We continue today with the fourth installment of our 5-week sermon series on God, the Bible, and Natural Disasters. For those of you who are visiting today, we’ve been asking the question: where is God when it comes to destructive tornadoes in Oklahoma? Or devastating earthquakes in Haiti? Is God causing such events? What can be said about God and creation at such a time as this?
Along the way, we’ve tried to hold on to some crucial points that we learned. Through the creation stories, we learned that God created the world good, but not perfect. That creation is something that takes time and even evaluating. That creation is something that is still happening today. We also learned that God is not the only one with creative power in the room. Rather, God has chosen to share power with creation. God wants a relationship with creation, and any good relationship has a sharing of power. One party can’t have all the control.
In the story of Noah and the Ark, we learned that when it comes to God’s judgment of a sinful world, God is not a cold-hearted judge behind a bench. Rather, God is like a grieving parent of a wild and unruly child, uncertain of how to proceed. And in the end, after the flood, God changes God’s mind and decides to never destroy the earth again.
Finally, in Job’s story, we learned that we cannot fully understand creation and how creation works. As a result, sometimes we can get in the way of creation’s creating. Remember God has shared God’s power with creation and creation can do it’s own creating. We learned that, like a parent sending it’s child out into the world, God allows for the possibility of suffering for the sake of the possibility of life. That sometimes we have to be willing to risk the chance of getting hurt in order to experience the best parts of life.
Today we move to the topic of suffering and the God of the Old Testament. Now, if we walk up to just about anyone on the street, we can be certain of one thing: they have experienced suffering in their life. In some shape or form, suffering has been a part of their life. You can count on it. In fact, as one of my professors would say – there is enough grief in this room alone that could freeze the blood.
Just outside in our graveyard, there are the headstones for children who beat their parents to the grave. There are spouses who died much too young. In this very room, there are families that suffer silently with alcohol problems. There are people in financial crisis and marriages where all the intimacy has dried and crumbled away. And others who know the profoundly deep pain of mental illness.
After experiencing great suffering, it’s not uncommon for someone to stop going to church. I see and hear about it all the time. I’ve seen it happen here.
I think one of the reason is because of some of the painful things we’ve said about God regarding suffering.
Some responses that I heard in the past are:
-There is a reason for this, you just have to wait and find it.
– God just needed another angel in heaven.
– God is punishing you for something you’ve done.
– God is testing you.
-This is simply your cross to bear.
No wonder people don’t come back to church. No wonder some people say, “I will never set foot in church again.” How could you if those are the reasons we suffer. No wonder people are flooded with questions during times of suffering. The questions abound – where is God? Why, God, has this happened to me? Why, God, did you let this happen? Haven’t I been faithful enough? And these antidotes, beyond giving no answer are simply not Biblical. We need to dig deeper and as we ask the question – who is this God? we need to look at God in God’s stories… We need to gain perspective from the Bible.
Now, I have heard many times people say things like, “I’m so glad we have Jesus and the God of the New Testament and no longer have to deal with that angry and mean God of the Old Testament.” It is as if the God of the Old Testament got fired and a new better God in the New Testament was hired. As if they are different gods! But they are not. We must not be lead to think that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New are two different Gods. They are the same. And some of the most important images of God regarding this topic of natural disasters and suffering are found in the Old Testament.
Our God – the god of the Old and New Testament is a god who suffers. Just like you and I, God is no stranger to suffering. God suffers too. Some people don’t like that idea that God suffers. Why would God suffer? God is God. God is all powerful. God is the ruler of the universe! Suffering is weakness. Why would God suffer? But as Christians, we see this most clearly in the cross of Jesus. If Jesus is the embodiment of God, then God suffers on the cross. But the cross was not the first time God suffered.
Listen to Exodus 3, “7Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” I know their sufferings, God says. God knows our suffering and suffers as a result of it.
As so many of you know, when you love someone deeply – whether it be a friend, or a family member, or a lover – when they hurt you hurt. Their pain becomes your pain.
As we learned in the creation stories, God has chosen to be in relationship with creation. With us. In fact, through out the Bible God’s relationship with God’s people has been described as that of a marriage. Or that of a parenting relationship.
As a result of that relationships, when we suffer, God suffers. The world does not go up to God. God comes down to the world. Down into our hearts, our hopes, our dreams, our suffering. God chooses not to stand outside of the world, but enters deeply into it and as a result suffers alongside it.
