Monday, August 30, 2010

A Story of Faith & the Front Page

Can you name five front page stories this week? Here are mine: There was another story about the slowing economy; the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; a story about our Marines in Afghanistan; about corruption in the nearby city of Vernon; and an expose of the egg industry...not to mention continuing debates over gay rights.  At such a time as this, Jesus helps us think about our attitudes and actions in response to bad or simply polarizing news. 

Turning to Luke 13: 1-9, Luke tells us that somewhere in Galilee, Jesus was interrupted by people reporting news of two recent disasters. Now before I go any further I just want to point out that Jesus was not too busy to address newspaper headlines. He was teaching the Word…but that did not mean he was disinterested in the World. The great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, once said in a Time magazine interview: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible" (Time Magazine, Friday May 31, 1963 / Princeton Seminary Library). Jesus did just that as he was confronted with two bad news stories.

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did....’   
The first headline would have read something liked this: “Pilate Kills Galileans While Sacrificing in Temple.” This probably refers to an incident that was also written down by the Jewish historian, Josephus. Pilate (who was the Roman Governor of Judea) decided that Jerusalem needed a new water supply. No problem there. But he determined to pay for the construction of an aqueduct with monies from the temple treasury. There were many Jews up in arms over this, and during a large scale protest, Pilate’s soldiers actually killed several Galilean Jews as they were dispersing the crowd (Antiq. 18.3.2). Jews felt this was an outrage, and the incident incited Jewish hatred for their Roman overlords all the more.

The second headline would have sounded just as bad: “18 Killed in Jerusalem by Falling Tower of Siloam.” Edersheim suggests that these 18 men may actually have been Jews who had worked on the hated aqueduct. The key word is “Siloam” – referring either to the Siloam aqueduct or the pool of Siloam, the reservoir that collected water from the Gihon spring that flowed into Jerusalem. Perhaps these men were killed by a tower near the Siloam aqueduct or pool. If so, they were killed while collaborating with Pilate, and many may have felt it was God’s judgment on them for working with Pilate.  Remember that in first century Palestine, Rome was the enemy, and Israel an oppressed people. Those who stood up to Rome (like the Galileans killed by Pilate) were exalted, while those who collaborated with Rome (like the 18 working on the aqueduct) were hated. All of this is now placed before Jesus, and their implied question seems to be: “When the news is this bad -- how should we respond?” Jesus seemed to see four possible responses.

On the one hand, we can turn against our enemies (1-3). As Jesus was teaching, people arrived bearing the news of the death of several Galileans in the temple area which I have already described. No doubt, those who brought this story to Jesus were furious, and were seeking in part, some kind of criticism of Pilate. But Jesus does not offer this kind of remark, instead, he does something totally unexpected: he calls Israel to individual and national repentance! It’s as if Jesus were saying, “You see these men as heroes, and Pilate as a demon…but I say to you that before you make any more judgments, you yourselves must repent before God."  Notice that Jesus does not condone sin: he doesn’t approve of Pilate’s actions, or deny that Pilate has done a great evil. Even so, he chooses to speak to those who are in front of him who he knows will destroy themselves and all around them if THEY do not repent and turn back to God. (Jesus foresaw that if the Jews went on with their rebellions and plottings they would be destroyed, which is what happened in AD 70).

Generally, Jesus seemed to focus on redemption, not just retribution. I found it interesting to read about the Marine’s present strategy in the village of Nawa, Afghanistan. Once controlled by the Taliban, the Marines have built schools, health clinics, and a marketplace. Now Jesus used a similar strategy. Listen to this: He wants us to destroy our enemies…by turning them into friends. Do you have any bad eggs you need to get rid of? -- and I'm not talking about the ones you buy at the market. Do you have any selfish neighbors or arrogant work associates that you could destroy by having them over for dinner, bringing them to church, or introducing them to Christ? Try it. They might become your friends... or the next Apostle Paul!

On the other hand, we can turn against each other (4-5). After Jesus responds to the question about the Galileans, those present may have asked him about those who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them (or he may have simply brought up the incident himself). Remember that many who heard this story assumed that the victims got what they deserved. In the opinion of many Jews, these workers were collaborating with the enemy, and were punished by God. Jesus knew this is what they were thinking; so he mentions it as another example of how we respond to suffering, we assign blame and lash out in revenge. 

Once again, our Lord does not lift up these collaborators as examples to follow, he simply points out that they were no more sinful than all the others living in Jerusalem (which means Jesus is being very inclusive here: he’s saying that everyone from the aqueduct builders to the Roman soldiers, from the prostitutes to the High Priest himself are under God’s judgment – Rom. 3:23. The kind of inclusivity that is currently popular is the inclusive club of “I’m OK, You’re OK;” it’s the Society of the Sinless; of those who never have to admit their own sin or turn from it, never have to be honest about their weaknesses. But the inclusivity of Jesus’ invitation is the inclusivity of fellow sinners…sinners who know they need God’s grace, salvation, and transformation.

