In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s good for us to be reminded, at least once in a while(!), how strange, how contrary to our natural reason, are the words of Jesus. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts, and our flesh hates that. If His words were not strange to us, then anyone who heard even a rumor of the free forgiveness of sins would be breaking down church doors to hear Jesus speak and to receive the gifts that Jesus promises to give. If His words fit with what we already knew, if they fit into the natural logic of our reason, then everyone who heard Jesus preach would have believed Him. Does it ever strike you as strange that when the eternal Son of God in flesh comes walking around on this earth, within time, there are people who don’t believe Him? If His words were not contrary to our natural reason, then everyone would do what God practically begs and pleads with Israel to do in Isaiah: I do not desire the death of the wicked, but that they would turn from their evil ways and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, and live. Why would you die, O house of Israel? But some would rather die than live. This is why it takes a complete conversion, a new heart and will, in order to believe Jesus’ words. The Holy Spirit must work that conversion, or people will always choose death over life.
In our reading from the Gospel of Luke today, Jesus reminds us how strange His words are. Some people were there at that time who were telling Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Apparently, they had been in the process of offering their sacrifices, when Pilate had them killed, and so their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. There must have been some hint in the words of those who were telling this to Jesus that they thought that maybe the Galileans had it coming to them, because Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?” And Jesus adds His own example: “Or what about those 18 on whom the tower at Siloam fell? Were they greater debtors, did they owe more, than the rest of the people living in Jerusalem?” Jesus says, No. And we know that’s the right answer. After all, we’re fond of saying, “Of course we’re all sinners.” But it doesn’t always hit home. We say it, but do we mean it? And do we understand what it means? We know that those Galileans weren’t worse than the rest of the Galileans. Just like when someone says that a natural disaster hit a particular area because the area was full of debauchery and sin, as if there were worse things going on there than everywhere else, so God decided to zap them. We say no to that.
But consider a moment: when you see bad things happening over and over to certain people, especially if their sins are public knowledge, isn’t there just a hint of a little voice at the back of your head that says, Maybe they had it coming. Look at the way they live, and it’s obvious that they brought it on themselves. It’s a way to make ourselves feel better about what we’re doing or not doing. Or maybe it’s happening to you: you feel like bad things are happening to you over and over, and then you think about your past and what you did, and you think that maybe your evil little chickens are coming home to roost. Maybe there is a connection between what you’ve done and what’s happening to you. But Jesus severs that connection. He cuts off that road. The suffering a given person experiences is not proportional to their sin. There is no correspondence. No, those Galileans were not worse sinners than other Galileans; no, those 18 did not owe more than the others who lived in Jerusalem. And that makes us nervous, because in most areas of life, there is a connection between what you do and what happens to you. You do good things in your job, your family, and your community, and good things will happen to you. You do bad things, bad things will happen to you. But Jesus says no, and leaves us free-floating with our naturally reasoned uncertainty.
And then He makes it worse: not only is there no connection between how much you suffer and how much you’ve sinned, but everyone is under the same judgment, no matter how much you think you’ve sinned. “But I say to you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Not with Pilate having you killed, or a tower falling on you, but all together: all perish apart from repentance. And we get a little nervous, a little defensive. Well, I mean, of course we’re all sinners, Jesus, but surely it’s not as bad as all that. We can’t all deserve the same thing? Do we mean it when we confess that we are poor, miserable sinners who deserve both temporal and eternal punishment? Do we believe it? Is that really what the Scriptures say? Jesus says yes. That’s what you deserve. So, no going down the road of deciding who the worse sinners are because of what happens to them; and no going down the road of saying we deserve less death than anyone else. There is no time to make it up, no time to make it better, no time to fix things. Repent.
And Jesus illustrates it with a parable: not repenting means not having real life, and that means no fruit, and fruitless trees get cut down. When the owner of the vineyard comes looking for fruit three years in a row, and there’s none, He’ll say, Cut it down. Not only is it not giving Me any fruit, it’s taking up good ground. But the caretaker of the vineyard says, “Leave it alone this year also. That is, forgive it this year also.” Like when Jesus says from the cross, “Forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” Jesus says, “Let Me do My work. Let me dig around it, feed and nourish it, throw some manure on it. If there’s still no fruit, then cut it down.” And we don’t know how long the year of mercy is; that’s why today is the day of salvation. Today is the day of repentance. Today is the day that we realize there’s no road that gets us out of this. We’re caught red-handed. The authorities know everything, and it’s no good denying it. There’s only one word that needs to be said: Lord, have mercy. The same Lord who suffered, though there was absolutely no connection between His suffering and what He’d done. Six times in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses this word for suffering, and five of those times Jesus is predicting or talking about His own suffering. There is no connection between the legal one-to-one correspondence of sin and suffering. Jesus severs that connection in His own flesh. He is the innocent suffering for the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous, the sinless for the sinful. He who has no sin becomes sin for you and me so that we might become the righteousness of God. There is no other road to life than the repentance that turns us to the cross. Only Jesus is life; everything else is unrepentance and death. After the resurrection, Jesus tells His disciples that repentance and the forgiveness of sins will be preached in His Name, beginning from Jerusalem. Beginning from His undeserved suffering under the sin of the whole world. It makes no sense to natural reason; it is far too strange. Even so, Jesus says that the only response to suffering and death in the world, the only response to individual suffering, or the suffering of a lot of people—besides mercy for them—is repentance. The only thing we should be doing when we hear about it is saying, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. When we see the wretchedness of sin and death, we should say with Paul, “What a wretched man I am!” When we see bodies wracked by sin and death: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” When we hear the mercy of God, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
That’s what makes the responses to the readings in Matins and Vespers so fitting. No matter what we hear, we say, “O Lord, have mercy on me.” “Thanks be to God.” When we hear about sin and death, about how people rebel against God and ignore His commandments: O Lord, have mercy on me; thanks be to God. When we hear about how He delivers them, how He has mercy, how He is gracious and slow to anger: O Lord, have mercy on me; thanks be to God. It is the strange rhythm of Lent in the light of the resurrection, and it always runs contrary to the natural reason of our flesh: O Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/27/16