Signs of the Times - Luke 12:54 - 13:9

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 16th November 2003.

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After any major tragedy the questions and recriminations begin, whether it be an accident on the railways involving railtrack, a child abused and the social services or a terrorist attack and the CIA: Didn’t anyone see it coming? Why didn’t someone pick up the danger signals? The assumption being that the signs were there all along to be read but that either through negligence or wilfulness they were simply ignored.

But what if the world itself is one big tragedy made up of smaller tragedies? Do the tragedies themselves constitute some sort of warning signs that something is seriously wrong and that remedial action needs to be taken? Well one man who certainly thought so was the poet W. H Auden. For most of his early life he lived with the belief in the goodness of man and the absence of God. The religion he had encountered as a boy he described as, ‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda water,’ cynically saying that, ‘ people only love God when no one else will love them.’ But all of that was to change two months before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. He was visiting a cinema in Yorkville, a largely German speaking area of Manhattan in New York where he saw Sieg im Poland, a documentary of the Nazi conquest of Poland. When Poles appeared on the screen, members of the audience screamed, 'Kill them! Kill them!’. Auden was horrified. He left that cinema with his beliefs torn to shreds. First the belief that man was naturally good for if that were the case then how could he explain what he had just witnessed? Second, that he had to have a reason for thinking that Hitler was evil, for if there is no God and so no objective basis for deciding what is right or wrong, then he could not say Hitler was bad, only different and he could not bear to live with that. Something was wrong with the world. Auden was picking up signals from the moral mess around him, signals which were not sending the message that there is no God and we are all alone, but that there is a God and we need to seek him. Which Auden eventually did. And the same signals are being sent all around the world today if only we have the nerve to look at them and understand them, namely this world is one which is eminently suited for sinners. The social disintegration, the wars, the disease are meant to remind us that all is not well between us and our Maker and we need help- desperately. And that is precisely the message of Jesus in the passage we are looking at together this morning in Luke chapters 12 and Luke 13. In fact Jesus is saying three things: read the signs, heed the warning, bear the fruit.

First, read the signs 12: 54- 59 : ‘He said to the crowd: 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, `It's going to rain,' and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, `It's going to be hot,' and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?’

Now Jesus has just been teaching that judgement is just around the corner, that since he has come into the world people are left without excuse, the King has arrived and he calls people to follow him. The moment that happens judgement and division occur- Jesus says so earlier in v 49, ‘ I have come to bring fire on the earth’, then v 51 ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.’ And then he goes on to talk about the way families will be divided along lines of allegiance to him, those who are for him and those who are against him with the result that the whole human race is split right down the middle. These are part of the signs of the times to Israel. ‘Look’ ,says Jesus in effect, ‘ You pride yourself on being weather watchers. You can tell when a storm is brewing or when the drought is on its way and you prepare accordingly, either by battening down the hatches or getting the water and food in. Then why are you being so wilfully blind now? Can’t you see that God is doing something extraordinary and new? All the signs are there before, staring you in the face if only you would look. If someone is taking you to court, you know what is the sensible thing to do then : get an out of court settlement because if not you run the risk of paying the full penalty. Judgement day is coming and now is the time to get things sorted out with God.’ Which is the point of that little story in vv 57- 59. Did Israel listen? By and large, no it did not. The Messiah was rejected and Jerusalem was judged when in AD 70 it was raised to the ground with merciless brutality by the Romans and in this they were to see the hand of God.

What Jesus is doing here is being prophetic. The NT presents us with three roles that Jesus fulfils. He is prophet, bringing to us the Word of God; he is Priest acting on our behalf offering himself as a sacrifice to God and he is King ruling the world as God. And in a derived sense that is what his church is meant to be doing on his behalf so that a world hell bent on self-destruction will wise up before it is too late.

It was interesting that in the aftermath of 911 and the tragedy of the Twin Towers many religious leaders were rather muted in their response. It took a woman to respond prophetically. That woman was the daughter of Billy Graham, Ann Graham Lotz. In a national interview this is what happened. The interviewer asked: ‘I've heard people say, those who are religious, those who are not, if God is good, how could God let this happen? What do you say to that?’ This is how Anne replied: ‘I say God is also angry when he sees something like this. I would say also for several years now Americans in a sense have shaken their fist at God and said, God, we want you out of our schools, our government, our business, we want you out of our marketplace. And God, who is a gentleman, has just quietly backed out of our national an political life, our public life. Removing his hand of blessing and protection. We need to turn to God first of all and say, God, we're sorry we have treated you this way and we invite you now to come into our national life. We put our trust in you. We have our trust in God on our coins, we need to practice it.’ Did you hear anything like that said in this country by our religious leaders? No. Do you think that Anne Graham Lotz was loved for what she said? Hardly. But what she was doing was exactly in line with what Jesus is doing here when he calls his listeners to heed the warning 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.'

