On December 26th, the earth shook, the waters rose and within hours nearly 200,00 people and counting lost their lives. Millions lost homes and possessions, thousands lost one, two or more family members, hundreds of villages were swallowed up by the sea. Now disease, starvation and terror haunts the coastlines of over 11 different countries. Our modern media has brought the horror to our televisions. The images and the stories are heart-rending. A mother forced to choose which child to let go in the raging torrent. Paralyzed children trapped in hospital beds helpless as the waves crashed into their rooms. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand no longer exotic destinations, but vivid reminders of the fury of nature and the shortness of life.
Now it is human nature to ask the question why. Scientist show computer models of shifting plates and flow dynamics, rescue workers decry the lack of an early warning system, politicians point fingers and kooks find shadowy conspiracies of secret nuclear tests. Who can explain? Who can be blamed? What could we do?
Yet regardless of the all the human explanations and finger-pointing, eventually all our questions of why and blame end up with God. An old woman from the devastated village in southern Indias Tamil Nadu state speaks for so many when she says: "Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?"
On Larry King, in countless newspaper stories and magazine articles, clergy from all the major faiths have attempted to speak for God. Hindu villagers, most affected by the tsunami speak of capricious gods, Buddhists monks talk of karma and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, Muslims preach Allahs judgment upon the world and some Christians see another indication that we are living in the last days. Everyone is looking for a reason. Everyone wants to know why?
Answers are what the crowds want from Jesus. The countryside has been ablaze with the talk of the twin tragedies that had befallen Israel. To the north in Galilee, Pilate has orchestrated the slaughter of men in their place of worship and has dared to mingle their blood with the blood of the sacrifices. In Jerusalem, eighteen have been crushed to death when the Tower of Siloam fell upon them. Faced with the twin poles of human evil and natural disaster, the people are groping for answers. And in a country so steeped in faith God, answers need to be more than just tales of loose mortar or Roman business as usual.
What, they ask, does Jesus have to say about this? Contemporary Jewish thought was that bad things happened to bad people. Since these disasters had befallen these people perhaps they deserved it? Perhaps they were worse sinners than the rest? Jesus, what do you think? Who is to blame? What is the reason? Jesus tell us why...
Yes, Jesus tell us why. Wouldn't we all like to ask that question? Tsunamis killed hundred so thousands, Jesus tell us why? Dozens die in Californian mudslides, Jesus tell us why? Planes crash into Twin towers..War rages in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jesus tell us why. Someone we love is diagnosed with cancer. Jesus tell us why. Marriages fall apart, jobs are lost, futures are threatened, Jesus tell us why? Tragedies great and small befall each of us. Jesus tell us why. If we only knew the reason...Maybe we could make sense of it all.
I don't know about you, but Jesus' answer catches me a little off guard: "Do you think that these Galileans were worst sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way...Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
At first glance it seems that Jesus is correcting that mistaken notion that bad things only happen to bad people. But a deeper reading seems to suggest that we are asking the wrong questions. We come to Jesus looking for reasons - he questions us about our readiness. We come looking for a bit of comfort and we find confrontation. We ask, "Why should it happen?" He asks, "Why shouldn't it happen?"
There are two contrasting realities at work in our world and in this text. The first is the reality of sin. The second the reality of grace. First Jesus reminds us of the reality of sin. Notice closely what he said: "Do you think that these Galileans were worst sinners......do you think they (Jerusalemites) were more guilty..." Note that Jesus is not absolving those who died of their sins - rather he is involving us in the same sinful condition. The reason why buildings fall, tyrants slaughter, tsunamis rise and flooding rains fall is because we all are part and parcel of a sinful world. Ever since our first parents took a bite of the rotten apple, our world has become a place of thorns and shadows. And all of us have been poisoned by that fruit. None of us are greater sinners, but none of us are lesser sinners either. Paul will later capsulize this in Romans when he says "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Bad things happen to people because all of us are bad and live in a bad world. Jesus is telling those who have gathered around him that they are asking him the wrong question. It is not "Why did these people suffer such a cruel fate?" But rather they should be asking "Why hasn't a similar fate befallen us?" That is a pretty frightening question isn't it? Why wasn't it my car that crashed? Why wasn't it my loved one who has cancer? Why wasn't my home wiped out by a natural disaster? Those who were killed at the order of Pilate, those who died when the tower, those who perished in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere; they were no more guilty, no greater sinners than you or I. The real question we need to be asking today is not why them? But why not me?
Ahh, that is the second reality at work in the world today. The reality that Jesus reveals in the parable he relates concerning the master, the gardener and the barren fig tree. For you see, this parable is a parable of grace. As sinners all of us are barren trees. In spite of the care given us, we have refused to bear fruit. God has every right to cut us down and cast us away. The law stands: "The wages of sin is death." But because of the earnest intercession of Jesus we have been given a second chance. A second, third, fourth, fifth chance to respond to God and to bear the ripe fruit of repentance. Peter perhaps reflecting upon this parable will later write: "..do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, a thousand years like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise...He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." Every breath that we take is a gift from the grace of God. Another moment of life sustained by his life-giving spirit. But let us not squander it...
You see one day - and only God alone knows when - the door of opportunity will be closed. This parable of another chance should not blind us to the fact that someday will be the last chance. Jesus doesn't give us a reason for why things happen in this world the way they do - he is more concerned with our readiness for when they do. "But unless you repent, you too will perish!" Jesus said.
When the tsunami stuck early that Sunday morning, most people were just getting up, but in one small coastal village, the little church was packed with Christians celebrating the birth of the one come to save. As the waves began to crash against the makeshift chapel, songs were being lifted in praise, prayers were being offered and the faithful were getting ready for the day their Lord would return for them. Reports tell us that there were no survivors among that village congregation. We know differently, even as the angry waters rose, the one who walked upon the stormy waves came and took them by the hand and took them home. Because they were ready, they are more alive today than they ever were on earth.
How about you? Are you ready? None of us knows when our time on this earth will come to an end. None us knows if next time it will be our time. A storm, a drunk driver, a heart attack, cancer or a myriad of ways our life here might end. Dear friends, none of us knows even if we will be in this place next week. We have only this moment by the grace of God. Don't close the door on that grace. It may never be open again.