A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Third Sunday in Lent
*Worship Note: In addition to today being the Third Sunday in Lent, it is also the running of the Little Rock Marathon, which comes by our church’s front door.
Jesus lived in a cause-and-effect world. By that I mean he lived with those who thought that bad things happened to those who brought them on by bad behavior. To make matters worse, it was commonly believed that the consequences of such bad behavior could be handed down from generation to generation.
If a baby was born blind, or had some other type of physical or mental defect, it was because the parents had sinned… or maybe even their grandparents. Look in scripture, especially the Hebrew portion (that is, the Old Testament) and you will find plenty of support for this belief. Needless to say, this made for an image of God that was not very favorable in many respects.
The opposite of that is true, at least for those who believed that way. Those who were blessed, with wealth or good health, and especially long life, were considered to be favored by God because they had been good.
Cause and effect. For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Physics, right?
Or was it effect and cause? When something bad occurred, people hustled to find an obvious explanation for it. We joke about it somewhat even now. Chances are, we’ve all heard someone say in jest, when told of some minor misfortune, “You just ain’t been living right!”1 Or maybe we wonder, “What have I done to deserve this?!”
Eliphaz the Temanite was one of the “friends” who visited Job in his misery. This is the counsel that good friend Eliphaz gave to the suffering Job who is sitting
in a dung heap of ashes and misfortune: “…those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Now, don’t you just know that made Job feel better!
But we don’t believe that anymore, that bad things happen only to bad people, and vice versa… at least we shouldn’t. Jesus spoke to this issue decidedly and directly. If you wonder about that, take a little trip through the ninth chapter of John and the unfolding story (it does have its layers, so you will indeed have to unfold it) will put that notion to rest.
But, admittedly, it is indeed a hard notion to give up. You see, some things do have their consequences. Live on a constant diet of fried and/or fatty foods, and your body will eventually rebel. Stay on the couch and your muscles will atrophy. Dwell in darkness and you will think darkly.
As you all know, in a little while we’ll be going up on the street to cheer the runners and other participants in today’s marathon. They’ll come in all shapes and sizes, colors and dress… and attitudes. Some will be out for the fun of it, if indeed participating in a marathon could possibly be considered fun. They will give us high-fives and thank us for our cheering them on. You can look for the silly costumes and hats and such. Remember the fellow who used to come by carrying his British Union Jack while kissing all the ladies… especially Rosie!? I think he had a thing for Rosie!
Some folk just think the marathon is a lark.
But not all.
Chances are, we’ll miss the Kenyans. They get by quickly, probably before we can get upstairs, because this is their work, their office so to speak. They will intently be going, not only for a win, but for a record. Then, there will be those in between who will try to do their personal best. Don’t expect these latter folk to give us much attention. They will be far too intent on getting the job done to give us any recognition. And that’s okay.
But, there is one thing all of them – all of them – will have in common. If they have not trained for this event – and just like the various participants and their attitudes, they will have trained on different levels and in various ways to achieve their desired results – if they have not trained, they will pay for it… dearly. There will be consequences. It is simply the nature of such things.
But have you noticed that when it comes to Jesus’ portrayals of God and the kingdom of heaven, nature doesn’t seem to come into play. In fact, the kingdom is counter-nature, if not counter-intuitive. The first shall be last and the last first. The sun shines on the evil as well as the righteous. The natural world is somewhat enclosed into itself. Yes, indeed, there are natural consequences to some things, but when it comes to explanations of God… well, you can pretty much throw the obvious answers out the window.
As Jesus was teaching one day, some of those who were present posed a situation to him. Perhaps it was in response to something he said, or maybe, as it often occurs in our children’s sermons around here, something just popped in the head of one of Jesus’ listeners for no apparent reason and he decided to ask Jesus about it.
There were some current events in which the people saw the apparent hand of God. Evidently, there was a skirmish of some kind that had recently occurred. You know that the land in which Jesus lived and worked was occupied by the Romans. Occasionally, especially in Galilee where such things happened more often than in other regions, a revolt had broken out (those Galileans were a rebellious bunch). The Romans, especially the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, had a way of dealing with such issues, and it was swift and merciless. No doubt it happened on a Sabbath, because Pilate killed the Galileans and mixed their blood with the sacrifices that were being made in worship.
That would get the attention of the folks in the pews, don’t you know! Was it because they were evil that such a terrible thing happened to them?
Or the eighteen victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the tower in Siloam fell on them… was that the result of their sinfulness? Closer to home, at least closer to our time, what about the nineteen people who perished this week in Egypt when their hot air balloon exploded a thousand feet in the air? Was that due to their sin?
No, Jesus said to those who asked him about it. Take all the things that happen to people, both good and bad, and sift it down, press it, and shake it together, and what do you have? You have life… and death, to be sure… but you simply have things as they are and as they occur. It is the natural world in which we live, the natural world God created. God is not a cosmic manipulator who pulls a string and someone jumps. It’s not necessarily, as the deists believed, that God simply set the world in motion and then walked away from it, allowing his human creation to fend for themselves. But God doesn’t control or determine everything that happens either. No, the only thing that means anything in all of this, Jesus says to them, is repentance.
Hmm. What does repentance have to do with it?
I take it to mean that Jesus isn’t necessarily, nor easily, letting us off the hook. We do have some responsibility here, and the obligation of our faith is to do all we can to ensure that our hearts are clean and our motives are pure, so that when God comes to us he finds us open and receptive to his divine will.
Are you puzzled by Jesus’ illustration of the fruitless fig tree? I certainly am, at least in this context. But this is what I take from it… The gardener pleads with the vineyard owner to give the tree one more chance. “One more year,” he says, “one more year. I’ll loosen the soil around it and apply some manure. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” The loosening of the soil is preparation, the manure is a symbol of humility. Both are elements of repentance.
If our faith is dependent – that is, if it rises and falls – on what happens to us, good or bad, it is an insufficient faith. We do not gain God’s favor by being good, nor do we lose God’s blessing by being bad. But the repentance that leads to faith prepares us for whatever circumstances come our way.
A hospital chaplain tells of the time she sat in the surgical waiting room next to a distraught mother. The woman’s five year-old daughter had suddenly complained of a headache, and by the time they could get her to the hospital she had gone blind. It was confirmed that a large tumor was pressing against her optic nerve, and the girl was in surgery to have it removed.
The mother smelled strongly of tobacco. “It’s my punishment,” she said, “for smoking these $%^ cigarettes. God couldn’t get my attention any other way, so he made my baby sick.” She started crying so hard, the chaplain explains, “that what she said next came out like a siren.”
“Now I’m supposed to stop, but I can’t stop. I’m going to kill my own child!”2
If you had been the chaplain, what would you have said to this young mother? Think about that, will you, because your response will say a great deal about your faith and about how you will deal with the consequences of what happens to you. But don’t be surprised if the answer you find is not natural.
Lord, find us faithful, regardless of what comes our way. Then, in all things, we will be able to continue singing your praises. Amen.
1Michael B. Curry, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 93.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), pp. 69-70.