Isaiah 55.1-9; 1
At 9.15 a.m. on Friday 21 October 1966, a waste-tip slid down a mountain into the mining village of Aberfan in South Wales. In its path was Pantglas Junior School. The children had just returned to their classes after assembly, when the tide of waste engulfed their school. One hundred and sixteen children died, and five of their teachers. The hymn they’d sung in assembly was "All Things Bright and Beautiful".
I was glad that I wasn’t preaching the following Sunday, the first Sunday of Aberfan. Down to do so were the other two clerics on the staff of the church where I was serving my title, one to preach at morning prayer, the other at evensong. More than 40 years later, I recall their sermons. Both my colleagues spoke of what had befallen the children of Aberfan, but the manner and matter of their homilies were altogether different.
The preacher in the morning took as his text words from this Sunday’s Gospel: "Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." He claimed that what had happened to the children of Aberfan was God’s warning to us, the same warning that he gave when the tower of Siloam collapsed.
God Almighty will not stay his hand for ever. Judgement will surely fall on the impenitent. That terrible visitation will overtake the unrepentant unannounced, just as suddenly as Siloam’s tower fell on those beneath it, and a hill of slurry consumed the little boys and girls of Aberfan.
The sermon in the evening was delivered much less confidently. I can’t remember much of what the preacher said, because he couldn’t find much to say. He struggled for words. He struggled not to cry.
Which sermon got it right? At the time, as I do still more today, I recognised in that second sermon — in its silences, in its scarcely suppressed sobs, as much as in its stumbling words — the Christian response to another’s pain. Jesus wept, and, very nearly, so did my fellow curate who was preaching.
Yet it was the first sermon, for all its insensitivity, which more accurately reflected the tenor of Jesus’s words in the Gospel we hear this Sunday. Jesus, his face now set as a flint towards Jerusalem, is brooding on judgement, the judgement on humanity that he will suffer in his own flesh. He will not now be drawn into an academic debate about the relationship of sin and pain. He will deal with that problem in his own way, which is not to read a paper to a theological seminar on suffering.
Of course, those on whom the wall fell were no better nor worse than anyone else. That is not the point. Jesus is not talking to the bereaved: he is talking to the morally careless; to those who see no connection between sowing and reaping; to the effete of spirit; to those at ease in Zion.
He’s talking to me. He’s reminding me of the inexorable moral law; that one thing inevitably leads to another; that if I drift, I’ll surely shipwreck. It is appointed to me to die — and, after that, my judgement.
That is the word of the Lord to us this Sunday — just as surely as it’s not the way to talk to parents who have lost their child in a road accident, or under a mountain of waste.
We say that God is an all-loving and all-powerful God. Yet he permits towers in Siloam to collapse on passers-by, and hills of slurry to swallow little children. What kind of a god is this? Sunday’s Gospel does not answer the question. Indeed — always excepting Paul’s letter to the Romans — there is little "theodicy" in the New Testament, little that shares the purpose of Milton’s Paradise Lost, "to justify the ways of God to men".
Some argue that God had to make a world where such things can happen, if we are to be truly free. That argument was eloquently deployed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in a recent broadcast head-to-head with John Humphrys on the BBC. Mr Humphrys was unpersuaded. So were the mums of Aberfan, who could only utter the cry of another child of God on whom a weight of great darkness fell: "Why, oh why?"
Not for the first or last time in the Gospels, we learn a lesson from a fig tree. The farmhand who loves the tree that he has been looking after, unfruitful as it is, pleads with the farmer to spare it one more year. The Authorised Version is more accurate (as it sometimes is) and less prim and prissy (as it always is) than the modern versions.
"Let it alone," says the little fig tree’s friend, "till I shall dig about it and dung it." God will not stay his hand for ever, but there is yet "a space of grace" before the axe falls. Climatologists say that we have less than a century.
Texts of this Sunday's readings
The LORD says this:
1Everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.