Luke 13:1-5 “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 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? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
We are living in strange times. There is the background noise of a world-wide recession with the richest nations facing colossal debts through the mismanagement of politicians and people’s greed. Then there are these sudden uprisings of angry people in the Middle East in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen where many people are demanding political liberty and democracy. There are 23 Muslim states and 22 of them are dictatorships and some people there are saying, “Enough!” Then from a totally different perspective there is the shaking of the earth and disquiet in the creation; between December 2 and January 5 more than eight mega-earthquakes occurred. Australia has suffered its most catastrophic flooding ever and now a devastating cyclone has hit the same area. In fact the year 2010 was a record year for natural disasters. 295,000 people were killed and 100 million pounds of property damage was done. You can compare that to the previous year when there were 11,000 deaths and 40 million pounds of property damage. Again, the media has been reporting and discussing some weird events in nature like the abundance of fish and bird deaths all over the world, fifteen of which were documented in the first week of the year in countries as far apart as Italy, Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil and Vietnam. Tons of fish and crabs were washed ashore, but they were all of the same species, snapper fish on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, while a town in Italy was littered with 8,000 dead turtle doves. There is no scientific explanation for these phenomena. I counted seven different suggestions from fireworks to cold weather. Then there is a tree virus which now is destroying millions of trees in the UK. We are living in strange times. There is a shaking of the heaven and the earth, the sea and the dry land. The nations are being shaken, governments and simple folk. What does the future hold?
How do we respond? Certainly we believe with absolute certainty that the true and living God is showing his sovereign power in all of this. God had the first word, “Let there be . . . and there was . . .” and God will have the last word, not the scientists or politicians or the economists. We find some words at the opening of Proverbs chapter 29 most salutary, “A man who remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed – without remedy.” Let me constantly remind you that we are living in a moral universe, and then these words of Scripture seem very striking, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccles. 12:13&14).
Those are some background observations as we come to look at this passage today. The last time I preached here on this text was the Sunday after October 21st 1966, the date of the Aberfan disaster. Students from the Christian Union who were members of this congregation, like Nigel Faithfull, went south 90 miles to see if they could be of any help in the rescue operation when a tip slid down a mountain at great speed and crushed a school killing 144 children and teachers.
Such calamities occurred at the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, and people were just as perplexed by them then. “What are we to learn from them?” they asked. They once came across a man born blind and the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). This calamity had damaged this man’s life. Was it possible that it had been triggered off by some sin? Had he got what he deserved in his blindness? Was there any possibility of his having committed some pre-natal sin, before he emerged from his mother’s womb, or was he being punished for his parents’ sin to have been born blind? None of them believed in reincarnation. I don’t believe in reincarnation, and Jesus’ disciples didn’t bother to ask or even think that the blind beggar was being punished because in one of his previous lives he’d been a criminal. On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah were brought from heaven to speak with the Lord Jesus about his coming death. After they had died, centuries earlier, their souls did not start migrating from one person or one animal to another (depending on how well or badly they had lived). No! Those two men had trusted in God and when they died God had taken them immediately into his presence: “Well done good and faithful servants.” I am saying that it was not this blind man’s ‘karma’ that he was born without sight. Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” (Jn. 9:3). There was no connection between some terrible evil done by one of the family and his being smitten with blindness, but Jesus did add that this calamity was not without purpose – that is, it was not without a divine purpose; it was not a meaningless event or bad luck. Jesus said, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (Jn.9:3).
In our text we are referred to a cruel and shameful massacre that had taken place during the lifetime of our Lord which still rankled amongst the people. Pontius Pilate was the unpopular and unpleasant Governor of Judea who was later to try Jesus. Josephus, the Jewish historian, lists several things Pilate said and did which infuriated the local population. “Sometimes he seemed to be deliberately trying to make them angry. He trampled on their religious sensibilities; once he tried to bring Roman standards (military emblems) into Jerusalem, with their pagan symbols. He flouted their laws and conventions; once he used money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct, and then brutally crushed the rebellion that resulted. These incidents, and others like them, are recorded outside the New Testament, and help us to understand what sort of person Pilate was. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that on another occasion, while some people on pilgrimage from Galilee had been offering sacrifice in the Temple, Pilate sent the troops in, perhaps fearing a riot, and slaughtered them. The present passage simply speaks of their own blood mingling in the Temple courtyard with the blood of their sacrifices – polluting the place, on top of the human horror and tragedy of such an event” (Tom Wright, Luke For Everyone, SPCK, 2001, pp. 161&162).
