I should have posted this earlier in the week, but I have been busy. The theme for last Sunday’s readings is the age old question of suffering and sin.
Sermon for Lent 3
When some people suffer a disaster or terrible illness they ask, “what have I done to deserve this?” There’s an underlining feeling that if we are good, we shouldn’t suffer and if people are bad then they deserve to suffer from illness or other catastrophe.
We see it in films – the goodies are set against the baddies who look as if they are going to get their evil way. Then about three quarters of the way through something happens to ensure that the goodies win and the baddies get their comeuppance. Justice prevails.
We like life to be neat and tidy and for our hard work and diligence to be rewarded. Likewise, those who are feckless, lazy and dishonest should meet with disaster, or at least some sort of punishment. When we turn to the Psalms we see this longing for judgment and justice.
The problem with this sort of thinking is that when we encounter disasters on a large scale it not only is clearly wrong but damages our capacity for empathy in our response.
However, it is a common reaction when we go through suffering – either our own or someone else’s – to question why God allows it. Why does God allow Putin to continue? Why does God allow viruses to mutate like Covid has? Answers would not fit on a postcard and I am not going to try now.
What would Jesus say to those who feel God is punishing them by allowing suffering? Well, today’s gospel gives a clue.
It’s an interesting story – Jesus and his companions are on their way to Jerusalem for Passover, along with many other people. And possibly, the disciples are a little nervous. They know that Pilate is a tyrant. He is unpopular because he is nasty.
They know what sort of things he’s done in the past. He was a bit like Hitler, Stalin and Putin.
The Jewish historian of the time lists several things that Pilate had done which upset and irritated the local Jewish people. Sometimes he seemed to be deliberately trying to make them angry. He trampled on their religious sensibilities; once he tried to take Roman military flags into Jerusalem, with their pagan symbols. He flouted their laws and conventions; once he used money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct, and then brutally crushed the rebellion that resulted. These incidents, and others like them, are recorded outside the NT so we know what sort of person Pilate was.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that on one occasion while some people on pilgrimage from Galilee had been offering sacrifice in the temple, Pilate sent the troops in, perhaps fearing a riot, and slaughtered them. Today’s gospel passage simply speaks of their own blood mingling in the temple courtyard with the blood of their sacrifices. It would have polluted the place, in the religious sense, on top of the human horror and tragedy of such an event. It is as though occupying forces were to invade a church and butcher worshippers on Christmas or Easter Day.
Jesus had been warning of woe and disaster coming on those who refuse his message, is this a sign that these Galileans were already being punished?
After all, in Deuteronomy Israel was told that if they fully obey God and walk in his ways then they would be blessed. And conversely if they didn’t then they would be cursed. Taken simplistically, not a nice God. But, taken in their proper theological context, it was never intended that God would be like a divine slot machine into which you put either the right or wrong moral response and get either a blessing or curse came out.
Taking the full sweep of the history of God’s dealings with his people in the Old Testament we see them as those who make moral decisions and shape their own destiny.
What we do has consequences and often we suffer as a result or either our own actions or the actions of others. We don’t just drift through life like a feather on the winds of chance.
But alongside that, there are the psalms, proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes – the wisdom literature. One Old Testament scholar once said: ‘Proverbs says “Do this and life will go well with you.”. Ecclesiastes says “I did, and it didn’t”’
Life is complex. Life can be random. Life does not, yet, reflect the will of God. We live in patience while we wait for his kingdom to fully come.
What does Jesus say about the Galileans who died? He says they didn’t suffer because they were worse than anyone else was. And neither do we. The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike – and so does the rain fall. But, Jesus says, unless you do repent, you will all end up that way. He isn’t talking about hell nor what will happen after we die.
He has come to call Israel back to God. To repent and as part of that to stop their national rebellion against Rome. He told them to love their enemy, to turn the other cheek and to walk the extra mile. Those who take the sword will perish with the sword.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ teaching fell on the deaf ears of those in power who refused to follow him. When Jerusalem finally fell in 70AD, it was a direct result of that refusal to follow the way of peace. The tree was cut down.
