|Isaiah 55:1-9||Psalm 63:1-8||1 Corinthians 10:1-13||Luke 13:1-9|
What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference.
“At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” says our Gospel for today. Can you imagine Jesus with tears streaming down his cheeks as he hears the news? “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.”
Maybe he wipes his eyes, maybe his voice shakes a little even in its strength. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them”—mentioning another local disaster— “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.”
This is the way I hear Jesus: “Do you really think that ‘those people over there’ were bad sinners, and you’re OK by comparison? Do you really think God decided those people had it coming, but you’re going to be fine? Not a chance—it doesn’t work like that. What kind of a god is that? While there’s time, beloved people—repent!”
When I was growing up–though I never would have admitted it–I understood repentance as ‘moving in the opposite direction of my favourite sins.’ But for Jesus, it means something much more basic and comprehensive: “Leave your agenda, and join me in mine” (NT Wright). Repentance is not just about leaving sin behind–though Lent can be useful for that, if we need it! It’s about allowing God tp convince us of His character, and allowing him to place us in a new story and a new community—which, means, of course, that God claims our hearts and shapes our behaviours for the Kingdom.
To my ear, the crowd wants to know: if Yahweh really is on the throne, why do evil things happen in the world? Though we don’t hear their actual words, the crowd seems to think that moral evil or random disaster is humanity’s fault—whether done by another human (Pilate) or by random accident or natural calamity (the tower of Siloam). Further, their implied questions seem to assume—with good biblical precedent, I might add—that if we can isolate and scapegoat the people actually to blame, the evils will stop! Maybe if we appease God, the Romans will clear out of here and God’s Messiah will appear to usher in a new world where Israel is the head and not the tail.
But cue Jesus: “NO!” Can you hear the disastrous picture of the character of God under these questions? What if the question God is asking—the answer to which requires trusting a new agenda—has to do with God’s invitation to fight evil alongside Him? Maybe you’ve wondered, with me: “If there is a good and loving God, why does the world look like a warzone between good and evil?”
Forgive me if you find me flippant, but I think Jesus and the writers of our readings today would reply: Because the world is a warzone between good and evil. The question isn’t, “Who’s to blame?” or “Is God out to get us?” Rather, seeing the world with Jesus’ agenda as our lens, we ask, “How do we resist evil? How do we align our lives with the Kingdom of God?”
If neither human fault nor the character of God can account for disaster and grave evil, is there something else going on? Let’s shift to Paul for a moment. For the saints at Corinth, he rehearses the faithfulness of God—he even uses a rabbinical story about the Rolling Stone following the people in the Wilderness which is not in the Old Testament, “and the rock is Christ.” We know God is faithful because of Christ.
Nevertheless, says Paul, God was not pleased with most of them. And God is displeased, too, if we desire evil—precisely because God is faithful as Christ is. Sometimes, the People which bears Christ’s name deliberately chooses relationship-destroying ways.
Paul asks us to remember: the Golden Calf, where we built an image of Yahweh, thinking that degrading fertility rituals were acceptable worship (maybe we should think about sex-trafficking and sexism and heterosexism, today). And remember the snakes: We often want to go back to slavery, back to Empire, back to scarcity economy—or we think that just because we win battles we think important, God is on our side.
The OT says that God sends the destruction. But though he notes that Paul is displeased, he doesn’t say that. He says, “The People were destroyed by the destroyer.” Is it possible that, because of Messiah Jesus, Paul believes something different than he used to about the character of God?
As is clear if we take time to read the Gospel of Luke as a whole, Paul also seems to suggest that the “destroyer” isn’t God—it’s Satan, the Devil, the demons, “the principalities and powers.” The Evil One often acts in the world because people desire evil—but that doesn’t mean God is out to get us. In fact, the Church is the sign of Love’s warfare against and victory over evil! For Paul (and for Jesus), there is liberation from the spiritual forces and human ways that stoke deliberate peace-breaking in our relationship with God, each other, or Creation.
The questions we ask about evil—never mind the evil that we sometimes do—flow directly from what we really believe in our guts about the character of God. Sometimes, evil happens in the world because the people of God are ignorant of the awesome responsibility God gives us under the authority of Jesus. And yes, sometimes the Body of Christ does or desires what is contrary to God’s call for us!
With all boldness in Christ, I remind us of the Truth: God is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the heart of God. But Rob Walker often believes awful things about the character of God because I try to fit Jesus into my established ideas about God! (None of you, I’m sure, have ever done the same!) It’s the other way ‘round: God has Christ-like character.
The Christ-like God gives to everyone what they need, even if they can’t afford it; coaxes the nations to come running, claiming their freedom; calls us to become adults who accept the consequences of our actions and desires; and always invites us to the Feast of the Kingdom so we can stand forgiven, not worrying about the cost or the calories. That God, in and as Jesus, is fighting a real war against evil; that God is going to win because of his Passion and his resurrection, which we anticipate in Lent; that God calls us to spiritual warfare because we are his people.
In conclusion: What we believe about the character of God makes all the difference. Is God threatening to cut us down in today’s Gospel? Or is Jesus doing everything he can to help us grow and flourish? (Is God the vineyard owner, or the gardener?) But just like Luke’s story that we call the Prodigal Son, there’s a cliff-hanger–we don’t know the end of the story. The question is not, in a fear-filled whisper: “Will I finally grow this year?” The better question is, “Does the gardener know what he’s doing?” The question is not, “Why is there evil in the world if God is Love?” but rather “Does Love Win and can we join in?” Perhaps there is a cliff-hanger even in God’s own heart: What is your answer?
And that answer, my friends, is why what we believe about the character of God makes all the difference. Amen.