Tough Lessons for Tragic Times
Pastor Johnold J. Strey
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church; Citrus Heights, CA
Sermon on Luke 13:1-5
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
9/11 Tenth Anniversary Service of Remembrance
September 11-12, 2011
TOUGH LESSONS FOR TRAGIC TIMES
- Tragedies are not necessarily God’s punishment for specific sins,
- But tragedies always call us to repentance for our sin.
“Where were you when [blank] happened?” Every generation seems to experience one of those life-changing, world-changing events—events that you’ll never forget, and that you’ll always remember where you were and what you were doing when you found out about it. The octogenarians here probably remember where you were on December 7, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States was drawn into World War II. More of you are able to remember where you were on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was in my fifth grade classroom at Calvary Lutheran School in Thiensville, Wisconsin, when the principal interrupted our class to tell us that the Challenger space shuttle had exploded on January 28, 1986. And now to that list, we have added the terrorist attacks on our nation on that fateful Tuesday morning ten years ago. “Where were you when 9/11 happened?” If you are at least voting age, you can probably answer that question with a fairly vivid recollection of what happened that morning and what you were doing when the news struck our nation.
A decade has passed since the terrorist attacks shook our nation, but the aftershocks have not gone away. The American economy has never been the same. Passing through security in an airport is not as simple as it was before 9/11. And then there are the many, many families for whom this day is especially bitter, because the attacks on our nation also brought the death of a loved one. A decade may have passed, but you can still feel the aftershocks, the wounds still hurt, and the questions still remain. Why would God allow something like this to happen? Is this some sort of divine judgment on our nation? What possible good could God bring out of something so evil?
I remember those kinds of questions being asked ten years ago. I remember that the answers given throughout the American religious community weren’t always in line with God’s Word. Those questions are still being asked, and less-than-biblical answers are still being offered as conventional spiritual wisdom.
Maybe it’s time for the conventional wisdom to stop. Maybe it’s time for us to close our lips and open our Bibles and see if the Holy Spirit has given us concrete answers to these kinds of questions in the Word of God. I suspect that you will not be surprised when I say that there are real answers to those real questions found in Scripture. In fact, I can think of no more appropriate section of the Bible to turn to on this national day of remembrance than the Gospel that was specifically chosen for this service of remembrance. So let’s turn our attention to the tough lessons for tragic times that Jesus offers us in today’s Gospel from the first several verses of Luke 13. That’s where Jesus will teach us that tragedies are not necessarily God’s punishment for specific sins, but that tragedies always call us to repentance for our sin.
In the chapter before our reading, Jesus spoke frankly about signs of the End Times and preparation for his return. Perhaps it was his discussion about signs of the End Times that led some in his audience to ask about a recent and rather gruesome event. “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 have any references in secular sources to verify exactly what this incident was all about. But we do have a number of references in secular sources to verify that Pontius Pilate, the ruthless Roman ruler in Judea, operated in this kind of violent manner on many other occasions. Let’s face it: This is the guy who would hand over Jesus for crucifixion to placate his constituents and to save his backside from getting in trouble with Rome. Given his track record, it comes as no surprise to hear that he mowed down a group of worshippers.
So Jesus’ listeners throw this issue at him. And Jesus poses a question that some of them had to have wondered about. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” Jesus says rather emphatically that this tragedy, brought about by Pontius Pilate’s ruthlessness, was not God’s punishment for some specific sin that these victims had committed. And then Jesus takes it a step further. He moves the discussion from the tragic results of evil actions to the tragic results of complete accidents—the kinds of things that we might call “acts of God.” “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!” Jesus couldn’t make the point any clearer. Tragedies are not necessarily God’s punishment for some specific sin.
Jesus makes the point clearly, but I don’t think that truth is always so clear in our minds. Voices all around us try to convince us otherwise. Some voices in the religious community suggested that the 9/11 attacks were God’s judgment on the moral decline of America. The television preacher says that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Several years ago, I discovered that one of my seventh grade Catechism students thought that every bad thing that happened to him was God’s punishment for something he had done; it took our study of the Lord’s Prayer and the petition, “Deliver us from evil,” to rid him of that thinking. And truth be told, I know that my conscience nags me with similar doubts when things are going poorly, even though in my head I know that Jesus teaches the very opposite of what my faulty conscience tells me.
Why is it so easy to think that way? I’ll venture a guess. I think it is the default way that our old sinful flesh operates. Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, you and I hear that Christ died on the cross to endure the punishment for the sins of the world. But our old sinful flesh is never converted! Our sinful nature is content to presume that God will punish us with some type of quid pro quo system. Never mind that Christ proclaimed “It is finished!” from the cross. Never mind that Scripture teaches that the punishment for your sins has been paid in full by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Never mind that it is the height of arrogance to think that there is something you and I can do to placate the C.E.O. of the universe!
Our Christian nature knows that tragedies are not God’s punishment for specific sins. We know that—until tragedy strikes, and then we are prone to forget the clear statements of God in his Word. And then Satan has an opportunity to get his foot in the door and lead us to despair. “Why me? What did I do?” And we turn into spiritual mystics who wonder what it was that we did to attract bad karma. To be sure, there are times when sinful actions result in negative consequences—like the drunk driver who is hurt in an accident that was his own fault. But there are also times when the general presence of sin in this world takes a hit on us—like the person in the other car who was hit by the drunk driver, or the victims of 9/11 and their families, or people around the world who suffer the after effects of tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis. That is the painful reality of life in a world that has suffered the effects of sin ever since our first parents exchanged the perfect blessings of God for a fruit salad. That’s a tough lesson to remember in tragic times. But it is an important lesson for us to learn, lest we take anything away from Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross and presume that God has more punishment to dole out on us that will finally get us right with him.
Tragedy strikes. What do you say? A close friend loses her husband to cancer. Your neighbor’s wife is killed in a freak car accident and now he’s a single dad on his own. Someone you know lost a loved one ten years ago on 9/11. What do you say?
For just a moment, imagine that you are Jesus, and these are the kinds of questions the crowd asks you. What do you say? “Don’t worry, because we know that God the Father will work something good to come out of these tragedies.” That, of course, is true—but that’s not what Jesus said. Maybe Jesus should say, “I will not forsake you. I will be with you always to the end of time even through the darkest valleys of life.” That also is true—but it’s also not what Jesus said. “Do not fear, for my Father in heaven will not give you more than you can bear.” Maybe we’d say that, but that’s not what Jesus said. “Yes, you feel an earthly loss, but your believing loved one is with me now in the mansions of heaven.” Even though it is true, that, too, is not what Jesus says.
Jesus is confronted with questions about tragedies, and he turns those questions into a call for repentance. “Jesus answered, “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. 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.”
Did anything strike you as odd in the Prayer of the Day this morning (page five in the service booklet)? We prayed, “Lord God, accept our humble confession of the wrongs we have done, the injustice to which we have been party, and the countless denials of your mercy we have expressed.” Wait a second! Didn’t Jesus just make a big point that tragedies aren’t necessarily God’s punishment for specific sins? So why is our Prayer of the Day on 9/11 a prayer of repentance? The answer is found in Jesus’ words. Jesus had emphasized that tragedies are not God’s punishment for specific sins, but then he adds, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Specific tragedies may not be God’s punishment for specific sins, but all tragedies are reminders of sin’s presence in this world and sin’s presence in our hearts. Sin is all around us, and even as believers, sin is still constantly within us. Terror and tragedy and turmoil put that reality before us, and that reality is a constant remember for us to listen to Christ’s urgent call to repentance.
September 11 is no exception. It is good for us to observe Patriot Day as a nation and to encourage respect for our nation in light of an event like the first 9/11. That’s a good lesson for us to take home as citizens, but Jesus is not out to teach us a civics lesson this morning. He’s out to teach us a spiritual lesson for our souls. No matter what the tragedy—whether public or private, whether the first century Tower in Siloam or the twenty-first century Twin Towers in New York City—Jesus message is simple and stark: Repent!
As awful as it was for someone to be caught in one of the burning twin towers as it collapsed to the ground, it is a thousand times more horrific to wake up in the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell! And so Jesus calls us to repent so that we do not perish. It is tragic for someone to lose their physical life in this world, but it is all the more tragic to lose eternal life in heaven. Jesus calls us to repent so that whenever we are finally taken from this life we will be found with hearts of repentant faith that are ready to receive the fullness of eternal life with our Lord.
“Repent!” It seems like an odd thing for Jesus to say in the wake of tragedy—any tragedy. But Jesus calls us to repent because he wants to pour out the riches of his grace on us. He wants to take the sacrifice he made for you on the cross and the resurrection he accomplished for you on Easter morning and apply it to your heart. And Jesus has already showered his grace on you in the sin-forgiving, soul-cleansing waters of baptism. He has spoken his grace and forgiveness to you in the pages of his Word and through the preaching of his called servants. He has fed your faith with his gracious body and blood that enter your lips and comfort your soul.
When Jesus says “Repent,” this is his goal: to turn you back to him now so that you may be with him forever in paradise. When Jesus says “Repent,” this is his goal: to snatch you from the satanic murderer of souls and to bring you by faith into his kingdom of life and salvation. And if Jesus gets us to hear his call to repent through trouble and turmoil and tragedy – even through something as life-changing as the 9/11 attacks – then praise God! Praise God that he loves you so much that he would go to such lengths to wake you from spiritual apathy, to bring you to faith in his Son, and to place you into his kingdom of grace.
Jesus’ tough lesson for tragic times in Luke 13 might not be what we would expect to hear from him, but it is exactly what we need to hear from him. Don’t miss our Lord’s lesson on this day of remembrance. Let’s not presume to read God’s mind or assume things that he has not revealed in his Word. Instead, as we see the effects of sin, let us plead for his mercy for our own sin, and then pray with confidence that he would one day deliver us from sin and all its effects once and forever. O Lord, hear our prayer, and deliver us from evil. Amen.