Some people were talking about this ugliness, and so they raised it with Jesus. You can tell Jesus about anything, as a man in the crowd had raised with our Lord his argument with his brother over an inheritance (as we read in the previous chapter [Lk. 12:3]). You tell the Lord your troubles. There are answers. Sometimes the answer could be open-ended but still comforting; “This happened that the work of God might be displayed in your life.” Sometimes it is, “Wait and see. Now we see things through a glass darkly, but one day we shall see face to face. Wait and you will see. One day you will know even as also you are known. Heaven is not a world of eternal frustration and perplexity. It is a world of knowledge. Please be content with that.” Whatever the answer might be our Lord is called the Wonderful Counsellor and he does help us. He helped two sisters who had a brother who was very sick and they told Christ about it. The disciples of John the Baptist buried his murdered body and they went and told the Saviour. He helped them all. He is the one who says, “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. Trust me.”
“Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to him in prayer.”
These people who were speaking to Christ of the recent atrocity were eaten up by it, by the slaughter of their fellow countrymen while they were worshipping Jehovah in his Temple. An unbeliever, Pilate, gave orders to his pagan soldiers and this cruelty was perpetrated. Why did it happen? Couldn’t God protect them? Why did it happen to these men in particular? Our Lord had an immediate and transparent response. He does not say, “Who knows what life is all about? Who can tell what its meaning is, why one is killed and another is spared?” He did not say, “Stuff happens.” That is the only comment of millions. It is a nihilistic comment; they are words of despair. He did not shrug his shoulders and say, “It’s the survival of the fittest.” No. He was no friend of Darwinist philosophy. Jesus did not give those answers, but he did answer. How important is that? It is all important; that man has a chief end, life is purposive, that God is in charge, that mysteries to us are not mysteries to him. This is important, especially when you are walking through the valley of the shadow. The Lord Christ gave short shrift to the idea that these men and women were killed because they were more wicked than other people, that they were being punished for their cries. No. He is emphatic; “I tell you, No.” Those people who had been butchered by Pilate were no worse than others in Galilee whose lives were spared. Jesus elaborates on that; he reminds them of another incident; “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? I tell you, no!” (vv.4&5).
Our Lord Jesus clears away the confusion about what is happening in the world. He clears away the rubble of nihilism that says there are no answers. He clears away the rubble of karma that says you get punished in this life for what you yourself have done recently or what you did in a previous life. What a wicked philosophy that is, that a dear person with learning difficulties is being punished for something she did in an earlier incarnation! She is getting what she deserved. I hate that religion. I have told you of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, how in 1969 with their respective children John, with his notoriously poor eyesight, was driving through the Scottish Highlands in their white British Leyland Maxi. At Loch Eriboll in Sutherland he drove off the road and ended up spending five days in Lawson Memorial Hospital in Golspie having seventeen stitches for facial injuries and Yoko had fourteen in her forehead. It was then that the matron of the hospital, a Free Kirk Christian, called my friend, Rev. David Patterson also of the Free Church, to come and talk to John Lennon. The world’s press was camped outside, but he had a private entrance and David went to the single-bed ward where John was lying. He talked at length to him, reading the Bible to him – David was the man who led Douglas MacMillan to the Lord. John Lennon replied saying to David, “The accident and my injuries happened because of karma.” He acknowledged that he had done mean and sinful things, and this crash and his cuts and bruises had happened to him as a consequence of his bad behaviour. “No,” said David, “The Son of God, the Lord Jesus, came to the world and he bore our karma in his own body on the cross. Forgiveness can be ours because of what the Saviour has done.” He pointed him to Jesus Christ. I want you all to know that none of you is a prisoner of your karma. That is not the reason why you’ve had troubles and grief in your life. Of course if you have been guilty of excess, or are carrying a load of guilt because of the people you have hurt then you are reaping what you have sown. You need to go to God and confess those sins to him. He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. He will cleanse us from all that unrighteousness. And you need to apologize to the people you have hurt. Don’t play with fire. If you’ve heard from this pulpit or from the Word of God many rebukes for your conduct . . . if your conscience is convicting you then do not remain stiff-necked; take them seriously, or eventually God will chasten you. You could be destroyed without remedy (Provs. 29:1). What then is Jesus’ response to the massacre of these particular people in the Temple, or those specific men and women on whom the building collapse in Siloam? It is threefold:
THEY WERE AS EQUALLY SINFUL AS ANY OF THE PEOPLE WHO HAD ESCAPED THE MASSACRE, OR THE COLLAPSE OF THE TOWER.
