3rd Sunday in Lent
February 27, 2016
Even when a person is lucky enough to live in a land of plenty like the United States, which enjoys a peaceful and ordered society, good education and health care systems, clean water, the rule of law, and so on. Even for Americans… if you’ve lived awhile you come to know that life isn’t fair… terrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it.
Terrible accidents, acts of nature, sickness and disease, violence and abuse, addiction and depression, poverty and broken homes. We see these kinds of things happen to people who just don’t deserve them and we are left with great sadness… and very troubling questions.
It’s these kinds of questions that today’s Gospel lesson revolves around. The questions of why do we, or people we love, or anyone for that matter… suffer.
There were some Galileans who had been seized by Pontius Pilate, then slaughtered in some terrible fashion and finally had their blood mixed with sacrifices made to the Roman gods.
What happened to these people was the “talk of the town.” Naturally, some people wanted to talk to Jesus about it. I’m sure it bothered them, just like such things bother us.
Jesus asks the people if they thought that these Galileans suffered and died as they did because they had offended God by their sinfulness. Jesus was most certainly repeating here what he knew to be a common belief of the people.
He then asked the same question about a group of 18 people who perished when a tower collapsed on them.
One… resulting from evil deeds committed by people; the other… a random accident.
Questions about suffering haunt us. “Why would God let this happen?” “Why me and not them?” Or, “Why them and not me?”
People have always tried to make sense out of suffering and trouble. We want to understand “why” these things happen to us… or people we love. There must be some reason this kind of pain… this misfortune… has happened.
Some suffering in life is a direct consequence of our action. We engage in criminal activity and we are incarcerated. We smoke cigarettes and we get cancer.
Most people are clever enough to understand the immediate causes of this kind of suffering. But even this kind of suffering, when looked at more closely often stems from unfair situations. And we are left with the question, “Why?”
When we look at scripture and the history of the church, we see that one of the oldest ways of understanding suffering was in terms of divine punishment for sin. If someone suffered, then (s)he must have done something to provoke God’s anger, and so their suffering is the consequence of their own wrongdoing.
This idea is still alive today.
Another view that is very popular among Christians today is the idea that our suffering is a part in God’s special plan for us. For example, some say that God sends us suffering to make us grow, to test us, to bring us closer to him, or in some other way to work out in us his plan for us.
This is a very comforting view for some people. But this view holds up only as long as we can keep truly terrible suffering at an arm’s length. (Because then we can understand that it is leading to a meaningful end.)
This view collapses, however, under the reality of the terrifying suffering that many in this world must endure. And so I don’t think it can provide a final answer for the question of human suffering.
Even so, a person can find passages of scripture that seem to support both of these views.
But in today’s Gospel lesson, the idea that hard times and suffering are punishment for our sins is rejected by Christ. “Did these people suffer because of their sinfulness?” His answer is, “No, I tell you.”
This ideas is even more clearly rejected in other teachings of Jesus.
Many of his teachings proclaim just the opposite… that those who suffer are marked for blessing. For example, in the sermon on the plain, Jesus declares to us:
“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”
But this still doesn’t help us answer our questions about suffering. “Why do we suffer?” Why do some suffer so much more than others?”
But God doesn’t give us what we want… answers for why we suffer. Instead, God gives us what we need.
God redirects us from wondering why we are suffering to consider how shall we bear our suffering… how we shall live through suffering. Because that’s what we need to know.
If God doesn’t give us answers… that doesn’t mean we have nothing… not at all. God gives us everything we need… even during times of great suffering.
What we need… what we always need… is not answers, but God’s presence with us, which gives us strength through faith. It is not by answers, nor by any particular understanding of our suffering that we find strength to make it through painful times. It is by the presence of God.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus warns his listeners about the importance of “bearing fruit.” The fruit God desire of us is precisely this trust… this clinging to him… that we will need as we live through times of trouble.
The people came to Jesus desiring answers to questions of human suffering. Jesus doesn’t give them the answers they seek. Instead, he redirects them to live their lives holding fast to God, bearing fruit, and letting God be our strength to live, and our eternal hope.
This is the powerful mystery of faith. We recognize God’s presence with us… and we let ourselves be strengthened and led and encouraged, even when our lives are full of pain and disappointment.
We remember the comfort of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:28-30)
We remember the call of Jesus: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (Jn. 15:4)
We remember the promise of Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:21)
Knowing God’s presence with us, trusting God’s presence with us, living out of God’s presence with us… that is faith. That is bearing fruit. That is what matters. It is what we need. It is what we have to give to others. It is the most important truth that this season of Lent delivers to us.
In about 3 weeks our Lenten journey will take us to Good Friday, where the painful suffering of Christ will be laid out before us. We hear Christ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Like us, Christ will feel the terrible press of that question of suffering. Then with his flesh and blood and fading breath, Jesus will show us the only answer to that question that we need to know: “Lord, into your hands, I commend my spirit.”