Sermon 08-21-2022: “When Bad Things Happen to Bad People”

Scripture: Luke 13:1-9

Whenever the headlines bring us news of yet another tragedy of some kind—whether it’s tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods; whether it’s pandemics and pestilence; whether it’s horrifying acts of violence like school shootings; whether it’s terrorist attacks; skeptics and atheists often take to social media, to late-night television, and to talk shows and ask questions like this: “Why would a good, all-powerful God allow evil [like this] to continue?… Either He is not really good or He is not very powerful; otherwise He would have eliminated suffering long ago.” 1

You’ve likely heard this, right?

Not long ago, there was even a backlash online directed toward people who offer “thoughts and prayers” to the families of the victims of these tragedies. And a lot of people on social media were asking, “What good are thoughts and prayersDo something about it!” Because, from the perspective of so many people, praying is a waste of time; praying is doing nothing.

And of course, we’re mostly Christians here. So who cares what skeptics say? Except… I fear that somewhere far in the back of our minds a tiny seed of doubt gets implanted and germinates: “Are these skeptics right? Why does God allow so much pain and suffering? Where is God when tragedy strikes?”

I want today’s sermon to bolster our faith—even in the face tragedies, even in the face of pain and suffering… And I hope to do this in four ways: First, by making sense of Jesus’ difficult words in today’s scripture; second, by hearing Jesus’ warning to people who haven’t yet received Christ and his gospel; third, by hearing Jesus’ warning to those of us who are already Christians; and, fourth, by encouraging us with the good news even in Jesus’ difficult words.

So Point Number One… What do these difficult words of Jesus mean in today’s scripture?

The same questions that modern people ask in the face of tragedy are the ones that people are asking in today’s scripture. While Jesus is teaching, some messengers bring him word about a tragedy that was making headlines in his day: Pontius Pilate, the ruthless Roman governor who ruled over Judea, massacred some Galileans who had recently come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple. These faithful Jewish pilgrims had gone to the Temple, not to foment revolution against the Roman Empire, but merely to worship—just like we’re worshiping today. And for no good reason, Pilate’s soldiers brutally kill them. It was shocking! And tragic! And these messengers in verse 1 want Jesus to know about it!

And in their minds, many in Jesus’ audience were asking the same questions we often ask: Why did God allow this to happen?

And we can infer the way many people in the crowd were answering that question based on what Jesus says to them in response. The people were thinking something like this: “These seemingly innocent pilgrims must have done something to deserve their fate. God must be punishing them because of some particularly grievous sin or sins on their part.”

We see this same impulse to “blame the victim” in John chapter 9. Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind. And the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And of course, Jesus says, “Neither”—not that neither the man nor his parents sinned—of course they did—but it wasn’t on account of their sin that the man had been suffering in this way. 2

But you can imagine how “blaming the victim” would reassure many people in the crowd: They might tell themselves, “Unlike these victims in the Temple, I’m a righteous person… I don’t commit the kinds of sins that would get me killed like them… So—what a relief! What a relief thatsuch a shocking act of violence and unexpected death will never happen to me!”

Well… if people in the crowd were feeling a sense of relief about this tragic news—comforted by the thought that they were more righteous than the people who got killed, confident that that sort of thing could never happen to them—Jesus quickly disabuses them of this notion. Verses 2 and 3: “And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

And to make matters worse, Jesus pulls out another shocking, perhaps even more senseless, event that had recently been in the news: a tower in Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen people. Whereas the earlier tragedy with Pilate had been an act of mass murder, this event with a tower falling is what insurance companies used to call, literally, an “act of God”—a freak accident over which we humans have no control. Maybe the collapse of this tower was caused by an earthquake, or maybe by an engineering mistake—regardless… This was a natural disaster, not a man-made tragedy. So surely this so-called “act of God” would be a case of God’s punishing people for their sins!

Yet even here, in verses 4 and 5, Jesus says no. “[D]o you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

In either case, Jesus says—contrary to popular belief—God was not punishing the victims of these tragedies because of some especially conspicuous sin on their part! God had not allowed them to suffer and die on account of their sins!

