Sunday, June 23rd, 2013 – Creation Untamed Sermon Series: Suffering and the God of the Old Testament

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

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Sunday, June 16th, 2013 – Creation Untamed Sermon Series: Natural Disasters, The Will of God, and the Suffering of Job

We’ve been spending the past couple of weeks talking about God, the Bible, and Natural Disaster. Together, we’ve been seeking to discern God’s role in such destructive events as the Oklahoma tornados, Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, the Haiti Earthquake, and countless others.

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the creation stories, and we learned that creation is messy and it takes time. It’s not a clean process, even for God. Instead, it is something that takes evaluating. And as a result, creation was made good, not perfect. We also learned that God shares creative power with all creation, for the sake of a shared relationship. And that includes us… we are partners with God in creation.

Last week, we talked about the flood story. We learned that in the flood story, God is not like a cold, neutral judge behind the bench, but rather is like a grieving parent. God is deeply affected by the actions of humanity. Anguished and heartbroken over the corruption that existed within humanity and creation. We learned that human actions can have disastrous environmental effects on creation. That there are natural consequences to our actions. However, throughout the story, God is like a grieving parent when deciding how to move forward with the world. And finally, in the end, God makes the promise to never destroy the world again. For God would rather be in relationship with an unruly and wicked creation than no creation at all.

Today, we dive into the story of Job – another well-known and classic story from Scripture. Listen to a portion of the story.

11There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” 9Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

13One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 20Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.
29Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
11Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.
38Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
42Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
7After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.
10And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 17And Job died, old and full of days.

Let’s begin with the very first line of the book of Job – “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” What does that sound like to you? What kind of story does that sound like to you? It kind of sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, doesn’t it? As in, “Once upon a time…there was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz.” Many scholars agree that the book of Job is likely not a historical story. One reason could be that no one can figure out where the land of Uz was. It has never been found. Which suggests that maybe Job doesn’t represent a real person. Rather the character of Job represents every person. Which we can understand. I would bet we’ve all experienced undeserved suffering in our life. Different degrees of suffering, certainly. But suffering nonetheless.

So this is a “what if?” kind of book. What if this happened, how would we understand it? Which tells me that the Bible is not so much a book that answers questions as it is a book that asks questions. Which is remarkably important! The Bible is asking the same questions of God that we are. Which means it is a sacred task to ask such questions. “The book of Job is a story designed to pose key questions about suffering, presenting various points of view.” (Fretheim, p. 68) and then invites the reader to evaluate the responses to suffering.

Now this “once upon a time” story begins with a somewhat outrageous claim – that God makes a bet with satan that Job will remain faithful even as he is inflicted with great suffering. Because of this, many understand the point of this book to be that suffering is a test – that God is testing us when we suffer. However, one could say that this “testing” of Job’s faithfulness is not for Job’s sake, but is for God’s sake! For God to win an argument.

What do you think of that picture of God? A god who makes bets with satan about the faithfulness of human beings? Does God allow the destruction of children (as happened to Job’s children) simply in order to win a bet?

Or might it be that this beginning and its portrayal of suffering is so outrageous that it invites the reader to say “no!” to it? To say that suffering does not come from being tested? Maybe?

So God and satan make this wager – that Job will be faithful to God despite incredible suffering. And Job experiences great suffering, much of which comes from natural disasters. From fire and lightning that burned up his sheep and servants (1:16), to a windstorm that collapsed his son’s house, killing his sons and daughters.

And let’s notice Job’s response. After all this, in 1:21, Job says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And in 2:10 – “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Quite a remarkable response, right? This seems to show great faith and patience on Job’s part. That Job still blesses the Lord after all of this and that he seems to willingly accept the good and the bad that is handed to him. No wonder why God picks him as the most blameless and upright man…

BUT. But then, notice what happens after that at the end of chapter 2. It says, “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.“ Suddenly, Job has a change of heart! This would suggest that Job actually changes his mind on his previously made statements. Maybe for Job, “the Lord gives and takes away” is no longer an acceptable answer. Maybe that no longer works for Job and perhaps, should no longer work for us?

With this change of heart, Job goes on to question God for 24 chapters! And through out, Job focuses on the question of creation. Essentially, Job thinks that creation was poorly designed. For Job, he believes he has lived his life in an exemplary way and is not deserving of such suffering. A feeling of many who suffer greatly…that it is undeserved.

Then, Job’s friends respond to his suffering for about 10 chapters. One friend says that Job is actually lucky that this has happened to him. Another says that Job’s children must have sinned against God and thus are punished. Finally, the third argues that Job just doesn’t know that he is sinner. Therefore, he is delusional, they think. They all seem to agree that God is punishing Jon because he deserves it. So Job thinks it is undeserved; his friends think it is deserved.