Isn’t this what Jesus is saying? That is my only reason for bringing it to you now. Let me read you these words of our text giving emphasis to one word that occurs four times; “Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 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? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (vv.2-5). All men and women alike, Pilate as well as those people killed by his soldiers, the rescuers desperately pulling away at the debris of the collapsed tower of Siloam as well those killed by its fall – all alike sinners. Let us get this clear from Paul’s letter to the Romans, his assertion of the universality of sin in all men and women without exception; “Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no-one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no-one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practise deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (Roms. 3:9-19). Do you see the two or three striking points Paul makes there?
Firstly, the universality of sin, that all men and women without exception are sinners, Mohammed, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa, Queen Victoria – there is no-one righteous, no not one.
Secondly, the comprehensive nature of that sinfulness, no human activity and no organ of the body is exempt from the effects of sin, the larynx, tongue, lips, mouths, feet and eyes all alike have been affected by sin. I think sometimes, when I hear children singing, “Heads and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes,” that little do they know of sin affecting all their activities. There is not one part of the human body unaffected by sin, not our consciences – think of the conscience of the cannibal – not our intellect or our powers of observation or our creativity. There is a sinful bias in them all. Christians confess that the good they would do they do not do.
Thirdly, the anti-God bias of sin: “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Their consciences tell them what they are doing is wrong. “I ain’t bovvered,” they say. We preachers protest, “God will judge you for doing that . . .” “I ain’t bovvered,” they say. They have no fear of God in whatever they do, but you are bothered as Christians. You make no attempt to justify how you’ve been living, what you’ve thought, or failed to do, or said, or done. “I’ve got no excuses,” you say. “I am a sinner.”
I was visiting a lady in hospital who had broken her arm. After I had talked to her I went round to the other people in their beds and one old lady was saying, “I want to die. I want to die.” I said to her, “Well, if you die you know you are going to meet God, and so you must start praying now if you are soon going to meet God. This is what you must pray ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’” “I’m not a sinner,” she said, perking up and adding, “And if you knew me you’d know I wasn’t.” Well, of course she was not a criminal, but we are all sinners. Can you imagine what psychological pressures we ministers are put under at times like that? The patients in the hospital ward are listening on a quiet afternoon to a visiting pastor, and he is meeting an ill, depressed, old lady and apparently, instead of cheering her up, he is trying to point out to her that she is a lost sinner. It seems such an unkind thing for a Christian to do, but no lasting joy can come without some knowledge of our real condition in the eyes of the living God. Why did God the Son become incarnate? Why was he called ‘Jesus’? The angel said, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin.” Sin, the Shorter Catechism tells us, is “a want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” That law is summarily comprehended in the words, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Those commands are God’s just requirements for his creatures who live in his creation. Sin is any lack of conformity at all to that. How blind the people who say, “I’m not a sinner.”
What is Jesus assuming when he says that all of them alike are guilty in the eyes of God? He is assuming that all death is in some way or another the result of sin, not particular sins that they might have committed, but that they – like all of us – are fallen, unwise, mortal men and women, and therefore death, though sometimes shocking and heart-breaking, is never wholly unrighteous. Our father Adam defied God and brought sin into the world, and with sin along came death, and so death passed upon all men because all have sinned. Then Jesus is assuming something else:
SUDDEN DEATH BY THE HANDS OF EVIL MEN – OR BY SOME ACCIDENT – IS NO INDICATION THAT THE DECEASED ARE MORE EVIL THAN THOSE WHO ESCAPE SUCH A FATE.
