March 20, 2022

Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from Sunday, March 20, 2022

Message from March 20, Third Sunday in Lent by Pastor Richard Pokora
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

The question our Gospel addresses is why does God allow evil to thrive? How can God just stand by and watch as hundreds of people are killed by a cyclone ripping through Mozambique and Madagascar, or while dozens of people are gunned down in Christchurch, New Zealand? How can someone who has never smoked a single cigarette die from lung cancer? How does a perfectly healthy young mother, who has devoted her life to ministry, die abruptly from an infection? Where is God in all that suffering?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. Good people, people who have trusted in God their entire lives, have asked these hard questions. And it is easy to blame God for circumstances that are beyond our control. If God is really in charge, and he lets terrible things happen to people, the only logical explanation must be that they somehow deserved it. God must be punishing us for something we’ve done when bad things happen, right?

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem (Lk 9:53) and we’ve been listening to him along the journey. Last week, we heard him call out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and experts in Jewish law while he was a dinner guest in a Pharisee’s house. And we had to admit that Jesus was calling out our own hypocrisy, too.

After dinner at the Pharisee’s house, Jesus gives a long sermon. It runs through all of chapter 12 and comes to something of a climax in the passage we read today. Jesus speaks. Listen to him.

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then 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. So 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?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Don’t be fooled by catastrophe and tragedy. Those terrible things that happen to people, like having a tower fall on you, or your dairy farm wiped out by flooding – things like that can make you question where God is in the midst of suffering. It’s easy to lash out at God and blame the Creator of the Universe for allowing bad things to happen.

After all, if we blame God, it takes the responsibility off us. We can allow ourselves to be distracted by the things we can’t control, instead of doing something about the things we can. “’Why did this happen?’ it’s too easy to ask, wringing our hands as we sit on the sidelines and do nothing, changing nothing, influencing and affecting nothing.”[1] It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and say that it’s all God’s fault, and I can’t do anything about it.

But when his followers ask Jesus the theodicy question, he makes it clear that catastrophic events aren’t God’s punishment. Those people weren’t any worse sinners than you or me.

David Lose writes, “These events – whether in the first or twenty-first century – aren’t ultimately about guilt or punishment or the origin and cause of evil. They are just events, some of which we can’t do much about, while others we can, but what remains is that no amount of discussing or debating … helps us get about the things we can influence.” When bad things happen, it’s a wake-up call to repent, to turn our eyes toward Jesus.

“Luke mentions repentance more often than any other book in the Bible. In fact, close to more often than all of the rest of the New Testament combined.”[2] Repentance is a major theme during the season of Lent. We talk about repentance as an act of turning completely around 180 degrees, to leave our sin behind us.

We also say that repenting requires being sorry for our sin. But repentance is much more than telling God we are sorry. Someone tweeted this week, “An apology without change is just manipulation.”[3] And while that comment might sound like it was just intended to spark some argument on Twitter, there is some truth to it. Repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry for what you’ve done wrong. It requires turning, changing.

But repentance is also not just behavior modification: “So often we think repentance needs to be some dramatic sin we need to cease doing or some kind of bad behavior we need to turn away from.” That might be true for some of us. But it’s more likely that you don’t consider yourself that kind of a sinner. Your sins aren’t very dramatic. You can manage your own behavior without much help.

Maybe it’s time to reframe our idea of repentance. In the book we’ve been reading together this Lent, Listen to Him, J. D. Walt writes, “As we near Jerusalem, we must think of repentance in terms of who we are running to more than what we turn away from. It’s time to flip repentance.”[4]

So instead of heading down the rabbit hole of theodicy, and blaming God for all the bad things that happen to us, or offering hollow apologies, or thinking of repentance as some sort of self-help program to improve our behavior, we need to focus with laser intensity on the voice of Jesus. Our repentance needs to become a deep desire to listen to him, especially when we find ourselves in the middle of a catastrophe.

This story isn’t really about theodicy. It’s about repentance. And that’s been true all through this season of Lent, as we have tuned our ears to listen to Jesus, to get close to him. Here, he says it plainly – not once, but twice: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Lent is a time for our repentance. It’s a time to take a careful look at our own lives and make changes that reflect our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the values and way of life it represents. May God empower your repentance this Lenten season. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your minds and heart in Christ Jesus.