Let’s face it: it’s much more fun to assign blame than to take responsibility. In the days following Hurricane Katrina…we saw different gov’t agencies and local officials blaming each other for the slow response to the disaster, for not repairing the levies in time, for not getting food, supplies, and money to the victims; for excessive police force…but seldom did we see anyone taking responsibility. When the next earthquake hits LA, each of us shares a personal responsibility to be prepared. How much more do we need to be prepared for earthquakes in our personal life; and to be ready to respond faithfully rather than blame resentfully.

Aside from blaming our enemies or each other, we can turn against God.  I don’t think it is impossible that those who brought news of these tragic events did so because their faith was being severely tested by them. Jesus is in Galilee at the time, and those who bring him this news are also Galileans. Perhaps they had lost friends or even family members.  In times of loss or suffering, even people of faith experience doubt, and question the goodness of God. “Now that I am a Christian,” C. S. Lewis once said, “I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable; but when I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable" (Mere Christianity).  I don’t think that Jesus anywhere condemns us for such changing moods, instead he prays for us as he did for Peter when Jesus predicted that he would deny him three times (Luke 22: 31-32). Notice that Jesus does not pray that God would remove this trial from Peter, but that he would persevere through it! What an encouragement to know that Jesus prays that our faith will not fail.

One of the most faith-testing experiences in my life has been the standing conflict in our own denomination over the ordination and marriage of gays and lesbians. It’s become headline news…and for me personally, a front burner issue since 1978 when my father, also a Presbyterian minister, was facing this crisis.  It is a highly emotional and very personal debate and I can tell you two things: First, I'm certain that Christ doesn't want me to meet gays and lesbians with hatred or condescension but with sacrificial love; and if you are a gay and lesbian person and feel that Christians hate you…I am deeply sorry. Christ loves you…and wants you to know him and follow him.  But having said that, I must also say this: Scripture uniquely affirms the sacred relationship of husband and wife, and the call to live faithfully within that covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in singleness.  Now here is the one saving grace in all of this as I see it...that above sexual temptations and inclinations, racism and political party, biogtry, anger, and unforgiveness (the list goes on and on) Christ is Lord, Healer, and Deliverer.  That's where my hope is found...and where your faith can find a resting place too.

Certainly, when the news is bad or discouraging, we can turn against our enemies, we can turn against one another and we can turn against God, but Jesus gives us a fourth option … We can turn back in humility and hope. 

6Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’
After addressing how we often respond to problems, Jesus reveals that what we think is the problem (get this!) is not the problem. The problem is not Rome or the Jews who collaborate with Rome. The problem is not out there at all. The problem is in here…in the vineyard (with Israel and its leaders). The problem is a lack of fruit, the fruit of a life turned toward God. In other words: God’s problem is that we don’t get the problem. That the “bad news” as far as God is concerned….is our rebellion, our lack of faith, our stubbornness and pride.

But the good news is that in this parable the Gardener (who represents Jesus) is willing to wait yet another year for the fig tree to bear fruit. For here, and throughout the scriptures, God responds to disappointment and the barrenness of his people whom he loves with incredible patience…He doesn’t want to quit on us, and so he lovingly pursues us to our last breath. Why? Because he does not want us to be separated from him, but to be with him forever. Imagine if the Gardener’s attitude could be our model for responding to suffering and disappointment too: a model of patience; of the one who says “I’m not going to give up on that fig tree, or that family member, or that difficult neighbor, or my faith in God just yet. I’m going to be patient. I still have hope.” This week, I got an email of good news stories. Here is just a sampling of the top ten...

#10 Thirteen year old raises $32,000 for school art supplies.  #9 Motivational Speaker stops talking and starts finding jobs for the homeless.  #7 Ethiopia has cut malaria deaths in half in just three years. #5 Nine year old saves his drowning brother with CPR.  #3 A newly discovered microbe is eating the gulf oil spill at a much faster rate than expected!   #2 An Armless Chinese Pianist who plays with his feet wows the judges on China’s Got Talent.   #1 A Kansas lottery winner sent the winning ticket anonymously to a local hospital! How do you respond to good news like that?   Words like... inspiring... miraculous... courageous... incredible... and "Thank God!" came to mind.   All this is to say that in the midst of all the bad news…the good news is usually staring us in the face; and nothing could be more true the day that those men brought their bad news stories to Jesus, for as they were telling their stories of woe…the Good News Himself, the best news of all, was staring them in the face.

Every morning, the paper boy leaves the paper on our front driveway. I rarely see him drop it there…it seems to miraculously appear, faithfully, every day; and everyday I go out and grab hold of that paper and bring it inside and put it on the table. Friends, the Good News is like that. It is delivered daily to our front door, but we have to bring it inside. We have to open it and read it…believe it, and live it; and so dear God, when we are feeling the weight of bad news....

Help us to turn toward you, not away from you; to respond to hardship and suffering with hope; to say, in the desert place, when we are tempted to quit: “Let’s leave it alone and wait another year.” Help us to practice patience and lean upon your grace in life’s trials, whether it be a troubled marriage, a difficult job situation, or a strained friendship, and to grow in Christian maturity through that process. May we “count it all joy when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance…” trusting in the promise that as we abide in you, as we wait on you, fruitfulness is assured.  For you offer us the Best News of all...through Jesus Christ our Lord.  May we open our hearts to it, believe on it, and live in it.  Amen.

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