter how bad or good we might think we are. We all fall short, and God loves every one of us, all the same.
So here’s where I think Jesus wants to bring it back to us. In response to the speculative questions these people asked, and that we ask, Jesus responds, “don’t worry about them – let’s talk about you! Unless you repent, you’re gonna miss out on the life I want for you.” How are you going to live your life knowing that it could be over at any moment? He certainly doesn’t mean we won’t literally die, because his whole point is that we will one day. The word translated “perish” means destruction, being lost, not only physical death. Jesus is saying that repentance is the path to experiencing the life he wants us to have. Repentance certainly means turning toward God. It means turning toward the truth of our shortcomings and God’s forgiveness. It means changing our ways to live the Way of Jesus. But it means more than that. As Biblical scholar Matt Skinner says this week, and as we’ll hear next week, repentance “can be more about being found than about finding oneself.”3 Repentance is also about seeing things in a different light, stepping through a door into a new understanding, waking up to a new realization.
And Jesus certainly wants us to wake up. He says, guess what? You’re not going to be here forever. Or in other words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” What are you waiting for? Repent – step through the door into the truth. God has hopes for you. And for us as a society. Life is short. How will you live this life God has graciously given to you?
So he tells a parable about a landowner with the ax in his hands, like John the Baptist at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, ready to clean up his garden of the trees that just won’t bear fruit. I love getting rid of trash and cleaning things up, don’t you? I would be eager to clear out this brush so the soil is not wasted. We are to hear the urgency here. Time is wasting away…God has life for us to live…tomorrow the tower might fall, the tornado might come…so what are you waiting for? The gardener gives us another year and lovingly tends our roots, but the urgency remains, the clock is still ticking – bear fruit!
Don’t worry too much about trying to avoid what might happen. And you know what, from the perspective of our baptisms, we’re dead already. In that water we die with Christ the only death that really matters. We the people who were trying to make it on our own died right there, and out of that water comes people walking in newness of life, joined to Christ forever, people who have stepped through the door into God’s world. That’s you. It is no longer you who live but Christ who lives in you. Your new life is what comes today and tomorrow. Jesus’ hopes for you and for the world are about this life. He has already taken care of the next. What are you waiting for? What are you gonna do with this precious life? We only get one life. It’s basketball season, so I’ll put it this way…we don’t know when the clock is going to run out, but here’s the good news: the scoreboard is turned off. God is not keeping score. We’re all the same, and we’re all loved. We just get to play the game and enjoy it and cherish it for as long as our life endures…caring more about the people we’re playing with than how many of our own shots fall through the net.
While we live, let us live this new life in Christ with the freedom of knowing no one is keeping score.
1Christopher Haxel, Mark Berman, and Jerry Markon, “Kansas shooting rampage deviated from pattern of recent tragedies,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/kansas-rampage-deviated-from-general-pattern-of-recent-tragedies/2016/02/26/2c37642a-dcc7-11e5-925f-1d10062cc82d_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_hesston-1040pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory (accessed February 27, 2016).
2Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 13:1-9, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2789 (accessed February 27, 2016).