But then God speaks. Finally. After 38 chapters, we get a word from God. Which is good news. God does not ignore Job’s question and challenge about the world, but rather accepts it and responds. God could have certainly dismissed Job for even questioning God, but God doesn’t do that. And notice, the wager, the bet with satan is nowhere to be seen at this point. In fact, satan has left the story as well. They both sort of fade away.

The first thing to notice about God’s response is that God responds to Job’s questions with questions as well. God says at the beginning of chapter 38 – “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it?”

When God says, “Gird up your loins,” God is challenging Job to consider more deeply the complexity of creation and his own place within it. Remember Job declared God’s creation as poorly designed. But “God’s questions to Job demonstrate that in order to understand his personal suffering, (Job) must revise his evaluation of the nature of creation and the way God chooses to work within it.” (Fretheim, pg. 83)

As a result, we too are invited to revise our understanding of creation. We cannot fully understand creation. Without potentially dangerous aspects to creation – like water and gravity – humanity could not exist. We rely on water for life. We need it. But water can also floods and cause death. We cannot live without gravity holding us here on earth. But gravity is also what causes people to fall from great heights. The very dangers of creation are the very things we rely on for life.

In response to God, Job says in 42:3, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” That’s the first point I want us to take home from the book of Job. We learn that we simply cannot understand creation.

Because we cannot fully understand creation, we can get in its way and be hurt by it. Because we do not fully understand it, we build homes on insufficiently secured coast areas and flood plains, or on the edge of the earth’s fault lines.
Next, remember that Job’s friends tried to give reasons for his suffering. Now listen to what God says to Job’s friends in the end, 42:7 – “The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Notice, God gets angry when we try to explain away people’s sufferings! For God, it is better for us to say, “I do not understand” to those who are suffering than to try and offer an explanation. In fact, God seems to prefer Job’s questions rather than Job’s friend’s answers. God invites us to ask the questions!

We learn that the answers that Jobs’ friends provide, that Job is somehow deserving of this suffering and that it comes from God, is rejected by God. Rather God reminds us it is the nature of creation that has caused his suffering. Therefore, one can conclude that based on Job, God is not the doer of suffering. God is not the one who causes suffering. However, God does allow it.

Going back to chapter 1:12 – we see that while God did not cause the suffering God allowed it. It reads, “The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power.” God allows the suffering to happen. Perhaps that is one thing we can say – God does not cause suffering – but God does allow it to happen in God’s creation. .

As we’ve talked about already, I think the parenting image is helpful here. Parents allow their children to be exposed to the possibility of suffering, don’t they? Consider riding a bike for the first time, eventually you have to let them ride on their own. Driving a car. Going to a friend’s house. Playing sports. The possibilities of suffering are there and we are allowing them. Why? Well…if we didn’t, what would the result be? There is an episode of Law and Order about a mother who was so focused on protecting her own children from any danger in the world that she kept them home-schooled and never let them outside the house. As a result they had no concept of friends or how to make them. She convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it. All of this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end, it was suffocating the life out of them.

That’s the second point for us to take home. Sometimes, you have to allow for the possibility of suffering in order to make room of the possibility of life.

What does this all have to do with natural disasters? In the book of Job, we learn that the majority of natural disasters are not caused by human sin. Rather they are the result of a creation that we simply cannot fully understand. A creation that has been given the freedom to be creative itself.
Indeed, God has allowed the possibility for suffering and therefore holds some responsibility. However, it is also the very allowing for the possibility of suffering that also allows for the possibility of life. As a result, we are invited to trust in the good (though not perfect) design of God’s creation.
In the end, God restores much of what Job lost. But it is still not the same. Job’s firstborn children remain dead. It is indeed bittersweet for Job. But we must keep in mind, that God pays the price too. God also experiences the great suffering, again, much like how a parent hurts when a child hurts. That’s where we move to next week – the suffering of God and natural disasters. If there is anything of God in the words that have been spoken, may they settle and take root in our life. AMEN

Sunday, June 9, 2013 – Creation Untamed Sermon Series – The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters

We continue with our series on God, the Bible, and natural disasters. We are trying to ask the difficult question of how God might be involved in natural disasters. What can be said about God with regard toward natural disasters? Is God causing them? Are they punishment for something we’ve done? Is it something beyond the control of God? Today, we take a brief look at the flood story and what insights might be gained from a close look at this classic story.

