Third Sunday in Lent (March 11, 2007)
“Is God Punishing Me?” (Luke 13:1-9)
The text for this morning’s sermon is from the Gospel lesson assigned for today, Luke 13:1-9. Please listen as I read it once again:
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "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." And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, "Woman, you are freed from your disability." And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. (Luke 13:1-13)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s hard to believe that it’s only been five and half years since the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center were brought down. I can remember that day like it was yesterday. Julie and I were on our way home from visiting my dying grandmother in California. Waking up in our northern California hotel room well before Julie did, I slipped out to get a cup of coffee in the lobby. The staff was glued to the television set and I asked, “What happened?”
“Two airplanes just slammed into the twin towers in New York,” came the reply.
Of course, everyone knew it was the action of hijackers at that point. I went back to our room, woke Julie up, turned the TV on, listened and watched as we packed up, checked out, and hit the road. It seemed as though every radio station on our drive home had non-stop coverage of the events as they unfolded...including the moments when the towers fell.
And now every time I hear today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, with its account of a falling tower, I think of 9-11-2001.
Calamities Seen As Punishment
Here in the Northwest, we have been fairly isolated from tragedy on a large scale. Even when Mt. St. Helens exploded, only 57 people died...compared to over 2,700 on 9-11; compared to over 1,800 due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005; all of which pale in comparison to the loss of 283,000 lives in the Indonesian tsunami of 2004. And the TV news brings these very real tragedies right into our living rooms.
When tragedies like those occur, someone inevitably asks the question, “Is God punishing those people?...Is God punishing that region?” I heard that question regarding all three of those recent tragedies. After 9-11, Jerry Falwell claimed that this was God’s judgment on America for its acceptance of homosexuality and abortion. But my response was, if that’s the case, why only those sins? Why not others? Sin is sin in God’s eyes and our nation has a lot of it to go around.
After Hurricane Katrina, I heard people claiming that this was God’s judgment over New Orleans and the decadence associated with Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street...despite the fact that this is such a small part of what New Orleans is all about, not to mention the fact that Katrina affected far more of the Gulf Coast than just New Orleans. What does God have against Mississippi and the rest of Louisiana?
And after the tsunami, I heard people claim that this is God’s judgment over Indonesia because it is a Muslim nation...despite the fact that people of all creeds and races were swept away in those terrifying waters.
We are no different than the people in first century Judea. They had this same idea that when tragedy strikes, God must be delivering his punishment. And so Jesus addresses two situations in particular. One involved the time when the tower of Siloam in Jerusalem fell and killed 18 people. The other was a time when Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, killed some Galileans. This event is not recorded for us outside of Scripture, so we don’t know much about it. Apparently, a group of Galileans were in the Jerusalem temple offering their sacrifices, and Pilate had them killed. In this way their blood was “mingled with their sacrifices.” We don’t know why Pilate killed them. It’s possible that they were part of a group who were planning a revolt, since many insurrectionists in those days came from Galilee.
Was God punishing those people whom Pilate killed? Were they worse sinners than all the other Galileans? Was God angry with those people on whom the tower fell? Were they worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?
Jesus answers with a clear, “NO!” They were no worse than anyone else. But he goes on and points out that really, asking those questions are pointless. It’s pointless to try to figure out why God allowed a certain tragedy to occur. It’s part of his divine providence. It’s going to have to remain a mystery. When we ask those questions, it takes the focus off of what we should really be concerned about...our own spiritual condition. And so Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
“Was God punishing those people?” Don’t ask that question. That’s the wrong question to ask. The real question to ask is, “If that would have happened to me, would I have been ready to face my Maker?” Or am I like the unfruitful tree in the parable that Jesus told, ready to be cut down? And what happens to trees that are cut down? John the Baptist tells us: “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
The Punishment Fell On Jesus
When bad things happen to us, we don’t ever have to wonder, “Is God punishing me for something I did?” That’s often our first inclination. But listen to what the prophet Isaiah said about our Lord’s suffering: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) The punishment for all sin fell on Jesus as he suffered and died on the cross. Christ’s death reconciles us to God the Father. The blows and the beatings and the suffering and the shame he endured brings us the healing of the forgiveness of our sins.
In one of our settings of the Divine Service, we pray this in the Prayer of Thanksgiving: “In your righteous judgment you condemned the sin of Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit, and you justly barred them and all their children from the tree of life. Yet, in your great mercy, you promised salvation by a second Adam, your Son, Jesus Christ, and made his cross a life-giving tree for all who trust in him.” Apart from Christ, you and I are like that fig tree in the parable. Barren. Without the fruit of faith. We have no connection to that which would produce good works that flow from a heart full of faith, as Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please [God].” But baptized into Christ, we are connected to his life-giving Word. The tree of the cross bears the fruit of Jesus’ body which bore the load of our sins. The tree of the cross bears the fruit of Jesus’ blood which was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. You and I get to eat and drink the fruit of that cross for forgiveness, life, and salvation. And in this way, you and I are made ready to stand before our God on Judgment Day... “cleansed and redeemed, no debt to pay.” (LSB 563)
Now, you may still look at yourself and say, “I don’t see any fruit. All I can see are my sins.” But remember, all God sees is Christ. That’s not to say that God doesn’t want to see any fruit in our life. He does. But he is the one who produces it. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) The branches can only produce fruit if they are connected to the vine...and you are connected to Jesus through Word and Sacrament.
Likewise, the parable makes it clear that God is patient with us. The planter of the vineyard waited for three years to see if the fig tree produced any fruit. He wanted to cut it down. But the vinedresser said, “Let me work with it for another year. Let me dig around it, put manure on it. Then we’ll see if it produces any fruit.” And St. Peter also wrote that God is “patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Therefore, God is the vinedresser who will dig around you, ploughing up the rough ground of your heart and life, drawing you close to him, even though it may seem that you are facing a lot of difficult circumstances right now...perhaps even what you might call a tragedy...not on the scale of a 9-11 or a tsunami or a hurricane...but a tragedy for you nonetheless. And God is the vinedresser who will also feed you and give you the necessary nourishment to bear the fruit of a repentant heart that trusts in Christ alone.
And so we can sing, “Your cross I place before me; Its saving pow’r restore me, Sustain me in the test. It will, when life is ending, Be guiding and attending My way to Your eternal rest.” (LSB 453)