Jesus really makes a difference
I don’t know which is worse: the thought that sometimes really bad things happen to really good people, or that really bad people often have really good things happen to them and they prosper.
On December 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, off the west coast of Sumatra, caused a series of devastating tsunamis that killed somewhere between 230,000 and 280,000 people in 14 coastal Asian countries. We don’t even know exactly how many people died. In the wake of tragedies such as this, questions about where God is in all this naturally arise. Columnist Eric Zorn offers his questions, and answer: Did the tsunami reflect the will of God? Or was God powerless to stop it? If it was God’s will, what moral lesson can we possibly accept from an entity for whom individual human life is evidently so expendable? Why isn’t constant fear the only sensible attitude toward such a being? Either way, what does it mean to trust God or have faith in God when in seconds on a sunny day a crushing wave from the deep can snatch a loved one literally from your grasp and drown him? Trust that it’s all part of some bigger plan that mere mortals cannot begin to access or comprehend?… The grand mystery notion fits well enough for me…I call my outlook indifferent agnosticism: I don’t know if God exists and I don’t care. God’s will and design for this temporal and spatial vastness, if any, is so patently, deliberately impenetrable that I doubt any mortal has a grasp on it. The very inexplicability of sad events like the tsunami, like the AIDS crisis or even like the cancer death of the father of one of my daughter’s 2nd-grade classmates last week are, to me, reminders to focus on our obligations to one another, not to the infinite; to honor the creator, if any, by honoring creation itself and hoping that’s good enough.[i]
Watching the good experience evil and the evil experience good is one of the greatest sources of hopelessness, the kind of hopelessness expressed in this article, known to humanity. This “problem of evil,” as it is known, has been and continues to be one of the biggest challenges to coherent philosophies and theologies throughout human history. It’s a problem Jesus tackled in the parable of the barren fig tree, but he tackled it in a very different way, and turned it into a warning. Turn in your Bibles to Luke 13:1-9.
As Jesus is teaching, a group of people ask him about something that had been bothering them. Look at V. 1. Pilate, the same Pilate who reluctantly condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion, had ordered the cruel and brutal murder of several Jews who were offering their sacrifice in the temple. These people were savagely murdered while gathered at the temple for the celebration of the Passover, so that their own blood mingled with the blood of their sacrifices on the temple floor. Pure, unadulterated evil. And the people wanted to know how Jesus would handle this. Righteous Jews murdered while doing what God had commanded from the beginning. You see, first century Jews, like most people today, believed that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. It’s the idea of karma. What goes around comes around. Do good and good will come to you. If something bad happens, it must be evidence that you have done something very wrong. So what was going on here? Why were these righteous people murdered?
Most people know that Becky and I lost a son, Aubrey, Sterling, and Eli lost a brother, in 2012. What many don’t know is that we’ve actually lost two sons. Our son Corin was born alive in 2004 and died less than an hour after birth because of a serious birth defect that we knew about. In the days following Corin’s birth and death in 2004, Becky and I both wrestled with the thought that God had taken our son from us because we were bad parents. The thoughts were automatic. If something this bad happened, we must have done something really wrong. God must be really angry with us. God took our son because we didn’t deserve him. And how much more did those thoughts come up after six year old Zeke died in 2012. It’s an agonizing thought, but its where we go when something bad happens. God is punishing me. The Bible does say that we reap what we sow, that sin has its consequences. Yes, sin has its consequences. Believe it or not, that’s Jesus’ point in this parable. But not all of the bad things that happen to me happen because of my sin. There is evil in this world. People who may freely choose to follow Christ and live according to the principles of the kingdom of God may also freely choose to live opposed to those principles, and that decision may have consequences for others. In short, life happens.
But Jesus ups the ante. He reminds the people of another event that had recently happened. Look at V. 4. Apparently, eighteen Galilean Jews had been killed when a tower fell on them. Not only is the world filled with moral evil and the fallout of people making decisions and living lives that do not align with the principles of the kingdom of God, it is also filled with tragedy. Accidents. Sometimes bad things happen because in this world, bad things sometimes happen and it really isn’t anyone’s fault. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). We all must live with and deal with the consequences of living in a fallen world.
So here’s where Jesus challenges the people’s assumption that all bad things come because people do bad things. Look at V. 2. He actually says what everyone is thinking. These people were sinners. But here’s the rub. Were they worse sinners than anyone else? Instead of saying it the way most of us would, “Why are these bad things happening to these good people?” he asks a more important question: “Were these people any worse sinners than anyone else?” If someone’s sin puts them in danger of having something bad happen to them, if we all really do reap what we sow, then we should be surprised not that some die young, in accidents or from disease or because of someone else’s sin, but because most of us continue to live. You see, sin lies in the human heart, and we all have human hearts. We all sin. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” says St. Paul in Romans 3. This is a truth most of us try to hide from, ignore, or outright reject. Is it a tragedy when some die young. As the father of two sons who have died, I can say unequivocally, “Yes it is.” But it is also a miracle that so many, people we would call good and people we would call not so good alike, live to such ripe old ages. Why? Because all have sinned.
In his book “The Imitation of Christ,” which happens to be, after the Bible, the second most read book in the world, Thomas a Kempis says “Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain good. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.”
