Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Only Disaster

The Only Disaster

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'

" 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

When disaster strikes the whole world perks up. Relief agencies go into action, the 24-hour news cycle starts its feeding frenzy and opportunistic preachers and atheists starting talking about blaming the victims and blaming God.

Our relief agencies go into action because we tend to forget the poor and downtrodden until they are shoved in our face. Unfortunately, the compassion we should show is often hidden until “everyone else is doing it” or until the plight of others is so severe our cold hearts are finally warmed.

Our 24-hour news cycle starts its feeding frenzy because its only job is to make money and it makes money by getting eyes on that TV screen. The more sensational enormity a disaster has, the better, as far as FOX, CNN, and their advertisers are concerned.

Our atheists want to blame God because they say “well, if God’s all-powerful and stuff then God shouldn’t have earthquakes or let terrorists blow up buildings, yeah.” My retort to that is that it’s our job to make sure terrorists don’t blow up buildings and if we’re going to live where earthquakes happen, we should build earthquake-proof homes. It’s the height of arrogant misunderstanding to expect God to change the nature he created—human nature included.

Our preachers who want to blame the victims do so because they think they need a “bad guy” to justify the message of salvation—to scare us into being saved. We don’t need “a bad guy”—we are the “bad guy” and it’s only by the grace of God that we’re still walking this Earth.

We talked in Bible study this week about the middle of the book of Acts, where Paul and Silas are thrown into prison. There are some pretty good disasters in Chapter 16. First, Paul silences a girl with a “python spirit.” There’s a lot to get into about exactly what a python spirit is and is not but it helps to know that Python was a Greek god of prophecy and the slave girl was known for making money for her captors by prophesying. Anyway, she follows Paul and Silas around calling out—“hey, these guys are preaching the word of Jesus and they’re telling you all how to be saved!” This gets really tiring to Paul after a few days (maybe he thought it was good advertising at first—Luke never tells us) and so he tells the spirit to leave the girl. This angers both the girl’s owners and the crowd and so Paul and Silas end up thrown in jail.

Now, we don’t have any record of the girl or her owners saying “woe is me for I have been punished unto the utmost by God!” though we probably wouldn’t expect that, either. We might, however, expect Paul and Silas to do a bit of complaining. After all, they were only doing the work of the Lord.

Instead, when thrown in jail and shackled to the wall they start singing songs of praise to God. Paul and Silas understand what the atheists and televangelists do not—that everything indeed comes from God—and everything serves God’s purpose. When you put yourself out of sorts with that purpose everything looks like disaster. When you give yourself up to the purpose of God, everything comes up in roses.

Back to Paul and Silas: they’re singing “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High” for the 17th time that night when all of a sudden there’s a great earthquake! Now, Macedonia is a place where there are a fair amount of earthquakes. You think the Romans would have built a better prison. I guess they used contractors for that one. Anyway, the earthquake came and the jail was verily rent in twain and lo! Paul and Silas’s shackles were cast into the pit of Gehenna by God the Most High, blessed be his name.

What do Paul and Silas do? Well, I can tell you what I’d certainly be strongly inclined to do—unless I had read this story. Paul and Silas, they just go right on keeping on. They don’t run, they don’t try to escape, in fact, they probably even convinced the other convicts to stay a while too, because when the Warden runs in about to commit seppuku—that’s hara-kiri—which is ritual suicide cause you done did wrong: when the Warden is about to fall on his sword Paul says: “hold on there, man! We’re all still here!”

So what did these three disasters get us besides a slave girl out of work and some broken concrete? Easy, it led the Warden and his family to Jesus—he asks “what must I do to be saved?” after seeing not a miracle but simply correct behavior. So God has Paul and Silas beaten up and thrown in jail not because God is cruel or a jerk but because God wants to save the jailor. Cool stuff, right?

So let’s go back to today’s passage:

Jesus is hanging out with the crowds, doing the work of the Lord, and some people start agitating and spreading rumors about these Jews from Galilee who were killed by Pilate in the middle of making sacrifices to God. It seems the crowd was of the opinion that the group killed by Pilate had to have been evil and vile sinners because they died in such a terrible fashion.

