Sunday, September 24, 2017

When Towers Fall

[Preached on a Sunday where our church invited local first responders to attend, be honored, and receive tokens of our appreciation for their service to the community.]

I wonder if there were any warning signs. Any conspicuous cracks, any trembling. But up until then, it probably seemed like such an ordinary day. And then, from one minute to the next, everything just changed. The masonry gave way. Screams of terror filled the air. I wonder if there was any smoke; certainly there were great big clouds of dust permeating the atmosphere. But the blocks of stone fell, this way and that. To those passing nearby, the sky seemed like it was raining bricks. The lofty tower collapsed. No wonder the people screamed out. But the stones crashed to the ground in a hail of rock, and any denizens of first-century Jerusalem passing beneath were crushed.

And the only reason we know about it today is an almost off-hand comment of Jesus recounted by Luke. Jesus was in the midst of teaching. He publicly urged his disciples, in the midst of the crowd, not to live by way of anxiety; not to waste their time worrying about what to eat, what to wear, where their meals would come from; not to invest their energies in all these pursuits, but to focus on enthroning God as king in their lives and trusting his provision (Luke 12:22-31). But to do this, Jesus said, you have to stay ready for God to act. Don't be encumbered by the constant frenzy of activity in life, running to and fro to make sure all your needs are taken care of; no, think carefully whom you're really serving, and organize your life lightly, so you're equipped to spring into action as soon as the alarm sounds: “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning,” he says (Luke 12:35).

Jesus warns that a crisis is around the corner, a crisis that will send everyone into a frenzy: “I came to cast fire on the earth,” he tells them (Luke 12:49). And, turning his attention to all the onlookers who gathered round and eavesdropped on his instructions, he challenged them: If they know that clouds coming in from the sea are carrying rain, and if they know that wind blowing up from the desert is going to be hot – if they can link cause-and-effect in the weather, if they can figure out that smoke and heat are signs for fire, if they have the smarts to make those kinds of inferences on the earth and in the sky – then why can't they read the signs of the times? Why don't they put together the clues about how the world is shaping up (Luke 12:54-56)? And if the signs are pointing to a crisis around the corner, then why don't they get their affairs in order and settle their accounts, lest they suffer the full weight of all their debts (Luke 12:57-59)?

And when Jesus says that, some folks in the crowd pipe up with some input. They want to chat with Jesus about the latest tragedies coming across the Jerusalem news wire. Evidently, a group of men from Galilee had taken their families to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the temple – a fairly ordinary turn of events. But some investigation had to be taken – we don't know any of the circumstances – and things got out of hand. The hot-headed governor Pontius Pilate gave his soldiers permission to go poking around in the sacred temple precincts where the sacrifices were taking place – areas Gentiles were forbidden to go on pain of death – and amidst all the furor, the soldiers butchered some of the Galileans who only came to worship their God in peace (Luke 13:1).

Jesus addresses it, and he mentions in passing another piece from the local interest section of the daily paper: he talks about “those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them” (Luke 13:4). That was the day the mortar and masonry gave way. That was the day the bricks fell from the sky, and dust and screams filled the air. That was the day eighteen people in Jerusalem were crushed to death beneath the plummeting stonework of the Tower of Siloam.

We don't know anything more about it. It was just a local incident, something that poked into the news cycle for a week, maybe, and then was old hat. Other than the Gospel of Luke, no writer of the era records it for us; and Luke only gives us these couple of words. But what Jesus wants us to clearly know is that there was nothing special the Galileans in question had done to provoke Pilate's wrath, and there was nothing special those eighteen people had done to deserve death any more than the people who were just out of range and walked away unscathed in body. Those Galileans were not worse sinners than any other Galileans; those Jerusalemites were not in deeper debt than anybody else who lived in Jerusalem (Luke 13:2, 4).

The truth is that unaccountable tragedies strike. Houses and barns catch on fire. Buildings collapse. Cars crash. Trucks overturn. Hearts go haywire. Breathing gets impeded. In many cases, there's no one-to-one correlation when tragedy strikes. When a house catches fire, it's not the hand of God reaching down to punish the occupants. When the brakes go out on a car and it crashes, there's no deep spiritual dimension to the event, most of the time. That's just life in a world where we're all complicit in sin. And those who suffer in that way have no reason to say, “Why me? What did I do wrong?” The truth is that, while some of these are consequences of carelessness, they're not usually punishment. It's just the way our world works. Many of you read stories like this in the paper all the time, and some of you are on the scene yourselves.

