Lessons To Be Learned From Tragedies


Luke 13:1-9

For the past several days I’ve been emotionally shocked due to how many people have been killed due to cyclone in Myanmar and earthquakes in China. According to the AP News the death toll in Myanmar has reached 128,000 people and China will reach up to 50,000. That’s an incredible number of deaths, not to mention countless more people grieving over the death of their loved ones, friends, family, neighbors, etc. I cannot imagine all the emotional pains that people are going through at this time!

I don’t know about you, but I have never witnessed anything like this in my life time than what’s been happening in our world for the past three years. For instance, in addition to the tragedies in past few days, you recall the Indian Ocean earthquake that generated a massive tsunami on the day after Christmas in 2004? With a magnitude between 9.1 and 9.3 earthquake that generated tsunami killed more than 225,000 people in eleven countries! That was the deadliest natural disasters in recent history.

For me I cannot comprehend such number of dead. I was especially saddened as I watched many pictures of children’s bodies crushed to death in China and photos of parents with such anguished pains. Such pains are cross-cultural and common to every human being.

While every news agency was broadcasting such tragedy, at the same time they were talking who will be ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and next ‘American Idol.’ I purposefully wanted to observe how people react to over 178,000 people that just got killed in this world that we co-exist. I had to ask God’s forgiveness for being insensitive, self-focused, and even being unthankful and complaining at such time.

How do we make sense out of what’s been happening in our world with catastrophic events that resulted staggering number of people dead? A question like this compelled me to bring this message to you from the word of God. I want to address this particular and much-needed message because we’re going to witness and experience more tragedies whether in lives of others and/or our own. And when it happens, I would like for us to be ready and respond in ways that glorify God.

With that in mind I want to draw your attention to our text this evening from Luke 13. According to Luke we are not the only ones who experienced such catastrophic events and tragedies. In Jesus days, they too have witnessed and experienced such devastating disaster. It may not be equivalent to our recent tragedies, but it shook people well enough that they reported to Jesus (v. 1). According to Luke the people reported two incidents, namely mixing of blood by Pilate and collapsing of the tower of Siloam. Let me briefly mention what these two incidents were.

Pilate Mixing (13:1b)

We are not told what exactly happened. But apparently some Galileans had rebelled against Rome. And when Pilate heard of it, he sent soldiers not only to punish them but to utterly humiliate them and blaspheme against their religion. What the soldiers did was when they arrived, they killed Galileans where they were worshiping and performing their religious duties. And right there, they mixed the blood of dead men with their sacrifices. You don’t have to be a Jew to know that such action was horrifying to even imagine.

The Tower of Siloam

According to verse 4 apparently there was a disaster in which eighteen people were killed by collapsing of the tower in Siloam. And such disaster in those days can be related to disasters in our own days with the collapse of MinneapolisBridge, collapse of the whole landscapes by earthquakes in China, disappearance of the whole shorelines in Indonesia by tsunami, floods by Katrina in southern states, and so on.

Hence just like the people in Jesus’ days that were wondering, we are asking the same question, that is, how do we explain all this? Before we look at what Jesus says here in our text, we need to understand our text in light of its context. The reason for this by how our text begins in verse 1, namely “Now on the same occasion.” Such phrase begs the question, now on what occasion? To answer that, we need to go back and read the context of 12:35-59. Due to time I don’t want to read the entire passage of Scripture. But let me quickly point out three realities just from this context, which would then help us to understand our text.

  1. Be ready, for Jesus Christ is coming (12:35-40).
  2. He comes unexpectedly (12:41-48). Thus, be ready.
  3. Know how to analyze the current event (12:54-56). The verb to analyze in Greek means to “discern, interpret, or examine.”

And it is in this context where our text is found. And I want to point out six lessons that we must be reminded and learned.

I. As already mentioned, understand that your divine appointment with Christ is very soon.

You would either see him by his Second Coming or by your death. The point is either way your divine appointment with Christ is very soon. In fact it is sooner than what most would think.

