Sunday 17 January 2010
10.30 Communion Woodchurch
May I speak in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week there is only one subject worthy of reflecting on prayerfully in the presence of God and one another and that, of course, is the terrible events that have happened in Haiti.
Unless you have been living in seclusion from all media this week you will know that on Tuesday a massive earthquake hit the Caribbean island nation of Haiti and caused huge destruction in the capital city Port-Au-Prince. No one knows for sure how many have been killed – the best guess at the moment seems to be between 50,000 and 200,000 but that is only a guess as the flimsy infrastructure of that poor state has been so thoroughly broken that there seems no way of keeping count. Whatever the death toll from the quake itself there is no a substantial danger of many further deaths from untreated injuries, sickness and violence.
An earthquake is an indiscriminate killer and no doubt we have all seen the images not only of the injured in Haiti waiting for treatment that does not seem to come but also of the body bags containing the corpses of men, women and children. Not only did the presidential palace and the united nations building collapse but so too did the Cathedral and Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port-Au-Prince was amongst those killed.
In the wake of all this suffering the question has inevitably been raised: “Where was God in all this?”
This is. of course, the question that surfaces after every such disaster – the Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004, the Twin Towers attack in 2001, the famine in Ethiopia in 1984, in the concentration camps of the second world war, and even back to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 which struck on a church holiday, destroyed about 85% of the buildings in Lisbon including the churches and killed a huge number of people.
And of course asking the question, “Where is God in all this?” is not something that happens just after large scale national disasters – it is a question which is bound to be asked by everyone at some point. None of us can go through life without being affected by some form of personal tragedy – whether it is the loss of a loved one, the onset of ill health, the breakdown of a marriage, unexpected unemployment we all of us will feel let down and disappointed by the way life happens to us at some point and whether or not we shake our fist at heaven we will all doubtless ask ourselves, “Why did God let this happen?”
First let me say that no one should ever feel guilty for asking this question. The person who does not ask this question at some point in their lives, either when watching the television news or in response to a personal tragedy, either has a faith so perfect that we might need to expand the trinity to admit another member or, more likely, either does not care to think about their faith sufficiently deeply or perhaps does not dare to. However, I believe that to pose the question “Why did God let this happen” and to dare to think about the answer is, in my view, evidence of a true and lively faith. However we should also have the courage to admit that if we think about why God allows suffering, evil and tragedy to happen that our preconceptions of the nature of God may well be challenged and even change.
Yesterday morning on Radio 4 the philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.
The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which I think lies at the root at much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally wrong and is certainly an unbiblical view of God.
Let me try and explain why. Yesterday afternoon I went to the village pantomime. In the pantomime my wife Vivienne was playing the good fairy. Without wishing to give too much away, as the story unfolds two of the characters decide to take a wicked course of action that will bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy steps in and makes them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good. So while some wickedness is prevented it is at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.
My belief is that it is too easy to slip into the trap of thinking that God should be acting as some sort of good fairy, stepping in with the wave of a wand to prevent wickedness, and, when he does not and we have to suffer the consequences of bad decisions we feel let down that God has not conformed to our image of him.
Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis but it only takes a moments thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could choose to reject God, but the possession of free will is also what makes us fully human. A choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.
You may say that that is all very well in relation to man made evil but that gets no where near explaining where God was in relation to natural disasters such as Haiti, and of course it does not. But I come back to what I said a moment ago – on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we make God into a good fairy whose job is to wave a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. The story of Israel is not a cosy or an easy story, it is about faith arising from and overcoming disaster and hardship not of faith in a good fairy being destroyed by hardship. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
And God never promised that earthquakes would never happen – on the contrary earthquakes are mentioned many times in scripture – in 1 Kings 19 Elijah witnesses an earthquake, in Isaiah 29 the Lord comes in a earthquake, earthquakes are mentioned in Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah. In the New Testament earthquakes are mentioned frequently – when Jesus was crucified there was an earthquake, when the stone was rolled away from the tomb there was an earthquake, in Acts 16 Peter is freed from prison by an earthquake and, of course, the end time prophecies in Matthew and Mark in fact promise that there will be earthquakes.
So we do live in a world that is fallen from perfection, a world in which human free will can cause suffering and in which the elements of earth, sea, wind and fire can still destroy.
Coming back to the original question, Where is God in all this?
I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who at the wedding in Cana took the element of water and transformed it into the finest wine. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So God has been there before us in God the Son.
But God is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who are seeking to help alleviate suffering and in the millions of people who are donating money to the same end. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other and I hope that each of us will be doing our bit by donating whatever we can, because that is where God is.
God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and in transforming the water of our earthly existence into the finest wine of the kingdom of heaven by the merits of Jesus Christ, God with us.