Our Lord is very emphatic about this. The people Pilate had killed were not “worse sinners”, he says (v.2), than all the people who lived in Galilee, and then in the second case he says they were not “more guilty” (v.4) than any citizens of Jerusalem. Men and women, the wages of sin is death; we are all sinners and so we are all going to die. There will be the wrenching apart of body and soul in physical death, and then there will be the second death in the place of woe. None can avoid that. All need a Saviour from it. That is why God sent his Son, to be the Saviour of the world. As I often tell you, “We deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but Jesus, because he loved us, died for us.” Death is not more than we deserve from God. Of course, he takes all the facts about us into consideration, what we have done, how things are with us now, and then all the future, what we might do and would do, being the people we are. God knows what we don’t know. The Judge of all the earth does right. He does not afflict willingly. It is only the mercy of God that keeps any of us alive. When I ask a Christian how he is, he will say, “Better than I deserve to be.” Of course that is exactly right. There is no moral superiority permitted for the Christian. God has seen me at my worse; what no human being has seen, what has been veiled from the members of my family, God has seen, and yet he has given me long life, and prosperity, and the love of my family. Most of all, the Christian will say, he has given his own dear self for me. It is all of grace. It is none of my deserving. Even my salvation was because of his love.
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew, he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true. No, I was found by Thee.”
It’s mercy all, immense and free, and O, my God, it found out me! That has preserved me. That has delivered me from the bondage of unbelief. Why he should have loved me thus, I shall never know. I was the one deserving the sword of Pilate’s soldiers to be slitting my throat. I was the one deserving to be in the Twin Towers when the planes struck. Those three thousand people were no worse than me, and all the brave fire fighters whose lives were taken away as they entered those buildings and sought to rescue the trapped and helpless people, were far better, but he has given me almost ten more years of life than those grand people since 9/11. I have to ask myself whether I have been using my time well? Am I serving God and loving my neighbour as myself? Am I redeeming the time?
3. WARS AND NATURAL DISASTERS ARE NOT AGENDA ITEMS IN A DISCUSSION ABOUT GOD’S WAYS. THEY ARE INCENTIVES TO PERSONAL REPENTANCE.
We don’t know the motive of these people who mentioned this massacre to Jesus. Were they testing him to see if he would seem to be defending Pilate? Or were they hoping he would speak out and denounce Pilate and they could report him to the Roman authorities as a zealot? Were they perhaps simply warning him about his determination to travel on to Jerusalem – such a dangerous place? Were they using it to say, “How can anyone believe in a God who’d allow this to happen in the Temple to those who had gone there to worship him?” Were they saying, “We can’t know what God does, can we? It is all so mysterious?” Had the incident become the sort of illustration people give you as to why they don’t believe in God? Young people have friends who died in a car crash and so they say they can’t believe in a God who would allow that to happen. They say something like, “My mother was a Sunday School teacher and went to church all her life but she died at 45 of cancer. I can’t believe in a God who allow such things.” Suffering becomes a man’s ‘agenda item’ on those rare occasions when he talks about religion. He rolls it out as justifying him keeping Jesus Christ right out of his life. They have got such big and tender hearts those people, but why do they go on hurting the ones they love?
Our Lord took the collapse of the tower in a wholly different way. Some people you loved died suddenly and tragically (some of them having trusted and served God), yet death came to them when they were young. They’d repented and believed in Jesus Christ, and yet death entered their lives. Jesus is saying how much more should you take their deaths as an incentive to be repenting of your unbelief, and to be trusting in God yourself? Think like this; “Death comes to the lovely, and the good, and the young, and death is going to come to me. In what state will I be when death comes? Will I be ready? Will I have turned from my sins and turned to the Lamb of God? Will he be all my hope?” I read too often of young people being killed in car crashes. I see bunches of wilting flowers at the scene where they went off the road and their lives suddenly ended. What a waste! But do men also think that death will also come to them, and they must prepare to meet their God? I must know him before I see him. He must become my heavenly Father. I must find his mercy now in a day of grace.
Disaster is God’s loudspeaker – his megaphone – calling us to repentance. We think . . . “of course we deserve all the years of peace and prosperity and health that we’re enjoying.” We never pause to thank God for his mercy to us in treating us so lovingly and patiently, and then when some disaster comes into our lives – and in this groaning world that is not so unusual – we abuse it to justify continuing to live our lives without giving a thought to God. We are strangers to repentance for our sin. I am saying that these words of Jesus encourage us to realign our lives fundamentally.
