Were the 1,500 people who died in the Titanic punished by God? What about the 4,000 victims of Chernobyl or the 20,000 killed in Bhopal? What about the 7 crew members who perished in the Challenger space shuttle disaster? Are accidents God’s way of punishing us? Jesus answered the question in the context of an apparent construction accident (Luke 13:1-9). 130 were killed in the 1944 East Ohio Gas Explosion and 114 were killed in the 1981 Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse. Were they worse sinners than we are? Just like the 18 who died in the Tower of Siloam collapse, they were probably no worse or better than you and me. Unless we all repent we too will perish. We love to judge the fate of others, but Jesus reminds us to judge ourselves.
Just about every human government that has ever existed has been responsible for mass murder. Is that God’s way of punishing evil? What about the mass murders committed by the Empire of Japan, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany? Were those victims worse people than us? What about the bombing of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Were those women and children worse than us? What about the massacres of history? Were they God’s punishment? In Luke 13:1-9 Jesus described a massacre of worshipers by Pilate, who apparently killed them in the very act of worshiping God. Was their worship insincere? Was it tainted? Such judgmental questions annoy Jesus, because as he said, we will perish too unless we regret our wrongs. Human governments claim to judge between the right and wrong but their opinions do not constitute divine judgment.
Even Christians can get a wrong idea of God. We imagine a God who is out to get us, like that old George Jones and Tammy Wynette country song, “God’s gonna get’cha for that. Every wrong thing that you do, God’s gonna get’cha for that.” We imagine a harsh Father in heaven and a pleading Jesus trying to get us out of trouble. But the Bible says that God’s faithful love endures forever. That is the thrust of the argument in Luke 13:1-9 where Jesus answers the hypocrisy that exists in all of us when we point the accusing finger of blame. Human atrocity or simple accidents are not always God’s punishment. We have all sinned and face ultimate destruction in hell unless we repent. But, God has given us all extra time to repent. Let’s not waste it.
Are catastrophes God’s judgment on the sins of others? While such claims seem to be justified by stories of divine judgment the Bible teaches that not every calamity is God’s punishment. What would Jesus say about judging suffering? In Luke 13:1-9 Jesus answered religious people who made such claims about similar disasters. A political murder and a local construction disaster were not reasons for believing that the victims were any more sinful than the rest of us. Such self-righteous judgmentalism seemed to disgust Jesus who replied that we all need to repent or perish. As Ecclesiastes plainly teaches, time and chance happen to us all. Not every loss is punishment, just as not every gain is a reward. Even when punishment is due, rather than chastise immediately, Jesus showed God’s preference to give us a second chance to repent.
I once worked in a place where there was a grumpy girl. She was hostile and easily angered and did not like anyone. So, I determined to treat her kindly and gently. I just knew that something must have been hurting her deep down inside. One day she asked, what would I do if she was my daughter and came home and told me she was pregnant. I simply replied that the first thing I would do would be to give her a big hug. She broke down and cried. Her parents had kicked her out of the house. They were church goers, but had missed the most important thing that Jesus taught, love. In Luke 13:31-35 Jesus spoke of his wish for Jerusalem that had killed the prophets. He just wanted to take the city into his embrace.
In Luke 13:31-35 are three wishes. They only become obvious in the original Greek using the word thelo meaning to desire or wish. The first is from Herod who wished to kill Jesus. The second is from Jesus who wished only to gather the children of Jerusalem like a hen gathers her chicks. The third is from those children who wished not to be gathered. Herod thought he was a lion, but Jesus called him a fox, meaning that he was less of a threat than he thought. Human governments may threaten the church, but they cannot do what God will not allow. Herod threatened but Jesus knew that God is in control. A fox is also an outsider to the chicken coop. The chicks are insiders, but in this case do not desire the hen’s gathering. Do we?
