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20th March 2022

Asking Why

Passage: Luke 13; 1-9


Tragedy. Responding to tragedy is perhaps the most challenging aspect of being a Christian. How can we declare belief in a loving God in the face of a human tragedy?
Some disasters are, admittedly human-made. War, terrorism, bullying, abuse, even spiritual blackmail inflicted by hard-line religion produce millions of innocent victims. The people in our reading were talking to Jesus about an atrocity committed by Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of their land. As the Jewish people had crowded into Jerusalem for the festival of Passover- a celebration of God’s victory over tyranny- Pilate was quick to stamp out the slightest hint of any uprising and so-according to this story- had murdered the pilgrims and mixed their blood with that of the animals sacrificed in the temple, combining physical violence with religious profanity to produce the cruellest possible punishment.
“And where,” the people wondered, “had the God who rescued our ancestors from slavery been when this was going on? What had these people done that God had not delivered them?”

Even if you allow for freedom of human will and the delight some people take in cruelty, there is still a lot of inexplicable tragedy left to face: young people diagnosed with terminal cancer; babies born with terrible and painful disabilities; earthquakes, tsunamis, accidents striking without warning. We don’t know much about the tower in Siloam which collapsed. It may not have been built safely enough in the first place. Or it may have been a freak accident. But again, people were asking, “why? Why is God allowing this to happen? Look at the broken, grieving, wounded people, Jesus, and tell us why.”

Asking why is what makes us human; it is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom. So there will always be challenging questions hurled at our faith when tragedy strikes, and many of those questions we ask for ourselves.

Theology. So, what is our theology (understanding of God) in the face of tragedy? The people talking to Jesus had been taught that tragedy was the direct result of sin. If you did wrong God would punish you with sickness or poverty, just as He rewarded the good with prosperity and happiness. You will find a lot of this teaching in the Old Testament. It is a nice, neat explanation but it does not work: good people suffer just as much as bad.

Also, in the Old Testament, you find the story of Job, a truly good man who suffered the loss of his home, his living, nearly all his family and his health. His friends were convinced that Job must have done something wrong, even if he did not know it, and this was God’s punishment. The writer’s explanation was that Satan, the devil, had got permission from God to torment Job to test his faith. Would Job hold his faith in God as his whole life fell apart? God bet “yes” and Satan bet “no.”

Even today people are told that God is ‘testing” their faith or that God has a reason for inflicting tragedy, although they may not see it right now. I have to say that I have known many people who have come through tragedy with tremendous courage; who have used their pain to do good for others; who have become, if anything, stronger, kinder, wiser in the process. And yes, they have praised God and acknowledged his power holding them up. But that is not quite the same thing as saying that God deliberately inflicted trouble upon them in the first place.

Jesus denies that the people suffering under Pilate or as a result of the tower falling had done anything to deserve this pain. Nor is he suggesting that God made it happen. He does not actually explain why such things happen at all, not here or anywhere else. Which is why I feel no shame in saying “I don’t know,” when people ask why? I would rather admit to ignorance than offer explanations which will only inflict more pain. And it was Frederick Buechner who pointed out that explanations are totally inadequate in the face of tragedy anyway. “Would Job have been comforted by explanations a to the reasons why his home and livelihood and family were all destroyed?” An oncologist once very helpfully explained to me why a young father in my church was dying of cancer whilst an elderly man was weeping because he had survived it. There was a medical explanation. The younger you are, the faster the cells grow in your body and unfortunately, that includes cancer cells. It was an explanation, but it brought no comfort.

My great-grandmother was called to the home of a neighbour whose only child had died. “I did not know what to say,” she said. I just sat, held her hand and cried with her.” Is this theology or am I drifting from the point here? We’ll come back.

Turning. What Jesus did say to the people asking why, was that unless they “repented,” they might well suffer as the innocent victims of Pilate and the collapsing tower had suffered. But, is this not the same as saying that people deserve a tragedy which strikes their life? No, it is not. “Repentance,” literally means “turning around.” It is not so much about guilt over the past as about planning change in the future.

Going back to the story of Job, it all comes to a head in a magnificent confrontation between God and Job. God directs Job to look at the sheer complexity of the universe- it’s beauty, order and balance, and also the chaos which causes upheaval. (Chapters 38-41). And God demands whether Job has known and understood everything about life from its beginning because “if so, you must be very old…”

This strikes me as an incredibly honest speech for the writer to place into the mouth of God: that life and the forces behind life are so complex that we cannot expect to understand them in our brief lifespan and that the creating and sustaining of life is no one-off, seven-day creation project but a work of eternity from which even God can never rest. So, it is not just about admitting, “I don’t know,” but acknowledging that, “I can’t know.”

But…is that it? No. in using the word “repentance,” here, Jesus is offering hope; hope that life might well be better in the future if we turn our lives around. Going back to the preaching of John the Baptist, whose “key word” was “repent,” he was challenging people to turn their lives around from looking only to their own concerns to facing God. And, the more they looked at God, the more clearly they would see life from a global perspective; they would see the world as God sees the world and they would get involved with the most powerful, life-transforming love imaginable; a love which would be seen personally to take on the tragedy in human life and overcome it- not by making it all go away but by transforming it into something new. John had promised that Jesus would pour out the Holy Spirit of power, hope and renewal.

Jesus’ little parable of the fig-tree demonstrates how easy it is to lose hope in life and in ourselves when everything seems to go wrong, and we find ourselves incapable of being what we want to be. “Cut the thing down,” says one man, “it is no use.” “No,” says the other, “let’s give it encouragement and support and maybe it will “turn around” and produce something better.”

Transformation. We cannot help asking questions- it is in our nature. And asking the question why is the first step in finding the solution to a problem and transforming our life. But explanations alone will never be enough. We have seen or even known for ourselves the horrors of serious illness, heart breaking bereavement, war and terrorism, natural disasters and yes, we are getting better at working out the causes behind such things. We are an incredible race. But finding out why tragedy happens is not enough. We also need the courage, the conviction and the compassion to set ourselves to overcoming tragedy. And what breaks my heart is the sheer enormity of time, money, intelligence and skill lavished on creating weapons of war which might have been lavished on finding a cure for cancer or safety from earthquakes.
St Paul wrote that the whole world is groaning, like a woman in labour, waiting for the people of God to come to the fore.
In other words, our best hope for a better world lies in God because God alone has the wisdom, the compassion and the saving grace we need.

So going back to my great-grandmother, weeping with the mother who had lost her child and holding her hand, yes, to me, that is a kind of theology, saying something important about God. To have someone sit beside you, say nothing because there is nothing to be said, but hold your hand when you are going through hell, lets you know that you are not totally alone and that, when the moment comes to face life again, that hand will still be there to help you up.
And if that hand is the hand of God, it is not just offering sympathy but much, much more. It is an opening up of a whole relationship of power and love; a receiving of grace for daily living; an understanding of life that is open-ended rather than cut and dried. God’s is the hand that will guide us into whole-life discipleship- where the work we do, the relationships we form, the homes we create all come to reflect the values of God and transform the world into the kingdom of God.

In the face of tragedy, Jesus calls us to turn around and look at God; accept the salvation offered to us through his love and self-sacrifice; and go forward in hope to transform the world. Amen.