Do you see how contemporary and direct Jesus is? He doesn’t avoid the hard questions, he tackles them head on and uses them as a gospel opportunity. Two events which were on the minds of his congregation and which repulsed them. The first is man made, a massacre. For some reason the Roman governor Pilate, known for taking a hard line on political disturbances, had allowed his troops to go on the rampage killing Galilean Jews when they were about to perform a sacred religious duty, probably the Passover sacrifice. They were not immoral people, they were religious people, so why did God allow it? Why didn’t he afford them some sort of protection, after all they are on his side unlike these heathen Romans? And given that these were Galilean Jews, it is highly probable that some of them would have been known personally to Jesus, maybe school friends, people he would have grown up with as a boy and gone to the religious festivals with. So this is not theoretical or abstract, its personal and practical.

The second event is more of a natural disaster, the collapse of a tower killing eighteen people. This too may have had a religious connection because the tower of Siloam was right next to the pool of Siloam just several hundred metres south of the Temple area in Jerusalem. According to one Jewish writing, the Talmud, water was drawn up from Siloam’s pool in a golden vessel to be carried in procession to the temple on the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacles. So maybe it was during this procession, which would have taken them past the tower, that this happened, more ‘good’ religious folk killed. Why does God allow that? It doesn’t seem right. Sure, one might see how Yahweh could allow the odd Roman soldier to be crushed as those who have violated the holy land, but not his own people. What would you say? I guess we might mutter something about ‘God’s ways being mysterious’, ‘who are we to judge’, ‘these things happen’. But not Jesus.

When Jesus spoke you would have been able to cut the atmosphere with a knife. You see in our self righteousness we look at human suffering and demand: ‘ God what are you going to do about it?’ ‘How can God be good?’ But Jesus looks at tragedy in quite a different light and asks significantly different questions. He plays it back to the enquirers and asks: ‘ What are you going to do about it? In the light of the precarious nature of life how can you be so bad, complacently living as if life is meant to be happy and carefree with no personal accountability to your Maker.’? The Christian speaker Ravi Zacharias gives an interesting illustration of this approach. He relates how he was on a radio talk show at Ohio University when a woman stood up to shout him down. She yelled, ‘I know what this is all about. You are trying to take away my moral right to make my decisions over whether I can abort what is in my womb.’ In fact he hadn’t even mentioned that, he had been talking about the origin of the universe. But this woman pressed her attack, ‘I know what you Christians are trying to do, take away my right as a woman to do with my body as I please.’ Then Ravi Zacharias turned to the woman and said, ‘Well since you have bought it up, I find it interesting that you have worded it this way. You call this ‘your moral right’. You know, if a plane was to suddenly crash and 90 people died and 10 people lived then you would be asking ‘What kind of God is this who chooses who should live and who should die? I can’t believe in this kind of God. he must be evil’ He then went on to say, ‘I find this fascinating, when God makes a selective judgement on the basis of his sovereign knowledge and will you call him evil. At the same time when you make a judgement to do away with life in your womb you call it your moral right. Can you explain this conundrum to me?

Notice that Jesus does not assume that those who died did not in some way deserve their fate. The fact that he turns to the crowd and urges them to repent or they too might perish indicates that in Jesus mind at least death is in some way or another linked to sin. ‘The wages of sin is death’ says the apostle Paul, rebellion against God is the human predicament and death is the divine verdict.

However, having said that we are not to go rushing on and drawing the wrong conclusions. Here Jesus insists that there is no evidence whatsoever that those who suffer in this way are more wicked than anyone else. Rather, that if the same were to happen to us it would be no more than we deserve anyway- v2 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? and again in v4 ‘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?’ The answer Jesus gives to both questions is a resounding ‘No!’ But that doesn’t mean that others deserve anything less- v 3 ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’ This means there is no room for smug moral superiority, looking down upon those who are suffering as if they especially deserve it and we do not. We are all in the same boat- by nature we are on the wrong side of our Maker, our relationship with him is dead and physical death is a poignant reminder of that tragic fact.

