Mystery | Certainty
Please stand as you are able for the reading of the Gospel. If you would like to follow along, you may find it on page 1268 in the pew Bibles. Our passage this morning comes from Luke chapter 13 verses 1 through 9.
"Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans who Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, "Do you think that the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those 18 people who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did." Jesus told this parable: "A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, 'Look, I've come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I've never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil's nutrients?' The gardener responded, 'Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.'"" This is the Word of God for the People of God. You may be seated.
Chapter 13 this morning, it comes after chapter 12, which is a series of warnings. Warnings about greed, about worrying, about not being prepared for when the master returns. And so it begins with these, this group of people who told Jesus, for whatever reason, about the people who Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. We don't know exactly why they asked Jesus about this. Maybe they're trying to get him to make a political remark about Pilate. That wouldn't have necessarily looked so good. Or maybe they were or seeking answers, or vindication almost, for Jesus to say that yes, this was an instance in which God was punishing those who were more sinful as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. Except for one little detail. Pilate killed them while they were offering sacrifices.
In Jewish theology, this... in the process of giving, making the sacrifice, I mean that should be when you are the most sinless.
And so maybe what we find In this passage is an instance of what we theology geeks like to call theodicy. Not to be confused with Homer's The Odyssey. That was a bad joke. Okay. So theodicy is a fancy word for this question of: Why does a good and loving and all-powerful God allow evil?
We've all struggled with this question. At some point in our lives.
And there are no easy answers. It used to be that people would just think that "No, this is just God punishing." And I say 'used to be' but we still do this. Even today. I can think of a time, just decades ago, when AIDS was just beginning to break out.
I wasn't alive at the time, but I'm certain that people described it as God punishing.
But what happens
when it's someone we love who is punished?
What happens when it is someone we love who is, who's suffering? It changes everything.
I came across this story in a book. And it talks about in England, on the BBC, they would have a television program exploring faith, and there was an old lady who wrote to the host, Ian Mackenzie, to say how disappointed she was that the eminent theologian had, in her words, dodged the question of the resurrection. Ian wrote back saying that there are various ways of looking at the resurrection. She wrote back asking bluntly, "Do you believe in the resurrection?" Ian wrote back briefly saying yes. The old lady replied that she now felt free to go on searching. In other words, a positive simple answer at that moment liberated her.
But then as a result of that correspondence, the theologian went on to have another program where a bishop would answer questions about life after death.
However long later this was, I'm not sure, but one of the questions was from that same lady whose letter had inspired the program. And in this letter, she asked, "Will I see my husband again?"
The bishop said yes. Never was there a less evasive reply. But shortly afterwards a letter, reply, arrived from the old lady who felt that her question had not been taken seriously. She was very disappointed. In fact, she had been given a totally unqualified answer. Because in that moment the simple answer did not liberate her.
Mysteriously a simple yes had meaning for her on one occasion, but not the other.
I would be willing to guess that the loss of her husband created perhaps a moment of crisis in her faith.
Because when we are dealing with grief and loss, those simple answers, for many of us, they don't work anymore.
We seek assurance, we seek comfort in the knowledge that yes, you will see your husband again.
Things are perhaps not so black-and-white anymore.
Sometimes a simple answer isn't enough.
Sometimes the certainty that we once felt doesn't suffice.
I think that we have to let go of certainty and to cultivate mystery.
Because it is then, in those in those dark moments of our lives, when we're struggling, when we're hurting, when we can cling to the mystery of God. That God's ways are higher than our own. That God Is bigger than we can imagine. And just to know that.... Let's face it. There is no explanation that anyone could give us on this side of eternity that would satisfy us when someone we love dies unexpectedly, or from cancer, or when a child...dies.
In fact, just earlier this week, one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting took her own life. Because she struggled with survivor's guilt.
We live in a broken and hurting world. And there are no answers, it feels like, that can satisfy our questions.
