Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Third Sunday in Lent


Third Sunday in Lent (C)
March 3, 2013
Text: Luke 13:1-9

            Why does God allow disasters to happen?  Be they man-made or natural disasters, why does an almighty and loving God allow things to happen like Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans or the collapse of the tower in Siloam (you have a picture of that on the front of your bulletin)? Or perhaps closer to our own context, why does He allow catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or the Sandy Hook shooting or, even closer to us, our own experiences of pain and disease and death?  Let’s just establish at the outset of this discussion that this is, for the most part, an unanswerable question.  We get the same answer Job received from God when he asked this question: “I’m God and you’re not, and I don’t owe you an explanation, so just trust that I know what I’m doing here.”  We simply are not given to know the answer to the question, “why?”  And God makes no apologies for leaving us in the dark.  This truth can be a bitter pill to swallow, even for Christians.  And the difficulty is that our fallen human nature is prone to speculation.  Such speculation inevitably leads to one of two results: pride, or despair.  It can lead to pride when we see others suffering.  For example, some Christians (in reality, they are false teachers) suggested in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that the people of New Orleans had it coming because of the flagrant sinful culture of the city.  Our text this morning should stop such false teaching in its tracks.  On the other hand, speculation of this nature can lead a person to despair: God must be punishing me.  God is out to get me.  This is a very real struggle in the hearts and minds of many Christians.  Maybe you’ve struggled with these thoughts yourself.  But our text this morning should bring those thoughts to an end, as well.  Though our Lord doesn’t tell us all the “whys and the wherefores” of human suffering, He is very clear on this point: Disasters don’t happen to people because the victims are more sinful than others who haven’t had to suffer them.  The Galileans who were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate weren’t worse sinners than the rest who escaped.  Nor those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them.  The plain fact is, as Jesus points out, it could just as easily have been you or me.  The take home message in the face of disaster is not that “those people had it coming.”  It is rather this: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5; ESV). 
            That is to say, every disaster, natural or man-made, affecting hundreds or only affecting you personally, whatever it is, whenever it happens, every disaster is a call to repentance.  Here is what this means: All the bad things that happen in the world are a testament to sin in the world.  Sometimes they are a direct result of a specific sin.  For example, if I drive drunk and crash, that crash is a result of my specific sin of driving drunk.  And yet, bad things often happen for no apparent reason.  Bad things happen to you, not because God is punishing you for some specific sin, but as a testament to the reality that you are a sinner living in a sinful world where evil things happen.  And it’s not that bad things happen to good people.  Jesus is making this point in our text, whether you want to believe it or not, that no one is good.  We all deserve to suffer such tragedies.  But God would, through such tragedies, graciously call upon us to reflect on our sinful condition, examine our hearts and our lives, confess our sins, and turn to Him in faith for forgiveness and for help in a world of evil and suffering.  Hurricane Katrina didn’t hit New Orleans because New Orleans is any more sinful than Dorr, Michigan.  I don’t know why God allowed Hurricane Katrina.  But this I do know: Hurricane Katrina was God’s gracious call to us in Dorr, Michigan, and to all people in every place to repent and turn to the Lord.  Because you could be next.  God is not unfair in laying afflictions upon some.  If there is anything unfair about God, it is that He does not lay such great afflictions upon all of us.  For all deserve it.  You deserve it, and I deserve it.  For we have rejected God in our sin.  We have worshiped other gods, worshiped our possessions, worshiped our security, worshiped our incomes, worshiped our leisure, worshiped ourselves.  Why has God afflicted some, but spared you, O sinner?  He has spared you, not so that you can judge those afflicted, but so that you repent, lest you likewise perish.  Or you who suffer great afflictions, why has God not spared you?  It is not so that you despair.  He is not punishing you, and He has not forsaken you.  This, too, is a call to repentance and to faith in the Lord who will deliver you, if not in this life, in this fallen and evil world, then in the next world where there is no evil and suffering, but only perfect healing in the Lord.   