I want you to know that one of the characteristics of a healthy church is that she is a second coming church, which means such a church lives such a godly way that she is ready to meet the Lord anytime. That is the implication Paul gave in Ephesians 5:27, which reads: “That He (Jesus) might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.”

II. People talk more readily about other people’s death than about their own (13:1).

According to J.C. Ryle:

A murder, a sudden death, a shipwreck, or a railway accident [even tsunami, cyclone, and earthquakes] will completely occupy the minds of a neighborhood and be spoken about by everyone you meet. And yet these same people dislike to talk about their own deaths and their own prospects in the world beyond the grave. Such is human nature in every age. In religion, people are prepared to talk about anybody’s business rather than their own.[1]

Someone said, “Many people are so afraid to die that they have never begun to live.” How about you? Are you ready to die? Are you living in such way that you are prepared to die this evening? These are the questions that we all need to think through seriously and also its implications.

The question is not, “Why did all these people die?” but, “What right do you have to live?” None of us is sinless, so we all better be prepared. In his book Dying Thoughts, a Puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote:

The life to come depends upon this present life. As the life of adult age depends upon infancy, or the reward upon the work; or the prize of racersor soldiers upon their running or fighting; or the merchant’s gain upon his voyage. Heaven is won or lost on earth; the possession is there, but thepreparation is here… It is then an error, though but few are guilty of it, tothink that all religion lies in minding only the life to come, and in disregarding all things in this present life.[2]

III. Those events in Jesus’ days (and our own recent events) remind us that life in this world is short.

Many people who died in China in past week have been school children. And I’m certain that many of them who said goodbyes to their parents as they headed to school that morning did not anticipate that was their final goodbyes. I’m sure this also is true for some husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, neighbors, friends, and so on.

Those vacationers who died from tsunami a few years ago did not spend their hard earned money to go vacation so that they would be swept away from tsunami. No one plan a vacation to die. Also, our loved ones, friends, family, or someone we know that have died did not plan their last day here would be their last day here. All these things remind us the brevity of life.

IV. Everyone deserves to die.

According to G. Campbell Morgan, catastrophe is no proof of special sin.[3] A man can die without a dictator like Pilate. A man can die without catastrophic event like the tower of Siloam. A man dies even in his sleep, and even during his happiest hour. Death is imminent no matter how it comes. Hence catastrophe is no proof of special sin.

Jesus implies in verses 2 and 4 that some people actually thought that those who died deserved to die and those who didn’t die did not deserve to die. And such erroneous assessment of others and us arise out of self-righteousness and pride. And it’s amazing how we can justify people’s death. For instance, after the devastation from Katrina, I’ve heard some evangelicals say it was due to all the sins down there in South as if there are no sins in North. I would not be surprised what ignorant things people may say about what happened in Myanmar and China. The Bible teacher G. Campbell Morgan said, “Are we not all in the habit of measuring ourselves by comparing ourselves as among ourselves? And when we do so we usually compare ourselves with those whom we know to be inferior to ourselves, and so we are uplifted in pride of heart, in satisfaction, in contentment.”[4]

Therefore, to confront and correct such thinking, Jesus responds in verses 3 and 5 that actually everyone deserves to die. And the key phrase in verses 3 and 5 is “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” That implies that everyone is sinful and sinner and deserves death. This is a radical statement. And you know what? This only makes sense to those who truly understand who they are, who God is, and what they really deserve from God. John Piper wrote the following words on the night when the bridge collapsed in Twin Cities:

All of us have sinned against God, not just against man. This is an outrage ten thousand times worse than the collapse of the 35W bridge. That any human is breathing at this minute on this planet is sheer mercy from God. God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on those who do not treasure himabove all else. He causes the hart to beat and the lungs to work for millions of people who deserve his wrath. This is a view of reality that desperately needs to be taught in our churches, so that we are prepared for the calamities of the world.

