How to Respond to Disaster

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent based on Luke 13:1-9 (Ezek. 33: 7-20; I Cor. 10:1-13)

Dear fig trees in God’s vineyard: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

What horrible sinners those victims of the La Loche shooting must have been that God would allow them to die in such an awful way. Or the victims of the mass shootings this week in the U.S – what sinners they must have been that they died so tragically. And surely the victims of tornadoes and flooding that we’ve heard about must have been worse sinners than other people since an act of God would kill them in such a way, right? No, says Jesus. That is not how we are to look at the disasters around us. We are not to look at the disasters around us and think about the sins of others. The fact that someone dies in a disaster is no indication of whether or not they were punished by God for their sins. Disasters around us are not a call to repentance for those who died. They are a call to repentance for us. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Jesus was told about some Galileans who Pontius Pilate killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Surely that must be a sign that God was displeased with those sacrifices and He punished them with death. Jesus responds, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Very well then. But surely when an act of God takes place, there can be no other conclusion then that God killed such people for their sins, right? Surely those on whom the tower of Siloam fell were horrible sinners. Towers don’t just fall over. God must have knocked it over on them because of their sins, right? Jesus responds, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Disasters around us are not a call to repentance for those who died. They are a call to repentance for us. Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

Yes, of course. The whole world needs to repent and join us here in the church. If you’re still hearing it like that, you’re still hearing it wrong. This call to repentance is for the church. This call to repentance is for you. This call to repentance is for me.

The barren fig tree of which Jesus speaks isn’t out in the wilderness somewhere. It is in the vineyard – the symbol of God’s chosen people. The fig tree which God threatens to cut down and throw out of the vineyard is in the Church.

This is what Saint Paul is talking about as well in the Epistle reading when he says of the Old Testament people of God, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”

The New Testament equivalent would be that those who God overthrew in the wilderness had been saved from the slavery of sin through Baptism. They had heard the words of absolution spoken to them. They had eaten the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink of Christ’s true body and blood. Nevertheless, God was displeased with them and killed them. Why? Why was God so displeased with His own people? Saint Paul writes that it was because they were idolaters; they were sexually immoral; they were grumblers complaining about Moses and Aaron, the spiritual leaders God had given them (Nu. 14).

So here, in this case, we do know that the people were punished because of their sins. And we are told that these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. These things are written for our instruction. They are written so that when we see disasters around us, we hear them as a call to repent. Unless we repent, we will all likewise perish.

God says, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?” (Ezek. 33:11) God is so serious about His preachers preaching repentance that He threatens them. God threatens His own preachers whom He has sent. He says, “If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” (Ezek. 33:8) Pastors who do not tell people to turn away from their sins have blood on their hands and will have to answer to God for their faithlessness. Such faithless pastors are punished along with those they did not warn to repent.

We still need to understand, however, that no amount of turning from sin will cause God to forgive our sins. We can mourn and lament over our sins day and night; we can sit in sackcloth and ashes for all of Lent; we can cry ourselves to sleep filled with regret over what we’ve done and failed to do. None of this moves God to forgive us.

God is moved to forgive us because of the life and death of Jesus alone. That is the only thing that moves God’s heart to be forgiving towards us. God the Father is moved to forgive us because in His life, Jesus fulfilled everything that the Law demanded of us. God the Father is moved to forgive us because in His death, Jesus paid the penalty of all of our sins.

It is a most wonderful thing that our forgiveness depends not on us, but on Jesus. Otherwise we would be hopeless. We turn away from sin only to fall into it again. Forgiveness cannot depend on us. Jesus knows this. That’s why when the owner of the vineyard wants to cut down the barren fig tree, Jesus intercedes. He says, “Forgive him this year also, until I dig around and put on manure.” Jesus says that He is going to work on the barren tree. He says, “I will dig. I will fertilize.”

Jesus is going to work on the sinner. He is going to dig with His Law. He is going to fertilize with His Gospel. He’s going to do it even more. He’s been doing it up until now, but He’s going to do it even more. He is going to remind you even more that you are baptized into Him. He is going to absolve you even more of all your sins. He is going to give you His body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins even more. He’s going to give you more forgiveness because He doesn’t want you cut down and thrown out of the vineyard.

There’s no question of whether or not we deserve to be cut down and thrown out of the Church. But Jesus pleads for more time for us. He’s going to work more through His Word in our hearts. He’s going to turn our hearts more. He’s going to keep heaping forgiveness onto us every time we fall into sin. He’s going to give us a desire to read His Word more which strengthens our faith. He’s going to give us a desire to receive His body and blood more for the forgiveness of our sins. He’s going to heap so much forgiveness onto us that we cannot help but bear fruit; we cannot help but keep turning away from sin; we cannot help but want to remain in His vineyard, the Church, where He digs and fertilizes so that we will live forever.

At some point in time we will all face death, whether through a disaster or otherwise. That death or disaster will be harmless to us because of the work Jesus does in us in turning us away from sin and the work He has accomplished in forgiving us all of our sin. So even disaster is nothing for us to fear. Even shocking tragedies don’t remove us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Even a disastrous death is not a judgment for those who are in Christ, but our death is always the door to heaven. So do not fear disaster; Jesus will work in you and you will live forever. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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