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How shall we now live?
DOES GOD PUNISH SINNERS?
Later that morning a young rabbi received a call from a neighbor to visit a family who had just received some unexpected and tragic news. Their daughter, Diane, had died of a ruptured blood vessel in her brain. When the rabbi entered the home, he felt very inadequate. In his inexperience, he groped for words. He expected the parents to be angry, shocked, and devastated by the news but their first words stunned him: "You know, Rabbi, we didn't fast last Yom Kipper."1
Throughout the centuries, people have tried to make sense out of nonsense. They have tried to find a reason for suffering. They have attempted to identify a cause for human tragedy. One of their solutions has been to assume that we reap what we sow. Misfortune strikes as a punishment for sin. This rational even has Biblical precedent.
Tell the righteous it will be well with them,In each of those passages and elsewhere in Scriptures, the message is very direct, the righteous will be protected, and evildoers will be punished. Therefore, we have drawn the conclusion that if illness, misfortune or just plain bad luck befall me, we are being punished for the sins we have committed.
Diane's parents could not understand the why's of their daughter's death. It just did not make sense. She was healthy. She had not abused her body on drugs. She had not taken unnecessary risks. They could not explain why she died, so they blamed themselves. Ironically, he parents were not profoundly spiritual people. Even non-practicing Jews would fast on Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. The holiday marked the first day of the Jewish New Year and reminded the community to humble themselves before their God. Nor were they very religious people. They were not active members of the synagogue. The rabbi barely knew them. But after they had been struck by tragedy, they grasped for a religious reason to explain the their daughter's death. Sitting in their living room that afternoon they felt guilty thinking that if they had just been a little less selfish, if they had just been a little less lazy, their daughter would be alive. Their anger at God lay buried under their guilt and maybe even their fear that if they admitted their rage He would punish them again.
Jesus confronted the same attitude one day out in the countryside of Galilee. He had been talking about the theme of watchfulness to open the eyes of the people to their inconsistent lives. The people knew what God expected of them. They knew that the time was approaching when God would hold them accountable to how they were living but they continued to disregard the warning signs. To highlight his point he used two illustrations that he knew they would understand-the weather and a lawsuit.
In the previous passage, he told them that the signs of the times were as obvious as the changes in the weather. "The Jews of Palestine were weatherwise."2 The clouds that formed in the west over the Mediterranean Sea brought rain. They knew that the wind that blew from the south came out of the desert and would bring hot dry weather. "But those who were so wise to read the signs of the sky could not, or would not, read the signs of the times." The kingdom of God was coming the signs were all around them if they would just see them.
His second illustration is even more vivid, the threat of a lawsuit. The assumption is that the defendant has a very weak case. He will probably lose and be sentenced to prison. Under such circumstances, a wise person will settle with their adversary whatever the cost to avoid prison. The message is clear. There is pending doom on the horizon. You are about to be dragged before a judge and you have a very bad case. Now is the time to settle. Now is the time to prepare.
Someone then mentioned to Jesus a recent incident in which Pilate had several Galileans killed. The historical situation is murky. It appears that the Galileans for whatever reason may have been offering sacrifices as a political protest. Pilate wanting to squelch every form of civil disobedience sent soldiers to disperse the crowd. In the confrontation between protestor and soldier, human blood was spilled and became mixed with the blood of animal sacrifices.3 The religious community would have interpreted such an outcome as the judgment of God. Whereas they would have supported an act of defiance against Caesar, the pious Jew would have believed that God justly punished those men who were struck down by the swords of the Roman soldiers. Only the priests had the authority to sacrifice an animal. Their political statement violated the Law of God. Their capital punishment had proven their guilt.
While the historical circumstances are uncertain, the motives for the question are not. They are attempting to provoke a discussion on the relationship between sin and suffering to exonerate themselves. If they have not been punished by God, then they are righteous and exempt from Jesus warning. Jesus latches onto their tactics and plays one-upmanship. He matches their gruesome account of the deliberate death of the Galileans with a story about the accidental death of eighteen citizens of Jerusalem killed by the sudden collapse of a tower. The men may have been working on an aqueduct funded by Pilate from money taken from the Temple treasury. Pilate's action horrified the Jewish community. They considered him a thief and anyone who aided his project a traitor the nation. If part of the tower had fallen on the workers, the entire countryside would naturally have assumed that this was a judgment from God for collaboration.4 After scoring a point in a game of intellectual speculation, Jesus draws them back to reality with a challenge, "Unless you repent you, you too will perish." With these words, Jesus steps away from their theological discussion. He confronts them with the stark reality of their own responsibility to live in obedience to God. He would not become bogged down with endless discussions on the unanswerable 'why's' of life. He would not be diverted by senseless speculation. He would not be distracted by rumors and stories. The time had come for Israel to respond to God's call of repentance. Today we are challenged with that same message.
