Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The collapse of a minaret in the Middle East. A plane crashes into a house in Louisa. A bridge collapses in the Midwest. Fatal car accidents in the blizzard. Swine flu. Cancer. Lou Gehrig’s disease. Cardio myopathy. Suicide bombers.
Fill in the blank with your favorite disease, calamity, accident, or tragedy, whether man-made or what insurance companies call “an act of God.” Why, Lord, why? When our loved ones die in their sleep in their mid-nineties, we miss them, but we don’t ask the same questions as when life is snuffed out younger or more capriciously. Such sorrow has led many people to lose or never acquire faith in God: how can a loving God allow such darkness in the world?
A group of people open a discussion with Jesus about a massacre in the Jerusalem Temple, when some Roman soldiers under orders from Pilate – for what reason we don’t know – killed some Galileans as they were at worship. That kind of thing still happens everywhere: a madman goes berserk and begins firing in a church; a suicide bomber attacks a temple or mosque; a disturbed student kills his classmates. Behind the discussion lies a question as old as faith and humanity: are violence and suffering random, or are they the result of divine law? If they are random, what does it mean to say that God is God? Does God intervene in the world, or not? If God does intervene, then why not here? On the other hand, if God is truly sovereign over all of life and this is an extension of God’s will, what is God punishing? If God is punishing these people, then why not those, who seem to be greater sinners? Why would God strike down an infant, but spare Osama bin Laden?
Jesus does two things in this morning’s reading. First, he uncouples disaster and human sin: do you think that (they) suffered in this way because they were worse sinners? . . . Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all the others? We don’t know the details of the incident at Siloam, either – it may have been the result of poor construction, or of age, like the recent minaret collapse in Morocco that killed forty-one.
Jesus answers his own question: NO! Natural and human calamities are not God’s punishment on the victims, no matter what Pat Robertson says. We live in a broken world, and every now and then that brokenness catches us. The world became broken, the book of Genesis says, because human beings refused to live in a loving and dependent relationship with God, and tried to be independent. That skews everything and everyone, and like a ball rolling on a warped pool table, even our best-aimed attempts miss the target. When that brokenness reaches out and touches us, our question should not be Why me? Why not me? Why, asked the great black preacher Ernest Smith, should I expect God to save me from being human? This is how life works in a broken world.
That’s pretty lousy news, isn’t it? It’s bad news for everyone who believes in God-as-Santa Claus: if I’m good, I’m going to be rewarded, and if I’m bad, I’m going to get punished. Unscrupulous Wall Street financiers who bankrupted millions get rewarded, and hard-working Joes and Janes like you and me will have to work longer to afford retirement and health care. Welcome to a broken world.
And it’s into that broken world that Jesus comes, to be one with it and ultimately to be crushed by it. He doesn’t fix it. Towers still fall and tyrants still murder people at worship. Some things never change. What does change because of Jesus is the gospel of where God is in calamity: disaster is not a sign of the absence or fury of God. Jesus’ death at the hands of injustice and rank hatred is God’s proclamation that God is never nearer than when we are suffering. When Job cries out for God to explain why Job is suffering, God shows up. Job’s questions aren’t answered, but God’s presence is more than enough. That’s the message of the cross.
But, Jesus says, just because disaster does not mean God is punishing us, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to change: No, I tell you – the victims of Pilate’s massacre and those crushed under Siloam’s tower were not worse sinners. But if you don’t repent – turn around from your evil ways of living – you will die, just as they died. Maybe Jesus is talking about spiritual death – being cut off, even in the present, from the love and grace of God. That will preach, as we say in the business. I hear Jesus reminding us that we’re all mortal. We’re all going to die. Our lives have an end – an end that can come not just when we are old and decrepit and ready to check out having made our peace with God and humanity, but literally at any moment. It could come this morning in the middle of worship. It could come one day on a highway, or in a hospital, or on an athletic field, or in the kitchen. Children don’t pray anymore Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake . . . Maybe we should teach our children they are mortal. Maybe we should count our days, that we may have a heart of wisdom. Maybe it would change who we are and how we spend our days and how we treat each other.
On Ash Wednesday, we are marked with the sign of the cross with last year’s Palm Sunday ashes. The words of administration are Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This year, I was deeply moved by marking the foreheads of small children, some in their parents’ arms, their whole lives ahead of them. Repent – you will all die.
The German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann, in his book Theology of Hope, said that Christian faith only makes sense when it is lived in the light of the end – the end of the world, and the end of our lives. Whether it is of school, or a season, or a career, or a relationship, or even a life, knowing there is an approaching end ought to change everything. Endings reveal what’s important, and what’s not. You will all die, Jesus said. Now, in light of that, how should you spend what’s left of your life?
God doesn’t send earthquakes and massacres and fallen towers to punish sinners. Instead, in Christ, God is revealed in the midst of the suffering and sorrowing of his people. But that’s no excuse, Jesus said. We will all die, too. Turn around, before it’s too late.