I heard someone talking about the book of Job. The whole book of Job is Job's so-called friends trying to explain why this is happening to him, but sometimes we don't catch that, at the beginning, we're giving the most ridiculous explanation for why this happens, everything happens to Job, which is that God and the devil made a bet.
Personally, I don't think that God plays with our lives like that.
I think that God loves us. God does not desire to put us through suffering. We bring it on ourselves.
And John Wesley believed very strongly in Grace. And this morning I can think of one particular type of grace. We call it prevenient grace, the grace that comes before, but Wesley called it preventing grace.
The grace of God that goes before us, that seeks perhaps to prevent us from having to experience the full consequences of our actions.
I believe that God values free will.
And that everything that is evil, that comes about as a result of our free will, God can fix that. Even death. But God cannot go against his own character and coerce us, and force us into a course of action, even if it is good.
In this gospel, Luke has a tendency of providing clues for parables at the, before the parable instead of after. So if we, taking that tendency that Luke has, how do we understand this parable in light of the conversation that happens right before it?
In light of this moment where people ask Jesus about something else. And Jesus brings it back to the point, which is ultimately focus on your own heart.
Focus on your relationship with God
because we don't know, at any moment,
we could find ourselves on the other side of eternity.
And he tells this parable of the fig tree that has not borne any fruit. And he wants to cut it down because this tree is wasting nutrients that another plant could use and perhaps actually bear fruit. But the gardener encourages him...just one more year.
The first understanding that a lot of people have in the parable is that the landowner represents God, the gardener is Jesus, and we are the fig tree. And yes, that's a very solid interpretation. But I think that Jesus is always doing something else. What, what if, we're the landowner?
What if we are trying to engage in a spiritual practice and we get frustrated because it's not bearing any fruit that we can see? And Jesus nudges us. Keep with it.
Don't give up.
Just because it's not happening on your timeline.
God is always, I think, seeking to give us more time, more chances than we deserve.
Without God, we wouldn't exist. God is the source of our breath.
Of life itself.
And Isaiah 55 is probably my favorite passage in Isaiah. The passage that I chose to do for my Old Testament paper. It is interesting to me because the Common English Bible, as much as I like, it really messes up here. Because it does not include the exclamation that is at the beginning of Isaiah 55, which is "Ho!"
People would say "ho" as a cry of woe, at a funeral when someone has died, when they are suffering.
And yet it's used in Isaiah in a completely different context. It's as though maybe when we're in the middle of grief, God is saying to us, "All of you who are thirsty come to the water.
Whoever has no money come, buy, and eat.
For no cost, God will provide us the bread, God will provide us the water, God will provide us with life.
But we do have to come.
God invites us to listen.
I think if there's
one gift that God has given me it's the ability to learn from other people's lessons, so that I don't have to go through it myself.
Because I think that when we listen well, when [I] listen to my parents, like I never got it in my mind that my parents would do something just because they wanted me to suffer. They wouldn't let me go over to my friend's house or whatever. I always knew that my parents loved me and they had a reason for whatever it is that I couldn't do.
I sought to listen to my parents
and I think that saved me a lot of heartache.
Isaiah 55 is a beautiful passage, a reminder
that God is the source of life, that God is forever inviting us into relationship, that God wants us to seek and that God is making himself able to be found.
And then there's this reminder like in verse 9.
"My plans aren't your plans nor are your ways my ways," says the Lord. "Just as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my plans than your plans."
We struggle often, not just with the question of why do bad things happen to good people, but also with this inclusive nature of God's invitation. All of you who are thirsty, come.
We struggle with this idea that, even those who are supposedly less deserving than we are, are given this invitation.
We like to find ways in which we can think of ourselves as more deserving. Even if it's at the expense of someone else. But Jesus is reminding us don't do that.
Your faith is between you and God.
So trust God.
Trust that you don't have to understand how this whole salvation thing works exactly. Just know that if you let go of your own control,
illusion of control, and trust God,
God will give you life.
God will give you the assurance of his presence.
But we do have to accept that invitation.