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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Luke 13:1-9 Responsible Grace

There is a question common to all human beings, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  Some of us may wonder, “Why did something happen or not happen to me?  Was I not good enough?  Is God punishing me for something I have done?  Why, did God not answer my prayer?”  To be very honest, there is not a logical, rational, answer to these questions.  The unknowing can be very unsettling. 

In our current culture, many people, if they believe in God at all, embrace a moral, therapeutic, deism. What is moral, therapeutic deism? It is a view that God is about good behavior, being a good buddy, and being available only when we need God to help us. Many people, including Christians, engage in practical atheism (saying they believe but live like they don’t) or they simply do not care what God’s will is but instead decide for themselves what is good or bad.

Many people do not believe there is hell. Do you?   Many believe there will not be a judgment. Do you?  Many do not think there will be an accounting for our lives. Do you?  Do you believe God sees everything we do? Do you care that God knows everything we think and hears everything we say?  We have the right to believe whatever we want.  I strongly believe this is a God-given right. Our beliefs, our choices will affect how we respond when faced with a hard spiritual question we cannot answer.

In the narrative today, Jesus is questioned about the result of a Roman military action against some Galileans as they made the sacrifice. The Romans really didn’t care where they killed their enemy, just that they had the advantage when they did. This is a good military strategy. So, they killed these people while they were worshipping. 

The death of these Galileans did bring up a religious question, “Did the mixing of their blood make the sacrifices worthless, and thus did they die unclean from their sins?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. The question Jesus brings up has to do with a well-known accident that had taken place recently. The accident killed people who would have been either hoping for a miracle of God or preparing for religious service. Was this the will of God? Why did God allow this to happen? Jesus does not say. What Jesus does do is make it clear bad things happen. 

Yes, bad things happen are more likely to happen to bad people because their life choices often put them in danger. However, bad things happen to good people.

But why?  Because bad things happen. Let me let you in on a secret, this world does not look at human beings as the crowning glory of creation, but as a meal or as a competitor for a meal.

We live in an environment in which earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, typhoons, floods, freezing temperatures, burning heat, droughts, accidents, disease, and violence are constant factors in which lives are lost.  This is the reality of a fallen world.  A world of death. 

I also believe, through my own experience, that there are other human and spiritual forces that attack us. Forces attack marriages, families, our jobs, our possessions, our freedoms, even our very lives. You can be the best person, the best Christian, the most favored of God’s people (just read the book of Job) and still face disasters.  No one is exempt.  There is no magic to prevent or avert this reality.

This is a deal-breaker for some people. They cannot accept the paradox of God being love, all-powerful, all-present, and all-knowing and allow bad things to happen. So, they chose to believe God is a myth. Some try to create a theology that can figure out an answer. I have not found one yet that makes sense.

Others, like the people in Jesus day things happen because those afflicted did something wrong or were bad people. Some think God has abandoned us. Are they correct? No, it’s because this is the world we live in. We live in the domain of death.

Hebrews 9:27 tell us, “We are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” You can believe this or not. It is your right. However, what we think is not always the reality.

This sounds hopeless, but it is not the final word.  Yes, we live in the reality of death, but we also live in the reality of God’s love.  What we go through, God goes through. And while there are no sure answers or guarantees in this life, we do have the grace of God that surrounds us, reaches out to us, and will help us if we are but willing. 

For me, the question is not why do bad things happen, but instead, why do good things happen?  God’s grace has the power to bring good to us no matter what bad we encounter.  Also, we have the power to, during the bad, can become sources of God’s goodness, God’s grace, and God’s love.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians, (2:8-10) You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives in this imperfect, difficult world.

It is God’s desire that we learn to help one another in this life that is filled with questions we cannot answer.  Help each other with comfort and support, with hope and encouragement, and in developing a faith that can answer disaster with the challenge, “Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death?”  (1 Cor. 15:55) “As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 15:58)

Next in the narrative, Jesus tells a parable, a parable of the fig tree. What is this parable about? Surprise, it is not about the tree as much as it is about the caregiver of the tree.

This parable is about our relationship with God. Jesus is speaking to the people. He’s correcting the “what I think and what I want theology” of his day and of ours.  He is telling us something very important.

This parable is about attitude. It is about our attitude and God’s attitude. Without a doubt, we are the tree. No reason is stated why the tree will not produce fruit.  However, to produce fruit is the reason the tree exists.

Everyone has reasons, excuses, not to honor God. Everyone has reasons, excuses for why they are not faithful. Every Christian can come up with excuses as to why they neglect to do what God expects and thus do not produce fruit God created. This parable does not allow excuses. It does tell us what God is trying to do.

The owner is ready to let the tree reap the consequences of its fruitlessness. The caregiver wants to try one more time. This is grace.  An interchange between the owner and the caregiver reveals the truth of the parable.

The caregiver believes, perhaps it yet can fruit. This is the attitude of God. God does not ignore us.  God gets no pleasure from the pain and suffering we endure. God does not arbitrarily send plagues, disasters, or wars. If we read the Scripture, we find God always sends an advance warning that these things can happen. God tells us that this world has the capacity to grow worse and that catastrophes can and will happen. It is not because of the punitive judgment but the fact of the reality. It is because of the reality of death.  

What God wants is to work in our lives to see the fruit. This is a theology I believe the Scriptures teaches: the nature of God exceeds in love but will not exclude the responsibility grace expects. 

The fruit we produce is the fruit of grace.  Grace as we share our faith with one another, grace as the fruit of service to become Jesus to this world. This is what faith and trust in Jesus are all about.

Jesus came to make our desiring God’s will livable. He came to make sure we understand, that God wants us to understand who we are and why we are.

This is not about blame, shame, or excuses.  It is about responsible grace.  Why do bad things happen?  A better question is given to us by divine inspiration, “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Rom. 8:35)

Here is the answer the only answer we can trust, Paul writes, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Rom. 8:38-39)

This is grace.  This is what we need to seek and accept.  This is how we should live our lives, no matter how long or short they may be. It is our right to decide.

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