Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Luke 13:1 - 9 -- Jesus, the News, and Ourselves

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
       Folks who lived in Jesus’ time were just as fascinated by the days’ news as many of us are today, and it always seems to be the bad news that holds our attention. Wars, natural disasters, government scandals, and the misbehavior of well-known people often get us thinking. We want to know what the big events of the day mean for us. Sometimes it’s easy to find a meaning. A flood or a big snowstorm may touch the life of a friend or a relative or we may know a politician who is often in the news or we may have a friend or relative serving in the armed forces. Or it may be you have an active, curious brain and like to stay informed. Sometimes, on the other hand, we may want to get away from the news – which means different things for us at different times.
       This morning’s gospel gives us a lesson in how to interpret the news from a Christian point of view. Current events convince us that the world and we ourselves need to repent and take hold of Christ in faith. Some people wanted Jesus to interpret reports that Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had murdered a group of Galileans who were offering sacrifices in the temple. They might have been members of a bothersome national faction that the government was worried about. It was a terrible thing for Pilate to do, in any case, and deeply offensive to the Jews, who never let outsiders into the sacred parts of the temple. Then, too, eighteen people died when a tower collapsed. Folks in those days believed that if really bad things happened to you, you and your neighbors could be sure that God was angry and was punishing you for some secret sin. Job’s friends had the same idea, you remember. They believed that Job suffered because God’s wrath was upon him.
       The truth is actually much different. It doesn’t happen very often that we can see God’s hand clearly in a sequence of events that we hear about in the news. The Almighty works in mysterious ways that are usually beyond the power of human minds to interpret correctly. Here’s a case to think about. A group of nuns working in a South American jungle prayed for years that the Lord would send them a jeep. But instead of a jeep, a terrible war came that lasted for months and months. Many people were killed. The nuns didn’t understand why God hadn’t sent them a vehicle. When peace came back and the sisters could finally leave their convent, one of them went out for a walk and when she reached the end of a path – what do you suppose? She found a jeep with the keys in the ignition.
       Anyway, Jesus said that wars and famine, earthquakes and unexpected catastrophes will be part of the news until he returns. The significance of particular events is usually hidden away in his mind and his will. The folks who went to Jesus with their observations about current events were too quick to form opinions about the sinfulness of others. Their biases didn’t help them understand what the news meant for them. They needed a deeper understanding.
       Misfortunes that happen to other people, Jesus told them, such as storms and floods and civil unrest, shouldn’t bring on bursts of self-satisfaction and finger-pointing. It’s easy for folks who live in favored places like Canada to become complacent, smug, settled into a comfortable routine and there’s always the temptation to be callous or indifferent to the troubles of others. We don’t please God if we allow ourselves to fall into these ways of thinking. A wiser, more Christian response to news about others’ difficulties is to see a warning in them – a wake-up call. All are sinners. Everyone needs to turn to God. Those who don’t will face a greater calamity than physical hardship. Paul wrote in a different connection: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands firm take heed lest he fall.” We comfortable North Americans are always in danger of spiritual sloth. It’s easy to live for pleasures and forget that life is uncertain and fragile and to ignore reminders that everyone needs to examine him- or herself in the light of God’s Word.
       Now, this morning’s Gospel doesn’t stop there. Jesus tells a parable to show God’s way of looking on the events of the day. The vineyard he referred to is Israel; the fig tree is Jerusalem, which was the most important city. The whole nation had been corrupt, barren, fruitless. The people shouldn’t become obsessed with two incidents only: they should strive for a wider understanding – that the whole society was worthy of receiving God’s wrath. Only Christ’s death for their sins would rescue them from condemnation. They needed to turn to God and seek his will while they had the chance. Otherwise, they’d miss out on salvation.
Jesus told them what the Heavenly Father wanted – spiritual fruitfulness that was the opposite of smugness and self-satisfaction. Jesus makes fruitfulness possible. It begins with sorrow for our sins and the grateful acceptance of Jesus’ friendship and the blessings he won for us when he shed his blood and then produces qualities such as the ones Paul mentions in Galatians – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Holy Spirit uses our repentant joy to bring fruitfulness out of barren soil.
       We make productive contributions wherever we go – to the life of our families, at our tasks, and in our communities – and in a Christian way because God’s Spirit works in us and empowers us to stick with him. We read our Bibles, say our prayers, come to worship. The Lord uses us. It is He who makes us fruitful.
We aren’t perfect, of course, and our failings concern us, but they don’t break our spirits, for our Savior who pardons us and calls us to repent and think again believes in us and prevents us from being overcome with worry about our transgressions. We rest in the trust he places in us and are confident of our fruitfulness. Jesus is like the vine-keeper in the parable who asked the owners of the vineyard to spare the fig tree. He intercedes with the Father on our behalf. He wants us to be fruitful and trusts that we’ll respond to the opportunities he gives us with an abundance of fruitfulness.
       Although the news may alarm us at times, Jesus teaches us to trust that God is active and in control. He is patient and slow to condemn; he works in mysterious ways by his own timetable. He doesn’t make mistakes. Instead of cutting off sinful humanity, he invites us to stand in faith at the foot of the Cross, when we receive pardon and renewed strength. Because of the Cross, there is no barrier between us and our Creator who will persist in making us fruitful.
       Bad days and the experience of suffering in our own lives don’t mean that we’re unfruitful. In fact, tough times bring a fruitfulness of their own in that they make us patient and faithful and teach us the art of compassion. The Heavenly Father doesn’t promise to spare us from tribulation. We expect rocky times, in fact, because Christians share in the suffering of our Savior. He does promise though, that he will use miserable hours for our good. Peter wrote that sufferings refine our faith the way fire refines gold. God thinks differently from the way we do: he uses tribulations as the soil out of which sturdy blossoms grow.
Life on earth will always be a mixture of good and bad. The devil tries to use our troubles to break us, while the Savior helps us to endure them and to see them clearly. Misfortunes humble us and teach us to call on the Lord for help. Difficulties give us the chance to imitate Jesus’ meekness and patience, to look beyond rough days to the brightest of all times that wait for us in heaven. Jesus shows us how to find uses for the rough waters we pass through which we don’t see as punishments from God – though they can be for people who don’t believe in him – but as inducements to draw closer to our Lord, who experienced miseries himself and used them to bring good to all people.
       Life is full of strange events that get us asking questions. Are people who suffer from wars and natural disasters worse sinners than other folks?  All sin and fall short of the glory of God. Jesus uses the news of the day to create fruits of repentance in our hearts. As we are sorry for our sins, we rediscover that God is forgiving, patient, and steadfast. He won’t give up on us. He will persist on our behalf. We trust that he’ll keep working on us and that the fruits of faith – joyfulness, kindliness, peace, gentleness, and so on will about in our lives. In Jesus name, we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.             

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