Wilderness Wanderings: It’s not a good thing to assume what God is doing, Luke 13.1-9

Sermon Series: Wilderness – It’s Not a Good Thing to Assume What God is Doing
Scripture: Luke 13.1-9
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church Fort Lauderdale
Date: March 24, 2019

Turn in your Bible to Luke 13. We are going to read a Story that only appears in Luke’s Gospel. It addresses an issue that has a fancy .50 cent name to it; the word for the day is theodicy. As you listen, you will note two stories and a parable. Listen and see how they go together! Hear the Word of the Lord!

Luke 13:1-9

13.1 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Several years ago there was a popular book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner that dealt with the issues of bad things that seemingly happen to good people. Its title was often misquoted which was a problem because if you change the title of the book, the focus of the book changes entirely. People referred to the book by the title, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” It’s not a bad title and it would be an interesting book to read, however, it was not the title of the famous Rebbe’s book. The book is actually called, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” Can you hear the difference in the questions each title asks?

On one hand, if you ask, “Why bad things happen to good people,” you will get mired in the questions of, “Why did this happen to me? Why would God allow this to happen to them? Why, if there is a loving God, would people have to endure the pain of treatment for their disease?” Why questions force you to ponder and think. Why questions have the tendency to place the one asking the questions in a defensive posture with regard to the one who can answer the question. Asking why is speculative.

On the other hand, if you approach the issues of evil and misfortune, not so much with a question but with a statement of certainty, your answers change. When you and I remove the speculation that bad things will happen to seemingly good people, we move from raising our fist at God and begin to walk alongside God in order to discover the meaning in the mess. You see, it’s not a question if bad things will happen to good people; it’s a question of when they will.

For the longest time Christ-followers have had this Pollyannaish attitude that once you start following Jesus, life is going to be all peaches and cream. Your kids will be smarter and better looking, your business will be successful, you’re naturally liked and loved by all those you meet, and your health is stellar. This is the challenge many Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim; they say that if you love Jesus, live a good life and pay your tithe to the church, then you will be materially blessed as proof that God loves you. Frankly, this is what Jesus was dealing with in the first century in our Story as well.

First century Judaism had its own form of prosperity gospel of sorts. People during Jesus’ day believed that if you lived a good life, followed the Law, treated people fairly, paid your religious dues, and was a good member of the Jewish community then God would physically or materially bless you. However, if you sinned, then God would punish you and give you destitution and a bleeding ulcer or some other ailment. One’s moral conduct was equated with how smooth your life was sailing. If life is going well, I’m in God’s favor; if life really is stinking to high heaven, then God is punishing me. This leads back to the speculative question of “Why bad things happen to good people.” The problem is, Jesus is not having or buying any of that nonsense. He is telling his disciples to move from speculative questions to making declarative statements. He is asking the people to move from asking “why” to declaring that life is difficult and is hard at times!

People were scrambling to ask, “Jesus, you’re from Galilee. You heard about those Galileans that Pontus Pilate had killed and mixed their blood in Roman sacrifices…do you think they were worse sinners than others?”

Jesus didn’t take the bait. He replies, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” And then Jesus ups the ante. Jesus tells them, “Let me do you one better: What about those people here in Jerusalem who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they worse offenders of the Law and sinners than all the rest of the people in Jerusalem?” Once again, Jesus answers the question himself. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”

In other words, bad stuff happens to seemingly good and decent people. It’s the world we live in and it has been that way since our first parents broke relationship with God back in Genesis. Then Jesus shares a Story.

Once upon a time, a man went out into his vineyard looking for some fruit to eat. Sadly, he did not find any. He did find the caretaker and told them, “Look here, for three years I have been coming out looking for something to eat on this fig tree and for three years it has produced nothing! Cut the thing down as it’s wasting both the soil its planted in and the water that is poured upon it.” The caretaker replied, “How about this: let’s leave it alone one more year. What I will do is to work in fertilizer all around the tree and make sure it is getting enough water. Let’s see if it can still bear figs. If not, we will cut the thing down.”

This is an interesting rebuttal Jesus gives the people. They ask a deep theological question about why there is evil in the world and whether its tied to their behavior and he talks about something else entirely. The people want to talk about “Why bad things happen to good people” and Jesus shifts direction. He does not want to talk about speculative questions; rather, Jesus tells a parable about how one day, each and every one of us will have to one day deal with the “When” question of when we die, when the tower falls on those we know, when we get a horrible diagnosis, when we get the call no parent ever wants to receive…

Beloved, Jesus is asking us to move from meaningless speculation as to why and urges us to prepare for the inevitable when misfortune comes or our time on this planet is over. You see, when we prepare for the when, we attain what the Bible calls, Peace. Have you ever heard of the Latin phrase, “Memento Mori”? It’s a saying that means, “Remember, one day you will die.” This is Jesus’ way of telling you and me, Memento Mori. Jesus is reminding us that we can ask God all the speculative questions we want but unless we turn back around (the meaning of the word, repent) and embrace the relationship God wants with us, then our lives immediately lose their meaning and we live the rest of our days bitter at best and lonely and isolated at worst; we will die emotionally and spiritually alone.

Our culture does not like the word ‘repent.’ It sounds so, so churchey and for us Presbyterians, it sounds just a little too baptisty for us. But here it is right smack in the middle of our Lenten wilderness journey in today’s text. Jesus is calling for an end of our speculative questions to God as to why and instead make a declarative change in our life by turning back around to God through repentance. You see, another way to understand repentance is to think of it as falling back into the arms of someone who loves your dearly. When you fall into their arms, the questions melt away and you just want to be lovingly held by your beloved.

In the act of repentance, in the act of falling back into the outstretched arms of God, we will see life’s pains, mishaps, and tragedies for what they are: sad but expected actions of life in our fallen, created realm. The difference, however, is we no longer see God as some Divine Killjoy or a mean heavenly Judge; we no longer see events in our life as bad karma and payback to us for not being good enough. No, we begin to understand that what we have experienced happens to the upright ones as well as to the broken ones. The lesson is not so much “Why did God let this happen to me?” as it is where is God with me in all of this pain, disease, and ill-fortune? The promise is that if we use this season of Lent and preparation to repent, i.e. turn back around and falling into the loving arms of God, we will experience that God is not “out there somewhere” but is actually embracing us even now. God is right here.

So as we close, humor me a moment; repeat after me: Bad things happen to good people like me…And it stinks!

Now say: I repent and fall into the waiting arms of God. Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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