See this insistent refrain of the Lord Jesus; Verse three; “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Verse five; “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” It is so important that he says it twice. It was so important that when he first opened his mouth in public and preached to men and women the message God in heaven had given him to say then his words to us were these, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And his last words before he, the resurrected Lord, ascended into heaven were a commission to his people to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations in his name (Lk. 24:47) beginning in Jerusalem and then out and out.
What is repentance? I will explain it to you in two ways, firstly, in the words of the Shorter Catechism; “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavour after new obedience.” Repentance is the sign that God is working graciously and savingly in a person’s life. He has a new, real sense of his sin; more than that, he has seen that there is mercy for him in Jesus Christ. More than that, there is a sadness at his wasted life and he turns from his sin and is determined from now on to live a life of loving obedience to God. That is one great definition of repentance. Now let me give you a second. A preacher asked a girl in the congregation whether she had any spiritual life in her. “I do,” she replied. “How do you know?” he asked her. “Because I now hate what once I loved, and also now I love what once I hated.” That is repentance. Once you lived for the things of this world, what everyone talked about and drank and watched and listened to and imbibed and inhaled. You loved all that. Now you hate that self-destructive life. Now you love purity, modesty, the Lord’s Day, worshipping God, the Bible and being with Christians. That is repentance. There is no life without it. There is no heaven without it. There is no hope of peace with God without it. So true repentance is a double turning. It is a turning from and also a turning to. You turn from Sin with a capital S, the power and reign of sin over your life that tells you to go on living your life without God. You turn from your sins too, with a lower case s, the things you do and fail to do, the things you say and fail to say. You turn from your sins to Jesus Christ who says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
There was a man who increasingly grew depressed, though he had a background in Sunday school and occasional church attendance. All the usual old ways of lifting himself up increasingly failed to touch him – drink, drugs, company, constant TV – all left him more discouraged, and so he resolved to throw himself into the river and end it all, but as he approached the bridge he seemed to hear a voice that said to him, “Who can tell?” It made the deepest impression upon him, “Who can tell? . . . who can tell?” His melancholy was challenged. His thoughts were sent in a new direction. “Who can tell what the living God can do with me? Who can tell how far God will let me be depressed like this before lifting me up? Who can tell whether the Spirit will strive with me and prevail? Who can tell whether such a person as myself can find mercy from heaven? Who can tell whether my desperate, simple prayer will reach heaven and God will hear and answer? Who can tell what purposes God will have in my recovery?” And so he was drawn away from self-destruction to cast himself on God. He was born again to a living hope. He became an earnest Christian and finally, for many years, he was a splendid preacher of the gospel. It was not until months after his pausing on that bridge through being arrested by those three words, “Who can tell?” that he discovered they were words from the book of Jonah chapter three and verse nine. His ministry was especially one of helping others who were troubled with being cast down and discouraged.
The infamous opponent of Christianity in the second century was a man named Celsus. One of his criticisms was that Jesus Christ came into the world to gather together a group of wretched, wicked men and women. “Jesus claimed that he came to call sinners, not the righteous,” Celsus told people. “He rejected all the good and collected all the bad. What sort of man is this? What sort of organization has he set up?” The champion for the Christian faith was Origen. He said, “I agree with you. Jesus did come to call sinners, but he came to call them to repentance. He said to wicked men to come to him – to be changed and be made new people. We come to him as greedy people, and he makes us contented. We come to him as lascivious people, and he makes us pure. We come to him a violent as wolves and he makes us as gentle as lambs. We come to him as know-alls, and he makes us meek. We come to him as anti-religious, and he makes us godly.” “If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creature; old things are passed away, behold all things are become new” (2 Cors. 5:17).
I’ll end with a verse from a hymn of repentance written by Ira Sankey:
I come, O blessed Lord, to Thee I come today:
I am no longer satisfied to stay away.
I will not wait until my life like Thine shall grow;
I’ll come at once – I know I’ve sinned: I’ll tell Thee so.
It is enough for me to know Thou will receive
And cleanse my heart from every sin if I believe.
Help me that I forget myself in loving Thee;
And let Thine image on my heart reflected be.
O take me Saviour, crucified, and let me prove
That those who most have been forgiven have most of love.”
6th February 2011 GEOFF THOMAS