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The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 103:1-12; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-17
Human existence is a deeply mysterious thing. We are at once the greatest and most terrible of creations, as Blaise Pascal once put it. We are self-aware, creative, profoundly intelligent, empathetic, relational; we also are deeply destructive, selfish, greedy, and abusive. We are made in God’s image, bearers of the highest dignity imaginable for a creature; and we are sinners, capable of the most malicious evils. We are paradoxes.
It is the nature of humans to seek to understand ourselves, as a result. We want to ask questions, and we want the answers. And perhaps the most profound, and ultimately most unanswerable of questions is this: Why must existence be filled with so much suffering? Jesus does not really answer this question, but what he does do is demonstrate both the source of evil, and what God intends to do about it.
The first sentence seems very obscure: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” Basically, there was an incident where the Roman governor, Pilate, had many Galilean Jews killed as they gave their religious sacrifices in Jerusalem. Why did God allow these men to be killed while sacrificing, while serving God?
Jesus takes this news as an opportunity to refute a false understanding of evil. The leading religious thinkers of this time typically believed that people suffer because they sin, and so God punishes them and rewards those who do not. Jesus rejects this belief by raising this question: If these men were faithfully sacrificing to God, what great sin would lead to their suffering? It is a rhetorical question, because the answer is, they did nothing. God does not see a sinner and hurt them. Rather, the source of the suffering was another human person. In God’s rule over the world, humans are allowed freedom, and the history of the world reflects the paradox I explained at the beginning: Humans are capable of great good, and great evil.
But that is not all that Jesus has to say here. He then goes on to explain that all people must repent. This is a shift that has a good degree of nuance, so we have to be very careful here. He says that all must repent or perish. Repentance is an act, a movement with very physical imagery attached to it; repenting means to turn from one thing to another. Here, it means turning from sin and towards God. Repentance means embracing the paradox, that we are sinners but made to be glorious.
We must acknowledge our weakness and conscious rejection of God and the life God desires we would live. We are broken, restless, hurt people who lash out in our brokenness and hurt at others, and even at ourselves. Addiction may be at its highest levels; the rich prey on the poor; nations are invading each other while we complain about gas prices; husbands and wives hurt each other and their children through their selfishness; we ignore our friends when they are in need; we sin, in other words, and do you know what it is called when you refuse to recognize your sin? Hypocrisy.
That is where this understanding of God leads. A person suffering means they must have sinned? How many single mothers have faced that accusation? Have we looked on a young man in prison and said, “it’s all his fault”? How many people who are on the street, homeless this very moment, and we judgmentally look on and say, “it’s their fault they are this way”? Jesus turns us away from the sin of others to look at our own, and to repent. And why? Because repenting of our sin is the path towards restoration.
St. Augustine recognized this when he wrote in his Confessions, quoted in the Collect today: “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” That is what repentance is about; it isn’t meant to lead to self-pity, shame, or self-harm. Repentance is us recognizing our weakness and our need and turning to God to receive wholeness. That is why I think we have the second part of this reading today, where Jesus heals the disabled woman. She is suffering, because it tells us Satan has oppressed her, not God. Her sin didn’t earn that, but it still happened to her. Humans and devils may break the world through sin, but God will enter into that suffering world and heal.
That is why it is so despicable that those standing there judged Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. They were fine moving livestock on Sabbath, but not to heal? They were more concerned about following rules than restoration? They were, again, hypocrites, willing to point out the “sins” of others but never to acknowledge their own. Our hope is this: That through repentance, turning from sin to God, we will be restored. We are restless, broken, hurt, but God puts us to rest, puts us back together, heals. We sin against others and ourselves, and others sin against us to cause our suffering, but in the end, God’s purposes will prevail, and despite all evil we will be made whole again.
That restoration is not instantaneous, but will only be complete when in the providence of God all things will come to completion. Yet, that restoration begins now. When we turn from sin and accept the Love of God, the work has already begun. In following Jesus, we see that selflessness, mercy, and kindness are the highest values we can aspire to. When we have turned from our sin and start on the path towards becoming like God, we will see relationships begin to be healed; we will learn not to hate others, nor to hate ourselves, but to see the image of God in all; we will not judge anyone nor pretend that they must have done something to earn suffering, but rather enter into that suffering with them as best we can, weeping with them, enduring with them, and raising them up like Jesus did the disabled woman, as best we can. But at the final day, when all things are due to be restored, the incomplete will be completed, and God shall bring us all to be what we were made to be, forever and ever. Amen.
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