The meaning of the collapse of this bridge is that John Piper is a sinner and should repent or forfeit his life forever. That means I should turn from the silly preoccupations of my life and focus my mind’s attention and my heart’s affection on God and embrace Jesus Christ as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for the hope of eternal life. That is God’s message in the collapse of this bridge. That is his most merciful message:there is still time to turn from sin and unbelief and destruction for those of us who live. If we could see the eternal calamity from which he is offering escape we would hear this as the most precious message in the world.[5]

I love those words by John Piper because it truly puts things in biblical perspectives. But what I appreciated even more is what happened during their family devotion with their daughter Talitha. He wrote:

We prayed during our family devotions. Talitha (11 years old) and Noel and I prayed earnestly for the families affected by the calamity and for the others in our city. Talitha prayed “Please don’t let anyone blame God forthis but give thanks that they were saved.” When I sat on her bed and tucked her in and blessed her and sang over her a few minutes ago, I said, “You know, Talitha, that was a good prayer, because when people‘blame’ God for something, they are angry with him, and they are sayingthat he has done something wrong. That’s what “blame” means: accuse somebody of wrongdoing. But you and I know that God did not do anything wrong. God always does what is wise. And you and I know that God could have held up that bridge with one hand”…Which means that God had a purpose for not holding up that bridge, knowing all that would happen, and he is infinitely wise in all that he wills.”

Talitha said, “Maybe he let it fall because he wanted all the people of Minneapolis to fear him.” “Yes, Talitha,” I said, “am sure that is one of thereasons God let the bridge fall.”[6]

V. Repent while you still have the time because next time will never come.

The primary message here from our text is repentance. To repent means to change of mind, emotions, and will that were sinful and disobedient to obedient unto God. Jesus implies in verses 6 through 9 that true repentance is noticeable and visible by its fruit. In the New Testament fruit often represents a person’s individual life. But fruit does not only refer to individual life, but also the corporate life of a church since church is made up of many individual lives. According to J.C. Ryle he relates fruit to churches. He said:

Here is a warning for all professing churches of Christ. If their ministers do not teach sound doctrine and their members do not live holy lives, they are in imminent danger of destruction. The axe is lying near the root of many an unfruitful church… Here also is a warning to the unconverted. Many people in church congregations have heard the Gospel preached faithfully for hundreds of Sundays and yet have never embraced it. The Lord of the vineyard may say to such people, ‘I have come for many years looking for fruit but have found none, so cut the tree down.’[7]

God is seeking fruit. And he will accept no substitutes. There are no substitutes for your repentance. You cannot substitute repentance for let’s say doing religious works. A person can be religious and do religious works, but have no true repentance.

Also, repentance is not based on your term. A true repentance is not taking God’s grace for granted by thinking that one can continue to sin and then just ask God’s forgiveness when you feel guilty as if you have the power to turn on the switch for God’s forgiveness. May I say to you that God is not under any obligation to forgive sinners? He is obligated to punish sinners and put sinners to death. The fact that he would grant some sinners forgiveness is itself a miracle.

The question is not, why did God allow those people to be killed? The real question is why didn’t God allow more people to be killed? Let me direct this question more personal: why does God allow you to live when you have greatly offended God? If God does not immediately punish the rebellious sinners, it is not because he winks or approves them but that he is patient, or in King James, longsuffering. The fact that God allows billions of people to live is an absolute proof that God is merciful, patient, kind, and gracious. Hence being killed or not being killed is not the gauge whether someone is unrighteous or righteous. The point is anyone can be killed. It is only God’s grace that causes anyone to live.

Repentance is only credible by its fruit. If there is no visible change in one professes to be a Christian such individual will be judged and that more severely than those who do not profess to Christians.

