Lent 3C Sermon (1998)

3rd Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 13:1-9;
Is 55:1-9; 1 Cor 10:1-13


Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live…. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. (Is. 55:3a, 8)

“Listen, so that you may live.” That’s the issue that God most desperately wants us to listen about. Living. Life. “Listen, so that you may live.” Yet our ways and our thoughts are so different from God’s. We should ask: Are they so different that it is difficult, almost impossible, for us to listen when God is talking to us about life? Do these differences stuff our ears so that we aren’t willing to truly hear?

Then we might ask: Can we not hear God about life because our ways and thoughts are actually too much about death? In other words: are we so oriented toward death that we cannot hear God talking to us about life, true life, eternal life? Lent is a time of repentance. Should we take a hard look at ourselves and our orientation towards death so that we will be ready to truly hear and celebrate those words of eternal life that we proclaim on Easter? Is our God desperately trying to get us to hear? “Listen,” God pleads with us, “so that you may live!”

I must begin today by confessing to you that I am scared to death to even preach on this theme. I’m not sure I want to hear it myself. And I’m afraid that I might be transgressing into an area that we are not really ready to listen to, even yet. For I feel that our own culture is based in death as much as any other that has gone before it. In fact, there are ways in which it might even be more so.

Let’s look at today’s gospel. Someone in the crowd mentions a bloody incident of Pilate’s troops killing some Galilean locals, and so Jesus uses this as an occasion to challenge a widely held human belief — namely, that those who die are being punished by God. An extension of this belief is that we, the good guys, should sometimes kill the bad guys to carry out God’s punishment against them. Jesus asks the question for them and then answers it himself: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus says something similar to this at his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. When a disciple draws a sword, Jesus says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” “You will all perish as they did.” In other words: If you think that Jesus wants us to kill the bad guys in order to bring God’s punishment upon them, then you’re wrong. If you don’t repent, if you don’t turn to a different way of thinking and doing things, then you will die in that same way. “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

But Jesus even extends this point about death from this instance of violent death to one of accidental death. It’s not just about death involving human violence. The same point can be made about accidental deaths, like a tower falling over and killing people, or a deadly tornado, or catching AIDS. If we see these things as punishments from God, and if we don’t repent, if we don’t turn to another way of thinking, then we will die under the delusion of that same way of thinking. We will die thinking that God is punishing us. “We will all perish just as they did.”

What does this all boil down to? This: Jesus came to show us that God absolutely does not bring death to punish sinners. Quite the opposite, Jesus took our human form of punishment upon himself to show us the foolishness of such things. Our thoughts and ways may be tied to death, but, when God raises Jesus from the dead, God shows us once and for all that God is all about life, not death. God is about forgiveness, not punishment. God is about blessings, not curses.

It is very difficult for us to imagine the huge change of perception underway here. It is nothing less than a change of gods, a conversion, because the people Jesus is talking to have not been listening to the true God’s words of life. It is as a change from a god who is both good and bad, who both loves and punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). Jesus is beginning to teach this to his disciples here, but it will remain incomprehensible to them until after the resurrection.

What about us almost two thousand years after the resurrection? Have we been listening? Yes and no. I said earlier that in some ways our thinking is focused around death as much as any other culture’s, maybe more. Here’s what I mean. There has been a big change for us in one respect. It used to be that cultures tied all their strong feelings about death to their religion. Gods and the sacred were always used to explain death. In fact, gods and the Sacred were used to explain a lot of things. But now we do have another major means of explanation that we call science. Much of what used to be explained by people’s ideas about gods is now explained by science. If someone clutches their chest and falls over dead, in past days, people used to say a demon or a god got them. Now, we say a heart attack got them. This is a good thing! First of all, this scientific explanation means we can also begin to help people not fall to heart attacks so much. With the correct explanation, we’ve learned open heart surgeries that save lives. We’ve learned preventive medicine tied to diet and lifestyles that saves lives.

But the other good thing about scientific explanations is that we’ve taken God more and more out of the equation when it comes to events that lead to death. I think this is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples on that day long ago, that we should no longer automatically bring God into those explanations of why people die. Science takes over a lot of the why-questions by turning them into how-questions, by showing us how things work in this world.