I’ve heard several preachers take these words of Jesus way too far. They say that these words of Jesus prove that God never punishes people for their sins while they’re here on earth—at least not before they die and face Final Judgment. In other words, these preachers say, if God allows someone to experience pain and suffering, it’s never because God is punishing them for their sins… 

But I’m sorry, that can’t be right… Remember, as I said this past Wednesday night, as good Methodists, we need to interpret scripture in light of other scripture. And even in the Book of Acts—which is Luke’s sequel to this gospel—I can think of at least three people whom God struck down because of specific sins: In Acts chapter 5 a married couple named Ananias and Saphhira are struck down by God because they lied to the apostles about a financial gift. In Acts chapter 12, Luke tells us about King Herod Agrippa I, whom God strikes down because of the sin of idolatrous pride.

God may punish someone for their sins by causing or allowing suffering, but if he does, that’s God’s business, not ours. We simply aren’t in a position to say. And so we shouldn’t!

But God’s Son Jesus is in a position to say… and in the case of these two recent tragedies, Jesus says that, contrary to what people were thinking, these tragedies were not the result of people’s sins. 

Besides, and here’s the larger point that Jesus wants to make: even if God were punishing these victims for their sins… Think about yourself for a moment… think about your own sins—which are legion: If God were going to punish people because of their sins, what makes you think you would escape punishment?

One pastor I know, the Rev. Jacob Smith, an Episcopalian from New York City, asks us to imagine a scale measuring the relative righteousness of different people we can think of. And the scale starts on the floor. In other words, the floor represents the least amount of righteousness that someone could possess. And for most of us, Jake says, we’d probably put—you know—Hitler… or Osama bin Laden… on the floor. These are the biggest sinners we can think of… But then we move up the scale to the tip-top of the ceiling… The ceiling is reserved for the most righteous person we can think of. Who would we put there? Maybe someone like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham—someone like that. And then, Jake says, where would we place ourselves? Well, we’d probably place ourselves somewhere in between the floor and the ceiling—and probably much closer to the ceiling than the floor—not nearly as bad as Hitler, of course, but also not as good as Mother Teresa. Well, that seems fair…

But then, Rev. Smith asks, where would we locate Jesus on this “righteousness scale”? 

If the ceiling is the highest point on the scale that a normal human being could reach, Jesus would be on the moon! Because that’s where a perfectly righteous and sinless human being is in comparison to us! “[A]ll our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,” Isaiah memorably says. 3

Some of you will remember, back in the ’80s, there was a bestselling book by a rabbi named Harold Kushner entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The title, however, is almost completely hypothetical. Because, as one theologian puts it, “Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, that only happened once, and he volunteered.” 4

There are no good people besides Christ. As Jesus himself said when the Rich Young Ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” 5 Of course Jesus is God, therefore he is good, but this young man didn’t know that Jesus was God. No one besides Jesus has ever been good. 

A more truthful book would be called When Bad Things Happen to Bad People, because that describes who we human beings are—at least apart from God’s justifying and sanctifying grace!

The point is, we all fall so far short of Christ’s standard of righteousness… that none of us should feel morally superior to anyone else! Yet we so often do. And the people in this crowd did, too.

And that’s why Jesus’ words seem so blunt, so harsh-sounding: “Do you think that these victims were worse sinners than you? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Allow me to clear up some confusion here: When Jesus says, “You will all likewise perish,” he can’t mean that unless they repent, they can expect to die both by being murdered by an evil tyrant and having a tower fall on top of them. You can’t die twice and in two different ways. That’s absurd! So Jesus isn’t speaking literally. Nor is he saying that if they do end up repenting, they’ll avoid dying. Because everyone dies, whether they repent or not.

No, when Jesus uses the word “perish,” he’s not talking about natural death at all. He’s talking about a different kind of perishing: It’s the same kind perishing that the Bible’s most famous verse talks about: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It’s the same kind of perishing that Paul mentions, for example, in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

“Perishing,” in this context, is the opposite of “having eternal life,” of “being saved.” To perish means to be judged for our sins, to experience God’s wrath, and to be separated from God for eternity in hell. And this interpretation fits nicely with what Jesus had just been talking about at the end of Luke chapter 12… before these messengers interrupted him with this tragic news about Pilate. 

