Man, Have You Got the Wrong Idea

a Sermon for Lent 3C
Text: Luke 13:1-9

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Jesus raises a question about providence this morning. A question about GOD. About good and evil. About the way of the world. He tackles what is perhaps the most enduring question in human history: why do bad things happen?

And yet, before tackling the big question, He asks the gathered people a question:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

He asks if they believe this thing: that all tragedy is a result of sin. That people get what they deserve.

No, he says, it doesn’t work that way.

But He knows they don’t believe Him. He knows they already have it wired up here:
There is good and there is bad. Good things, good people, bad things, and bad people. Then good results come from good actions and bad results from bad actions. So good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And we think GOD plays an active role in how this plays out.

Michael Danner, a Mennonite pastor, approaches this idea in his commentary for this morning.

People believe this in spite of the facts. No matter how many good people suffer, people still believe this. No matter how many bad people prosper, people still believe this. Why? Because people really, really, really want the world to work like that. In a world where that is true people have a say in the matter of suffering. In that world, if people are good, they can avoid suffering.

In other words, control. Now hear this again: “people really, really, really want the world to work like that.” We have imposed this order to the world. It isn’t scriptural. It’s more like Greek philosophy. It doesn’t speak to GOD’s sense of justice. It speaks to our devotion to balance and fairness. And it confines GOD, transforming that which cannot be understood into a dispenser of carrots and sticks.

Reject and replace

Jesus rejects this view of the world, and of GOD. But He doesn’t explain why. This should be a familiar characteristic of Jesus to us by now. Jesus isn’t a wisdom dispenser. He is a teacher, a rabbi, and his disciples, then and now, are to not just learn, but follow.

What Jesus does say, however, is that we will meet their fate unless we repent. This sounds bad, doesn’t it? But we must take these two things together.

First, Jesus rejects out of hand any perceived causal link between having bad things happen to somebody and the suggestion that they must be bad people. Doing bad things doesn’t mean you’ll eventually get your comeuppance. Lacking strong morals does not mean GOD will manipulate your environment so that you don’t get into the program you applied for or that an anvil will land on your Wile E. head. Jesus flat out rejects this. Do you believe this? He asks them, then before they can answer, He says “No, I tell you.”

Second, Jesus seams to suggest that all are fated to death, unless they repent. You remember that repentance involves three things:

  1. acknowledging one’s sin
  2. confessing it
  3. accepting a new way

So repentance involves rejecting one’s old life and embracing a new one: rejecting the way of our world and embracing the way of GOD’s Kingdom.

Jesus is inviting his disciples in every age to reject this human understanding of providence and embrace a way of becoming a different people. We are called to reject this specific construction, this way of understanding the order of things, this Platonic dualism of good and evil. That GOD doesn’t engage with us that way. GOD isn’t responsible for our labeling of good and evil. It isn’t how the world is ordered. We made it up!

And we are called to replace that, not with another construction for explaining away providence, but with a way of walking in this world. It is a way because it isn’t enough to believe certain ideas and it isn’t enough to do certain things and it isn’t enough to be a certain way. We are to become something new. Always becoming new.

Replace beliefs with a journey

The challenge for us, then is that Jesus is asking us to tear apart this frame of understanding the world that provides comfort to us and then doesn’t give us an identical replacement. I know that many of us have a hard time rejecting something without a replacement. Don’t throw it away without getting a new one! But Jesus is telling us to do just that. Our idea is wrong. GOD’s mercy and judgment doesn’t work that way.

So that’s pretty uncomfortable.

Jesus seems to be saying that, as usual, our attention is focused on the wrong things. Reject the empire’s ways—the ordering, the certainty, the purity, the authority—and embrace GOD’s way—the way of discipleship, of following, of becoming what GOD dreams for us. Don’t worry about the natural law—where is Jesus leading us? How might we best feed His sheep? These are our questions.

Like Abram, we are called to a life of exploration and fascination. A life that is not just a set of conditions or an orderly belief structure, but a Sabbath journey of hope and courage. It is a way of living in our world as an immigrant, a wanderer, a sojourner on a pilgrimage.

Like the Woman at the Well, we are called to a new life, a changed life, a life of rejecting the old and embracing the new. Of witnessing the power of Christ in our midst, proclaiming it to our family, friends, and neighbors. And to be transformed by the power of the Spirit.

For us, may this journey continue.

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