Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, July 16, 2018
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Life Is Uncertain, But Death Is Not

Luke 13:1-9

 We are at a disadvantage.  We don’t know exactly what is being discussed in these first five verses.  Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine, was brutally repressive.  He committed many acts like those described in verses 1-2.  And we have no record outside of Luke’s Gospel about this incident at the Tower of Siloam.  

 But history does record some things that might explain what is going on here.  We know Pontius Pilate determined that the city of Jerusalem needed a better water supply.  And we know he took money from the Temple treasury to pay for the project.  That did not sit well with the Jewish people.  As far as they were concerned, that was sacred money, and it could never be used for any ordinary purpose like a water project, even if it was necessary.  There were protests.  Pilate responded by sending some of his soldiers into the crowd in disguise, and when a signal was given, they fell on the protesters with clubs.  Supposedly, they were not to kill people, but in the heat of the moment, many were killed.  Could these Galileans have been part of a protest?  Or could their murder in the Temple have in some way been connected to this whole controversy?  It seems likely.

 Especially because it does appear that the Tower of Siloam was part of the same situation.  The Pool of Siloam, located at the southern end of Jerusalem, was the water supply for the city.  It was fed by a spring that was brought into the city, under the walls, through the tunnel King Hezekiah built.  If a tower was being built there, then it was probably part of this project.  And some of the earliest copies of Luke’s Gospel describe these 18 as “debtors.”  That might mean that they were thought of as “debtors to God” for taking sacred money to work on this project.

 You see, the Jewish people were divided on their relationship with Rome.  Some wanted to accommodate, to go along to get along with Rome.  But others, like the Zealots, wanted nothing less than national revolt against Rome.  Both sides could point at one of these two examples, the murdered Galileans or the 18 killed in the tower, and say, “They got what they deserved for opposing Rome or for helping Rome.”  

 This is what’s known as a Theology of Retribution.  Theology of Retribution means that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked every time.  If someone suffers, you say, “They had it coming.”  And if someone is blessed, you say, “They must be a good person.”  

 Jesus rejected that theology.  Instead, Jesus focused on the need of all people to repent.  “Do you think they were the worst sinners in Galilee, or in Jerusalem?  No, but I tell you, that unless you repent, you too will perish.”  After all, as the letter to the Romans tells us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And the wages of sin is death.”  

 These kind of events, massacres and catastrophic accidents, should be reminders to us that life is fragile.  We cannot protect ourselves or those we love, no matter how hard we try.  Death and judgment are inevitable.  And these kinds of events should serve as warnings to us not to put off seeking peace with God and our neighbor.  

 Of course, there are some difficult questions about these kind of tragedies.  And people of every theological bent and persuasion eventually have to wrestle with them.  Frankly, there are no easy answers.

 The most common question is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  And there is no easy answer.    

 But I do think that we can turn that question on its head.  If it is true that all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, then why are we talking about all these good people out there in the world?  Biblically speaking, there are not a bunch of good people running around out there, with just a handful of bad apples to mix things up.  So maybe the question should be asked, “Why do good things happen to bad people, to sinners?”  And that is a question that I think we can answer, “Because God is gracious.  He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust.”  

 Many people say, when bad things happen, “Well, everything happens for a reason.”  Is that true?  Does everything happen for a reason?  Or should I say, “Is everything part of some grand, cosmic, divine plan?”  

 Many people think so, but I don’t.  If everything is part of some grand divine plan, then God is responsible for all of it, including evil perpetrated by human beings.  And many of the most horrific things that have happened have been the result of human evil.  It was human beings that carried out the Holocaust.  Human beings carried out the attacks of 9/11.  A single human being carried out the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting.  If everything is part of a grand, divine plan, then it was ultimately God that did those things, for reasons I think would be incomprehensible.  

 Romans 8:28 says, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes.”  I don’t think that means the same thing as “Everything happens for a reason.”  Somebody once explained that verse to me this way, “That doesn’t mean that God wills everything that happens, but rather that in everything that happens, God wills good.”  In other words, no matter how terrible or tragic something is, God can produce good out of it in the lives of his people.  I don’t know about you, but when I look back on my life, and I think about the worst things that have happened to me, for the most part, I can see how goodness and growth ultimately came out of them.  I don’t blame God for the bad, but I do credit him for turning the bad into a good result.  

 I think the third question to be asked here is:  “Is there a difference between God’s response to personal sin and national sin?”  And I think the answer is yes, there does appear to be a difference.  Sometimes we suffer as a result of our personal sins, and sometimes not.  But there do seem to be hints in the Scriptures that God allows nations to suffer for their sins.  

 The best example in Scripture is Israel in the Old Testament.  God repeatedly told Israel that if they did not turn away from their sins of idolatry and injustice that he would allow them to suffer as a nation.  And in the end, that’s exactly what happened in the Babylonian Exile.  Was there a faithful remnant left in Israel?  Yes, there was.  Were they somehow exempted from this national punishment?  No.  They suffered along with the rebellious majority.  So that suggests that there may be more correlation between national sin and suffering than there is between personal sin and suffering.  

 But even in that instance, God was still gracious.  God still sent prophets to Israel to warn them over and over of the consequences of their ways.  He promised to deliver them if they would repent and turn back to him as a nation.  But only up to a point.  Once you get to the prophet Jeremiah, God no longer offered Israel the hope of a reprieve.  He only told Israel that judgment was coming.  He gave the promise of a future restoration after the Exile, but no hope of a reprieve.  

 That leads us into the second half of this passage, Jesus’ parable of the unfruitful fig tree.  

 The fruitful tree was used in the Old Testament as an image of godly living, such as in Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17.  Now Jesus says that this fig tree was planted in a garden

or vineyard.  Gardens and vineyards were only planted in areas with fertile soil, so this tree was given a privileged position, again hinting that Jesus is speaking of Israel.  

 But this tree did not produce figs.  According to their interpretation of Leviticus 19:23, a tree was not harvested for the first three years after it was planted.  This tree did not produce any figs in those three years, suggesting that it would not be productive in the future, despite its privileged position.  So the owner wants it cut down.

 But the gardener intervenes on its behalf.  I think the gardener is a picture of God’s grace.  He says, “Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, to aerate the soil.  I’ll fertilize it.”  Those things were not normally done for fruit trees.  But the gardener is trying to give it every possible opportunity.  

 By the way, Jesus was not the only person to use this illustration of an unfruitful tree.  Other rabbis and teachers from Judaism and the ancient Near East world used the same illustration.  But there was a difference.  Only Jesus mentioned the “second chance” given to the tree.  

 It reminds us that the gospel is a message of grace, a message of second chances.  Every possible opportunity is given for fruitfulness.  

 But in the end, second chances eventually become last chances.  “If there is no fruit next year, cut it down.”  God is gracious.  But it is a mistake for us to take God’s grace for granted.  

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