VI. God is to be feared.

God’s judgments are always rooted in righteousness.[8] And his judgments are always exercised in his patience (e.g., the universal flood in Genesis, the Sodom and Gomorah, etc.). All his judgments are righteous and just. So when sinners are still alive this only illustrates that all that is alive live on borrowed time. Our time has been past due a long time ago, but it is only by God’s grace that we are alive. And such God of grace is to be feared. We often think of grace to mean something soft, tender, almost in a feminine term, but the act that grants sinners to enjoy the sunset, smell roses, experience birth of a child, enjoying every goods is power. All that is to say, such God of grace is to be feared. John Calvin wrote:

You are perfectly aware, that that country is full of ungodly men, and thatmany who deserved the same punishment are still alive. He is a blind and wicked judge who decides as to the sins of all men by the punishments which they now endure. It is not always the most wicked man who is first dragged to punishment; but when God selects a few out of a large number to be punished, he holds out in their person a threatening that he will take vengeance on the remainder, in order that all may be alarmed.[9]

[1] J.C. Ryle, Luke (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), 183.

[2] Richard Baxter, Dying Thoughts (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004), 4-5.
[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1992), 161.
[4] G. Campbell Morgan, “The Rights of God” in The Westminster Pulpit, Books 3 & 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 4:334.
[5] John Piper, “Putting My Daughter to Bed Two Hours After the Bridge Collapsed” at http://www.desiringgod.org/Blog/745_putting_my_daughter_to_bed_two_hours_after_the_bridge_collapsed/ (accessed on May 18, 2008).
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ryle, 185.
[8] Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke, 161-2.

[9] John Calvin, “Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke,” in Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 152.

A Word On Tragedies in Asia

I’m still in a state of shock after learning about the cyclone that swept across Myanmar (Burma) that now estimates over 128,000 people dead. Did you get that? Over 128,000 people dead! And if that’s not tragic enough, this Monday China has experienced 7.9 magnitude earthquake that killed over 10,000 people in which many of them are children.

I’m hearing all these news and watching heart-wrenching pictures a day after I preached Matthew 8:28-34, which one of my sermon points was that Jesus values people more than livestocks, properties, and things. In fact, for the past four Sundays I’ve been preaching Matthew 8 to point out how Jesus is more powerful and needs to be feared than incurable diseases, demons, and powerful nature (e.g., storms, tornadoes, earthquakes). It is no coincidence that I’m witnessing all this right after having prepared and preached Matthew 8.

So how do we make sense of all this? For a starter, it would be helpful to read John Piper’s blog that he wrote last summer when a bridge collapsed in his city. Although the context of his writing is different than the recent events in Asia, the biblical and theological implications are the same. Afterwards, read his recent post “6 Ways to React to the Cyclone.”

While I’m grateful for Pastor John’s sensitive reaction to cyclone tragedy in Myanmar, I’m disappointed and disturbed about silence and absence of post by many major evangelical blogs. How can this be? If something like this magnitude happened on the shore or soil of America there probably be myriads of blogs about it. But how is that many major American evangelical bloggers and websites failed to mention about what has happened and happening in Asia? Whatever happened to the biblical notion that when one member of the body suffers the whole body suffers? I cannot believe the selfishness and blindness of American Christianity and churches due to materialism and wealth. Our churches should be mourning and grieving with some of our brothers and sisters in those parts of the world that have been directly impacted (or at least expressing sympathy and prayer) but we go on as if it’s no big deal when thousands of people just perished.

This is not the time to make such statements like “People die everyday so what?” or “Yeah but God is sovereign.” Do we really value people and their souls?

However, I am encouraged to see some of the notable church denominations/affiliations extending mercy and relief works, such as, Southern Baptist Convention, Presbyterian Church in America, and Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Although many of us would not ever read, affiliate, or fellowship with theological liberals (rightfully so), one area we need to do better than them is this area of extending mercy. By the way, I’m not referring to those mentioned above in such camp.