Friends, today, we move into our final session on God, the Bible, and Natural Disasters. We’ve been thinking about who God is and how God is active when it comes to natural disasters.
I think it is important for us to keep in mind, that we are not alone in our questions. Take a look at our first Scripture reading from Judges. Judges 6:12-13The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” Isn’t this the very same question that we have been asking? Again and again we learn, the Bible is not so much the book with the answers as it is the book with the questions.
Which is why we keep coming back to Scripture and as a result, we’ve come away with some things that we can hold on to. In the creation stories, we learned that creation is a messy process. It’s not perfect. But it is good. We also discovered that God likes to share power. God doesn’t want to be the one with all the power in the room. As a result, creation is given power to create along with God. Then and now we are partners with God in creating this world.
From the story of Noah and the Ark, we found that God is not a cold-hearted judge behind a bench, but a grieving parent of an unruly and wild creation. Additionally, God promises that God will never destroy creation again – because it is better to live with a good but imperfect world than no world at all. In Job’s story, we learned that while we are co-creators with God, creation is beyond human understanding. That we can never fully understand its power and thus we can be hurt by it. We also came away with the understanding that much like a parent, God allows for the possibility of suffering to also make room for the possibility of life. Remember, so many of the things that give us life (water, gravity) can also harm us.
Finally last week, we learned that God is not unaffected by the world. For the sake of the relationship with creation, when creation suffers God suffers. Because God has chosen to suffer with others, as a way of bringing about healing, perhaps we are called to suffering alongside others as well.
Today, we turn to the topic of prayer. It seems to be that whenever something disastrous happens, especially a natural disaster, almost everyone is moved to pray. Even those who do not claim to be people of faith. Some of these prayers are prayers of lament or sadness over what has just happened, others are prayers for God to act and intervene for those who are involved. To deliver the people from their suffering.
I would say that sometimes our understanding of prayer can be like that of a vending machine. Whenever we want something, we go up to the God-machine, put in our prayer money, and expect to have what we want come out (parking space, sunny day for a baseball game, our sports team to win) and when we don’t get what we want, we kick and shake the God-machine and say it is broken.
Which then leads us to ask: What effects do our prayers have? Can they prevent a disaster from happening? Can prayer change the direction of a tornado? It has been reported that the people on the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were praying. “Were their prayers not answered because they didn’t have enough faith? Was it God’s will and desire that these people die in such a way? Or was God’s will resisted by the hijackers of the planes?”(Fretheim, p. 127)
One critic of prayer once said prayer is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Because of all of these questions, when it comes to prayer, I think we are often unsure of what to say. And often times I think that leads many of us to not pray. Have you ever been in this situation, where someone asks if someone would pray before dinner, say at Thanksgiving, and NOBODY speaks up. I get the sense that it is usually because we don’t feel comfortable praying. Certainly not in front of others. Why? Because we think there is a right way to pray and we don’t want to get it wrong. Or we are not sure how it works. I still feel that. I always get nervous to pray in front of people. In fact, I was asked a couple of times by the cast of our musical to pray before a performance. I’ll be honest, I was more nervous to pray in front of the cast than to walk out and sing in front of the audience.
Throughout Scripture we can see that the basic understanding of prayer is that it is communication between God and the people of God. It is part of the relationship. Yet, it can be important to ask: how would you define your relationship with God? Because that’s going to impact how you talk to God, just like it impacts how you speak to a teacher, your mother, your best friend, a stranger. What is important about prayer is the kind of God you are praying to. How you imagine God will affect how you pray. For example, you may imagine God as the absent father. Calls are seldom returned and not much gets done. Or what if God is like your buddy, whose always happy and never has anything negative to say to you? Or what if God is like superman/superwoman who hears the prayers of those in trouble and, faster than a speeding bullet, is able to accomplish anything and everything.
Truth be told, scripture gives us a different image of God to work with than these.
We asked this earlier about power, but we will ask it again, only a little differently. What kind of a relationship would it be if only one person in the relationship was allowed to speak? If only one person had anything of value to say? Again, that would be an unequal, maybe even abusive, relationship. But with prayer, both God and the human are allowed to speak. “God so enters into relationships that God is not the only one who has something important to say. God knows that communication is key to a healthy relationship. And so prayer is God’s gift for the sake of meaningful interaction with human beings in relationship.”(p. 133) Whenever I do pre-marital counseling with a couple, we usually meet for about 12 hours over the course of 5 sessions or so. And I always think that we could talk the whole time about communication and it would be time well spent. Think about how hard communication is in every day relationships with those you love – your spouse, your sibling, etc. And so communication with God can be difficult as well. But it is still crucial to the relationship.
