Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
You see the cherries and blueberries lit up in your rearview mirror and your heart sinks. You didn’t think you were going too fast and neither of your tail lights are burnt out, but then, the squad car passes you on the left, nabs the driver in front of you, and you breathe your sigh of relief thinking, “Serves him right! Good thing I’m such a careful, law-abiding driver!” as you slow your cruise control from 7 mph over down to 5 mph over. Your coworker gets called into the big boss’ office, the door closes, and he comes out ten minutes later looking stunned and feeling about this tall. You watch this whole scene play out, think to yourself, “If only he would work a little harder, like me,” and you’re sure to linger a little longer near the office gossip’s desk to get the scoop on what landed him in hot water.
What is that? Why does traffic on the interstate slow down to almost a stop when there are a couple cars pulled over? And if the driver is standing outside of the car, talking with the police with his trunk open, then it must be something really bad, so we should probably slow down and have a look, too! When bad, unfortunate, or downright tragic things happen to other people, we’re immediately interested. There’s this fascination we have with the sins and screw ups of other people. Political dirt, celebrity scandal, a college cheating crisis – it’s all so fascinating to us, mostly because it’s not about us! Whenever I see someone else suffering because of something they’ve done, I breathe a sigh of relief, watch from a distance, and never really once consider it a possibility for that to happen to me.
But sometimes, things happen to people through, really, no fault of their own – and that can be just as attention grabbing. A tornado rips through Alabama a few weeks ago; flood waters cover huge swaths of the states just to our north; another Amber alert; another gunman opens fire; another elderly couple swindled out of their social security by the newest scam – and people start to wonder, “What did they do to deserve that? Why, God?” We could take other stories from the headlines and hold them up for a closer examination and ask those same questions of “Why” and “What is God doing?” but asking those questions means that we’ve already missed the point, at least according to Jesus.
The gospel lesson for today is pretty challenging and, maybe, at least a little unpleasant. I say it might seem a bit unpleasant because people ask Jesus about some current events in their own time, and Jesus doesn’t give them a nice, neat explanation. Instead, he turns the question back on them (and us) in an extremely personal way. Thinking about tragedy makes us uncomfortable. Thinking about tragedy for us is even worse. Luke sets the scene for us, Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. We don’t know when exactly this happened, and this is the only place in the Bible where this is mentioned, but this seems to be a well-known event by the people who came to Jesus. They bring a story ripped from the headlines, as it were. The alleged actions of Pontius Pilate seem characteristically consistent. With disregard for Israel’s worship and wanting to send a message to squelch any further rebellion, Pilate probably sent his henchmen to kill these unsuspecting Galileans while they were offering their sacrifices at the temple. The whole thing rings with an eerily contemporary tone – if you’re not safe in church, where are you safe? This was a sacrilegious travesty – Gentiles entering the sacred space of the temple courts, human blood (which was unclean) mixed and mingled with the blood of the sacrifice – this was a mess! And to top it all off, this was a tragic loss of life. This was a tragedy What can we make of it? What should we make of it? Let’s tell it to Jesus and see what he says. And what Jesus says isn’t at all what they were expecting.
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Wait a minute, Jesus. This was a tragedy. Don’t we get a chance to perform some situational/philosophical “autopsy” and analyze what went wrong, how it got here, and what happens next? The unstated question in the minds of the crowd was probably: “Why?” Those good Galileans were doing what God wanted, weren’t they? They were worshiping at the temple and offering sacrifices, and Pilate killed them? What gives? But Jesus doesn’t waste any time in the abstract realm of “Why do bad things happen?” Instead, he turns the focus from the abstract to the intensely personal. It’s almost as if Jesus was saying, That was a bad thing that happened, and it didn’t happen because those people were “worse sinners” who “had it coming.” So stop thinking that, and start thinking about whether you’re ready for that to happen to you. Jesus refuses to let us sit and ponder the sin of others and presume the consequences for them – somehow trying to connect the dots between something bad that happens in life with some indiscretion or sin of the past. Instead, Jesus wants us to see the sin in our own hearts. What’s the takeaway from tragedy in the world? Not “Why God?” but “Repent!”
Jesus said as much, But unless you repent, you too will all perish. And to make matters worse, or at least more pointed, Jesus keeps going with another example that was well-known to the crowds. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. When sin entered the world, death came right along with it. People die – so let’s not try to put God on trial here to see what he’s up to. God’s not the problem, sin is. People die, and you’re people! So if you’re asking those “why” questions, you’re missing the point. People die. So, what do you think is going to happen to you? In our experience, death is always something that happens to someone else, until it doesn’t.