3 men were blindfolded and allowed to touch an elephant. One touched its trunk and declared it to be a snake. One touched a leg and declared it to be a tree. One touched its tail and declared it to be a rope. It was only when the blindfold was removed that they saw an elephant. So it is with Jesus. Those who see him only as a threat to their religion want him to leave. Those who seem him only as a threat to their political power want to kill him. Those who see him as a meal ticket only want to treat him and his followers as prey. But those who see him as he really is, the healer of all humanity, are willingly gathered together by Jesus Christ as a hen gathers her chicks (Luke 13:31-35).
Woe to those who speak out about Jesus especially when it threatens the powers that be. Those powers can be members of the news media, national political leaders or even a local church. Herod Antipas was a political bully like his father. He intimidated people and threatened the life of Jesus, like a fox threatens a hen who would gather her chicks (Luke 13:31-35). But the harassment of Christ and the bullying of those who come in his name is normal. Jesus told Jerusalem that they would not see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Those who come in the name of Jesus Christ expect a rude welcome from politicians and the media. How do we in the church treat those who come in the name of the Lord?
Enemies are a part of life. How do we deal with our adversaries? Our enemies sometimes tempt us to do seemingly good things, but with strings attached. When life seems to offer us something good it is always wise to consider the source. The adversary tempts us with power and prestige. When life offers us authority and status it is wise to ask at what cost. The antagonist tempts us to be reckless. When we are tempted to take a leap of faith, it is wise to ask if it is not in reality a leap of foolishness. The personality that Jesus confronted as he was being tested in the wilderness was a slanderer. That’s what the word devil means (Luke 4:1-13). How do we deal with the devil? We have a handbook for that. It’s called the Bible.
Some advice given under the title “spiritual warfare” is more like ineffective superstition than biblical instruction and can even be potentially harmful in the reality of spiritual combat. The devil would love for us to go into battle with useless weapons. Paul’s advice on putting on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-20) and Jesus’ battle royal with Satan (Luke 4:1-13) are two examples of truthful material whereby we can achieve real victory in spiritual battles. The weapons of engagement in Jesus’ case were fasting and the word of God. Jesus described prayer and fasting elsewhere as effective tools against the forces of evil (Mark 9:14-21). To the Ephesians Paul also described the Holy Scriptures as a sword, an offensive weapon in combat. Prayer and fasting and Bible skill are tried and true weapons of spiritual war.
Jesus was reported as being full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4). What happened? The phrases “full of the Holy Spirit” or “Spirit filled” are often misused today. The Holy Spirit’s work was mentioned in this chapter three times. Each time different circumstances were described and it helps us understand some aspects of the Holy Spirit’s role in Jesus’ ministry. The first time in verse 1 when the phrase “full of the Holy Spirit” was used, it was associated with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness for a period of temptation and fasting. Then in verse 14 Jesus was again portrayed “in the power of the Spirit” and teaching. The third time verse 18 revealed the Holy Spirit as being upon Jesus for preaching. This chapter described the Holy Spirit’s work in Jesus’ preparation, teaching and preaching.
When relationships are broken, it takes a very long time and a lot of patience to restore them. If we have made major mistakes how do we begin to repair things? Humanity made a major mistake at the beginning. Our ancestors rejected God and we have followed the same path. That restoration began in Jesus and it began with a fast and resisting temptation (Luke 4:1-13). A time of fasting before assuming a major responsibility has been the habit of many of the faithful down through history. Resisting temptation is an ongoing struggle for Christians. Lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, anger, envy and pride are always around. Idolatry, hatred, theft, sexual unfaithfulness, dishonesty, gossip and more tempt us every day. Jesus resisted the devil by recalling Scripture. The word of God is a powerful weapon in the face of temptation.
In the transfiguration are many allusions. It occurred possibly on Mount Tabor. Peter wanted to build something and something was finally built there, the Church of the Transfiguration. Jesus, Moses and Elijah had some similar experiences. Each fasted 40 days (Exodus 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2). Elijah was lifted up into the heavens before he died (2 Kings 2). The discussion between the three during the transfiguration included Jesus’ upcoming exodus or departure from this life (Luke 9:28-43), an obvious allusion to Moses’ exodus. The passage also alludes to the eighth day, which in the early church was also a way of speaking about Sunday, a weekly memorial of Jesus’ resurrection. The appearance of glory uses words that are only found in places describing the return of Christ, an obvious allusion to the second coming.