God has created a world in which we are all related. It has been said that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, it can affect the weather in Kansas. So what happens if I pray for something to God and someone else prays the exact opposite? What if I am hoping to get a job and so is someone else? Both are praying to get the job? What is God to do? Even God is caught in this interconnected web of creation.
Now, when it comes to how God might respond to prayer, there is no one-answer. The Bible is quite varied in fact. The bible suggests remarkably different ways in which God responds to prayer: “through words spoken by certain people; words in the night, perhaps through dreams; words spoken more directly into a prophet’s mind, words that suddenly right there. Or more subtly, an individual may not hear a word or think a thought, but has a feeling, perhaps of agitation, or a sense of something wrong or out of place. Or perhaps a feeling of peace of calm.” (Ibid)
Have you ever had an extraordinarily vivid dream that seems to speak to your life at that moment? Might that be God speaking to you in response to prayer? Or have you ever heard someone say something that spoke to you in just such a way that it caught your attention? Might that be God speaking to you? Responding to prayer.
Now when it comes to prayer, the form of communication between God and the people of God, God is taking a risk. Because it is possible for us to give God the silent treatment.
Take a look at Isaiah 65:1-2: I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that did not call on my name. 2I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people.
Giving God the silent treatment can reduce God’s possibilities in communicating with you. It seems to be that God actually wants us to pray. Desires it. We might even be able to say that God accomplishes less if we don’t pray.
Now, the form of prayer that I think most of us are used to is called intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer. Prayer on behalf of others. Sometimes we think in order for this to make a difference, the other has to know we are praying for them. But not according to Scripture. When we pray for others, it has an effect on them and an effect on God. “God’s own future is changed in some ways because of the prayers of the intercessor. God will now do one thing rather than another that God has planned to do.” (p.143)
Let’s take a look at Exodus 32. Exodus 32:7-14
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
In Exodus 32, Moses is arguing for God to be reasonable. Moses is reminding God of God’s promise to God’s people. And God changes God’s mind!
What is happening here “is that certain matters are being forcefully articulated by (Moses) with whom God has established a close relationship. Because God values the relationship with Moses, (Moses’) prayer changes the decision-making situation from what it was before the prayer…God is open and willing to change directions. Human prayer can help to shape the future. The possibilities for the future are more open-ended.” (pg. 143-144)
When thinking about the future of the world, we could say that prayer gives God new information with which to work. Information that God didn’t have before. In the case of Exodus 32, God didn’t have the insight and energy that Moses brought to the situation until Moses spoke, or prayed, them to God.
So what we have to say counts with God; what we have to say makes a difference in the situation with God.
Since we have a shared relationships with God, in which what we say and what we do matters to God. Where we also have power. We must take into account the possibility of human interruption of God’s hope for the world. Might we be able to interrupt God’s response to prayer. For example, I recently heard about a man who was very, very sick and it turns out he was prescribed all sorts of medicines he shouldn’t have been on. So could it be possible that a doctor made a mistake and as a result was preventing the healing that God was hoping to bring about? Or as we all are praying for a person before they go in for surgery, and yet the doctor had too much to drink the night before, could it be the decisions of the doctor prevent the prayers from taking root?
Sometimes there is more at work besides our prayer and God, and that can have an effect on a situation. There are actions of others that can disrupt our prayers.
What we learn about prayer is that what we have to say matters to God. Prayer is the way of communicating with God. And prayer is the way in which we can make a situation more open for God. To give God more room to work. “God is open to taking new directions in view of new times and places; God is open to changing course in view of the interaction within the relationship, including prayers. Yet, never changing will be God’s steadfast love for all, God’s saving will for everyone, and God’s faithfulness to promises made. God will keep promises.” (p. 147)
When it comes to natural disasters, our prayers may be the way in which God gets more done in bringing about healing in the world. We have learned that God so values creation. So values us that God invites us into the life of the world, where what we say and do matter for God and for the future of the world.
But in the end, God is not off the hook. When it comes to suffering in this world, especially with natural disasters, God holds the responsibility. No, I do not believe that God mapped out the path of those tornadoes in Oklahoma, killing some and sparing others. But because God created this world with the possibility for natural disasters, then God holds some responsiblity for the pain and suffering that the world has experienced. This is the risk that God takes in creating a world in which power and creativity is shared. God knows this. And as a result, God suffers too. Indeed, God’s heart is the first to break; God’s tears are the first to flow whenever creation suffers.
I find Jeremiah helpful at this point. Jeremiah 42:10 10If you will only remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.
God does not shy away from the responsibility. Rather God owns it. And God says, “I’m sorry. I am sorry for the disaster that I have brought upon you.” Such is the risk of the kind world that God has created; the kind of world that God loves so much. AMEN
*Note: Much of this sermon was influenced by the 5th chapter of Terry Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed.