Where were you on 9/11? No doubt you can remember as I can. It was an event that etched itself into our collective as well as individual memories. I also recall my shock and dismay when I heard one prominent Televangelist say that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center was an act of divine judgment. He was claiming that it happened because people were really, really bad.
Can you also recall where you were you on 1/12/10 when the earth beneath Haiti broke, breaking most of what was on top of that part of the earth as well? From where I was, I sadly experienced some déjà vu when I heard: that the same TV clergy had (again) concluded that God was clearing the land of all that voodoo. So, again, when the buildings collapsed it was because some were really, really bad. Now, it’s Chile. But, thankfully, no word from our TV friend—yet!
Well, not only is he wrong, he’s quite unoriginal. People have long loved to speculate in this way. Some in Jesus’ day told him about Gov Pilate’s slaughter of people in the very act of worship and Jesus knew what they were thinking: someone was really, really bad. Jesus also knew what they thought of the poor folk recently crushed when the tower in Siloam fell on them: God was judging some really, really bad people. (see Luke 13:1-5 for the story).
Jesus likewise knows how easily our minds go there; how it seems we are hard-wired to utter such assessment of tragedy. When we experience or see some tragedy, why else would we wonder, “What’d I do wrong?”
Jesus objects with strong prophetic urgency. “No, that’s not what’s happening. That’s not the why of it. Knock it off!” Ok, so I’m reading between the lines here, but what we know for sure is this: in response to these outrageous instances of suffering which squash righteous and unrighteous alike, which break our hearts and shatter all the categories that normally make sense of life, Jesus calls those who weren’t squashed to repent. Then he warns that the alternative to repentance is total, comprehensive destruction: You will all likewise perish.
He doesn’t say: “They should have repented, because as you know they were really, really bad. (And, if they had repented maybe it wouldn’t have happened!) So, as a lesson, you must be sure to repent should it ever happen that you make a mistake.” No, he tells the people who weren’t squashed, who assumed they were basically OK and certainly not really, really bad—he tells them to repent.
He speaks to them as though they’re not OK. And, they conclude Jesus must not be OK.
What is Jesus doing here? Why does he tell them that when the earth quakes in Haiti or Chile we should repent?
I suggest that the heinous crimes of Pilate, the tragic collapse of the tower in Siloam, and the devastation of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile all of these reveal the sobering fact that we are living on the fault lines of this present age. (You get my imagery: An earthquake happens when sections of the subsurface earth separate and shift. The seams where the shifting occurs are the fault lines)
People who live on the fault line must do something about that—otherwise they are likely to be swallowed by disaster when the earth moves again. Let me explain a bit.
Jesus’ call to repent repeats a basic theme of his entire life. In gospel of Matthew and Mark he begins his ministry by saying:
“The time has come, God’s kingdom is present, here & now—so, repent!”
God’s rule and God’s will at work in, among and through His people now breaks into this world. It is gaining a foothold with a view to one day reclaiming and returning the cosmos to the very good condition it had in the beginning.
Another way to say it is: Something is now afoot; the ground underneath us is shifting. All of a sudden it seems we find ourselves on a fault line of the world as it now is. So, it’s time to find solid ground, to move to a place that will bear not only your weight and that of other people, but also the weight of a born-again universe!
In calling us to repent Jesus uncovers the shaky, fragile, insubstantial basis on which people & the world live apart from the God he reveals as Father and king of all. When Jesus says repent, he’s saying, “Can you feel it, the rumbling? The ground is moving. It’s time to run for your life, to run from what is shaky to what is solid.” The earthquake tells us the whole earth is broken, along with everything on it.
When towers fall, or tyrants terrorize, it tells you the powers that seem to hold everything together are losing their grip; they are not to be trusted, no matter what they promise. Life on the fault line is shaky through and through. So, repent—turn and run for your life!
Lent is the season when we are made more keenly aware that we live precisely on the fault-lines of this shattered and shaky world. We consider the “footholds” we have and perceive how precarious they are. We turn from these and run to the One whose community cannot be shaken.
More next time!