The mountaintop became a sacred place during the transfiguration because the disciples experienced an incredible vision of Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-43). The first such sacred place was the garden east of Eden, which our first parents regretfully disrespected. Other sacred places were the burning bush and the tabernacle. In all such sacred places we experience a taste of God. A sacred place can be where we pause for daily prayer. For me a forest pathway has always been a sacred place where I am reminded of the presence of God in the majesty of his creation. For most of us our church buildings become sacred places, because there we hear the word of God expounded, pray and sing praises to his glory. Sacred places can be anywhere that we are reminded of the ubiquitous presence of God.
Why is it that immediately after the “mountain-top” experience of a lifetime, the disciples failed in the valley (Luke 9:28-43)? They could not heal a demon possessed boy. But Jesus was with them and he healed the boy and gave him back to his father. They were all amazed at the mighty power of God, in the valley. Many Christians look for that mountain top experience, but we live in the valley. Sheep climb out of the valley to escape predators, but must go back to the valley to eat. The valley is where the food is. It is where we live. Though we meet God on the mountain top, he is with us also in the valley. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of the shadow of death, let’s remember that he is with us.
Present or future, heavenly or earthly? Those are questions that many ask about the transfiguration in Luke 9:28-43. There are two main theories of eternity which struggle with this scripture. Are Moses and Elijah alive in heaven now or asleep and awaiting a resurrection? Was the vision Moses and Elijah as they are now, or as they will be after a future resurrection? There are also two main theories about our future. Will it be in heaven or on earth? Actually after Revelation, heaven and earth come together and the point becomes moot, but in the in-between time, there are two main theories. Are Moses and Elijah in heaven now, or waiting to reign on the earth after Christ’s return? I lean towards the popular belief, but the truth is, it is all a mystery. We’ll all know then.
What have been the happiest days of our lives so far? The birth of a child, a wedding, a baptism or confirmation, a special trip, a graduation, a party are all occasions to remember. What about a theophany, a special appearance of God. The disciples Peter, James and John experienced one of their happiest days as a time on the mountaintop with Jesus (Luke 9:28-43). It was a day of prayer and intimacy with God. Throughout history people have recorded those rare moments of a special appearance of God, a near-death experience, a dream or a vision. The transfiguration was a life-changing experience and it began with prayer. Prayer is an opportunity every day to change our lives. It is an encounter with God, a time for an intimate meeting with the ruler of the universe. Don’t miss out.
When Jesus prayed it was a rendezvous with God, not just a speech. In one such divine meeting he was dramatically transformed. The Old Testament is sometimes spoken of as two major parts, the law and the prophets. The major figure of each was Moses and Elijah. How appropriate that in his transfiguration, Jesus spoke with those two people (Luke 9:28-43). God spoke directly so that others could hear only a few times in Jesus life, at his baptism and here, saying this is my beloved Son, hear him. In a society where Moses and Elijah were “heard” every week in the assembly, this was a new instruction. Is Jesus the one to whom we listen? When we pray, do we just speak to God or also await expectantly the possibility of a dramatic experience of God’s divine presence?
In Australia I learned to laugh at myself. Among the Chinese I learned how parents sacrifice for their children. Among the Bedouin I learned about hospitality. Among the English I learned about good manners. Among the Dutch I learned about tolerance. In Germany I learned about hard work and thoroughness. In France I learned about diplomacy. In Poland I learned about the love of children. From Africans I learned about faith and how to simplify. In America I learned about big thinking and a can do attitude. In North Carolina I learned about the importance of encouraging our children. In Maryland I learned to respect those who work with their hands. In West Virginia I learned about being sensitive to people’s feelings. How silly it is to be bigoted against strangers when God loves us all equally (Luke 4:21-30)!
