Sudden, random tragedies remind us: we all need to take stock of our lives

Stephen Adam, 24 March 2019

Isaiah 55: 1–9; Luke 13: 1–9

We’re halfway through Lent, and perhaps this is a timely moment to ask, ‘How’s it going?’ No doubt we all have different approaches to this season – for some it will be a time for reflection, for others perhaps forgoing some luxury or taking up a fresh challenge. But at heart it’s about finding ways of deepening our relationship with God, being in our mind’s eye companions with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, to the depths of the Cross and then on to the light of that first Easter morning. That Lenten journey may well challenge us, which is why it is a penitential season, but it shouldn’t depress us. Indeed this Sunday, in the middle of Lent, is known as Laetare Sunday – it’s a day of rejoicing.

Our first reading, from the Old Testament, starts almost with a shout of joy: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!’ Isaiah conjures up the sounds of the marketplace – it’s as if God is a hawker in the street market, calling out, ‘Come, share, celebrate; all this is free!’ It’s a call to the leaders of Israel in their exile in Babylon, a reminder that God hasn’t forgotten them, that God is faithful to his people: come and sustain yourselves on my nurturing word and love.

It’s as if God is a hawker in the street market, calling out, ‘Come, share, celebrate; all this is free!’

The metaphors of feeding on wine and milk point to the richness of living in relationship to God, rather than spending money on non-essentials that ultimately do not satisfy and leave us disappointed and in search of the next ‘hit’. For sure, we can take a Lenten message from this – it’s a long-distance warning to us about the dangers of our endless search for instant gratification and all the idols we set up for ourselves today: the market, consumerism, individualism, autonomous rights and ‘whatever works for me’. Instead Isaiah is inviting us to return from exile, from all that separates us from God and from each other, to deepen our relationship with him and inculcate all those virtues that make us fully human.

But then, when we turn to our gospel reading, we find a hard, challenging message which pulls us up short in our tracks: ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’, says Jesus. It’s not at all what we want to hear! Those big words about repentance and judgement are words that as Christians we’re often uncomfortable and embarrassed about, and tend to shy away from.

And as if that’s not enough, the first part of the gospel reading about tyrants and towers also raises the difficult question of tragedy and misfortune. Is it fair that bad things can happen to good people? It’s a question that has taxed Christians through the ages. If there had been red-top tabloids in first-century Palestine, no doubt the headlines would have had a field day: ‘Tyrant’s troops murder worshippers’; ‘Tower disaster – 18 dead: was it negligence?’ We can easily think of similar atrocities and accidents in our own day. Can we make any sense of such arbitrary events? And what on earth does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did’?

It’s important to understand the context. In Jesus’ time, it was very much the Jewish understanding that everything happened for a reason. Sin and suffering were seen as intimately connected – we see this most dramatically, perhaps, in the story of Job, that absolutely righteous man who suffers the most appalling catastrophes, and yet his companion and so-called comforter attributes this simply to Job’s own sinning.

This line of thinking also surfaces among the disciples in John’s gospel. You’ll recall that when Jesus meets a man who has been blind from birth, his disciples ask, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9: 2).

I suspect, if we’re honest, there is sometimes a nagging suspicion lurking in our own minds that our personal sorrows are in some way a punishment for our sins. (As an aside, John Habgood, the former Archbishop of York, died earlier this month, and his obituary recorded how in 1984 he had presided at the consecration of David Jenkins – a theologian not without controversy – as Bishop of Durham. Days later, York Minster was struck by lightning, causing a severe fire. In response to those who made a link between the two events, Habgood wrote to The Times explaining that the gospel had been provided to rescue mankind from believing in a world where lightning strikes or illnesses are divine punishments.)

And yet so readily we can slip into a lazy way of thinking about others – ‘Well, he got what he deserved’. Dismissing the suffering of others, thinking that they brought it upon themselves, it’s so easy to develop a sense of false pride and righteousness. Here’s a searching question for Lent: is my compassion for others the victim of my hidden values, my assumptions, or my prejudices about others?

The reality today, as in Jesus’ time, is that tyrants act and towers fall. Life is fragile, unpredictable and often tragic. Jesus rejects simplistic, trite or unhelpful responses in the light of tragedies. He issues a challenge to the spiritual pride of his audience – and no less to us – in making judgements about the sinfulness of others.

He emphasises that these tragedies did not happen to these people because they deserved it, or were in some way worse sinners than those who survived. Note, too, that he does not offer any explanation or theology to account for the perennially perplexing dilemma of suffering in this world; though we may perhaps glimpse some sort of answer when we look to the Cross – the ultimate injustice and unfair punishment, the mystery in which God’s love is fully declared in his identifying with his suffering creation.

Jesus’ point for his audience is that, rather than debate who figures where on the scale of sinfulness, we all need to take stock of our lives. Such sudden, random tragedies should remind us of the need and urgency to re-order our lives to God’s way: to repent. We’re on borrowed time, if you like.

We’re reminded of the preciousness of life, its sacredness, and our responsibility and accountability before God to use our lives well and usefully. I’m reminded of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘The Summer Day’:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

How do you and I reclaim that ‘one wild and precious life’? How do we live most authentically and in the way that, at the deepest level, we long to be?

In the same way as sin is really a turning away from God, so repentance is a turning back to God. It’s not so much regretting what we have done or saying sorry – it’s much more interesting than that. At root it’s about a changed mindset, a new way of seeing things, seeking a different perspective on life, a joyful response to God’s love for his creation.

Repentance is not so much regretting what we have done or saying sorry – it’s much more interesting than that. At root it’s about a changed mindset, a new way of seeing things, a joyful response to God’s love for his creation.

Perhaps the word ‘repentance’ has unhappy overtones for some of us, because too many who have preached repentance have preached hell fire and have twisted the gospel of love into a gospel of fear, and so have distorted the gospel of Jesus, whose constant concern was to bring men and women to a realisation of the astonishing nature of God’s love for them.

So rather than beating ourselves up, wallowing in a pit of guilt, we’re invited in this Lenten season to re-orientate our lives, turning back to God who seeks us and yearns for us, just as the loving father scans the horizon for the return of the prodigal son.

The parable of the fig tree planted in the vineyard provides an insight here. The tree has produced no fruit for three years and the owner comes to the gardener and says, ‘Chop it down!’ (Here’s the theme of judgement again.)

But note what happens. The gardener’s insistence on giving the tree more time shows us something of the character of God, pointing to his grace. More than that, the tree is nurtured with manure to help it flourish. We’re reminded of God’s patient desire for the salvation of all his children. Judgement is withheld and we’re given another chance to flourish and grow and bear fruit in our lives.

We live in extraordinarily strange and unsettling times, with this country facing a political and constitutional crisis of the first order. Our country remains bitterly polarised and divided. Political debate has coarsened and there’s a lot of anger around. How the genie can be put back into the bottle is really taxing for all in public life.

I’d suggest that never has it been more necessary for us as Christians to be fruitful, to demonstrate in our dealings with others those fruits of the Spirit that Paul writes about to the Galatians – among them to be patient, kind and generous with one another, especially with those with whom we disagree. One day this country has to come together again, and as Christians we will be able to help that healing process, through our prayers and actions.

This Lent, here’s an invitation to put those fruits of the Spirit at the centre of our relationships and our common lives together. Amen.