Preached by the Rev’d Jo Joyce. The Bible Reading is Luke 13:1-9 and Isaiah 55:1-9
Sermon Lent 3
Why do bad things happen?
It’s a question as old as time. Here we have the disciples asking about the Galilean pilgrims who were murdered by Pilate at the temple, or the people from Siloam who died when the tower collapsed on them. It could just as easily be us asking Jesus about the many people who died this week in the cyclone in Africa, or the terrible shootings in Christchurch.
We long for an explanation. Our sense of justice demands to make sense of the world, we don’t think bad things should happen if no one has done anything wrong. This was the disciples reasoning and is often ours today. There has to be a reason, when things go wrong, otherwise where is the justice or fairness in the world. Now of course as any young child is told, the world isn’t fair, but that doesn’t mean as adults we still don’t expect it to be.
Here the disciples are asking Jesus about two tragedies, Pilgrims innocently making offerings at the temple, murdered by Pilate. In fact, some commentaries suggest they may not have been quite as innocent as all that, indeed they may have been revolutionaries. And 18 people who were quite innocent, who died when a tower collapsed. Why Jesus?
Isn’t it a question we often long to ask? Why?
Now common belief at the time was that if something bad happened, either you, or your parents had sinned and the bad thing was a consequence of God’s judgement. But Jesus refutes this. He says these people were no worse sinners than the rest of us. We would say today that all people will face the judgement of God, but God is just, he doesn’t on the whole arbitrarily strike people down, particularly those who are innocent.
Now it’s easy I think to look down on the disciples and their reasoning. But I think we can still do the same today. We marginalise the suffering of others because they are different to us, so it doesn’t count. We see it all the time in the media. A young girl on a night out gets attacked, its her ‘fault’ because of what she was wearing. There are those who seek to argue away Islamophobia on the grounds that they ‘brought it on themselves.’ That’s why for the New Zealand Prime Minister to say of those who were attacked in the Mosque, ‘they are us’ is so powerful, because it stops that distancing, that othering, that says that somehow because they aren’t us they must have deserved it.
We cannot explain why some terrible things happen. We can say the evil sin of racism led to the attack in Christchurch, but what of those stranded by the Cyclone in Mozambique? Well climate change and the greed that contributes to it around the world may well play a factor, but for those caught in it that’s no easy answer. We can say for definite that the people harmed are not the people who have done wrong.
So where does it leave us? Firstly, we are not to judge others when misfortune befalls them.
I think its perhaps also worth mentioning as an aside that we are not to judge ourselves either when things go wrong. ‘Why me’ is not a helpful question. We do the same as we are tempted to with others and question if God is judging us somehow, or if he doesn’t really exist or care about us. Perhaps we have been singled out for special misfortune, its not fair. But Jesus’ response would I think be the same, no when difficult things come they are not a sign of judgement. Sometimes there is no reason. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond, and thorough the trials we can grow.
This is where the next part of our gospel today comes in. Jesus tells the story of the barren fig tree. Now at first sight it seems a bit odd. How does this gardening metaphor fit with this? Why do these two stories fit together?
For me I think the story of the fig tree is primarily a story of second chances. The fig tree isn’t doing its thing. There are no figs. It’s taking up precious space, time, effort and water to no good effect. Surely the sensible thing to do is chop it down, dig out the root and start again with a new tree that might produce some fruit?
But the gardener says no. Give it another go. Feed it care for it, maybe it will be better next year. Give it another chance. I see God as being a bit like that. Offering to care for us, to give us another chance. Earlier in our reading when the disciples are asking about the disasters Jesus tell them to repent of their own sin. We cannot know what each day will bring, we are to be prepared to meet with God, sometimes bad things do happen. In other–words turn around, turn away from your sin, start again. Its exactly what the gardener pleads for the fig tree. Give it another chance, feed it, care for it, see if it bears fruit.
That is to be our response to sin. We are not to spend all our time calling sin out in others, instead when we are tempted to do this, we are to look at ourselves. Not in a self–pitying, why me, God no longer loves me way, but in an honest way we are to look at our lives and own up to those things we do that are wrong. Things that are against who God calls us to be. We are then to turn away from them, to feed and care for our faith, our relationship with God and our neighbour. And, like the gardener with the fig tree, this will bear fruit and the tree will be spared. If we don’t respond in this way then we should realise that Jesus is quite clear there are consequences of not dealing with the sin in our lives, to not repenting.
So where does all this leave us?
Well as our reading from Isaiah tells us, God is a God who forgives generously. There is hope for us, just as there is hope for the fig tree. We will never understand fully the ways of God. God’s ways are not our ways, in the same way we can never fully understand this side of heaven why bad things happen. In the end we will be judged rather on the way we respond, we all have the second chance the fig tree was given, we can all reflect, repent and try again.
So what do we take from our readings today? Well don’t try and minimise the sufferings of others or blame them in anyway. We cannot sit in a place of judgement. Secondly instead of looking for the sins in others look instead to our own lives and where we could do better and finally, have hope, there is good news, God is the God of the second chance.We can never understand the ways of God, but we can always trust in the goodness of God.