In school I found foreigners to be very interesting people. I was the only white boy on our high school sports team. The rest were foreign students. Living in other countries I learned to love different accents, cuisines and cultures. Many people are xenophobic, fearing strangers. As a foreigner in different countries and even at times in my own, I have experienced ignorant prejudice. It is that precise attitude that Jesus challenged in Luke 4:21-30. America was founded on multiculturalism. Swedes, Scots, English, Germans, Spanish, Africans, Italians and more melted into a multicultural pot. One common thread runs through all cultures worldwide: people just want to live, love, laugh and have happy families. When we focus on bigotry and hatred we miss out on experiencing the variety of God’s wonderful creation. And the Gospel must also go to them.
We love the little baby Jesus meek and mild. We do not want to hear the provocative Jesus (Luke 4:21-30). But how might our politics look if we allowed Jesus into the debate over immigration reform? How might Jesus inform political opinion about foreigners and similar outsiders? We don’t have to agree with someone to love them. Jesus even told us to love our enemies. But in the political arena, such commands fall on deaf ears. Why do so many Christians claim to follow Jesus, when our political opinions are often the exact opposite of what he taught? But that’s the same in many areas. We claim Christian standards that neither Jesus nor the Apostles claimed as criterion of Christian behavior and we ignore those that they did. Why do we not ask, what would Jesus do or teach?
If Jesus confronted us with truth like his home crowd (Luke 4:21-30), how would we react? Are we offended when someone in our midst is promoted over us or does better than us? Are we bigoted against other nations or ethnic groups? If God blessed a neighboring nation and not ours, would we be angry at him? If Jesus healed people in the next town and not ours, would we reject him? If we heard that Jesus brings good news for all people, why do we reject some people? Do we reject the poor, prisoners, the blind and the oppressed to whom Jesus was sent? Who are the oppressed? Is it foreigners, migrants, minimum wage earners, single mothers, disabled people, ethnic minorities, the elderly or all of these? Jesus’ truth may offend us, but it is still the truth.
Here are a few lies about Christianity: “God does not want you to suffer.” Wrong! All who live godly lives in Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). “Doctrine does not matter only love does.” Wrong! Love is a doctrine, the most important one (Matthew 22:34-40). “God helps those who help themselves.” Wrong! The Spirit helps in our weakness (Romans 8:26). “Sin is fun.” Wrong! Sin is short-term fun and long-term heartache eventually paying wages of death. “Christians are divided.” Wrong! Christians agree more than they disagree, especially on God’s gift of eternal life through Jesus (Romans 6:23). “Christians must be anti-intellectual.” Wrong! Christ taught us to love God with all our heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). People don’t like the truth and that is one reason why Christians are persecuted (Luke 4:21-30).
We love to believe lies. Here is a short list of popular lies in today’s media: Obama is a socialist. NRA executives get a cut of assault weapon sales. They want to take away all our guns. Romney’s son owned voting machines in Ohio. Obama gave Alaskan islands to the Russians. General Motors is becoming China Motors. The debt has not increased under Obama. Obama gave stimulus money to China to build US bridges. According to factcheck.org all of these are false, but we love to believe lies that support our prejudices. When someone comes out with the truth we try to shut them up, denigrate them or find some other excuse to deny the truth. Like Jesus’ hometown we sometimes even want to kill those who tell the truth (Luke 4:21-30). The truth will set us free.
What caused the crowd in Jesus’ hometown to want to kill him (Luke 4:21-30)? A recent book is called “A Patriot’s History of the United States.” It may be a good book, but for a lot of people the definition of a patriot is to gloss over a nation’s sins and only tell those parts of the story that make us look good. I doubt that such a book would tell of our war crimes, political and industrial corruption, or our terrible treatment of the poor, numerous ethnic groups, the unborn and immigrants. In fact, when people are brave enough to address such themes they are hounded off the air or boycotted, and at times the Mccarthyists have falsely accused them and even tried to put them in prison. Like Jesus’ home crowd, we don’t like hearing the truth.