Jesus, ever on point for a teaching moment, says look—these guys were no worse sinners than any of you—and you’re going to die forever unless you repent! Then Jesus picks a worse and just as famous-at-the-time disaster: look at those 18 people crushed by the collapse of the tower of Siloam! Do you think they died because they were horrible and terrible sinners! You’re no better than they are! You had better repent or you’re going to die the same! That is, die without the hope of life everlasting.

Jesus told the crowd these things because most folks at the time were believed the right thing for the wrong reason: they thought everything happened for a reason, which is correct—but that reason had to do with the some behaviors the people the things—bad or good—were happening to had done, which is incorrect.

Jesus knows—as the crowd should have—that everything, good and bad, comes from God. If they hadn’t read their Job, they certainly should have read their Deuteronomy (32:39):

There is no god besides me.
I put to death and I bring to life,
I have wounded and I will heal,
and no one can deliver out of my hand.

Jesus knows the nature of the Father and Jesus knows the nature of the behavior of the world—God neither wounds nor heals in response to the desires or behaviors of his creation, God wounds and heals in order to perfect his creation. The schedule is not set by us—the march of time is inexorable and we are all going to die.

So what do we do?

What we do is exercise our free will and repent. Note the word here: repent. The Greek is “metanoeo” which means not exactly repent. Repent is a word that comes to us through French from Latin and it means to feel sorry for something. Metanoeo—the word the Gospel writers use—means to change your mind and your purpose.

This is not mere belief—Jesus never calls us to merely believe. Jesus calls us to change our mind—to change our purpose—that is to change ourselves. Our turning, our repentance, our change should be as evident on our face, in our words, and in our actions as it is in our hearts. If you have faith but do not change—do you have anything?

Jesus clears this up for us with the parable that follows. He’s shocked the crowd a bit by reminding them that folks don’t die because they are somehow more terrible sinners. Now he instructs them in how they should behave.

The owner of a vineyard sees a fig tree that should have been bearing fruit for three years is barren. He tells the gardener to cut it down. The gardener says no—let me work on it some more, single it out, and see if it bears fruit then. After a year, if it’s still barren, you can cut it down.

Now cutting it down is a final judgment on that fig tree but the disaster will be that fig tree bearing no fruit. We are often viewed as the fig tree in this parable and I’d like to continue that interpretation with an understanding of what the gardener is about to do to us:

“I’ll dig around it and fertilize it” Now, what’s fertilizer made of? That’s right. In a more literal translation we have—“I’ll be digging and casting manure around it. Yes, brothers and sisters, we the fig trees have a decision if we don’t want to be cut down for firewood: we can either produce fruit ourselves or we can have the gardener dig all around us, violently disturbing our surroundings—maybe giving us new, unfamiliar, strange, uncomfortable dirt—and just when we’ve gotten used to that, the gardener will pile mountains of fresh, warm manure all over us. I believe that’s called some kind of storm that we’re in for.

It would be easier to produce that produce on our own: but sometimes we need help. Sometimes we need the disaster of disturbed earth and piled poop to allow us to change. We get caught up in our barren beliefs and behaviors and refuse to change until we are so piled with refuse that we have no other option.

Why wait until we’re piled high with dung? Why wait until the ultimate disaster of endless death and faithless life? Repent! Jesus says—change your mind and your purpose and bear fruit for the Lord—living any other way is just wasting space in the garden: you may as well already be dead.

So if you find your life disturbed, if you feel smothered by something unpleasant, take comfort—God is giving you one more chance to bear fruit. But take heed, your first pruning can be your last—but the reason is up to you: do you need to be cut down or will your fruit fulfill the harvest?

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father: let us bear your fruit.

Show us how to be fruitful for you

so that we may be useful

and if we must be disturbed in order to grow

help us remember the parable of the fig tree

and understand that every lesson comes from you

to help us turn to your ways.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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