It’s not what you think…it’s better!

My purpose in this pulpit is to provoke you to questions, not to provide you with answers.

I have always believed that where preaching and teaching are concerned.

But this morning, I am going to make a liar of myself.

We will encounter the question in a moment,

but I want you know what my answer is from the beginning – nothing to hide – full disclosure.

God’s judgement does not take the form of spectacular (or violently terminal) punishment.  Ever.

Bring me your favourite Old Testament disaster stories – I will do my best to show you

that God is not acting to selectively destroy those who “have not pleased God”

Such thinking is a cheap fix for a costly problem, and I’m not buying it.

I may never change centuries of theological sleight of hand,

and I might not convince you, but you need to know  where I stand.

So, you have my answer – but what of the question?

We don’t hear the question directly in this morning’s gospel,

but the context is clear enough.

Luke offers a series of episodes: parables of watchfulness and faithfulness –

calls to strive for the kingdom of God –

and the crowds ask about current events that seem to tell them something sinister about the character of God, and the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness.

There is the unsettling report of their countrymen, who have been slaughtered by Pilate

(the gospel is the only place this event is mentioned –

no other ancient authority gives us an indication of what happened here).

Jesus addresses the unspoken with a question of his own:

“Do you think [that these Galileans] were worse sinners that all other Galileans?”

Do you hear this?  Do you recognize the fear in the crowd?

These were our fellow citizens – perhaps our relatives & friends.

These are people who believe (for the most part) the same things that we believe –

and they were slaughtered out of turn by this godless ruler of Galilee.

And so, the unspoken question seems to be – How could this happen? 

 

How could (our) God allow such a travesty?

Good people – bad things; this needs some explanation.

Scripture does its best to offer insight; we don’t always get it.

Bad things happen –

the rain falls on the just and the unjust

(according to Matthew’s gospel and our own experience of the way life works) –

in fact, Jesus says that accidents happen – (Towers collapse even in the ancient near east) –

and they are every bit as horrible and cruel and untimely

as the activity of oppressive tyrants in Galilee –

“they are no worse (or better, one can infer) than any other.”

Jesus is trying to nudge his audience away from the simple arithmetic of redemption and judgement, and they are not moved – not yet, at any rate.  And his summary statement doesn’t help;

“But unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.”

And how many times have we been told the answer to the eternal riddle is this:

Be good to God, and God will be good to you;

except that Jesus says nothing of the sort.

“they are no worse than any other…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.”

We’ve become convinced that this means “in a hail of heavenly judgement”,

But consider for a moment that all this hinges on one, important word.

It’s not the word you think it is – perish – that’s the word that gets our attention,

and sends us, panic-stricken, to our knees in prayer, or to the tavern in despair.

No, the word upon which all this hangs is REPENT.

The word in Greek is metanoia which refers to the changing of ones mind after the fact “an overturning of thought” – so come our classical ideas of repentance: your mind is fundamentally changed and your future path is altered because of this new position.  And what must happen to change your mind?

Well, as the church discovered very early on, fear can change peoples minds.

Fear of abandonment – fear of separation from God –

and so the church developed rituals and rites that reminded people of their need for change,

then offered them the chance to regain the right path.

But the best kind of repentance is that which causes you to first open your mind to a new opportunity, to refrain from a previous direction and take up (willingly and freely) a new direction of thought.

This is the repentance to which Jesus calls us.

Open your minds to the reality of God, he says.

Consider that your current ideas about why these Galileans were killed

(God willed it?  They had sinned?)  might be incorrect.

These were no better or worse people than yourselves –

and unless you open your minds (or have your minds opened),

you will perish as they did, with your old and inadequate ideas of God intact.

To that end Jesus closes the question with what must be my favourite parable.

The tree has not born fruit – the owner wants to make space for a more profitable venture –

But the gardener begs the owner for another year.

Let me nurture this tree, fertilize it – water and tend to it.

What have you got to lose by waiting one more year?

God, in our old assumptions, takes the role of the property owner;

Demanding productive use of the land; insisting that the planting justify the investment.

But the context for this parable suggests to me (and others) that God is not the owner,

but the patient gardener – willing the tree to flower –

waiting and watering and giving yet another season of grace,

that the garden might realize its potential.

That sounds like God to me.

How much easier would it be to serve a God we believed to be patient, nurturing and …well, nice?

This is the truly good news that Jesus brings us –

he directs our attention to the things we have misunderstood,

and tries to paint for us a truer picture of God;

one that we might desire;

in whom we may delight.

Repentance is necessary – and yes, our time is short.

We can not ignore the urgency of Jesus message,

but we are urged by grace and gratitude – not pain and suffering.

Evil does not come from God, but it has found a home among God’s people,

And God’s remedy is in repentance – a reimagining of our purpose,

our relationships (with one another and with God) –

and a re-ordering of our intentions toward both Creation and Creator.

This approach is found in the oldest of prophets and the newest – from Isaiah to Jesus

Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest

This call to repentance does not threaten –

it should not terrify –

for it is issued by God in a spirit of patient, loving grace –

and that is good news, indeed!  Amen

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