The question isn’t so much, “Is what I’m doing something that’s deserving of death?” any more than it was the question to ask about those Galileans or the people who were crushed by the tower in Siloam. That’s not the question to ask because that’s a given – we die. Death, in all its forms, is a preaching of God’s law. And realize, Jesus isn’t taking a cavalier attitude toward death here. Rather, his most sincere desire is to save you from it. The question is, Do you want to die once or twice – that is both physically and eternally? So, do you see why Jesus says these things? Apart from Christ, there is only death forever. Don’t waste time, there might not be a tomorrow, instead there might be a sycophantic Roman governor waiting to slaughter you instead of you slaughtering your sacrifice. Don’t put off repentance, there might be a tower waiting to crash. Don’t try to calculate God’s justice and assume that the people who endure those kinds of things in life are “worse sinners” than you are. When you see those tragedies, remember the fleeting nature of life, put off sin, and turn to your Savior because he promises to forgive you.
Repent! Jesus says it twice in these verses. It’s an uncomfortable word to hear, and I suppose that’s kind of the point. It’s a word you don’t hear too often outside of these walls. You won’t hear it on the evening news; you won’t see it woven seamlessly into your favorite TV show, because it’s a word that completely upends my smug, sinful, self-satisfaction. Repent! It’s a word that means, literally, to have a change of mind, to turn about, to be going one direction and do a complete about face. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this word that makes me squirm is that, on my own, I can’t do it! It means admitting something about myself that goes completely contrary to who I am by nature – that I am by nature sinful and I have disobeyed [God] in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. Repentance isn’t something I drum up on my own, because on my own, I’m the problem. Repentance is God’s gift, worked by his Holy Spirit through the Word. He shows me, in no uncertain terms, the seriousness of my sin and the hell it deserves. He brings me to sorrow over my sin and to see that I am powerless to save myself. But he doesn’t leave me there. In his undeserved love, he brings another gift from outside of myself. He shows me the end of my sin, its undoing, its forgiveness. He shows me Christ my substitute. When bad things happen in this world; when death strikes a little too close to home; when everyone is trying to scrutinize God’s ways and wonder “why?”, Jesus tells us plainly, Repent. Reject the old, receive the new. See your sin, and see your Savior.
When the world sees tragedy that happens to others, people might wonder “Why?” or might wrongly think, “They must’ve had it coming.” But have you ever considered Jesus’ reaction to the tragedy of humanity’s fall into sin and its constant floundering in it? Jesus didn’t look at your sins and say, “Wow, that’s pretty bad. They deserve the hell they’ve got coming to them!” Jesus didn’t see your sins and mine and keep a holy arm’s length from our filth – though he had every right to do just that. Instead he covered himself in OUR sins. He let his sacrificial blood be shed to pay for the sins of the world – even yours. He willingly let himself be crushed by the towering wrath of a holy God, so that you can go free. Sin means death, and sin must be dealt with. So God put it to death in Christ. For every time I want to put God on trial, rather than face the ugliness of the sin in my own heart, Jesus faced down the punishment my sins deserved. For every time you think that someone else is a “worse sinner” than you are and wait patiently for them to get “what they’ve got coming,” Jesus became the worst sinner of all – for you and endured the wrath of God that you had coming so that you’d never have to.
To show us the seriousness of sin as well as the seriousness of the hope we have in him, Jesus told this story to illustrate his point. A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ Like that vineyard owner, God has a right to expect good fruits of faith from his people – to turn from sin, to trust in Christ, and to bear fruit for the people around us. Unfruitful trees get uprooted and thrown out, and that’s what we were. But look again and see how the vineyard worker stands between the rightful wrath of the master and the unfruitful tree. Just wait…I can put fruit on that tree. The vineyard worker doesn’t just sit and watch and see if the tree figures it out. The vineyard worker goes to work on that tree – digging around it, fertilizing it, doing everything necessary to make this tree does what fruit trees do. He holds off destruction and goes to work. That’s exactly what Jesus does for you and me. He brings us to a realization of our sin through his law, and then proclaims and promises his perfect rescue in the gospel. Then, he turns us outside of ourselves, bearing fruit for the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbor. In our sermon text and sermon theme, there are some big, scary sounding words – Repent! Bear fruit! But do you see the only way both of those things happen? Only in Christ – he brings us to see our sin and our sin’s forgiveness in him. Christ himself is the one who makes us fruitful.
For as much of a fascination as people might have with the troubles of others, remember, Jesus has a fascination with you – to bring you to repentance, to assure you of his forgiveness, and to live in you as you bear fruit in the world. When life happens…repent! Bear fruit! God grant us his Holy Spirit to see in every trial, tragedy, or triumph in this life, an opportunity to turn in repentance and faith to our Savior who forgives us and makes us fruitful.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.