March 7th, 2009
“Righteous and Wicked”
Would you rather be righteous, or wicked? Without the context of Ezekiel 33, most of us would say “righteous”. But look carefully at the words of the prophet and you might want to rethink that.
Ezekiel spoke his words of prophecy to the Israelites in exile. They had seen the destruction of their beloved Jerusalem. They had watched the Babylonians bring down the very temple of God. And they themselves were carted off to a foreign land. It all seemed pretty hopeless.
As a people, this was a major blow. But how would they interpret these events? How would they make sense of the tragedy they had experienced? What would they do with it?
Such questions have vexed us all since the Garden of Eden. What to do with pain and suffering and tragedy. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn't God seem to answer my prayer? Why did my loved one have to die? Why don't my children respect me? Why did I lose my job? How is our family going to make it? Is there any hope for my future? Or am I, are we, finally just lost?
You know, you're not the first, and you won't be the last human to ask those tough questions. But where and how do we find our answers, if there are any?
In our Gospel reading, some people thought they had it figured out. So they asked Jesus, “what about those people from Galillee who died in such a horrible way. You know, when Pilate killed then, and then added insult to injury by mixing their blood with their sacrifices?”
Jesus says, “do you think they were worse than others because they suffered this way? No, I tell you...”
Now let's be careful with our Lord's words. Surely Jesus isn't saying the victims of the tragedy are without sin. Jesus would never contradict such clear teaching of scripture which shows the entire corruption of all mankind. “In sin did my mother conceive me” is true of everyone.
But he says there was no particular sin, no worse sin that caused them to suffer.
If it were so, then the survivors might think they were less sinful, or better off. A sense of self-righteousness might be fed with such a false notion. “Oh, those people suffered because they were wicked. Since we're not suffering, we must be pretty good. God must be pleased with us”. It's the same sort of thinking that blames the people of Haiti for their recent disaster. Blame the victims. They must have deserved it somehow, a well-known preacher declares.
But watch out, Jesus says:
“unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.
What do we deserve? Are we deserving of God's favor and gratitude? Are we so good and nice and righteous that God wants to reward us with long life, nice things, and little pain? Heavens, no. When tragedy strikes, and even when it doesn't, we're wise to remember what we truly deserve. Temporal and eternal punishment.
What don't we deserve? We certainly don't deserve God's kindness in Jesus Christ – but that's what he gives us. He sends Jesus to stand under the crushing burden of God's wrath. He sends Jesus to die under Pilate's judgment, and be dishonored and shamed before all – his blood shed in the company of real criminals. He didn't deserve any of this, but Jesus takes it all for us.
Jesus, too, calls us to repent. He calls not the healthy, but the sick. Like Elijah – he comes with words of hope and comfort for the wicked, not the righteous.
From the very moment that Adam and Eve sinned, they deserved death. God could have justly punished them immediately, sending them straight to hell, do not pass go. But he didn't. Nor does he punish us directly each and every time we sin. He is patient. He gives many opportunities for repentance.
Like that fig tree, God the owner of the gardener is patient with our lacking fruit of righteousness. He sends gardeners, workers into that field to fertilize and tend to the trees, time and again, that fruit might grow. He sends pastors and teachers to speak his word – aiming for repentance and faith – and the good works that flow from faith. He is a patient God, but his patience has a limit. There is a day of judgment.
So who are you? Which would you want to be? The self-assured righteous man? Someone who trusts in himself and his own goodness? That's a sham. There is no such person. God's law won't let you get away with it.
Or do you admit it? Would you count yourself among the wicked? Those who do what is wrong and evil and rebellious and sinful? Are we that bad? Yes. Repent, Jesus says.
But that's not his last word to the wicked. He who trusts in himself will perish – if not now, then someday. God's patience doesn't last forever. But he who repents will live. He who turns away from his sin and turns to Christ – he who believes in Jesus will live, even though he dies.
I'd rather be wicked, and let Christ bring the righteousness. I'd rather be repentant than to follow my sins to hell. I'd rather trust in Jesus and his cross than my own shabby righteousness, which really isn't impressive at all.
For the Christian, repentance is a daily process. It's a continual return to our baptism, drowning that Old Adam and his sinful desires – as the New Man arises again from the water.
May this Lenten season be a time in which you, too, grow in repentance – and faith. For in Jesus Christ we are called to repentance. And in Jesus Christ we don't get what we deserve. And in Jesus Christ is our true, and our only righteousness.