13 March 2011
First Sunday in Lent
9.00 Holy Communion in Stone
10.30 Communion Woodchurch
Heavenly Father as we come to listen to your eternal and universal Word this morning we pray that you may you speak into our hearts and give us the grace to hear and respond to the message you have for each of us. Amen.
I was planning to preach quite a different sermon today and, just so you know, I was going to be looking at the reading from Romans and what St Paul refers to as the ‘free gifts’ of grace, justification, righteousness and salvation from sin no less than five times in that short passage and compare the free gift that Christ offers us to the so-called free gifts which the world offers us and then think about that in the context of Jesus being in the wilderness being tempted to give up his role as Messiah in exchange for food and earthly possessions. But that can be part of your homework instead because events have somewhat overtaken us once again and I think it would be a dereliction of my duty not to offer some sort of Gospel perspective on the events in Japan and recently in New Zealand.
Of course you all know that a massive earthquake struck Japan in the early hours of Friday morning, followed quickly by a Tsunami which had devastating consequences – at this stage it is still too early to assess the total damage or the death toll but, in one sense, the headline figures whether it is hundreds or thousands do not make a difference because each individual death should raise the same theological questions. And the events of Japan have followed quickly on the heels of the Earthquake in New Zealand and I am sure no one can forget the image of the collapsed tower of Christchurch cathedral which, for some, may symbolize a collapsed faith in an all powerful and benevolent God in the face of such indiscriminate destruction.
Because as we watch these terrible events unfold from the comfort of our own homes we should be asking ourselves the question:
“Where was God in all this?”
This is, quite rightly, the question that surfaces after every such disaster – Haiti which took place in January last year, the earthquake in Chili just a month after that, 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.
Following the Haiti earthquake 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. Last year in the village pantomime Vivienne was playing the good fairy. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided 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 what we have just seen in Japan, 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 certainly 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 did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and, when he was weakest was tempted to renounce the promises of God and, of course, who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. 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 seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other and even if there is not much we can do to help those affected by large scale disasters in Japan or New Zealand we can always help each other with the personal disasters that inevitably strike. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.
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, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.
So if your faith sometimes feels like the collapsed tower of Christchurch Cathedral then that is quite understandable but we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God as a far off and abstract being but think about Jesus, God with us, healing, helping, suffering, dying and rising again for us.