THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
A sermon on Luke 13:1-9
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
March 24, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, came ashore to wreak havoc on the Gulf Coast. Over 1800 people died and the area sustained around $125 billion in property damage. It was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane to hit the United States in almost a century. In the days following the hurricane, TV preacher and megachurch pastor John Hagee weighed in on the disaster. He proclaimed, “I believe that the judgment of God is a very real thing. I know that there are people who demure from that, but I believe that the Bible teaches that when you violate the law of God, that God brings punishment sometimes before the day of judgment, and I believe that Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”
January 12, 2010. On that day, the country of Haiti experienced the most devastating natural disaster in its history. An earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale struck Haiti, causing more than 250,000 deaths and untold misery to millions more. In the wake of that earthquake, TV preacher, presidential wannabe, and host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” Pat Robertson commented on the tragedy. He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. [sic] And they got together and swore a pact with the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free of the prince’…And so the devil said, ‘OK it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.”
September 11, 2001 is a date that changed everything in the United States. Our country is still feeling the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that shocked and stunned the nation. Two days later, Lynchburg’s own Jerry Falwell Sr. declared in a nationally televised interview, “I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked…I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘You helped this happen…’”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. All three of the ministers just quoted put forth the idea that the disasters that they were discussing—both natural disasters and otherwise—were the direct result of God’s judgment. This is the same topic that our Lord Jesus discusses in today’s sermon text. Ironically, Jesus comes to a different conclusion than any of those three guys did…
Luke 13 begins as our Lord is in the middle of teaching a crowd numbering in the thousands. As he is teaching, some of the people came up to him to give him a bit of news. It seems that a group of Galileans had been slaughtered as they worshiped, apparently by the direct order of Pilate, the Roman governor. This is not surprising. Although historians have not been able to point to the specific incident in which this happened, Bible commentators have noted that such an act was entirely consistent with what we know of Pilate. Pilate’s position as the Roman governor over a troubled province far from Rome depended on putting down anything that hinted of revolutionary activity—that is, if he wanted to keep his job. Most likely, that is what prompted this massacre of an innocent group of worshipers.
The intent of bringing this event to Jesus’ attention seemed to be to ask if the Galileans had been murdered because they had been great sinners. They were asking if the deaths of these Galileans were a judgment of God upon them or not. Jesus replies by telling them that NO—they did not die in such a horrible manner because they were terrible sinners. In fact, Jesus said that they were no worse than anyone else in Galilee. Their sinfulness had nothing to do with the tragic way in which they died.
And then Jesus gives another illustration of what he is talking about. Eighteen people had died when the Tower of Siloam, a structure just south of Jerusalem’s Old City, collapsed. Again, no contemporary historical account survives of this event, but scholars believe that it was something that was apparently well-known to Jesus’ listeners. And then our Lord asks the question if the victims of that accident were worse sinners than everybody else living in Jerusalem. And once again, Jesus answers NO—they were not any worse than anyone else. Their sinfulness had nothing to do with the tragic way in which they died.
This same question about the relationship between sin and suffering arises again in John chapter 9. In this passage, Jesus and his disciples were walking along the road when they encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
[Side bar here: It’s kind of an odd question when you think about it, isn’t it? This man had been born blind and the disciples asked if it was perhaps the man’s sin that had caused him to be born that way. How could the man’s sin have caused him to be born blind? The question seems to imply that they believed that it is possible for someone to sin even while they are still in the womb. That does not make any sense…Anyway…]
The assumption that the disciples were making is that the man’s blindness was the result of somebody’s sin. In answer to the disciples’ question, Jesus replied, “Neither this man or his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus then healed the man of his blindness.
There’s a fifty cent seminary word about the study of evil and suffering in our world. That word is “theodicy.” Theodicy is an area of study that many brilliant people through the centuries have wrestled with for centuries. We are certainly not going to come to all-inclusive easy answers to the problem of suffering here this morning. There are multiple ways to observe and understand suffering, and many things to consider. But here are a few observations that we can make from this passage this morning…
I think it is safe to say that Jesus teaches in this passage that suffering is not a form of divine punishment. If there is any one thing that we can take from Jesus’ rather blunt teaching to this audience, it is that suffering and calamity are not God’s punishment for sin. Jesus tells us that we are not to equate tragedy and suffering with divine retribution. Suffering is not the result of sin. Suffering just comes. The point is that Jesus does not blame the victims.