But here's what I wonder. Here's why I wish Luke had more paper on hand when he composed his inspired history. He records the death toll and the cause of death, but that barely amounts to a headline. I wonder about the aftermath. When the tower collapsed at Siloam, when the stones fell and ended the stories of those eighteen people, I wonder if anybody besides those eighteen was injured but lived to tell the tale. I wonder if anybody was pinned and in need of assistance. And I wonder if they got it.

In Jerusalem that day, were there any folks who tried to dig survivors out of the rubble? When the clouds of dust filled the air, and children cried and men and women shrieked and turned tail, did Jerusalem have any selfless people who ran toward the crash, into the hail of rock, putting themselves into harm's way – like Jesus said, refusing to “fear those that kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4)? When the Tower of Siloam fell, who was first on the scene? Who cleared away the rubble to recover bodies, check for life signs, give medical treatment to the wounded? Who cleaned up afterwards, when all the dust had settled and the shaken neighbors tried to resume life as usual?

On the days when towers of Siloam fall in our community – when buildings collapse, cars crash, bodies fail, buildings blaze – on all those days when unaccountable dangers intrude into our world, I'm glad we have people who do all those things. Who are willing to charge toward the rubble and the dust, the furor and the smoke. Who stay dressed for action and keep their lamps burning and their pagers on. Who take methodical care of the gear they'll need to be ready. Who are reliably there when emergency strikes, amidst any crisis that might lurk around the corner. Even this morning already, some have no doubt been called into action in medical emergencies and more. Thanks to their efforts, the Towers of Siloam that fall in Lancaster and Chester Counties rarely leave scars as deep on our community as that Tower of Siloam left on a Jerusalem neighborhood two thousand years ago.

In all this, they remind me of the one who told us about the Tower of Siloam in the first place: Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, who acknowledges above in heavenly society all who acknowledge him here below in human society (Luke 12:8). Because Jesus Christ, this eternal Word of God, wasn't content to stay safe and sound in heavenly society. We were in trouble, and he saw us as “of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). And so his Father dispatched him to the earth, to take on flesh in a world on fire, a world in crisis. When our sin made a hazard out of the world and put our souls in jeopardy, Jesus Christ responded to the call. He came, he lived, he warned of the fire and the fall, he taught us the road map to spiritual safety. And then this Galilean offered himself as a sacrifice.

You see, when our souls were trapped in impending fire, he braved that fiery judgment; he plunged into our clouded condition on the cross, all so he could pluck us as a brand from the burning. And when Jesus had pulled us to safety, he breathed his life-giving Spirit into our breathless lungs. He shocked our dead hearts into the rhythm of heaven's beat. He bandaged our wounds with his righteous life. And he poured on them the medicinal wine of his resurrection joy. And for those rescued and resuscitated and restored by him, even now he attends to our recovery in this hospital he calls his church, his open arms of healing hospitality. He promises to rebuild all that's been charred and ruined in all the world, and in the meantime he recruits us to his rescue crew and sends us forth in his name.

And when he found us amidst the smoldering rubble, desperately in need of help, all he asked was that we turn away from burning and collapsing things and trust his outstretched hand reaching for us. To turn and no longer lean on the splintering wood of our dead works – that, he calls repentance. To trust in and surrender to his outstretched hand offered in rescue – that, he calls faith. And so it's no wonder, when he tells the story of the Tower of Siloam, that he cautions the crowd, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). Unless you get off the splintering wood, unless you dive out of the path of the crushing rocks, unless you evacuate into the arms of a Savior, a Rescuer, you'll be a casualty. Because none of the constructs of human society, none among all our Towers of Babel, are any more stable than Siloam's tower. Our lives were always meant to be about so much more (Luke 12:23). But “fear not, for you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Fear not: Jesus is on the scene. And the gospel, the good news, is but the siren of his nearness. Trust and obey!

If you're here this morning, and you realize that you're still leaning on anything that can one day burn or collapse – the food you eat or the clothes you wear or whatever you drive, the prayers you say or the language you speak, the good deeds you do, the lifestyle you live, the rules you live by, or anything of the sort, anything that could ever fail you, anything that can burn or collapse – if any of those are the things you're leaning on, and you have just now realized your need to trust only in the Savior's hand, I'd love to talk with you this morning after the service. Because I promise: he is here to rescue you, to revive you, to restore you, and to lead you to full health and safety in his kingdom. And whenever we grow faint, weak, and sick, he will be here to revive us again. Praise God for the Son of Man! And praise God, too, for all who imitate the Great Rescuer and stay ready to come to the rescue themselves, whether of property or of life, of body or of soul. Thank you. Amen.

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