            The Lord is patient.  We do not understand His ways, but everything He does is for our good and for our salvation.  To help us believe this, our Lord tells a parable in our Gospel.  It is the parable of the man who planted a fig tree and came seeking fruit, but found none.  Now, the man who planted the tree is God.  The tree, in its original context, is the Jews, a dire warning to the nation that was rejecting Jesus.  But the parable also applies to you and me.  We are also the tree.  (And just a side-note, what is a fig tree doing in a vineyard in the first place?  That the tree is even there and being cultivated by the vinedresser is, in itself, a testimony to God’s grace.)  God comes looking for the fruit of faith.  He is more than patient.  According to the Law of Moses, you were not to look for fruit on a tree for the first three years after you planted it (Lev. 19:23-25).  For three years after that, the man came looking for fruit and found none.  Six years, no fruit.  What do you suppose a reasonable person would do?  He would cut down the tree and plant something new.  But the vinedresser, that is, Christ, intercedes on behalf of the tree.  Leave it one year more.  Give the tree a time of grace.  And this is what I will do, says the Lord Jesus.  I will dig around it (the Greek word means to “pierce”… I will pierce around it) and put manure on it to fertilize it.  And then we’ll see.  If the next year it bears fruit, well and good.  But if not, then the time of grace has run out.  Then we’ll dig it out and burn it up.  This is what the Lord Jesus does with us.  He gives us a time of grace in which He graciously sends us His Word in preaching.  Now, some of His Word pierces us to the heart.  I imagine today’s preaching has been rather piercing to you.  He pierces us with His Law, convicting us of our sins.  He pierces us with our suffering in this life, disasters that we suffer or that we witness others suffering, and our own crosses that He lays upon us.  All of this is to make us ready for the manure.  And this isn’t an image that we usually use in this way, but understand that in the parable, the manure is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the preaching of the forgiveness of sins and new life in the death and resurrection of our Lord.  The Law pierces us so that the nourishing manure of the Gospel can seep into our hearts and souls and produce faith in Jesus Christ, and the fruits of faith, which is to say love and good works.  Love and good works are the proof that faith is living, that the tree is healthy.  A good tree bears good fruit (Matt. 7:17), which is to say that if you have the faith in Jesus Christ by which alone you are saved, you will have the fruits of good works that naturally come from faith, although for the most part you’ll be unaware of them.
            But look at God’s grace in all of this.  You are born a fruitless tree, blind, dead, an enemy of God.  God should uproot you and condemn you.  But His Son is the Vinedresser.  And His Son stands in the breach between you and God’s righteous wrath.  His Son intercedes for you.  His Son digs around you, pierces you, calling you to repentance.  His Son saturates you with the manure of His Gospel (farmers get this… this is actually a gracious picture, and if you still don’t like it, take it up with Jesus)… He saturates you with Himself in what is even more grotesque than manure, His gruesome blood and death, which He distributes to you in His Word and Sacraments.  For in a stunning reversal, the Son actually takes your place, suffering your disaster, suffering the wrath of the Father for your fruitlessness.  The Son is nailed to another tree, which is planted in the ground.  The Son treads the wine-press of God’s wrath alone.  There is where the Father punishes your sin.  That is why your crosses are not God’s punishment, but (contrary to all human reason) gifts of His wisdom for your good (something you can only know by faith).  The Son is nailed to the tree of the cross, and that tree is now the tree of life that produces abundant fruit for the healing of the nations.  For your fruitlessness, the Son gives the fruit of His cross.  And it counts for you.  The Father’s wrath is spent.  He keeps you, He loves you, as His own fruitful tree. 
            And as for the rest, the disasters and the crosses and the human suffering, you’re going to have to leave that to God.  That, too, will come to an end on the Last Day.  Then every wound will be healed and every tear wiped from your face by your Father in heaven.  Just take His Word to heart.  Repent, and know that whoever believes in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  That means you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

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