Mind Your Own Business!
A title for this sermon might well be: be careful what you wish for. The people we hear about in this passage wanted to hear what Jesus thought about those Galileans who had died in Jerusalem. The Roman governor, Pilate, had had them killed while they were going up to the temple to present their sacrifices to God. In an act of complete disregard for everything holy, he had their own blood mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. In Denmark and Norway we have recently had a renaissance in the institution of church asylum. Illegal immigrants and others who have been wanted by the police have sought refuge in churches and in these cases the authorities have respected the sanctity of the church and they have not intervened. Imagine the police forcing their way into the church and killing the refugees right in front of the altar where we worship God. Then you get the picture of Pilateís brutality. He stopped at nothing.
No doubt this kind of rule was repugnant to the Jewish people and caused them to talk about the unbelievably evil nature of Pontius Pilate. We donít know for sure why the people in our text for today wanted to talk to Jesus about him. Perhaps it was a trap. There were many Jewish leaders who wanted to get rid of the troublesome and popular preacher that Jesus was. Perhaps they hoped that he would say something about how evil Pilate was and if Pilate caught wind of it he would take care of the Jesus problem for them. Or perhaps they thought somehow that those people who had died had had it coming. Perhaps they wanted Jesus to say something about how this was all Godís judgment on these people. Since God has all the power in heaven and on earth, he had to be in full control of this atrocious event. This massacre was perhaps Godís judgment on the Galileans. Maybe they had some secret sins in their lives, and now the time had come for God to reveal his judgment on them.
The Bible teaches us that God punishes sin. Sometimes the punishment takes the form of serious disaster, like when God punished Pharaoh in Egypt. Water turned to blood; frogs, gnats, flies, and locusts filled the land; humans and animals were plagued by boils; thunder and hail fell from heaven and killed everything that was out in the open field; there was darkness for three days; and finally all the firstborn were killed. All because Pharaoh was stubborn and resisted Godís will.
In first century Israel, people knew that God punished sin with sickness and disaster. When someone was sick they saw this as a sign of Godís judgment. That was part of the reason that lepers were despised by everyone. They had to be worse sinners than most, since they were suffering from such a terrible disease. When the disciples met a man that was born blind, they were not quite sure what to believe. Could God have punished him for his sins before he was born? So they asked Jesus, ďRabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?Ē (John 9:2). Jesus rejects the implications; ďNeither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that Godís works might be revealed in him,Ē he says (John 9:3). While Jesus does not correct the idea that God uses sickness to punish sin, Jesus rejects the idea that we can conclude backwards from sickness to an extraordinary degree of sinfulness. We donít know the complicated workings of God and why things happen the way they do. What we do know is that ďall things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purposeĒ (Rom 8:28). God can work something good out of something bad, like he did with Joseph, when his brothers had sold him as a slave to the Egyptians. ďEven though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today,Ē he told them later (Gen 50:20). We should never draw any conclusions about peopleís spiritual life because they are sick, that God is judging them or anything like that.
In the text for today, Jesus is quick to direct the attention away both from Pontius Pilate and from the Galileans. That is not what is important. These people are not any worse than anybody else. Do you know what that means? That means that you have the same judgment coming to you, if you donít repent. We are all sinners before God. Whatís surprising is not that some people have to suffer. Whatís surprising is not that bad things happen to good people. Whatís surprising is that there are not even more bad things happening. Whatís surprising is that good things keep happening to bad people. But it is only temporary, Jesus says. Because we are all bad people. And we all have bad things coming, if we donít repent. In his mercy, God delays his judgment, so that we will get the opportunity to repent. But the judgment is coming. What about those 18 people who were crushed when the tower by the Jerusalem wall collapsed? Do you think they were worse off than anybody else? Thatís what you all have coming, if you donít repent.