Okay, but what about that word “likewise”? By using this word, Jesus is comparing the experience of these victims to what might happen to anyone who doesn’t repent. 

So what do these two different kinds of “perishing” have in common?

Two things: First, for too many people in the crowd, they will be unprepared for death. And, second, they will be surprised by death. Unprepared, because when they die, it will be too late for them to repent of their sins and get in a right relationship with God. And they will be surprised—not necessarily by the way that they die—I’m sure many of them will die at the end of a long illness, for instance, knowing full well that their death is imminent… But they will be surprised because they aren’t expecting what happens next… They aren’t expecting God to pronounce the verdict over them when they face him in final judgment, after death: They aren’t expecting God to declare them guilty of their sins… to hold them accountable for their sins… and to sentence them to an eternity separated from God… in hell.

And here is the most sobering truth imaginable: In today’s scripture, Jesus makes it clear that every single one of us—apart from personal faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross—every single one of us deserves a “tragic fate” far worse than even dying a violent death at the hands of a ruthless tyrant, or even dying a senseless death because of some freak natural disaster. Every single one of us deserves hell.

If Jesus sounds harsh here, it’s only because of his urgent need to get our attention and wake us up to the terrible, tragic, yet completely deserved destiny that awaits every single one of us if we fail to repent and believe in him… while we still can!

How many people do we know personally, I wonder… who are unprepared for death right now… How many people will be surprised by what happens after they die. And how desperately they need to hear Jesus’ urgent message, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”

Maybe some people in this very room,or in this very sanctuary, this morning need to hear this message…? In Acts 20:26-27, as Paul reviews his pastoral ministry in Ephesus, he tells the Ephesians, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.”

He’s “innocent of the blood of all”—meaning, Paul has done all he can to tell his people how they can be ready to meet their Lord Jesus, either at the Second Coming or their deaths; their blood will not be on Paul’s hands—if they failed to heed Jesus’ warning, for instance, in today’s scripture and so many other scriptures…

Please appreciate that as your pastor, as difficult a message as this may be, that’s what I’m trying to do: “I’m declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” And I’m urging you to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ while God is giving you—at this very moment—your heartbeat and your breath. Your heartbeat, your breath, every moment of life is a completely underserved gift. Because of your sins, you’re not entitled to even a millisecond of time. But God is giving it to you right now… so that you would take advantage of this moment. And repent and believe in Christ!

So that’s the second pointof today’s sermon—the warning for people who haven’t yet received Christ: Apart from Christ, you’re in eternal, spiritual danger. Repent of your sins and believe in Christ while God is still giving you time to do so!

But what about the rest of us? Is Jesus’ warning only for those people who haven’t yet received Christ?

No, Jesus’ warning is for us Christians, too. And this is Point Number Three: even if we’re Christians, we face a deadly serious spiritual danger. And for this third point, I need to credit pastor Tim Keller. Keller asks us to imagine who are the people to whom Jesus is speaking these difficult words? 

They were not people who were being crushed to death, unexpectedly, by towers falling on top of them. They were not people being murdered by an evil governor when they worshiped God with fellow believers. 

At this moment, the people listening to Jesus were safe. Most were comfortable. None of them was currently in harm’s way. Many of them were prosperous. Many if not most of them enjoyed good health. Many of them enjoyed abundance. For many of them, times were good

Most of them, in other words, were not currently suffering to any significant degree.

And that, Keller says, can be a far greater spiritual danger… than even mass murders and towers falling down.

Just think: The victims of these two tragedies in today’s scripture weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just going about their business. And this bad thing happened to them, out of the blue, beyond their control, through no fault of their own… Surely people in the crowd listening to Jesus were thinking, “What if that happened to me? What if I suddenly lost these things I value most in the world…  things I treasure most in the world… things I love most in the world… prosperity, abundance, good health, romantic relationships, friendships? What if I lost my good reputation, my popularity, the love and respect and adoration of others? I need these things for my happiness. I depend on these things to bring me joy! I rely on these things to feel good about myself! I know I’m a worthy person because I possess these treasures? What good am I if I don’t have them? What good am I if I lose them? What good am I if someone or something robs me of them.”

