Mercy and Atonement
Third Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2016
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some people have favorite Bible verses that they can whip out at the least provocation. These are often wonderful reminders like “God loves a cheerful giver” or “God is love” or “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” Well, I must tell you that today we’re not given my favorite verse—but instead we have my LEAST favorite verse.
It’s right there at the end of the epistle—Paul wrote, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.” I think this verse makes me cringe so much for a few reasons. First of all, I know plenty of people who were tested so much that they thought they’d explode. And sometimes they have. Second, I’ve heard this verse used way too much by sanctimonious people to supposedly encourage people—but often it just comes out sounding holier-than-thou.
Try telling it to one of the grieving parents in Newtown, or to any one of the thousands of grieving parents in Aleppo.
Even worse, try applying some of those dreadful assertions that come before this verse—that there were mass killings and horrible punishments given to people by God so that they could be examples to those who came after. I am not sure about Paul right here…what was he thinking? Surely we cannot be expected to take these verses at face value, because they contradict so very much of the rest of Holy Scripture.
Maybe the best thing about this very problematic Pauline passage is that it opens us up to the questions that get asked in our gospel today. Here are some of those questions: Do terrible things and awful times of testing happen because God is punishing us for something bad we’ve done? What’s the relationship between our suffering and God’s actions in the world? What does God really want for us, anyway?
Let’s explore these good questions by taking a look at the gospel today and see where it leads us in our search for truth.
Jesus is asked by the people around him if people who suffered at the hand of the same Roman governor who would have him crucified—Pontius Pilate—were being punished by God for their sins. Jesus says very clearly: NO! God doesn’t bring disaster and trouble as a punishment. But then he adds that if people don’t change course—or repent—that they’ll also suffer eventually—and worse.
Then a similar question comes: All those 18 people who died when a tower fell on them—was that because they were such great sinners and they were being punished for their sins?
Again, Jesus says: NO! God doesn’t work like that. But if you all don’t turn yourselves around, you will also perish.
Now, I think the only possible explanation for what Jesus is saying is that by our own poorly chosen behaviors we make our own punishments. In other words, we choose badly, we set a bad course for our lives, and then we must live with the consequences. We may even bring ourselves to ruin by our choices.
But remember, God is always there to accompany us, even through any suffering we’ve set up. And God is there ready to rejoice when we turn course and make better choices, holier choices.
This is the message of the second half of the gospel—that nice little parable about the landowner and the gardener. Here, let me read it for us again (and follow along in the bulletin if you’d like), “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The gardener replied to the man, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
So we have 2 characters in the parable—the man and the gardener. The man wants to clobber that tree and get rid of it because it’s useless. The gardener wants to give it another chance.
Which character represents God? Which one represents our common culture?
This might all feel a little surreal. Many of us here today grew up with the idea that we call “Substitutionary Atonement.” It makes the case that Jesus took on all our sin, took it to the cross, to sacrifice it and himself to the Father. It still informs a lot of our liturgy, which was essentially written in the mid-16th century. It was an act of propitiation, an offering given to an angry God to placate that God and to make that God go away. And of course, the theory goes, that we humans were incapable of placating an angry God, and that only God could restore God’s lost honor. Hence God became human in Jesus, and as God he died with all our sin on himself and made reparation to the Father. Now God is happy and the gates of heaven are opened once again to us. Hmmm.
This is medieval thinking and it’s centered in the classic theological work by St. Anselm called Cur Deus Homo? Or—Why the God-Man? It dates from around 1100 AD. It’s a thousand years old.
So…Let’s choose a different way to think of things, shall we? Especially in light of that gardener in today’s parable who takes no delight in destruction, but who exults in turnarounds and in life itself.
Might we see Jesus’ death not as a sacrifice to an angry Father God, but instead as a gift of solidarity and identification with us? Might we see his death on the cross as the inevitable, time-bound end of pure goodness in this world?
To quote David Lose, a distinguished contemporary Lutheran theologian, “In the cross…we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.” [David Lose, “In the Meantime” Monday, February 22, 2016, DavidJLose@gmail.com]
So think about this for a moment. Isn’t it a very good thing that God understands who we are and how we suffer in this life? Isn’t it comforting that God will use all things, even our suffering, and redeem it at the last?
And isn’t it wonderful “that God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into [his] embrace?” [Lose, ibid.]
May God be right beside us, guiding us in the messy process of taking off the old theology that may not fit so well anymore, and putting on the new, all the while turning toward the light.