In 1989 Billy Joel released a catchy pop song called, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I’m sure many of you remember it. The verses are a weird listing of celebrities, current events, and even nonsense. I mean, who else has the audacity to rhyme things like “Edsel is a no-go” with “Belgians in the Congo” or “Communist Bloc” with “Rock around the clock”? The verses may be these random lists of people, things, and ideas current in 1989, but the chorus was very memorable.
We didn’t start the fire.
It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
We didn’t start the fire.
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it.
While the verses haven’t aged well, the idea is still current. We could make up our own verses now with all that is troubling us.
Russians in the Ukraine. Vlad Putin’s gone insane.
Covid-19 pandemic. The whole world’s gotten sick!
We didn’t start the fire…
I’m not going to rewrite the whole song for you today, but you get the picture. There is so much that is terrible in the world. There are massive international issues. There is tragedy right in our own lives. I swear that after two years of pandemic challenge, as things seem to be opening up again we’re finding that the hurt is more raw, more real, and more present. It’s almost like we held it all down to survive, and now that we have survived, we have no more energy to handle all the hurt and challenge that we’ve accumulated. Just in the past few weeks I have had multiple conversations with people inside and outside of the church about why God allows hardship to happen or where God is in the midst of all that is wrong in the world.
Those are good questions. They are questions that are always timely because bad things happen all the time—whether through intention or inaction. These questions get right to the heart of our gospel text for today, where Jesus addresses them and makes a connection to God’s judgment. So, let’s not waste any time and get right into the text. It’s a juicy one.
It begins, “At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This is Law & Order stuff—ripped from the headlines. Be warned: This text is going to set us up for what a wicked politician Pilate was. While we have no other details on this mixing of blood at the Temple, other sources report on some of the ways Pilate showed, at best, blatant disregard for Jewish religious customs, and, at worst, a hatred towards the Jews whose lives he oversaw from is Mediterranean villa at Caesarea Maritima. One of the most important Jewish voices from this era, Philo of Alexandria, called Pilate, “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel.”
Here are three things that Pilate did during his tenure that infuriated the Jews. First story: We know that the Ten Commandments prohibit graven images. Pilate sent the military into the heart of Judaism, Jerusalem, with banners emblazoned with Caesar’s image. Not only was this a reminder of their military occupation, it was a taunt that Caesar, himself considered divine, was ruling over the Promised Land. The Jews were so angry that throngs of them traveled the 70 miles to Pilate’s home base in Caesarea Maritima to stage a nonviolent protest. Pilate threatened to kill them, and they didn’t flinch. The bared their throats to him, and he relented, withdrawing the images.
Second story: Pilate funded a 23-mile aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem. Great move, right? Well, it was, except he took funds from the Temple to finance this public work. Crowds gathered in protest, and Pilate sent soldiers to disperse them. The soldiers killed many. Others were trampled while trying to flee the scene.
Third story: He sent troops to attack Samaritans making a pilgrimage to their holy site on Mount Gerazim, which is a bit north of Jerusalem. They killed many on the spot. Those who didn’t escape were executed for going to worship. Pilate did last a couple of decades in his post, but even the Romans grew tired of him and eventually removed him.
What’s the best case scenario here? Perhaps Pilate just didn’t understand how to work with the religious inclinations of the people he governed, so he made a few messes. I think it’s worse. He’s actively against these religious activities and willing to be cruel to put the people in line. Knowing these stories makes Pilate’s quick trial of Jesus make a lot of sense. Here’s a religious debate that is disturbing the peace. What’s easiest here? Do away with the person at the center of the controversy. Pilate has had many killed before. Why not another one named Jesus?
Back to our Luke text. What likely happened here? At the Temple the priests were responsible for pouring the blood from the sacrifices on the altar, but the people bringing the sacrifice were responsible for slaying the animal itself. Likely a group of Galileans—the region of Jesus and his disciples in some foreshadowing here—were going about the work of sacrifice when some of Pilate’s goons attacked them. They died while they were at worship! Their blood mixed with the blood of the sacrifices, and this impure blood made its way into the heart of the Temple worship practice. Pilate didn’t care about the Jewish religious customs. This was no big deal to him, but the articles in The Jerusalem Times that day would have been angry at Pilate. He had no respect for how people worshiped.
People are wondering, Jesus, what did these Galileans do to deserve such a horrific fate? Why doesn’t God stand up for those doing the right things? How can the wicked rule over the faithful? The same question goes for a construction project gone awry. A tower near the pool of Siloam fell, killing eighteen people just going about their normal lives. What did they do to deserve such a fate?
Jesus does give a partial answer to the question about whether these victims deserved their fate. No. That’s the answer. They didn’t do anything to cause this to happen to them. But Jesus does not give a direct answer to why God did not keep these terrible things from happening. Rather, he turns to a parable about judgment and patience.
A fig tree has one main purpose: To bear fruit. In this parable, the fig tree is failing at the one thing it’s supposed to do, so the man who planted it is ready to be done with it. If this one is not doing the job, cut it down. Start again. Maybe the next tree will get it right. But this man has a gardener who urges patience. “Give it one more year,” he says. “I’ll do all I can to get the tree bearing fruit. I’ll enrich its soil. I’ll tend to the tree. If in a year it is still not bearing fruit, cut it down.”
No one wants bad things to happen to them. We look at the state of the world and wonder why things don’t seem to get better. Today Jesus gives us at least a partial answer to this question: Where is God when it hurts? He names the pain Pilate inflicts on the Galileans and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam as tragedies while clearly stating that the victims weren’t sinners being judged by an angry God.
Pain is such a valuable part of life, isn’t it? It hurts, but it’s part of what reminds us of how to live well. If I grab a hot pan with my bare hand, pain reminds me that’s a terrible idea. If I go through challenges with my health, pain conjures up how good it can feel to be healthy, which most of us are most of the time.
These stories remind us that not all is right in the world. We will all experience tragedy and pain. That’s a given, but they are pointers to how God is in the business of fixing that pain in God’s own time. In many cases this is a reminder of how real sin is and of how dire the consequences of sin are. As Jesus is getting closer to the crucible of the cross, we are reminded that he even prays that God would help him avoid suffering. Jesus prayers, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup [of suffering] pass from me.” But he follows it up with a proclamation of faith and patience, “Yet not what I want, but what you want” (Matt. 26:39).
What we do when we gather in worship and when we profess faith is take a bold stand against all the horrors we see in the world. Of course, we want all to feel welcomed and comfortable in the Body of Christ, but we must remember that our faith is rooted in a Lord who suffered for the sin of the world, who died at our wicked hands, and yet still made a way to life. What we are proclaiming and doing is dangerous.
I love how the author Annie Dillard puts it. “On the whole I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?…The churches are playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats…we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to the pews.”
God is with us. Jesus understands the brokenness of the world. It doesn’t make it any less broken, but it gifts us with the time not only to be part of redeeming the brokenness but also to give God thanks for how good things can be. Jesus shows us the hard road to life. It’s the way of the cross. It’s the way of suffering. But it’s the way to the eternal kind of life that suffers and can still hope.
We may not have started the fire (thanks, Billy Joel, for the little theology lesson), but we follow the One who bravely enters that fire on behalf of the world and rescues us to eternal life. This Lent, choose hope. Believe that God’s patience is leading to life.
 Edwards, James R., The Gospel According to Luke, 663.
 Ibid., 663-664.
 France, R. T., Luke, 391-392.
 Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk.