Tragedy and Impenitence
Do you rubber neck? Do you strain to see an accident scene? Have you ever driven to the site of a tragedy to see for yourself? Today we're going to because this Sunday is about seeing clearly. The 3rd Sunday in Lent is called Oculi. That's Latin for the first word of the Introit "eyes." This Sunday we want to look closely at tragedy and see how it relates to impenitence.
Is there is a relationship between tragedy and impenitence? Are the people in the text right who told Jesus about "the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices?" When a tragedy like that happens to people surely they must have done something terrible. Here are the facts: Some Galileans came to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for sin. While they were doing so, soldiers from Pilate attacked them. The blood of the worshipers was mixed with that of the sacrificial animals. They must've been bigtime sinners for that to happen! That's how the people in the text saw things, and we might see it that way too. When God stands by and lets people suffer at the hands of men, surely they must have deserved it. A 5-year-old is struck by a hit-and-run. Surely there must be secret sin at the bottom of that. People caught in shooting sprees must be worse sinners; God had to have some reason to let such tragedy happen!
Sure there's sin involved. The sin is on the part of those doing it. The criminal is the impenitent sinner. So when we see a tragedy where people hurt people, the sin of the victims is not the issue. But what about when God is the cause of the tragedy? God in flesh and blood brings this up. What about "those 18 who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them?" Here is a tragedy where it is easy to see secret sin. God must've seen their impenitent hearts and dealt with them accordingly. No evil human can be blamed here; no act of premeditation in this instance. 18 citizens of Jerusalem were minding their own business when a tower fell killing them. No human being pushed it. The hand of God must have.
What do you think? We feel better that manmade hardware or software seems to be behind the crash of Ethiopian Airlines 737. But no human hand has been found to be behind the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; did the hand of God swat that plane out of the air? No human agency dropped those tornadoes on Alabama. The God who Scripture says brings the wind out of His storehouses must be responsible. Does the arm of God fling every lightning bolt? Does the hand of God shake every bridge that collapses? Does God reach down with His finger and heat the Pacific to produce El Nino? We're forced to say yes. Scripture won't allow us to take refuge in chance, luck, fate, or science. Nor can we take refuge in the distinction between cause and allow. To say God only "allowed" the tower of Siloam to fall, says nothing at all. For if God was the only one who could have prevented it, that's not much different from Him causing it.
If we can find no human hand to explain a tragedy, then impenitence must be behind it. On Flight 370 over half the passengers were Chinese. They were probably not Christian. God's justice finally caught up with them. And in Alabama, many of the dead came from trailer parks. Do I need to tell you what sort of people live in trailer parks? Aren't they today's Sodom and Gomorrah?
It's true; there is a definite relationship between tragedy and impenitence, but tragedy doesn't point to the impenitence of the people involved, but to ours. In both the case of the Galilean and the Jerusalem victims, Jesus doesn't explain why the tragedy happened. But He flatly denies that the tragedies say anything about the impenitence or sins of the people involved. The only thing that can be concluded from tragedies says Jesus is that unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Tragedy points to your impenitence. When we see tragedy, we are to say, "I don't know what the sins of those people were, but I know what mine are and they definitely deserve such judgment." When we see tragedy we are to remember how badly God is offended by impenitence and how absolutely serious He is about repentance. God isn't going to sit idly by while you go on living in your sins whether they be against the 1st, 3rd, or 6th Commandment. No, He'll allow murderous people to fall upon us before He'll do that. He'll cause towers to fall on us before He'll tolerate impenitence.
Yes, tragedy indicates impenitence: ours. And impenitence indicates tragedy, i.e., impenitence is always a tragedy in the sense the Greeks meant it. A Greek tragedy is one that can be avoided; it doesn't have to happen, but the main character has a tragic flaw like greed, pride, or lust that drives him relentlessly to his doom. Impenitence means tragedy because it can be avoided; that's the point of the parable of the fig tree.
