Here's where we began last week:
Suffering and loss are probably two of the biggest challenges to faith. They're two of the primary reasons non-believers give for being non-believers. When you talk with people who are unsure about what they believe, you will likely hear something about suffering and loss. People struggle with reconciling a loving God with evil and the hardships that strike us in this life.
How do you talk to hurting people about the Christian faith in the context of suffering and loss? You first have to know what to believe. Therefore, you have to know what the Bible says.
We ended with a story about how tragedy struck when a young boy died after being hit by a car. After the funeral, a well-meaning friend of the family said this to his mother:
"I know this is tragic and heart-breaking, but don't forget that God knew what He was doing." That comment pierced a grieving mom's heart.
For years, that little boy's grieving mom couldn't shake those words. What kind of God would take her precious little boy from her in that manner? How could she believe in such a God?
I think these kinds of situations intimidate a lot of us. As empathetic people, we internalize the immediacy of the moment. We think about our loved ones, and how a tragic death would hit us. We can't help but put ourselves in their shoes. At the same time, our heart breaks for the person who has lost so much. We think we need to say something. Our minds might begin putting together what to say at a deeper level.
The Bible teaches that timing is everything. There's a time to every season, says Ecclesiastes. There's a time for every purpose. That's always good advice, especially in difficult situations or tight spaces. In the immediacy of tragic loss, a loving and compassionate presence is all that is needed. Then later, when the time feels right, it's always good to talk about deeper things.
Let me encourage you, when God places you in a situation where someone you know has just experienced a devastating loss, that you know what to do. I think you know. Words are not necessary. Listening is. Grace and mercy are. An embrace answers the sadness. Simply sitting with someone allows the confusion to settle. Words will come later.
Later, then, how we think about tragedy and loss will inform our words. What does the Bible say about these things?
Let's return to Luke 13:1-9:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “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. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: 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.” And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
As we saw last week, Jesus seizes on two calamities to talk about when bad things happen to unsuspecting people. Pay attention to how that's worded. It's not when bad things happen to good people. It's never that, because none of us are good. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. So Luke presents case studies of when bad things happen to unsuspecting people.
As a side note, I love what Charles Spurgeon once said about our sinful nature:
"The true penitent repents of sin against God, and he would do so even if there were no punishment."
We are sinful by nature, but not always knowledgeable of our sin nor
desirous to confess our sin. But make no mistake. As Spurgeon points out, there is punishment for our sin. As Luke 13 directs our thoughts, the question is what role, if any, does our sin play in relationship to our hardships.
Both situations addressed in Luke 13 - the massacre and the fallen tower - first remind us how precarious our lives are. Jesus implies that the victims did nothing wrong that led to their deaths. Clearly Jesus recognizes the capricious nature of life. To paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, life can be nasty, brutish, and short. That's neither negative nor cynical. It is simply a realistic understanding of life.
One of the most striking things Jesus doesn't do is defend God against charges of mismanaging the universe. That's usually the first place people go, right? How could a loving God let this happen? If we haven't said that, we've probably heard it uttered more than once. With his initial response of, "No, I tell you," Jesus is suggesting we shouldn't equate tragedy with divine punishment. Sin doesn't always make atrocities happen. Atrocities can be the result of sinful behavior. Pain and sorrow can be the result of sinful behavior. But, like the Tower of Siloam, sometimes bad stuff simply happens.
In the grand scheme of God's purposes, there are some things we'll never understand or be able to fully explain.
So, then, what does Jesus do? He talks about repentance. He flips the script. What's going to happen to you when the towers crash on your head? Will you be ready? Jesus seems to be warning against false self-assurances. We are not going to be okay on our own. The fragility of life demands urgency. Are we holding on to God's graciousness?
That's the point of the last piece to this triune teaching. The massacre. The tower. And the fig tree. It almost seems like one of those, "Which one of these doesn't belong" exercises. But the fig tree does belong.
After asking if we'll be ready when the tower falls on us, Jesus moves on to an unproductive fruit tree. Here's the point:
A cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do.
If, when next year comes and it's still not bearing fruit, then it can be cut down.
Jesus is talking here about false reassurance. Just because the tree hasn't been cut down doesn't mean that it is bearing fruit. Just because you haven't experienced some sort of tragedy in your life doesn't mean that you are a good person or are living a favored life.
Hear the tone in the parable. Patience and mercy temporarily keep judgment at bay. The role of the gardener in the parable embodies this patience and mercy. And don't miss the point that the tree has not been left to its own devices. Everything possible is being done to get it to act as it should. In the same way, it is God who works in us to encourage repentance.
At the end of the parable, we are left hanging. How will it play out? We aren't told. For now, the tree lives within a state of grace and mercy. So repent. There is urgency in Jesus' voice. Repent. Every time we hear a story of tragedy and loss, we need to make sure we are ready. While tragedy and hardship can nudge people closer to God, Luke 13 suggests that tragedy and hardship can come so suddenly that they often mark the end of opportunities to draw close to God.
In the end, no matter how many advances in technology and medicine we enjoy, we are vulnerable creatures. We can't always presume to protect or preserve ourselves. But even in our uncertain state, our outlook on repentance arcs toward joy. It's grace just to be alive. Here's how Isaiah 35:10 puts it:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Here's a response you might want to write down:
RANSOMED FOR EVERLASTING JOY!
So what would you say to a grieving mother who, long after the funeral of her precious child, still struggled to understand why?
Remember, you've already been a loving presence. You haven't felt the need to give good answers. As the Bible teaches us, weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Sometimes knowing when to be silent so that God can prepare someone's heart and mind to hear the gospel is the best advice to heed in the moment. The time for words will come later.
So what would you say to a grieving mother? When the dust settles, there may be more openness to share the gospel. That's when you approach gently and with great tenderness.
God is sovereign. He knows what He is doing. Even in the midst of tragedy, God is not surprised or caught unaware.
Could God have kept that little boy from darting out into the street? Of course. Why, then, didn't He? Why did God allow it to happen? How do you answer those questions?
Life is precious. We are fragile. Bad things happen. Sin is our greatest problem. Yet God, in His mercy and grace, has provided a way out. Jesus Christ has overcome sin and death. Jesus Christ has eternally rescued us from falling towers and massacres and car accidents.
Believe in Jesus Christ, not so he will save you, but believe in Jesus Christ because he has saved you.
And when the tower falls on you, you will see what your child already knows and what God allowed John to see:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped. - Revelation 5:9-14