Last week, we looked at the creation stories. From these stories, we learned a couple of things. First, creation is messy and timely. Creation takes evaluating. God creates and then evaluates and adjusts as need be. Creation is not a finished product, but is a long term project. In short, God created the world good, not perfect. Secondly, we learn that within the creation process God shares God’s power to create. God invites the earth to create and bring forth living creatures; God invites humanity to be fruitful and multiply. God is not the only one who creates; God shares God’s power for the sake of the relationship with creation. Because as we learned, a relationship in which only one partner has all the power is an abusive relationship. And so God shares power with creation…for the sake of the relationship.

Now, let’s dive into the story. We begin in Genesis chapter 6
5The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
8But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. 9These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.
13And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.

17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

7
Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

10And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.
11In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

17The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
21And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.
8
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated;

20Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 22As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

The story of Noah and the Ark is a classic Bible story that so many know. It is especially popular for children. There are entire baby nurseries based on a Noah’s Ark theme. There are children’s toys, like this puzzle that my sister got for Elliot. And I suppose on one hand, it makes sense, because this story is a great way to teach children about animals and rainbows. About God and boats.

But on the other hand, this doesn’t make sense at all. Have you ever noticed how when Noah’s Ark is told a children’s story – it’s always a peaceful portrayal of the story? There is never a cloud in the sky. There are never any images of what happens to everyone else, is there? 7:22 – everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. How come pictures of that are never painted on the nursery wall? Have we been distorting or ignoring the great suffering and pain that exists within this story? What can we say about this story at face value? What can be said about God?

As I said last week, natural disasters are often attributed to the judgment of God. That God is judging or punishing the people for something they have done.

I suspect that when we talk about the judgment of God, many of us have the image of a judge behind the bench, almost like being on trial. When we think of a judge, we think of someone who is a neutral party who knows the rules and the laws and hands down punishments that fit the crime. Does that sound about right? Now, imagine that you are the judge behind the bench and into the court room walks your child or your spouse, in hand cuffs and on trial. What would that feel like? Would the court system ever allow a judge take on the case of a family member? No, of course not. Because they couldn’t be neutral. There would be anguish and heartbreak that might cloud the mind of the judge.

If it is true that God has a relationship with creation. If God has chosen to share power with creation for the sake of the relationship, then the judgment of God cannot be a legalistic form of judgment in a courtroom. Rather, it is a personal and relational form of judgment, like that of a parent to a child. Think of the pain and anguish that a parent must go through when dealing with a wayward child. Do I kick them out of the house? It might be for their own good! Yeah, but I love them, how could I do that to them? But there needs to be consequences for their actions! But that’s not really who she is. I know her; she’s better than that. What to do, what to do, what to do.

At the synod assembly, this past weekend, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, spoke. He shared the story about how when his son was a teenager, he had already failed addiction treatment twice. When his son had been arrested for shoplifting, Mark stood before the judge at his son’s hearing. The judge asked him, “Would you like to say anything to the court, before I sentence your son.” With a wearied voice, he said, “Yes, I would. Please send my son to a locked treatment facility. So that he can get the help that we cannot give him.” They knew they wouldn’t be able to see their son for months. But they also knew it is what he needed. How agonizingly painful that must have been for them. Have you ever experienced anything like that? Could you ever imagine uttering the same words if you were in Mark’s place? Maybe you’ve been in a place with your own children or family members, when you were torn over what to do with them.

And so it is with God. When it comes to judgment, God is not neutral. God cannot be. For it is God’s very own creation, God’s child, God’s spouse, that God judges. We catch a glimpse of this in 6:6 – And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. It grieved God to God’s own heart to see what has happened. God experiences grief over what humanity has done. Not just anger, but grief. And that says something about the love that God has for this creation. God is grieved! God is deeply affected by humanity. God is not removed or detached but is engaged in the world. God, indeed, gives harsh words of judgment in this text, but that outward harshness is not met by an inward harshness (pg. 60). Rather, inside, God is a grieving parent, whose child has been arrested again for shoplifting and who has again failed treatment, and what else is there to do? “Please send my son to a locked treatment facility. So that he can get the help that we cannot give him.” God is grieved over what has happened in this story.

So, if the judgment of God is not so much like a cold, legalistic judge behind a bench, then how might we talk about the judgment of God? Old Testament scholar Terry Fretheim says that a biblical view of judgment is more like a consequence of action rather than a punishment for action.

Now, there is a difference between consequence and punishment, isn’t there? If I put my finger on a hot stove and I get burned, was that a punishment or was that a consequence? It was a consequence! No one would ever say, “Ugh! Why is God punishing me for putting my hand there?” We wouldn’t say that. In fact, we have common phrases that reflect this understanding of consequences – you reap what you sow. What goes around comes around.

