At 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.”
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 around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
We spent the last two weeks talking about Job’s story. We talked about Job’s courage in suffering holding faith and honesty together. We also talked about being a good friend for people who are suffering. Today’s sermon builds on that as we look at suffering as a call to repentance and a call to action. Our reading from John reminds us that repentance has to lead to action, so the call to action and the call to repentance are tied together.
In the first passage Jesus is told about Pontius Pilate murdering worshipers at the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a shocking story and we might expect Jesus to offer some explanation, but he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus uses this event and an even more random news item: a tower collapsing and killing 18 people, as examples of how unpredictable life is. He rejects the idea that the people Pilate killed or the folks who died in the tower collapse were killed because they were particularly sinful. Jesus says that everyone is sinful, and we all need to repent. We all need to change our lives. And we need to do it now, because today could be our last.
There are lots of times we don’t understand suffering and death. In this passage Jesus doesn’t even bother to speculate about the cause of suffering. He just reminds the crowd that life is uncertain, so we should change our lives for the better now. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so now is the time to repent.
Any time we delay getting our life right with God we are rolling the dice. The same is true with leaving love unspoken or conflict with friends and family unresolved. If you die before the day is over, what would you truly regret? What crucial words have you not said? What is your conscience uneasy about? Do something to change that situation before the sun goes down today.
Our passage from John takes things in a different direction. The disciples ask Jesus how sin is related to suffering. They assume that suffering is a result of sin, but they’re not sure if it was the man or his parents’ sin that lead to his blindness.
Jesus says sin has nothing to do with it. The man isn’t suffering because of his sin; instead, his suffering is an opportunity to show God’s power. People don’t necessarily suffer because of sin, and it’s not really our role to try to assign blame for suffering anyway. Instead, suffering is a chance to show God’s love.
Again, Jesus mentions that the time available to us might be short; it certainly was for him. That means now is the time to do good. We often don’t know the reason for suffering, but we can figure out some ways to help. If someone is hungry, we can share a meal with them. If someone is lonely, we can spend time with them. If someone is afraid, we can show them they are not alone.
Why did Superstorm Sandy devastate the New Jersey and New York coasts? We could say something about it from a meterological perspective: something about low pressure system hitting a high pressure region in just the right way to cause a particular storm. Some people might say something about climate change. We can talk about building codes and suburban sprawl and urban crowding.
But more than that, more than answers or speculation, God calls us to respond to suffering by putting our love in action. Our calling isn’t to assign blame; it’s to roll up our sleeves and help. That’s what our wider church is doing through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and that’s what members of our church and our presbytery did through a recent mission trip to New Jersey.
We’ve seen a few pictures and there will be more to come. We’ve heard some stories, and I’ll bet members of our team would love to share more at coffee hour. When people are hurting, it means the world to know that someone cares. It means so much for homeowners to see regular Christians showing up at their house to help. It reminds them that they are not alone. It reminds them that even though the world dissolved into chaos for them last year, God hasn’t forgotten them.
We never know what God is going to do with our help. There are times we feel helpless because our efforts seem so small against the enormous suffering of the world. We can sweep debris and hang new drywall, but there are other houses still in ruins. We can tutor a child, but there are still hundreds more who are falling further behind each day.
There is always more to do, but God can do amazing things even with our smallest efforts. Maybe the neighbor of your homeowner in New Jersey had a bad experience in church that left her bitter about Christianity. Maybe now she has a new image of what Christians are like. Maybe next year she will wander into a church and hear a message that will move her to faith.
Maybe the spouse of one of the people on the mission trip felt stifled in his faith because he has never seen a connection between the Bible and his work. Maybe his wife’s story of transformation through the trip will lead him to ask deeper questions about his career. Maybe that will lead him to change his focus in a way that opens up a new world of faith and vocation.
Maybe Jesus’ death and resurrection never made sense to you before. Maybe you thought it was a bloody tragedy you wanted nothing to do with or a fairy tale ending made up by people two thousand years ago. Maybe one of the pictures of devastation and recovery catches your eye in a way that troubles your heart. Maybe you’ll be stuck with that image this afternoon in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. Maybe you’ll have your mind on something else entirely Tuesday morning when a voice inside you whispers that death has to come before resurrection and that new life can appear where you least expect it.
Friends of mine gave me a toolbox for my 21st birthday. That toolbox is in my closet at home like it’s been in the closet of each of the eight places I’ve lived since college. When they gave me the box they put a poem in it that is still there now. It was written by R.L. Sharpe in 1890 and it’s a great fit today:
Each is given a bag of tools, A shapeless mass, A book of rules;
And each must make, Ere life is flown, A stumbling block Or a stepping stone.
Suffering can be a huge stumbling block for our faith. We wonder why such terrible things happen. We can’t figure out how a loving God allows such tragedy. That question can stall our faith. It can trip us up and keep us from reaching out to God. Or it can be an opportunity for us to reach out to our suffering neighbor with love, remembering that Jesus reached out to those who were suffering.
Suffering reminds us that life is uncertain and that the material things we collect in this world will not last. It invites us to examine our lives, and turn to God. John’s forceful preaching reminds us that repentance isn’t just a spiritual exercise; it’s got to bear fruit our lives visibly. The main way we change our lives is by reaching out to someone else to make their suffering more bearable.
We aren’t going to have all the answers we want, but we have the tools we need for our first step. So please, don’t wait. Make peace. Reach out to your neighbor. Tell your sister you love her. Feed someone who is hungry. Repent and believe the good news that God is love. Make that love your mission in the world. Now is the time.
Thanks be to God.