You see what Jesus provides us with here is a perspective for viewing tragedy which the world does not have . Think of all the outcry we have heard regarding the war in Iraq. In the midst of all the arguments for and against have you heard anyone ask what God might be saying through it, what angle the Bible gives? In the middle of the Second World War C. S. Lewis said this: ‘ War does something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty of the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it was good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred on this world, were always doomed to final frustration. In ordinary times only wise men realise it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have long been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had our foolish unchristian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building heaven upon earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.’

This does not make war in itself a good , but it can , if properly viewed do good, it can act as a wake up call to both an individual and a nation to get right with God before something even worse than war happens- the final judgement.

Now we do not know the tone in which Jesus spoke when he said: ‘ Repent or you too will perish.’, but since we are told in the book of Isaiah that he was to be a man who would ‘not break a bruised reed or snuff a smouldering wick’ we can be pretty certain it was with compassion in his voice and tears in his eyes as we see later in v 34 he agonises over Jerusalem’s refusal to repent. And when we are faced with tragedy and sorrow in our society, Christians of all people should not appear gloating or self-satisfied. If words of warning have to be spoken (and they must) they have to be spoken with tenderness and should never be left at the point of condemnation. And this is in fact modelled by Ann Graham Lotz. Because inspite of her political incorrectness in exposing America’s rejection of God (and she could have easily have said Britain) she went on to talk about her feelings in the aftermath of the Twin towers tragedy in this way: I was watching television the first day and interviewed a construction worker that who had been an eyewitness through all of this in a building next to the World Trade Centre. He said, I've seen planes hit this building, people falling out of the sky. He said, my heart is in my throat. I feel like I would say the same thing. You almost don't have thoughts to articulate. Your heart is in your throat. You can hardly stand it. You're numb. For myself, I fall back on my faith in God and the foundation, speaking of those buildings, as an illustration of America, our foundation is our faith in God and the structure we build on that foundation is what enables us to endure something like this. ..I believe God also knows what it is like to lose a loved one, gave his only son on a cross. He knows what it is like to see a loved one die a horrific death. He's emotionally involved in our pain and he has the answers to us and he can bring comfort beyond human understanding. Well, I pray that God will use this event to change us forever in a positive way. And that will strengthen our faith in him. I thought of all those people who have died in this tragedy. It doesn't matter right now what political affiliation they had or what denomination they belong to or what religion or what the colour of their skin was or their stock portfolio. What matters is their relationship with God. I would like to see Americans begin to focus on some of the primary things and some of the things that are more important than just, you know, entertainment and pleasure and making more money.’ Doesn’t that get it just about right?

So what is God looking for as he speaks to us through these things? Well, Jesus’ third call-bear the fruit which is the purpose of this little parable about the vineyard in vv 6-8. The vineyard is Israel, God is the owner and Israel’s God-intended purpose was to be a witness in the world so that non-Jews, Gentiles would come to know the one true God. her fruit should have been wholesome and attractive. She was now in danger of forfeiting that by becoming inward looking, harsh and exclusive. And God through his Son is warning her of that. And when a church forgets this calling God may well send disaster upon her so that she too may wake up before it is too late, as the ascended Christ’s letters to some of the churches in the book of Revelation amply show. But it may also be what someone once called ‘ a severe mercy’ that God speaks to an individual through difficulty, as out of a tough love he seeks to wean us of our idolatries to pleasure, even the idolatry of family so that we seek him and his kingdom first and see that what matters is eternity.

If God thinks that our eternal value is such that he considers it worth allowing tragedies to happen in our broken world so that we seek the only One who can fix it, and we judge that hard, then just think of this: in but a few weeks after this incident Jesus is going to go to Jerusalem and before a watching world he will undergo the greatest tragedy of all - the cross. This is the clearest signal of all that things are wrong and only God can fix it. This is how one writer describes it: In the Cross of Christ God says to man, ‘That is where you ought to be. Jesus my Son hangs there in your stead. His tragedy is the tragedy of your life. You are the rebel who should be hanged on the gallows. But look, I suffered instead of you and because of you, because I love you inspite of what you are. My love for you is so great that I meet you there ,there on a cross. I cannot meet you anywhere else. You must meet me there by identifying yourself with the One on the cross. It is by this identification that I ,God, can meet you in him, saying to you as I say to Him, my beloved Son.’

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