So when the Bible talks about the judgment of God, it is often talking about consequences – the effects of human sin – as opposed to punishments sent down from above. What we do has consequences in this world! What we do matters to this world, because it has an effect on both us and the rest of creation! Remember in the flood story, the earth was corrupt. It was filled with violence, because all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. The earth was corrupt because creation was corrupt. God has built into the structure of creation consequences for human action. Creaturely corruption leads to cosmic corruption! Violence leads to violence. Might it be that the major flood was a natural consequence to human behavior? Not that God is sending in punishment but the effects of our behavior, our violence has an effect on the environment? Where it can be like when you put your hand in fire, you get burned.

With a close look at the flood story, “God does not act specifically to trigger the destructive flood…God states that destruction will be forthcoming…but God is not said to be the one who starts things.” (Fretheim, pg. 55) God is not the subject of the verbs. It does not say God causes the waters to flood the earth. It simply says the waters burst forth and the rain fell.

In trying to understand God’s role in this story and in natural disasters, it might be helpful for us to look at what the story says God does. God expresses sorrow and regret, God judges but does not want to judge; God goes beyond justice and decides to save some, including animals; God commits to the future of a less-than-perfect world; and God promises to never do this again (Ibid., p. 47)

Did you catch that part at the end of the story? God decides to never do this again. Rather than destroy all of creation, God says, “I’ll never do that again.” Sin continues to exist after the flood. Yet, remember how grieved God was by human sinfulness? The painful affects it had on God? At the end of the flood story, God decides that in the future, God will endure that continued pain rather than destroy creation ever again. God loves God’s creation so much, like a parent, that God decides to live with a wicked and sinful world rather than destroy it – which means God decides to live with a grieving heart for the sake of the relationship with creation. Not only that, but when God promises to never do this again, God limits God’s future options with regards to how God will respond to evil in the future. Whatever happens, however bad and evil the world gets, God will never destroy it again. Because of this, God is limited in what God can do with regards to human sinfulness. So notice, that in the flood story, it is God who changes, not humanity. Destruction is no longer an option for God anymore. God decides to remain faithful to a wicked world rather than destroy it again. Regardless of what the people of God do, God will remain faithful to them. That’s the promise.

We continue to ask: what kind of God are we working with when it comes to such natural disasters? A God whose creation is not neat and tidy, but is wild, a work in progress. A God that shares power with a creation. A God that doesn’t go around pushing buttons of punishment, but a God that has built into creation natural consequences for creation’s behavior. And perhaps, most importantly, a God who is deeply affected by creation. So much so that God is a grieving parent when God sees the extent of humanities sinfulness. So much so that God is willing to be the one who changes for the sake of a continued relationship with creation. A God who will remain faithful to creation, despite creations lack of faithfulness to God. A God who promises to never do this again.

That’s what I want you to take away from today’s look at the flood story. God is deeply effected by the actions of humanity. God is like a grieving parent when deciding how to move forward with the world. And finally, God makes the promise to never destroy the world again. That God would rather be in relationship with a unruly and wicked creation than no creation at all? How might that image of God impact how we think about and respond to natural disasters?

We will continue to explore this further next week when we dive into the story of Job and natural disasters. But for now, if there is anything of God that has been said in these, may it settle and take root in our life. AMEN.

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013 – God Created the World Good, Not Perfect – A Sermon Series on Natural Disasters

Today is the beginning of our sermon series on God, the Bible, and natural disasters. It’s timely in light of last week and this weekend. But not just this past weekend, the past many years as well. From fires in California to Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, to earthquakes in China and Haiti, to tsunamis in the Southeast Asia, and flooding and tornados in the Midwest, many of us are familiar with the devastating affects that nature can have on all of creation, not just humanity.

Natural disasters are not a recent development in the earth’s history. They have been around for a long time. Natural disasters are present even in our scriptures. There is the flood story, many famines and plagues, and much of Job’s suffering was caused by natural disasters.

In light of this, it seems like an appropriate time to wrestle with the difficult questions that so many are asking: how is God involved in all of this? Is God involved in any of this? Is God controlling the winds and the rains to intentionally cause destruction? Or is God sitting back watching it all happen? Why didn’t God create a world without natural disasters?

Now, every once in a while, I’ll come across a bumper sticker that says “God is in control.” Now, I think it is important to ask what it means to say that? What kind of control? Absolute control? Can I let go of the steering wheel? After a natural disaster, it is not uncommon for someone to proclaim that this was God’s punishment on that community. After Katrina hit New Orleans, Pat Robertson declared that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on America for its abortion policies. Is this what is going on in natural disasters? Is that the kind of control God is in – is God punishing us? If so, what does that say about God? Or are natural disasters not so much sent down by God, but can they be the results of human behavior? Is the severity of the recent storms part of global warming?