I am not sure I would like to invite this Jesus to a dinner party. Imagine trying to strike up a conversation with him. So, Jesus, what do you think about September 11? Wasnít that terrible? Jesus loved the September 11 victims so much that he gave his life for them, but he might be liable to answer like he did about the Galileans: unless you repent, you too will all perish.
I think it might be uncomfortable to have Jesus around at a party. You couldnít gossip. You couldnít talk about what the world is coming to. You couldnít talk about all the evil around us. Jesus would soon remind you that the real evil is not on the outside. Itís on the inside. Itís in you and me.
Jesusí message is a message of repentance. Repentance in the New Testament means to change oneís mind, not only to change oneís opinion about something, like what to wear today, but to change oneís mind about oneís entire life. Repentance is also related to the idea of turning around, as when you are walking in one direction and you realize you have to start walking in the opposite direction, you turn around. The Norwegian language is closer to Greek in this respect. We use the same word for repentance and for turning around. It may be the cause of some misunderstanding every once in a while, like the pastor who said: Every time I see a young man on the way out of a pub, I want to tell him: Young man, you are going the wrong way. Turn around!
The background for Jesusí message of repentance is no joke, however; it is the judgment of God. People are on their way to be judged and condemned by God. They need to repent, to turn around, and put their faith in Jesus. They need to stop trusting in themselves, trusting that they are OK, that the evil is on the outside. They can not keep on just praying to God that he will take care of all the evil in the world. They have to start praying that he will take care of them. They have to repent. They have to turn around.
In order to turn around you have to realize that you are on the wrong way. That is actually the first thing that has to happen in order to turn around. As long as you think you are on the right way you are just going to continue straight ahead. Thatís why the Jewish leaders who were happy with their lives did not receive Jesus. They did not want to change anything. When Jesus preached the message of repentance it was mostly only received by those who had nothing to lose, the sinners and the tax collectors. They knew they had to change.
The New Testament usually talks about repentance in connection with becoming a Christian. And it is easy for us to think about repentance as a once and for all kind of thing. I repented once, when I realized I had to receive Jesus as my savior. And that was it. Repentance is now something that belongs to the past.
Repentance means to stop trusting in myself and to start trusting in Jesus. It is not done once and for all. It is what it is like to be a Christian every day. It is constantly to give up our faith in ourselves. To be a Christian is therefore always to be aware of oneís need to repent. Not to be in need in of repentance is characteristic of the self-righteous, the Pharisees who rejected Jesus.
In Luke chapter 15, Jesus talks to the scribes and the Pharisees, those who did not want to receive Jesus, and he tells them three parables, the one about the man who had 100 sheep and lost one, but found it again, the woman who had ten coins, lost the one but found it again, and the one about the father who had two sons, the one was lost, but was found again. All those parables describe the contrast between the Pharisees and the scribes on the one hand and the sinners and the tax collectors on the other hand. The sinners and the tax collectors are like the sheep, the coin, and the son that were lost, but then were found. The Pharisees and the scribes are like those who never were lost, like the son that was at home and yet did not have a relationship with his father. As Paul says, ďto them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the MessiahĒ (Rom 9:4-5). But they did not know the Father. Jesus captures their character in one revealing sentence: ďI tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.Ē (Luke 15:7). The scribes and the Pharisees were those who had no need to repent.
When I found out what text that was assigned for this Sunday, when I was going to preach here at ILC, I immediately thought: Why has this text been chosen? This is a text about Godís judgment on Israel. Israel is the fig tree that does not bear fruit. God is patient with Israel, he will delay judgment and give them yet another chance for repentance.
It will be difficult to make it relevant for us and at the same time be faithful to the text, I thought. Just like the people who came to Jesus and wanted to talk about Pontius Pilate, I directed Godís warning to someone else.
What is your gut reaction when you hear about repentance? I know many people who need repentance. I can name them for you. I am sure you know someone who needs repentance, too. Why donít you talk to Jesus about it.
© Sigurd Grindheim