Science has brought about what we call secularization. Secularization is the process of removing religious mystery from what used to surround much of our understanding of the world. Many, many things that used to have religious explanations — involving spirits and angels and demons and gods — many of those things now have scientific explanations and the mystery is removed.

But there is one thing that science has not been able to remove the mystery from, and that, my friends, is death itself. Science has not been able to explain away death’s mystery, so we have remained as fixated as ever on death. Because we no longer are accustomed to being confronted by mystery, I think that we spend much of our time running away from a mystery like death. We do everything we can to ignore it, to put it off. Then, when we are forced to confront it, we become hung up on it. We can even become mesmerized by it, unlike most other things in our experience, precisely because it remains a mystery to us. Yes, I’m afraid our culture remains as hung up on death as ever.

We probably could use some examples at this point, of how our culture is fixated on death. The easiest would be some of the rock music our kids listen to, whose lyrics are so focused on death. A lot of the symbolization and staging around these rock groups is extremely morbid and death-oriented. Some of their rock stars even end up killing themselves. Have you heard music by the group Nirvana, whose lead singer, Kurt Cobain, killed himself? We worry when our kids get caught up in it.

But to be fair, I should also mention a work of music like the one played by the Racine Symphony Orchestra last weekend. Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings” is a modern masterpiece of music, sophisticated and highly cultured. It was played well, and we enjoyed the music. But what was the theme of this piece of music? A number of love poems that wallowed in imagery of death. These poems seemingly romanticized death.

A similar thing could be said about other areas in our culture, like movies. We are frightened by the graphic violence and death in the movies that our children enjoy. But, again, I can risk pointing to one that obviously more than just our children have enjoyed, the blockbuster movie “The Titanic.” What if we replaced the Titanic accident in Jesus’ question about the tower of Siloam? Do we understand death any better not to get hung up on it, when we flock to a movie about the tragic death of so many people? Why are we fascinated by it so? You might respond, “But, Pastor Paul, it’s such a nice love story. I go to it for the love story.” That might be true. But should we ask ourselves, then, what is this all about to mix a love story with a tragic story of death? Are we somehow romanticizing death? Is it a sign of our being mesmerized by it?

Well, we could have some fun debating that point about The Titanic. It would also be interesting to further look into how our romantic ideals of love are bound up with death — so many popular love songs, for instance, with the theme, ‘I can’t live without her/him.’

But it’s a more serious matter to close this morning by considering if we have sometimes taken a similar romanticizing tendency to the cross of Jesus and to our faith. There is that common Lenten piety that focuses on the cross as “Jesus died for me,” and then usually goes on to marvel at ‘how much Jesus loved me to do this.’ But sometimes I wonder if that is the same kind of romanticized love attached to a movie like “The Titanic.” We focus too much on the death all bound up with love and are mesmerized by it.

I’m certainly not against love! But remember that God’s way and thoughts are different than our ways. How different is God’s agape love as revealed in the cross from our romanticized versions of love? And is the difference between our cultures of death and God’s absolute orientation to life the key to the difference between those kinds of love? The cross shows us the power of God’s love to break our romance with death. God’s love unbinds us from death’s hold on us. We need no longer be mesmerized by it. Neither need we take a stoic attitude that essentially is just a way of running away from death.

I find myself wanting to elaborate on “Jesus died for me.” Perhaps at least something like, “Jesus died to destroy death … for me.” Or, “Jesus died and was raised from the dead to show the meaninglessness and emptiness of death … for me.” “Jesus died and was raised so that I might no longer be afraid of death, be obsessed with death, but that I might instead truly live for life.”

This Lenten season we once again have the opportunity to repent, so that we will not perish like others who died enslaved to death. Eternal life begins now when we embrace that love which breaks into our romance with death. It empowers us to live anew today, because we are forgiven. Let us listen and live. Let us repent once again this Lent, so that we will be ready to truly hear and celebrate those words of eternal life that we proclaim on Easter. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 14-15, 1998

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