One thing I think we can say, and have to say, for certain is this: God cannot be let off the hook. In the least, God created this world with the potential and possibility for natural disasters, and with that, God has a role and responsibility to play. God cannot be 100% innocent. But now we have to explore what kind of role does God have in this? Is God sending down natural disasters as punishment, or is God’s involvement different than that?

I don’t presume to have any answers when it comes to this, but I think we can reflect on this topic together in a way that will be helpful in thinking it through.

As a way of beginning, since natural disasters are directly related to creation, let’s take a look at the creation stories to see if any insight or guidance can be found there. As you hear portions of the creation stories, listen for a word or a phrase that stands out or catches your interest. Take note of any question that comes to mind as you hear portions of the creation stories.

Genesis 1:24-28; 2:4-7,18-21
24And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Chapter 2
4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”

As we begin to think about creation and the creation process, I want to lift out a couple of things for us to think about.

The first thing I want to lift out is that according to Genesis, God’s creation is GOOD! Every creature, every creature is declared good by God. Isn’t it interesting that God evaluates God’s own work? God creates and then steps back and says, “That’s good!” Why wouldn’t God know it was good before God created… unless the creation process was a little uncertain and a little messy. So, one could say that “God is not done with creatures once they are brought into being.” (Fretheim, p. 12) God creates and then God evaluates God’s own creation. Adjustments and improvements are considered within the creation process! And in case we think God creates good every time, take a look at 2:18 – “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

18Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

Not only does God evaluate creation, but the man evaluates as well. According to this reading, the human is invited into the evaluation process. All of these animals were brought before the man and none of them suited as a partner.

Creation is a messy process. It takes time. It takes evaluating. According to Genesis, at the end of the creation stories, the world is still not a finished product. It is a long-term project. The world still needs work from God’s perspective. We can see this in 1:28 where God commands humanity to subdue and have dominion over the earth. The earth needs to be cared for by humanity; it’s not fully developed. It’s not a finished project; it’s needs to be tended to.

So that’s the first point I want us to take home – God created the world good, not perfect. The creation process wasn’t finished after the seventh day; creation is still happening.

Now, why would God create like this? If God is God, then God didn’t have to create like this? What do we learn about who this God is based on these creation stories?

Take a look at 1:24. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” Who is doing the creating in this verse?

The earth is creating, right? The earth is bringing forth living creatures of every kind! So, is God the only one with creative powers? No! We learn that God choose to share creative power. In creation, God says, “Let the earth bring forth. Let the earth create!” God says to humankind, “Be fruitful. You! You create!” God shares God’s creative power.

I’ve brought this up before, but when you think about a relationship between two people – what kind of relationship is it when only one person holds the power? You have got the powerful and the powerless – and that becomes an abusive relationship, doesn’t it? So God chooses not to be the only one with power. “God’s approach to creation is communal, relational.” (Ibid., 18). It is a communal creating, rather than a top-down creating. And that should reflect the value that creation has in the eyes of God – to invite creation into the creating process. God values the on-going relationship with creation and the sharing of power more than God values a perfectly controlled creation. Relationship is more important to God than absolute control and power.

Now, if God’s creation takes time and evaluating, then so does creation’s creating. And think of how much more messiness that adds to the creation process. Creation is messy. It takes time. False starts and failures are bound to happen.

What does this have to do with natural disasters? Well, it should invite us to reflect on whether God is in complete control over all of creation. The creation stories in Genesis would suggest that God is not in complete control, but instead has chosen to limit God’s own power for the sake of sharing that power with creation to be a co-creator as well.

Creation is not a finished product. It was made good, not perfect. Creation is an on-going process. And the God of creation chooses to be in relationship with creation through the sharing of power. God chooses not to be the only one with power. Therefore, God created creation to be creative. And as a result, God let’s creation be what it was created to be – that is…creative! Which will inevitably lead to disorder and messiness. Here is the good news, folks – you are part of God’s deep, wide, and messy creativity. But here is the bad news – when it comes to natural disasters, might it be possible that we as humans can get in the way of creation’s creative process and, as a result, be hurt by it? (Ibid., pg. 27).

This is just the beginning of our exploration into the difficult and complicated conversation around God and natural disasters. With regards to what has been said so far, I pray that if there is anything of God in the words that have been said, may they settle and take root in our life. AMEN

Note: Much of the sermon is based on the first chapter of Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters.