Enticed: By Half-Truths
February 28, 2016
13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 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? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
We struggle to make sense of horrific events. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a major act of violence, we struggle to answer how something so awful could happen. And, it’s in these situations that, at times, being people of faith is particularly challenging. Because, even if we don’t believe that God had an active role in it, we’re left asking, “But why did God let it happen? If God is good and powerful, why did God let it happen?”
I was a senior in High School when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. The vast majority of churches and Christians responded by sending supplies, by donating to relief efforts, by sending teams to provide aid and rebuild. That was the response of most churches, including both Christ Church, as I understand, and the church of which I was a member at that time, in Athens, GA. But, those were not the stories that got the attention. One of the things that I remember most clearly from the new coverage was multiple well-known Christians, pastors even, attributing that tragedy to God.
This is a question that we wrestle with from time to time. Does God have a role in these tragedies? Jesus’ response to this question is pretty simple. In the passage we read, we hear about two tragedies. The first seems to be an act of mass violence by a ruthless political leader seeking to maintain power. The second seems to be the unfortunate collapse of a building that killed eighteen people. The world hasn’t changed much. Even in the 21st century, the tragedies are the same. People commit acts of violence and injustice against fellow humans; horrible accidents occur. Yet, when the people ask if God is enacting some sort of judgement, if the sin of people somehow led to these events, Jesus’ answer is simple: No.
If you remember the story of Lazarus from John’s gospel, Jesus’ friend Lazarus falls ill and his family sends for Jesus. But, by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is dead. And, two things happen when Jesus arrives. First, both Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, say to Jesus, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.”
What they’re doing is asking that question, “Where is God in this? Why didn’t God do something to stop it?” The answer to that question comes in the second thing that happens. It says that Jesus wept. Jesus too, is marked by the tragedy of that event. That’s where God is--marked by the grief and the pain just as much as Lazarus’ own family.
And yet, we’re still left with questions. If God is good and powerful, is God not complicit in tragedy? If you have the ability to stop something, should you not?
One of the better answers to this question suggests that, as long as brokenness exists our world, as long as Creation is not as God intended, the fruits of that brokenness will exist as well--suffering, injustice, tragedy. It is not God’s doing. In fact, God seeks to mend that brokenness, but the freedom that God wove into the making of all things prevents God from controlling all aspects of Creation. So, God mourns over the suffering and works towards healing, but God, by God’s own design, is not the great puppet master.
Jesus answers the question of whether these tragic events are a judgment from God with a succinct “no.” But, the interesting thing is that it almost feels like an afterthought. It’s not Jesus’ primary concern here. Jesus is concerned with the questions behind that question.
Behind this question that asks the “why?” of these tragic events, there’s a series of questions about the world. The people are seeking a rhyme or reason to things. “Is there anything in this world that makes sense? Bad things happen to some, but not others. Evil people prosper; good people suffer. Where is the justice in that?”
These are the questions Jesus hears. These are the questions to which he responds, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” And, it’s a strange response, isn’t it? He doesn’t answer their questions. He doesn’t try to make sense of a broken world. He doesn’t try to justify everything that happens in an unjust world. He just says, “Repent, because the one thing of which you can be certain is death.”
I wonder if this is Jesus’ Ash Wednesday sermon. Ash Wednesday is the first day of the season of Lent. If you go to an Ash Wednesday service, you’ll have ashes rubbed on your forehead in the shape of cross and hear words along the lines of, “From dust you have come, to dust you shall return.” It’s a powerful experience. We begin this season of Lent by being reminded of our mortality.
Now, we don’t face our mortality in order to contemplate the nature of death but the significance of life. Lent is a season of repentance, because it’s a season of preparation. It’s preparation for the pinnacle event of the Christian faith–the resurrection of Jesus. The journey of Lent takes us from the contemplation of our mortality to the hope of the resurrection.
In college, I took a trip to Italy with my campus ministry group. We spent time in Rome and in Assisi, the birthplace of St Francis. We visited the major historical sites in Rome--and there are quite a few. We saw more churches than I can count--the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, St John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome), and neighborhood churches with such incredible artwork that they make churches here look like hovels. But, one church sticks with me more than any other. One church I can still see vividly in my mind. I can even remember the smell. It’s actually not a church, but a crypt located beneath a church--The Capuchin Crypt. It was and still is one of the most surreal experiences of my life. This crypt contains a series of small chapels decorated with incredible artwork, constructed from the bones of almost 4,000 Capuchin friars. When Mark Twain visited Italy, he was so struck by his experience in the Capuchin Crypt that he wrote extensively on it in a travel book. There’s a plaque in the crypt that reads, in five languages, “what you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”
It is a reminder that we all need. Not so that we can spend our days dwelling upon death, but so that we take seriously the blessing of life.
When we hear Jesus’ words, “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did,” we start to get a little uneasy, because we think about the street corner preacher. We hear fire and brimstone. If you’ve been burned by the church, like me, you hear “unless you repent, you will all perish” and you want to turn around and walk right back out the door. But, what Jesus is really doing here is asking a question.
He’s asking, “what is the state of your life?” Have you turned towards God? Are you seeking to be made whole, where you are broken? To be transformed by the grace of God? That’s repentance. Turning towards God. Or, are you leading a life of emptiness? Are you covering up the pain and longing with so many other things that really just don’t cut it? Are you resisting the God who can make you whole?
In that story of Lazarus, Jesus arrives after Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, comes to him first and says, “you’re too late. If you had only been here.” Jesus’ response is, “He will rise again.” To which, she says, “Yes, yes, I know. There will be a resurrection someday.” But, you can tell that it’s an abstraction to her. It’s not real. What’s real is that her brother is dead. And Jesus responds, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t an abstraction. This isn’t something so distant that it basically isn’t real. I am the resurrection and the life. Standing here in front of you.” She still doesn’t seem to get it, so he says, “Let’s go to the tomb.” You may know the rest of the story. They get to the tomb and Jesus says, “roll away the stone.” Martha says, “Wait! He’s been buried four days. There will be a smell. Plus, we just finished this awful business, don’t reopen this wound.” But Jesus insists and they roll away the stone. And Jesus calls the dead man’s name. And the man walks out of the tomb.
Contemplation of our mortality is an important part of the Christian faith. Not because we are morbid people. Not so that we can dwell upon death. But, so that we take seriously the blessing of life. So, that we take seriously the fleeting nature of life.
The people in our passage this morning ask Jesus these questions because they want the world to make sense. They want it to be just. But, it doesn’t and it’s not. Jesus response is that God is good, but the world is broken. And death is a reality for us all. Except for this, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The question he asks Martha and us is, “Do you believe this?”
- Share a tragedy that you witnessed/experienced.
- Where do you think God is in the midst of tragedy?
- What did you think about the suggested response (towards the bottom of the first page) to how we reconciles a good and powerful God with a broken world?
- What do we gain from being mindful of our mortality?
- What did you think about the preacher’s take on Jesus comment that “unless you repent, you will all perish as they did?”
- What does it mean for us as mortal beings that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life?”