Now, look at Vv. 3 & 5. Hard words. Some might even say harsh words. That doesn’t mean they were spoken harshly. What we cannot see is the look on Jesus’ face as he spoke these words. But he asks a hard question: “Did these bad things, the murder of innocent Jews and the accidental deaths of more innocent Jews, happen because they were bad people? No. Evil and tragedy happen in this world. They are a part of this world because sin has entered this world and plays a very real role. In fact, if it were the case that bad things happen to bad people, every human being would be in trouble, because all have sinned.” That’s exactly what Jesus is saying. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Ever had someone tell you something you didn’t want to hear? How did you take it? In a performance review, we might hear ten things that we are doing really well and that are appreciated, and then there’s one negative, an “opportunity for growth,” as we call them now. It’s code for “ways in which you are an idiot.” It’s an area to work on. We all have them. But we don’t like to hear about them. In this passage, Jesus tells us something we don’t want to hear. Sin does have its consequences, but those consequences may not be visible in this life, in this world. But there will be a final judgment. “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” If bad things happen to bad people, we’re all doomed.
And then he tells a story. Look at Vv. 6-9. The “man,” the owner of the vineyard, is God the Father. He is just, and he is good. And in his vineyard he plants a single fig tree so that he can get some of its fruit too. For three years he waited for the tree to produce fruit, and it gave none. Now, we’re familiar with fruit trees in northern Michigan. And we know that it usually takes several years for a cherry tree or an apple tree to produce any fruit, much less a full crop. But the fig trees in Israel are different. They typically begin producing quickly and are at full production for the size of the tree by three years. So the owner says to his vinedresser, the man who took loving care of the vineyard for him, cut the tree down. Something is obviously wrong. Now, the vinedresser represents Jesus and the mercy of God. And the vinedresser says “give me another season to see what I can do with it. You’re right, it should come down. But let me try again. If it doesn’t produce this time, then yes, we can cut it down. Justice demands a crop. Mercy says, “Let me give it a little more nurture and see if it responds.”
Jesus is giving us a warning. It is a call to repentance. For centuries the church has been wondering, where is Jesus? I think every generation had assumed that they would be the generation to see the return of Christ. And yet he waits. Why? Where is Jesus? “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness,” says St. Peter. “… but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And in Romans St. Paul said, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:4-5). Don’t presume on the patience of God! It will not last forever. In his love and mercy and grace God is giving more time for the lost to be found. But he will not wait forever. Eventually, the unfruitful tree will be cut down. In 2 Corinthians St. Paul says, “For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Jesus is calling us to repentance.
And what is repentance? It is a change of mind. But it isn’t the kind of change of mind that says “Well, I wanted to eat at Burger King, but now I want to eat at McDonalds. Hey, there’s a Wendy’s.” It’s a change of mind that leads to a change of behavior. It is a turnaround in your life. I used to be this way, and now, because of Jesus, I am this way, and am becoming more this way.
And the warning calls us to two responses. The first is to repent. To turn toward Jesus. To allow him to give us a new life, to live his life in us. The second is to bear fruit. It is to allow Christ to live his life in us. Most of the time, fruitfulness is viewed as leading others to Jesus, and that certainly is fruitfulness. But how does the Bible picture our fruitfulness? In Galatians God’s fruit in our lives is pictured as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control” (5:22-23). In 1 Peter its pictured as “faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, affection, and love” (1:5-8). And in Ephesians as that which is “good and right and true” (5:9). And it is that fruit, our love, and our joy, and our peace, and our patience, and our kindness, and our gentleness, that draws others to Christ.
But to whom much is given, much is required. The fig tree has been granted space in a productive vineyard. It is sucking nutrients, resources, out of the soil, that could be going to the grape vines. It is shading the grapes from the sun. If it doesn’t bear fruit, it will be moved out of the way. Friends, the American church has enjoyed unprecedented freedom to worship and to share the love of Christ. And we have resources at our disposal the likes of which the church has never seen. And the American church is dying. Sure, some churches are growing, but it is almost always at the expense of other churches. Church growth seminars and classes are basically steps to stealing people from other churches. That’s where most “church growth” comes from. People going from one church to another. And all the while our communities are filled with people without hope. People who don’t know Jesus. Do they see him in us? Do they want what we have? Or are we powerless, inward focused, lifeless, fruitless?
On October 25, 2010, a massive earthquake set off a tsunami that struck some Indonesian Islands. The tsunamis leveled whole villages, leaving hundreds dead or missing. According to the survivors, the deaths could have been avoided, or at least minimized. Unfortunately, the tsunami warning system—two buoys off the island—weren’t working properly. As a result, they didn’t alert the islanders to the coming danger.
Since 2004, experts have improved the tsunami detection network. The DART buoys (as they are called) measure wave height. If a buoy measures an unusual wave, it transmits that information to the shore. This system often provides the only warning signal for islanders to prepare for the oncoming danger. Unfortunately, according to the report, the buoys “have become detached and drifted away. Sensors have failed. As many as 30 percent have been inoperable at any one time.” As a result, the buoys often fail to awaken people to the reality of future tragedy. Jesus gives us a warning. Repent, and bear fruit. As followers of Christ, we not only have the privilege experiencing Christ’ love. We also have the responsibility of sharing Christ’s love; of gently confronting sin and warning people of judgment. If, like the buoys, we “have become detached or drifted away,” and if our love has grown cold or apathetic, we may leave others unprepared for the consequences of sin or of life apart from Christ, and that in itself may be evidence of our own unpreparedness and life apart from Christ, even we who gather in a church sanctuary every Sunday morning.[ii]
[i] Eric Zorn, “Tsunami levels a challenge to all our beliefs,” Chicago Tribune (12-04-05), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ericzorn/chi- 0501040032jan04,1,2448977.column
[ii] Smithsonian Magazine, “Did Broken Buoys Fail to Warn Victims of the Mentawai Tsunami?” (October 28, 2010)