However, just because suffering is not punishment, it does not mean that it is disconnected entirely from sin. Pilate’s murderous act of terror—as well as acts of terror in the 21st Century—are certainly sinful. There is no question of that, regardless of the motives of the perpetrators. Or what if the tower of Siloam that Jesus talks about had been built by a fraudulent contractor who was trying to cut corners by using substandard materials and practices? If that were true, then no one should have been surprised when it collapsed with the attendant loss of life. The point is that sin has consequences. And the natural consequences of sin contribute to much of the misery in the world.
Brennan Manning was perhaps one of the best known writers on the spiritual life in his generation. In his best known book The Ragamuffin Gospel, he described the irresistible nature of the love of God and how that transforms every aspect of our lives—that God is not measuring us on a curve against anyone else or against anything else—that God’s fierce love for us knows no bounds and knows no end.
Concerning the nature of suffering, Manning wrote these words:
The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust—not only for the gifts that I receive from God, but gratitude for all the suffering. Because in that purifying experience, suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.
Did you hear that? Manning said, “Suffering has often been the shortest path to intimacy with God.” How can that be? What is it that makes it so? I think it is like this. In a way that nothing else can do, suffering brings us closer to God because suffering strips away the façade from our lives. Suffering purifies us. It burns away that which is not important because, when one suffers, pretentions have a way of vanishing. And suffering serves to remind us of how NOT in control of our lives that we really are. Suffering throws us back onto the mercies and grace of God when we realize that we have nowhere else to turn to—nowhere else to go, potentionally creating a deeper…and a more meaningful…and a more intimate relationship with him. Suffering ultimately shows us how much we need God…
But the media continually feeds us the lie that we can be somehow in control of our lives. And we uncritically believe it. For example, take the advertisements and articles in the media that constantly bombard us with the message to “take control of your life.” Take control of your life by eating healthy or by taking some new prescription medicine. Take control of your life by following a new exercise regimen. Take control of your life by getting a better education. Take control of your life with a better financial plan. Take control of your life by…well, you can probably fill in the blanks as well as I can…
I am not throwing rocks at any of those things. Healthy habits and education are good things to pursue. These are things which can increase the quality of our lives. There is no question about that. And I would not suggest otherwise.
But the truth of the matter is this: in the final analysis, we actually control very little in our lives. Things that are way beyond our power to influence can have profound effects on what happens to us. We may think that we are in control until we experience some major setback in our lives—a drunk driver whose car crosses the median and causes a horrible accident, the sudden death of a loved one, an unexpected medical diagnosis that comes to us out of the blue, a decision from the higher ups to downsize the place where we work, eliminating our job in the process, an economic reversal that affects our financial well-being and our prospects for the future, the gradual erosion of our physical and mental powers as we age—all of these realities (and more) demonstrate how little control that we actually wield over our lives no matter how much we pretend that it is otherwise….
At the end of both of the questions about the dead Galileans and the victims of the tower’s collapse, Jesus told the crowd, “Unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.” Instead of attempting to blame the victims or instead of defending God against accusations of mismanaging the universe, Jesus calls for the people to repent. He turns our attention away from disasters and victims and the “Why?” questions that we want to ask. And he talks about something much more important. Jesus talks about repentance.
We often think of repentance as being sorry for our actions…or being morally upright…or perhaps turning over a new leaf in our lives. But here, Jesus is referring to something much deeper. He is referring to a changed mind…a new way of seeing things…of adopting a different perspective than we used to have. Repentance is more about being found instead of finding oneself…and the one who is finding us is God…
This need for repentance is a universal condition. We all need repentance. This need is one shared by random victims of tragedies…and by those who have just narrowly escaped. Just as Pilate’s victims and the tower’s victims did not enjoy the luxury of choosing the time or the place where their lives ended, neither will anyone else. Not you. Not me. Life is fragile. Life is unpredictable. So Jesus says that the time to make things right with God is now—and not when we plan for a more convenient time—not when we can fit it into our schedule…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2008/may/15/moveon/true-but-hagee-has-since-recanted (Accessed March 19, 2019)
 www.cbsnews.com/news/pat-robertson-haiti-cursed-after-pact-to-devil (Accessed March 18, 2019)