Isaiah 55. 1-9 Luke 13.1-9
Have you heard the news?
Often, we had heard the news and it was rarely good, and if we hadn’t heard it, we braced ourselves to listen.
On this particular occasion, we had heard the news and were later in the day to see a newsclip of the head of the suicide bomber in Jerusalem’s popular but ruined, Mahane Yehuda fruit market, being picked over by religious Jews with tweezers and polythene bags looking for scraps of bodies.
Often there we just sensed it, the anticipation of tragedy even before we heard the sirens. The traffic slowed and the car horns fell silent. It was like that on the Temple Mount on one October morning – the news travelled fast – at least 30 dead, many more wounded near the Al Aqsa Mosque, shot by troops.
Have you heard the news? We don’t know if Jesus had already heard the news but they told him anyway, each person probably vying to do the telling – “Pilate’s soldiers have murdered worshippers in the Temple, right tin the middle of the service and their blood flowed in the gutters with sheep that had just been slaughtered.”
Same place and similar circumstances. In Jesus’ time it was Jews who were killed by Pilate’s soldiers. On the 8th October 1990, it was Jewish soldiers who did the killing and the tragic cycle of violence between the opposing communities continues – each atrocity, massacre or incident accompanied by mutual denunciation and recrimination. Welcome to first century Palestine, where feelings ran deep, extremism thrived, and the future of the country looked precarious.
I wonder how those who told Jesus of the massacre expected him to respond – with denunciation of the Romans, the statutory tearing of the robes and prayer that God would speedily rid the land of the occupying forces or, and we are told elsewhere that Jesus needed no one to tell him what was in the heart of man for he knew it altogether (John 2.24,25) – a pronouncement on what must actually have been the wickedness of those whom Pilate’s soldiers butchered. Popular contemporary Jewish thinking went like this: Really bad things don’t happen to really good people and what happened back there in the Temple was really bad so the people killed couldn’t have been really good!
Things aren’t what you think they are
The ghastly Eliphaz, one of Job’s ‘comforters’, took this line when he went to visit the unfortunate, disaster-smitten Job, (Job 4.7) and Jesus’ own disciples on seeing a blind man asked, “Master, who sinned? This man or his parents?” (John 9.2) “Neither,” replied Jesus on that occasion. And here, anticipating just such a judgmental attitude in those who had told him of Pilate’s latest outrage, he rips into them and their smug, tidy theories. “Do you think that because those Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did or those 18 who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell. Do you think they were worse than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you that unless you repent you will all perish just as they did” – by the edge of a Roman sword and under the crushing weight of falling masonry. Nothing less, said Jesus, than thorough- going repentance and the total reorientation of their lives from their reckless and doomed nationalistic aspirations back to God would spare them from the catastrophe towards which they are rushing, and which he longed might be avoided.
And here, a brief reflection on Jesus’ teaching.
There is about much of it both an aching tenderness and an almost terrifying severity. “Come to me all who are heavy-laden and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of spirit” (Matthew 11.28) – echoing the magnificent invitation from Isaiah 55 read earlier in our service and contrasting starkly with Jesus’ words later in the same Gospel, addressed to people who considered themselves God’s favoured ones. – “I never knew you! Depart from me.” (Matthew 7.23)
So here in Luke, the urgent call to repentance and the yearning that the disaster Jesus so vividly – and in the parable of the fig tree hints is so very near (Luke 3.6) – is expressed very tenderly. Luke writes,” as Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed the days will come upon you (and they did come) when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side … and crush you to the ground and your children with you … because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’ (Luke 19.41-44) Do we?
Is it not possible that through the humiliating, protracted, confusing, divisive and painful time our nation is passing, God may not be seeking to humble us and remind us of the things that make for peace? Were not the opening words of our service today, ‘Almighty God’?
I clearly remember watching on the evening news the ceremony of the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. The Union flag was lowered, the marine band played, the rain poured down as Governor Chris Patten and others sang, ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended.’ It seemed a courageous and appropriate choice with its closing lines, ‘So be it Lord Thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires pass away.’
In God’s hand is the raising up and the putting down of nations which are after all in the words of Isaiah the prophet like ‘drops in a bucket’ – dust in the scales. (Isaiah 40.15)
After the Siege
Returning for a moment to Jesus’ grief over the fate of Jerusalem, it’s almost as if he can hear the Roman siege engines rumbling into place – see the archers drawing back their bows. What he foresaw happened; the destruction of the city was terrible and the suffering of its population unimaginable, but while many of Jesus’ warnings of judgment and disaster relate to the siege and the Jewish people, others relate to afterwards and surely to all people. They remain contemporary and urgent: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12.15) In St Matthew’s account of the last public teaching given by Jesus before his arrest and trial, he warned of the dire peril of those who have, ignoring the plight of those who have not (though in the parable of the sheep and goats to which I allude, he puts it far more vigorously and bluntly than that). (Matthew 25.40-45)
On the morning after the fateful Brexit vote, I was accosted in Palmer Park where I was walking the dog, by two nice Nepali friends, ex Gurkhas, who were deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed at the way the vote had gone. I was given an earful at the end of which one of them asked me with an utterly disarming smile, “Tell me, will be there be resurrection after Brexit?”
I don’t know. What I do know is that when we emerge from this nightmare, much larger and more pressing challenges await: the probability of mass global migration provoked by climate change, the continued rapid depletion of the world’s natural resources, the relentless growth of population and much more.
Last week’s BBC Analysis programme looked at the likelihood of humanity living beyond the end of the present century. It made for sober listening. “We live as if eliminating all wild life would be rather a pity!” “Politicians are concerned about being re-elected and blind to the magnitude of the risks (confronting the world).” And memorably, “There may be no fish and chips by the middle of the century as fish stocks are exhausted.” (And if that is not reason to shape up and take action, I don’t know what is!)
I return to Luke’s Gospel and conclude with these striking words of Jesus: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say it’s going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the South wind blowing you say, ‘There will be scorching heat;’ and it happens . . . you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do that and without fear and in gentle trust to shape our lives and that of our Christian community accordingly.