And that’s what we learn about the character of God! That God enters into the suffering of the world and suffers with it. In fact, we might say, “Suffering is God’s chief way of being powerful in the world.” (Fretheim, pg. 117). Let me say that again – suffering is God’s chief way of being powerful in the world. Suffering can be powerful?! Oh yes. When you have suffered greatly, you know how significant – no, how powerful – it is to have someone come alongside you and stand with you in your grief. Not to fix it. But simply to be there with you. To suffer with you. Old Testament professor, Terry Fretheim says, “God is not like a mechanic who chooses to fix the suffering of the world from outside the world; God is more like a good medicine, choosing to heal the world from within, by entering deeply into its life. God saves the world by taking its suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it there, and then wearing it in the form of a cross.” pg. 119.
For the sake of the world, God experiences pain and suffering. There are other such images of the pain and suffering of God in the Old Testament. Now, some of you know what it is like to give birth. I have heard labor described as one of the sharpest pains known to humankind. Listen to Isaiah 42:14 – 14For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.”
God will cry out. God cries? Yes, like a woman in labor! God will gasp and pant. God can be so affected by the world that only the sharpest of pains known to humankind can be adequate in expressing the suffering and pain that God can experience for the sake of the world.
If we are made in the image of God, and if we suffer, is it any wonder that God suffers too? Or put another way, God mourns.
We hear in Jeremiah 9:17-19 – 17Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come; 18let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.” God is a mourner. God’s eyes run down with tears and overflow with water.
For God so loves God’s creation, God so values God’s relationships with creation, that God takes the suffering of the world into God’s own heart. From Hosea 11 – God speaks – “8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
My heart recoils within me, God says. God takes the fullness of human pain and grief into God’s own hear and bears it there.
Indeed, suffering is no stranger to God. Even God in the Old Testament!
So, what does this have to do with natural disasters? When it comes such disasters and life-destroying events, that leave people homeless, lost, or dead, we can be certain that God does not sit at a distance, watching calmly. No, rather God will be at the center of the loss and desolation feeling and holding every last ounce of pain and suffering that is experienced by creation. For it is God’s very own child that has suffered. God enters deeply into the suffering of the world, seeking bring about healing from within. And as a result, God suffers.
It can even be said that God’s vocation is to suffer with the world. And if this is true, then perhaps our way of participating in God’s mission, is to also suffer alongside those who suffer. These are the words we just heard from 1 Peter – “21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
With Christ as our example, we are called to love and to suffer with the people of the world. Why? Because that is where God can be found. And because God needs you there.
In fact, you showing up may actually be the way in which God shows up. Remember, God has chosen to partner with you in this world. So when it comes to natural disasters, we are called to suffer with those who have suffered. We are called to show up in some way. You and God work together. Which can be scary and dangerous. But also the greatest gift.
In her book, Andrew, You Died Too Young, Corrine Chilstrom writes about when her son suicided. In it, she writes this – “Run to the griever. Drop everything. Get there as fast as you can… (The task of those who arrive is) to listen. Listen to our words, listen to our swollen hearts. They were there for us. We were no longer alone….(The first to arrive were) holding the broken pieces of our selves from being lost…Their presence brought stability when our world had fallen apart. It seemed as though they had been sent by God and that they brought God to us. Seven of them, like a sacrament.” (pg. 22-23.) Like a sacrament.
When we baptize Paxton in a couple of minutes, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we do not baptize him into a simple and easy life with God. No, we baptize him into a crazy world that God loves so much. We baptize him into the calling of suffering alongside those who suffer. Why? Because that is where God will be found. And that is where God calls us to be. And we light a candle to remind him that he is called to be a light in this world.
The word can be a pretty dark place. No more so then in the aftermath of a natural disaster, when nothing is what it was. Yet, when it comes to natural disasters, we trust in the promise that God meets in the center of such suffering. That God will suffer alongside God’s creation. It might just be in the form of you and me and those who look an awful lot like ordinary people. For we are called to enter in the suffering of the world and to bravely stand beside those in its midst. Because to suffer with someone can be the greatest power of God at work in the world.
Next week, we turn to the topic of prayer in the midst of natural disaster. For now, if there is anything of God in the words that have been spoken, may they settle and take root in our life. AMEN