This parable of the fig tree, although directed at the nation of Israel, can be applied to us too. What is God up to in our world, in our lives today? What areas of conflict is Jesus calling us to be peaceable about? What fruit are we bearing?
God is looking for fruit in our lives. It’s often in our darkest moments that the fruit in our lives is most evident. What fruit does your life produce through difficult times?
I was struck last week by seeing the reaction of Ukrainian Christians who were praising God and praying as a reaction to the war.
I also read of Revd Solomon Ekiyor, a refugee from Ukraine, who says that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a spiritual challenge, not just a material one. He was at St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy, on Sunday 6th March, in the Lutheran Church, Budapest. “The war profoundly disrupts our lives and plans,” he said, but “our faith also gives us resources to meet these questions.”
In his sermon, he referred to “the long history of disruptions that are part of the life of the people of God, from the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt.
“God did not cause the evil in Putin’s act, but God has a way of working with it, improvising and weaving it into the tapestry of his purpose in the world. . . It is for each of us to now ask his guidance on what new purpose he has for us in this situation. I am asking that for myself, too.”
And we have seen the response across Europe from Churches and those of other faiths or none to work for peace and to bring aid to those who need it.
I believe that is the fruit Jesus is looking for. The fruit of the Spirit, summed up in one word: love. Love for God and love for other people.
Our Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer are one way of digging round and feeding ourselves so that we can bear more fruit. Think of it as the manure that aids our growth.
God’s invites us through Isaiah with imagery of food and drink to come to him. And the way we come to him is through prayer. Faith is not a protection against the difficulties in life. We are called to take up the cross and embrace life, even if we have to suffer to do so. And when we do accept God’s invitation to drink from the water of life, Jesus, we find we are led into a life that is deeper, richer and more meaningful than one of faithlessness.
We need to reject the idea that suffering is God’s punishment for sin, and that blessings or the avoidance of suffering is his reward for good behaviour. Instead, if we recognise our own need of God’s mercy and grace and respond to him by bearing fruit – the fruit of the spirit – his love for the world around us, participating in bringing his grace and mercy into the world, then we will find we are blessed in many ways.
Yes, there is much suffering in the world – near and far: natural disasters, financial struggles, acts of violence, wars as well as illnesses. While much can be said about them, and various debates as to whether they are God’s punishment or not, Jesus closes the book on that discussion very firmly. What he does though is remind us that we all need God’s grace and mercy.
There but for the Grace of God go we. That well known phrase comes from the Reformer John Bradford in 16th century. He watched people go to the stake and said “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” His period of grace ended in 1555 when it was his turn to be burned at the stake.
There is a sense that the suffering of the poor and marginalised is not a judgement on them, but that it is a judgment on those who have allowed the inequalities that made them vulnerable in the first place. We cannot help but be challenged by the statistics that reveal that those who are worst hit by climate change, war and economic crises are the poorest and most vulnerable in the world.
Nor can we be anything but challenged by Jesus’ call to bear fruit by serving and protecting those in need. When I needed a neighbour were you there? He asks in the parable about the coming judgment.
It isn’t easy to look and see pain in others. It is easier to turn away – to not watch the news or to distract ourselves. And when this doesn’t work, we sometimes turn to judgment and self-righteousness. But suffering is God’s megaphone, according to CS Lewis:
“But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C S Lewis
It is not that God creates suffering, but that God speaks very loudly through suffering. And it’s not only our own pain that God speaks through. When others suffer, God’s voice is clear and challenging – calling us to repent of our avoidance and self-protection, and challenging us to bear the fruit of caring, compassionate action on behalf of the suffering.
We are all aware of the suffering in the world – In Ukraine and on our doorstep – and we are praying, asking God to help. Let’s be ready to be part of the answer to those prayers.