HOW SHALL WE RESPOND?
In our Scripture lesson today the people knew that the fig tree symbolized the nation of Israel and the owner God. The fig tree had reached maturity. It should have produced figs but it had not. Like a ruthless owner of an NFL team who cuts the starting quarterback for not winning the Super Bowl, the owner of the vineyard has decided that the time has come to remove the tree. Productive land is too valuable to waste but the steward of the vineyard intervenes. He asked for one more year. He asks permission for more time so he can fertilize and water the tree. If the tree fails to produce a crop next year, then he will cut it down.
Earthquakes will probably not knock down the suburbs of Detroit but there are people in our community who have been devastated by the emotional tremors of life. They still go to work, some even come to church but you can see in their eyes the look of shock and hear in their quaking voices, why me? When will the nation of Israel repent and respond?
Santana High School is long way from Walled Lake but walking down the hallways at Western and Central are a few young men who feel the same angry and the same rejection of a Randy Smith. They are without a friend. They are despised by their classmates. They do not know with whom they can talk. They are frustrated and alone. When will the nation of Israel repent and respond?
WHAT IS REPENTANCE?
The self-centered regret which a man feels when his sin has found him out -- the wish, compounded of pride, shame, and anger at his own inconceivable folly, that he had not done it: these are spoken of as repentance. But they are not repentance at all... 5
William Willimon writes that among other things, repentance requires four parts.6
First, true repentance requires the recognition and acknowledgement that a wrong has been done. Next week we will discover that the prodigal had to "come to himself" before he could enjoy once again the favor of his father. I wonder if we are willing to recognize that our own lethargic apathy is partially responsible for the 173 deaths in El Salvador countries and the tragedies that occur in schools such as Santana and Columbine?
But recognition alone is not repentance. There must also be an act of cleansing, of removing the sin from our life, the ceasing of certain behavior and activity. Sackcloth and ashes are the manner in which the Hebrew Scripture prescribe. Fasting is another way of physically expressing a deep sense of sorrow. These religious acts do not earn God's favor but they enable us to comprehend the full consequences of our actions.
These initial gestures then produce the third component of repentance-a yearning for God. When we recognize that we have done wrong, we develop a thirst for a deeper spiritual reality. We want to return to experience again the joy of our salvation.
But repentance is considerable more than a feeling. Repentance requires a change and a response. The inner work of repentance produces an outer demonstration of faithful obedience. George Gallup offers a sad critque of religion in America.
There's little difference in ethical behavior between the churched and the unchurched. There's as much pilferage and dishonesty among the churched as the unchurched. And I'm afraid that applies pretty much across the board: religion, per se, is not really life changing. People cite it as important, for instance, in overcoming depression--but it doesn't have primacy in determining behavior.7So how will you repent and respond? What is God calling you to do?
My friends, the day is fast approaching when the owner of the vineyard will return. He will be expecting his fig tree, the Church to bear fruit. The problem of evil and the question of why bad things happen to good people will remain a mystery to us. However, we cannot allow them to prevent us from responded to our Lord's call to repentance.
1 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, (New York: Avon Books, 1983), 8.
2 William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Bible Study Series, Revised Edition, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), Luke 12:54-56.
3 Joesph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1006.
4 Kenneth E. Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, Combined Edition, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 75.
5 James Denney, The Atonement and the Modern Mind (1903) quoted by Robert McAnally Adams, Curator, CQOD, Online: http://www.gospelcom.net/cqod.
6 William H. Willimon, "The Joy of Repentance," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 29, No. 1, 46.
7 George H. Gallup, "Vital Signs," Leadership, Fall 1987, 17 quoted by Brett Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/r/repentance.htm.
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