Hasn't God done everything necessary to lead you to repentance? He has planted you in His Vineyard. You're not some wild plant growing outside His church. He has planted you in His church through Baptism. He feeds and waters you weekly by Word and Sacrament. He has built a fence around you with His holy angels, so you're not at the mercy of all the wicked things the devil wants to do to you. Don't you know such goodness of God is to lead you to repentance, asks Paul in Romans 2? Don't you know He has done all this to call you out of your secret sins or those you keep as pets but in fact are keeping you? Don't you know God is trying desperately to rescue you from the lie of Satan that you can be repentant of sins you're living in? Don't you know the Lord has given you 9 years of grace for you to repent of that sin?
How did I get 9 years when the parable says for 3 years the owner came looking for fruit? In the Old Testament, a fig tree's fruit for the first 3 years was forbidden. It was then given 3 more years to grow. That makes a total of 6. So after 6 years of growing the owner came in years 7, 8, and 9 to look for fruit. The gardener intercedes for a 10th year; this ties in with the Epistle about the Old Testament church. They were baptized as we are; fed by spiritual food and drink like we are; ministered to by Christ as we are. Yet God was not pleased with most of them and scattered their dead bodies in the dessert. God did everything to cause them to repent. But some clung to worshiping gods of their own opinions; others wouldn't cast off sexual sins; still others wouldn't repent of complaining against God's ministers and so He sent a destroying angel to kill them. But God did none of these things till He had given them 10 chances. Numbers 14:22 says they had put God to the test 10 times by not listening to His Word and repenting. After that, they dropped in the desert like flies till all 600,000 of them were dead.
Though we have put God to the test 9 times with the idolatry of our personal opinions, with our secret sexual sins, and with our ever present grumbling, God gives us a 10th chance today. Jesus who is on the right hand of the Father has interceded for us as He said He would and won for us a 10th chance. He has interceded just like the gardener did with the owner. Our insert translates, "Leave it alone for one more year," but the gardener literally says, "Forgive it." Jesus offers no excuses for us. He sees our idolatry, our worrying, our gossiping. He sees that God has given us all we need to break from such sins. He knows there's no excuse for us remaining in them, so He says, "Father, you're just going to have to forgive them again. You're just going to have to for My sake let those sins go too."
And the Father has. That's why I could say to you today, "I forgive you all your sins." Why I can say to you later on, "Take eat, take drink for the forgiveness of your sins." Why I'm able to say to you at the end of service God's face is smiling upon you and you can go in peace. Though you have provoked God's frightful wrath by 9 years of living in your sin; all that is gone. God has forgiven you for Jesus' blood and righteousness; you start a 10th year as if you hadn't been offending Him by these past 9 years of fruitlessness.
When living with and in our sins, we thought we could erase God's wrath by His mercy; that's how we could live not caring or struggling against our sins. Well, don't do the opposite now. Don't erase God's mercy by His wrath. Don't see how terrible His wrath must be if He it can leave the bodies of 600,000 church members bloating in the desert; dont think God has forgotten how to be merciful. No, see His mercy big, fresh, and forgiving. See a God who can't bear to let you go, who can't bear to chop you down. You see this in the parable. The Gardener, Jesus, says to the owner: If it bears fruit next year fine! If not, then You cut it down." Your Lord wants no part of chopping down even barren fig trees. He wants nothing to do with making you pay for sins He has already paid for. What He wants and does everything necessary to do, is free you from them.
The Gardener says He'll do everything necessary to free the fig tree from fruitlessness: "I'll dig around it; I'll fertilize it." Does a fig tree so treated worry about producing? Nope. Figs will come naturally without any fuss or effort on the fig trees part. It would be unnatural if they didn't. So it is with us in the church. Impenitence means tragedy because Jesus has done everything to make our life one of constant repentance. He has dug around the hard clay of our heart with His law, and He has fertilized us with His own forgiving blood. Repenting is as natural for a sinner who is tended to by Christ as bearing fruit is natural for a fig tree being tended to by a gardener. Impenitence is a tragedy because it's always avoidable, and every single tragedy you hear of reminds you don't go there. But here's a secret from the Introit. Repentance doesn't come from your eyes always being on your sins; no, it comes from your eyes being ever on the Lord. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Lent (20190324); Luke 13: 1-9