Preaching in Tragedy: Ye Will All Likewise Perish…

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

(Luke 13:1-5 ESV)

In August of 2009, a tornado struck the steeple of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At that very moment, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was meeting at Central Lutheran Church and voting to affirm Consideration: Proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Essentially, at the moment the ELCA voted to endorse homosexual clergy, a tornado (very, very rare for Minneapolis) dropped from the sky and tore the steeple off the church. John Piper was ridiculed and angrily scolded by many evangelical leaders for subsequent statements and, in particular, this post. Piper said…

The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction.

In this post, Piper recalls a few facts, including that God (1) hates sin (2) offers forgiveness (3) controls “natural” events and powers (4) and recalls the above passage from Luke, in which Jesus responds to both a man-made and natural disaster.

Some had just broke the news – and it was fresh news – that Pilate massacred Galileans in the temple. Blood still lay in the temple soil. And it wasn’t just the blood of sacrifice, but of Jesus’ countrymen. Then Jesus brought up (of his own accord – he was not asked) a man-made disaster. The tower at Siloam fell and killed 18. With it, Jesus makes the same point – unless you repent, ye will likewise perish.

How insensitive. Now is not the time, Jesus. People are still mourning, Jesus. The blood is still caked in the soil, not even coagulated yet, still mixed and freely flowing with the blood of sacrifice. What are you thinking, Jesus?

Jesus was thinking, I can only presume (as I do not know the mind of God the Son) that people were raw. Their mourning was real. Their wounds were fresh. The bodies were not even buried yet, and here is Jesus using it as an example for the need of repentance and the vanity of life.

In 2013, a tornado hit Oklahoma. John Piper sent out two tweets, and after it causing controversy, took them down:

  • @JohnPiper: “Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
  • @JohnPiper: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20

This time around, Piper believed he went too far, and was not sensitive to how his tweets should be taken. He said…

At times like this when tragedy strikes, it can be difficult to reconcile how God is sovereign over all calamity, and yet prioritize responses of compassion and weeping with victims of tragedy.

It’s no secret that I – someone who named my daughter after Piper – have lost some affinity for the man, which I won’t go into here. But I believe that these two examples demonstrate the difficulty of preaching the Gospel “in season or out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and how we are to preach in good and bad seasons. Whatever your opinion, it’s not easy.

I’ll always remember the first time I had to preach the funeral of a lost man. I struggled with how I could both comfort the living and left behind, weep with them, be sensitive to their pain, while using the funeral as an opportunity to preach the only Gospel that most of them would likely ever hear. I remember vividly taking a deep breath and choosing Ecclesiastes 11:3 as the sermon text, “Where a tree falls, there it lies…” And yes, I remember some calling me calloused and even unchristian for “capitalizing on tragedy for my religious goals.” And yes, I remember the Gospel’s sweet victory when the man’s surviving lover repented of her sins and I baptized her several short months after. For some, I had crossed the line. To the man’s closest friend on earth, it opened her eyes.

I have two friends that have been accused by Christians and non-Christians alike in recent days for capitalizing on tragedy and being insensitive in the wake of tragic loss. One friend is Alan Maricle, who preached the Gospel outside the memorial service for the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Another friend is Tony Miano, who tweeted to CNN that he hoped none of the pagan temples in Nepal would be rebuilt after the earthquake. Both have been publicly rebuked by other friends of mine. They’ve also been rebuked by a whole lot of people who neither I nor most the readers of this website would consider Christians. And ironically, Maricle and Miano couldn’t be further apart in terms of ecclesiology and personality and don’t have a terribly lot in common except they both love Jesus and have me as a mutual friend. Oh, and they are both evangelists who want people to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel.

I am thankful that friends way smarter than myself have weighed in and have offered their diverse viewpoints on the appropriateness of what Alan and Tony have done. I almost admire the older, wiser brothers giving suggestions and thoughts for how we can both be sensitive and “weep with those who weep” while at the same time preach an inconvenient Gospel in season and out.

Here’s what I don’t particularly like.

1) I don’t like people assuming the motives of Alan or Tony. Particularly when I know the men, others who have no idea who the brothers are, are attributing this to some kind of personal agenda other than the Gospel. These are Gospel men, who have virtually nothing in common with each other, except they believe the Gospel and want people to hear it.

2) I don’t like Christians coalescing with pagans to attack fellow Christians. Let me be very clear. I am not saying if you’ve criticized their methodology, manners, timing or etiquette that you are guilty of coalescing with the raging heathen of Psalm 2:1. But some have. Some have clearly added on – and I think, gleefully – to the rotten fruit and dead cat parts being thrown in these brothers’ direction. If that’s not you, speak your piece. If that is you, stop it. Let’s not turn this into a “prove my sensitivity test” that so many evangelicals revel in. Leave that up to the mainstream Protestants and survivor blogs. They’ve got that covered.

3) I don’t think that Piper, Maricle or Miano should be compared to Westboro. If you’ve made that accusation, I very respectfully disagree. Westboro’s greatest sin isn’t protesting and neither is it insensitivity during times of mourning. Their greatest sin, as Jesse Johnson pointed out in his open letter to Westboro just last week, is that they don’t want anyone to repent and they want them to burn. That can’t be said for any of the aforementioned men.

Preaching in tragedy is not as easy as you might think. Most simply don’t. At all. Ever – least of all when it’s inconvenient. But biblically, that’s not an option. In season and out. While, at the same time, weeping with those who weep. Sometimes people go too far. And other times, our culture is oversensitive and the church is too worried about looking foolish to a world that already thinks we’re foolish. Maybe it’s one. Maybe it’s the other.

Maybe I’m so happy to see truth proclaimed somewhere, sometime, by somebody that I don’t think enough about the best way to do it or what not to say because I’m just so tickled pink it’s being said at all. Got me. I don’t have time to psychoanalyze myself, let alone the critics of these men.

Go easy on the brethren, and love one another.

[Contributed by JD Hall]

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