When everything is going well—when we are enjoying prosperity and abundance and success—when we are enjoying the good life—that’s when we start depending on these earthly treasures—perfectly good things, in and of themselves—but we depend on these treasures to bring us happiness and joy. And we forget about God.

An author named Agur, in Proverbs chapter 30, puts his finger on this grave spiritual danger when he asks God to give him “neither poverty nor riches.” He says, “Feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” 6

Being “full” with mere “earthly bread” is a problem… Yet our earthly treasures can so easily become idols. Because we place our faith in them, rather than in the Lord. We treasure them, rather than treasuring Christ.

It’s been said many times, but it’s still true: you don’t know that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have… And we have so many things other than Jesus beckoning us, tempting us, calling our name, “Hey, Brent! Look at me! Don’t you want me? Don’t you need me? Don’t you know that I am what you need to be happy? Trust in me!”

As Tim Keller says, “We don’t just need to repent of bad things in our lives. We also need to repent of good things that we rely on too much… that we depend on too much… that we trust in too much… 

For this reason, Keller says, there is no greater crisis in life than to have no crisis. There is no greater trial than to have no trial.

And here’s Point Number Four: encouragement… 

I’m sure I don’t even need to ask the following question, because the answer is obvious, but I will: When have you grown closest to Jesus? When have you depended on him most? When have you experienced the sweetest times of prayer? When have you felt his presence the most? 

Is it when everything is smooth sailing in your life? Or during difficult trials that have brought you pain and suffering? 

I know how I would answer that question! And it’s not even close!

My point is, God loves his children far too much not to send trials our way. As the author of Hebrews puts it:

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all.

But we are his children through faith in Christ… And that changes for us the meaning of pain and suffering!

One of my Christian heroes—at least among Christians that I know in real life—is a man named Tracy Fleming. He’s the owner-operator of the Chick-fil-A in Lovejoy, Georgia, down on the southside of Atlanta, not far from where I pastored a church for many years. I used to go to that Chick-fil-A every week to write my sermons. And I got to know Tracy. And I invited him to speak at our church on a couple of occasions. Over the course of many years, Tracy made a couple of trips to China each year, spending his own money, in order to train and equip Chinese Christians in some of China’s many underground churches. It was risky and potentially even life-threatening, because when he went there, he knew that he and his fellow Christians were under surveillance by the Chinese government. Tracy himself is half-Japanese—not that that endears him to the Chinese government! My point is, Tracy knew that when he went there, there was at least a small risk that he would never come back! But he went anyway! Because he loved Jesus that much!

Tracy told me about a conversation he had with a Chinese pastor there, who described to him the intense persecution that he and many of his fellow pastors and Christians were facing. Upon hearing of this suffering, Tracy told this pastor, “I’ll be praying that the Lord will put an end to the persecution and suffering of you and your fellow Christians.” And this pastor looked at Tracy with a flash of anger and indignation and said, “What makes you think that God wants to put an end to our persecution and suffering? God is using our persecution and suffering to do powerful things for God’s kingdom in China!”

Tracy said he was thoroughly humbled!

But that Chinese pastor had it exactly right… When pain and suffering come upon us, in whatever form they come—and Jesus makes clear in today’s scripture that pain and suffering will come upon us—we who have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Christ can always, always, always be confident that God has a purpose for sending it our way, and God is transforming it and using it for our good. God is never sending it to harm or angrily punish those of us who are in Christ. Yes, God disciplines his children, but he always does so only because he loves us. Because only he knows what’s best for us, and it’s usually far better than what we want for ourselves. And he aims to make us and mold us into the kind of people who can receive what’s best for us!

Dear God, give us the patience we need to endure difficult trials, knowing that you’re using them for our ultimate good. Amen.

  1.  Charles R. Swindoll, Swindoll’s Living Insights: Luke (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2017), 384.
  2. John 9:1-3
  3. Isaiah 64:6
  4.  Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 77.
  5. Mark 10:18
  6. Proverbs 30:8b-9a

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