Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 28th February
I think the hardest question anyone in Christian leadership has to face is when people ask "Why did God let this happen". "This" may be the death of a loved one, a child, spouse, a friend, a baby, even. "This" may be the lingering agony of a debilitating illness, the unexpected death of a mother in a freak plane crash, or ‘this’ maybe a totally unanticipated wanton criminal or violent act. Over the last 11 years I’ve known each one. As you know I spent last weekend with my good pal who’s receiving palliative care for stomach cancer – and he’s preaching this morning at his little Methodist Chapel in Cornwall – on…healing. The question about why God allows suffering not surprisingly tops the list of issues for people – and in our gospel passage this morning, we find Jesus addressing this very question.
The New Testament scholar Tom Wright points out that even if the New Testament hadn’t been written, we’d still know that Pontius Pilate was an extremely unpleasant and unpopular Roman Governor of Judaea. The Jewish historian Josephus lists several things he did which upset and irritated the local Jewish community as he set out to deliberately antagonize them. How’s this for endearing yourself to the locals:
So it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to learn that on another occasion, while some pilgrims who’d travelled up to Jerusalem from Galilee and were in the Temple offering sacrifices that Pilate sent in his troops to slaughter them - perhaps he was afraid they’d riot – who knows... The passage in Luke speaks of their own blood mingling in the Temple courtyard with that of their sacrifices – polluting the place, on top of the horror and tragedy of excessive violence.
Now we need to remind ourselves of where we are in Luke’s story, because it will help us understand what’s going on here. (Remember how the gospel writers are very careful about how they tell their stories). Jesus had decided to go to Jerusalem at the head of another party of Galilean pilgrims – and after all that’s been happening in Jerusalem it was hardly top of the list of desirable holiday destinations (beautiful city though it is)! So these people aren’t simply bringing Jesus information about recent shocking events– what they’re saying is: “Jesus, do you really want to be going there? – it’s dangerous – aren’t you afraid of what might happen? And then there’s that nagging question that’s at the forefront of many people’s minds when they think about such situations: are the people who suffered more sinful than others?
…because Jesus’ rather stern comments address this head on. “Okay (he acknowledges) Pilate has killed Galilean pilgrims, but no, they were no more sinful than any of the others. Whatever ideas you might have heard people go on about - Jesus - does not equate individual sinfulness to suffering – God is definitely not in the punishment business.
Sadly the view many people have of God is of that angry Parent, meting out some kind of punishment or other for every disobedient act of his wayward children. And the question that is asked time and time again is: "What did I do to deserve this."
But (let’s think about it) if this were the way of God, wouldn’t we be getting a whole lot more pain & a whole lot more suffering than we are? God, as he is revealed - disclosed - in scripture is not the angry Judge, meting out punishment of sickness, death and tragedy arbitrarily or randomly as he sees fit (although you can listen to some religious groups and this is exactly where their theology leads them – and sadly, many Christian people seem to have imbibed this kind of thinking about God).
Good old C.S. Lewis points out that a lot of the confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the idea that "anything is possible to God." Some things, he notes, are impossible even to God - because they are inherently contradictory. So it would be absurd to say that God can cause both good and evil at the same time. Lewis sees two things as the chief causes of the world’s pain: physical accident and human sinfulness – and he says “both are indirect but inescapable consequences of the divine will to create free human spirits."
One of the amazing things about being human is our freedom to make choices.
Sadly it is these very choices that bring the consequences of sin and brokenness
into the world, as well as amazing beauty and love.
And there’s another misunderstanding we get when we misread passages like this. Notice Jesus said that unless you change your minds, you’ll all perish as they did – in other words in the same way. That’s the key. Jesus isn’t talking about what happens to people after they die – so it can’t be a warning about perishing in hell after death (it alarms me more and more that there are people who seem to relish thinking that & finding it everywhere – & it’s not as ‘biblical’ as they would claim, if you look carefully). Indeed in line with all the warnings he’s been giving already – and continues to do right up to his crucifixion – Jesus is making it clear that those who refuse his summons to change direction (to repent), to abandon their crazy notions about kicking out the Romans will suffer the consequences. “Those that live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Or be crushed by those very buildings in Jerusalem as the siege brings them crashing down).
It’s a terrifying warning about the political and military consequences of not heeding his kingdom call (and sounds very up-to-date given our world situation). And then he tells one of his parables which Jane Williams suspects might have been a funny story as originally told by Jesus (even if it is a bit dark and sinister), perhaps involving a bit of horseplay with manure. People often planted fig trees in vineyards because it was good for the grapes. Underneath the banter between the vineyard owner and the gardener we detect a comment on Jesus’ own ministry.
So how are we to understand what he’s trying to say? Perhaps Jesus himself is the vineyard owner – who has been coming to the Lord’s garden seeking the fruit of repentance from Israel, his people throughout his ministry – showing them a new way - and apart from a very few muddled followers, he hasn’t really found much of that. – Or maybe the owner is God – Yahweh – who’s been coming to Israel these many years with his patience wearing thin – and Jesus is the gardener who’s trying to dig around and apply some manure – to try and inject some life and health into an old plant before it’s done away with. Either way the end result is the same – if it doesn’t work – cut it down. (Judaism wasn’t working/ The kingdom has come and will come more fully – and this, Jesus says, is what it looks like…)
The way Luke orders his material leaves us in no doubt how he saw the cataclysmic fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the city was razed to the ground. This was the direct result of refusing Jesus’ way of peace. Will Jerusalem repent and allow itself to be rescued – there are echoes of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem from last week – “how I’ve longed to gather you – like a mother hen gathers her brood of chicks beneath her wings – and you wouldn’t let me.
It’s a story bristling with tension – and we know by this stage that Jesus expects to die in Jerusalem. What is God up to? – and what fruit is he looking for in our own lives? Well as Julie said last week:
Sometimes it’s almost overwhelmingly difficult to trust. When we are helpless in the face of catastrophe - it’s then we need to remember just how much God loves us, what he has done for us and that he is always with us. If we turn to him at such times and not away from him then we will come through our experience with our faith and trust stronger as a result.
There was a reflection from Jane Williams which I read early this morning in Arthur’s Little Book of Lent which I’d like to close with:
“Whenever we draw another human being into in to our community, or refuse to allow groups of people to be treated as though they were hardly human and do not matter, we are demonstrating what we believe the world is for…And if it sometimes seems that we are fighting a losing battle, and that inertia and brutality will always win, it is worth remembering that after Good Friday comes Easter. God always has a few more tricks up his sleeve that you realize.” Amen
(Extract from Arthur Howells (ed.) The Little Book of Lent 2014 WilliamCollinsBooks.com)