Luke 13:1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 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? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
A grandmother dies unexpectedly. A middle school student learns she has cancer. A friend is hospitalized. Another friend becomes weak and homebound. A senior citizen suffers a heart attack while on vacation. A baby is born 3 months prematurely. A family member is murdered.
These are all events that have happened recently to Epiphany members or friends and family of our members.
So why do these kinds of bad things happen to us?
The false teaching of Jesus’ day said that these people were bad and therefore they are suffering as a result of something they’ve done wrong. That is karma. The heresy of our day says that suffering is inevitable. These people are just unlucky recipients of an indifferent universe. That is evolutionary fatalism. Or, another common current lie is that when innocent victims suffer terrible tragedies, then they must automatically go to heaven – whatever heaven, that is. That is universalism.
When we try to find an answer for our suffering by asking, “Why?”, we won’t like any of the answers we get.
If God is able to prevent suffering but doesn’t, then He must be vindictive.
If God is willing to prevent suffering but doesn’t, then He must not be all-powerful.
If God is neither able nor willing to prevent suffering, then why call Him God?
One day a group of people comes to Jesus with a “Why?” question. They tell Jesus about a time when some Galileans were offering their sacrifices in the temple. Pontius Pilate sent his Roman soldiers into the temple to kill them. It was a bloody mass murder.
The people assume that these Galileans suffered this horrific death because they were worse sinners than others who weren’t killed. Jesus rejects that conclusion. Instead, He answers their “Why” question with the answer, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”
Jesus adds to their example with an example of His own. “When the tower near the pool of Siloam fell killing eighteen people, were they more guilty of sin than others living in Jerusalem at the time?” Once again, He rejects their “Why” conclusion. He gives His own answer, “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish.”
Jesus does not try to answer their “Why?” questions. Instead, He takes those examples of sudden, unexpected death and uses them to call attention to matters of life and death. Death could come at any time. Without saying it, Jesus is pointedly asking if you are ready for death.
Jesus’ answer of, “Repent, or you too will perish” doesn’t seem like much of an answer. But that’s because the people were asking the wrong question. Jesus gives the appropriate answer to their inappropriate question. He stresses the urgency of our repentance. He is warning that suffering and death and judgment could come at any time. Something far worse than being cut down by Pilate’s soldiers or having a tower fall on you could happen. Something even worse than a tumor or a car accident or a heart attack could happen at any moment. That something worse that could happen is hell.
That is why Jesus isn’t so focused on your earthly suffering. He is more focused on your eternal soul. He is concerned about your body. But He is even more concerned about your faith.
Jesus calls for you to repent. He desires for you to turn from your life of sin and decadence. If you keep on purposely sinning, you are showing everyone – Jesus included – that you love sin more than you love the Lord. You might try to wiggle out of repentance by saying that you love Jesus. But Jesus says that love for Him demonstrates itself in not just hearing, but also doing His words. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28). Jesus’ words reveal that He is clearly against sin – every sin – all sin. That’s why He so strongly calls for you to repent of your sins.
Therefore, if you let sin reign in your mortal bodies, if you intentionally keep on sinning by not giving up the sin, you jeopardize your eternal salvation. A Christian without repentance is not a Christian. Faith without works is dead. A fig tree without fruit will be cut down. There must be repentance. Then you will bear the fruits of repentance.
Jesus knows we would rather look away from our repentance to someone or something to blame for tragedy. We want to believe that catastrophe must be punishment for a particularly bad sin. Were the people who were killed by a hurricane or left homeless because of a tornado or suffered a stroke or whose child died worse sinners than everyone else? Jesus answers, “No.” You cannot work backward and deduce a person’s sinfulness based on the tragedies that happen to them.
While Jesus doesn’t give us the reason for the tragedy, He does, however, say what we are to do when we hear of tragedy, “Unless you repent, you will all perish, too.” Whenever we see or hear of a catastrophe we are to repent, knowing that we deserve the same, or worse, and that it is only by God’s grace that we are spared and given another day. God’s purpose is always repentance – that we are sorry for our sins and at the same time trusting that our sins are forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross.
Our sinful flesh reacts just the opposite when tragedy strikes. It rises up in pride and anger against God and cries, “How could you let this happen, God!?” Our sinful flesh thinks it deserves peace and happiness and health with no suffering. But faith knows better. Faith declares that we deserve nothing that the Lord gives. May God grant that tragedies, big and small, always lead us to repentance and not a hardened heart, to humility and not pride.
We want an answer to our “why” question? But Jesus says, “No, I’m not going to answer that question because it is the wrong question.” He is the God who does give answer to our other questions, though.
“How?” He is the God who suffered Himself so that He can help us in our suffering (Hebrews 2:18). He is the God who became man so that He might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).
“What?” He is the God who will never leave you in your sickness. He will never forsake you in your brokenness. He has washed you with His Baptism. Fed you with His Supper. Cleansed you with His blood. Forgiven you with His sacrifice. Paid for you with His suffering.
“Where?” He is the God who goes into the hospital room with scared parents. The God who goes with terrified patients in the back of the ambulance. The God who goes with grieving spouses to the graveside. He is the God who knows what suffering and death and life look like because He went to all those places Himself.
“When?” He is the God who from eternity that He would become man to suffer God’s eternal wrath for our sins. He knows what you are going through because He already went through it for you. He is able to empathize with your weakness because He endured those same weaknesses so He might listen to you in prayer, lift you up in your frailty, and wipe away your tears in mourning.
While we cannot know why suffering occurs, God does reveal to us what He is willing to do about it. The first and foremost thing He does is that He came to suffer with us. And even more than that, He came to suffer for us. Don’t miss what I just said. No other religion dares make the claim that their god suffers for its people. Our God does!
That’s really all you need. We don’t really need to know why we are suffering. We only need to know that our God is with us in our suffering.
While you may find Christians on occasion offering “pat answers” about suffering, you won’t find the Bible doing such a thing. The Bible offers a multifaceted, balanced, and remarkably nuanced view of suffering. Some suffering is a direct result of God’s righteous anger over rebellion – like with Korah (Numbers 16:31-33). Some suffering is to correct behavior and attitudes – like Jonah swallowed by the big fish (Jonah 1:17). Some suffering is a direct result of our attachment to Jesus – like the apostles who were persecuted by the Sanhedrin, yet praised God that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus’ name (Acts 5:40).
The Book of Proverbs tends to emphasize that much suffering comes as a result of our own wrongdoing. Job and Ecclesiastes, however, specifically cite how much of suffering is not caused by us. These concepts don’t conflict. They complement. They are portions of a larger picture.
They proclaim loudly to us that suffering is not black and white. It’s not even gray. It’s largely an unknowable mystery that we leave in the hands of the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Cancer, strokes, arthritis, hospitalization, death - why do these kinds of bad things happen to us?
Even though we want to satisfy our curiosity with proclaiming an answer to why suffering is happening, it is arrogant to do so. Even the inspired writers of Scripture do not cross that line.
Really, it makes little difference why we are suffering. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. What we really need to know is that through Jesus our suffering will one day come to an end. And while we suffer here, we aren’t suffering alone. Jesus is with you. Your brothers and sisters in Christ are with you. And one day, Lord willing, our suffering together will be at an end. Then we will have all our questions answered. How? What? Where? When? Even why? In Jesus. And with Jesus.
Jesus gives us something better than answers to our questions. He gives us life for our death, heaven for our hell, forgiveness for our sin, peace for our suffering. Jesus Christ will not answer all your questions, but He will give you all of Himself. And in the end, that’s all the answer any of us need. Amen.