Thoughts on God and Suffering
Sermon given 20th March 2022
The readings are Isaiah 55:1-9 found here, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 found here and Luke 13:1-9 found here
This topic is difficult - if you would like to discuss any of this with Revd Graham, please do be in contact
May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
If you watch the local news or read the local newspaper, you would not have been able to escape the occasional mention of someone who, celebrating their 100th birthday, was inevitably asked what they put their long life down to. What’s dead interesting is they all put it down to some food or habit they have been doing since in the 1920’s or whenever and that is why they lived so long. I googled some examples of the things some of the centenarians who had been interviewed had suggested gave them long life. They had recommended cheese puffs, hard work, ice cream, tea, bacon, beer, vodka martinis, brain games, being single, gin and tonics, junk food and olive oil to name but a few. There was even one old dear who claimed that always wearing good quality lingerie had given her a long life. Of course, we can see that nothing links any of these suggestions. But there is something that gave them all a long life. That one thing that they all share was simply good luck. That is the real reason they got to the age they did, simple chance. But we find that answer so unhelpful, we want there to be a reason don’t we, where the truth is it was simple chance that allowed them largely to live as long as they did. They won the lottery of life.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are things that help, that get you more lottery tickets in the lottery of life, like being healthy, exercising and all that stuff, but you can buy 20 lottery tickets and still not have a winner. A smoker, in this analogy, may only have one lottery ticket, but it may still be the winner. In fact, in my research, one of the centenarians only gave up smoking at 107. I am sure that these people didn’t deserve their long life, no more than anyone else. They got lucky and that is often an answer that leaves us dissatisfied. After all, on the flipside of the coin there are many deserving people who don’t live long, who die very young, or get horrible diseases.
Other times people die tragically or in ways we cannot understand or in the brutality of war like those in Yemen or Ukraine caught up in the evil of the power hungry through no fault of their own. In recent years we have got used to people dying daily of covid in the hundreds and even the thousands. So catch it and are very unwell, some never even know they have it at all. It seems so arbitrary. That hard question that many ask at those times is where is God? if God is so loving how can these injustices exist? We as humans always want to ask, who is to blame and if it is a natural evil, we blame God, don’t we? This question of how is God good when bad things happen to good people is one of the hardest questions I face, and I have no answer to it accept to point to Jesus and what scripture says. Jesus, in a round about way, is asked here in our gospel exactly the same kind of question.
People in the crowd bring a local news story to Jesus, a story that both shocked and disturbed them. Pilate had ordered the murder of a number of people, presumably worshippers or pilgrims with the temple grounds so that their blood that had been spilt had mixed with the blood of the sacrifices offered to God. This was a huge sacrilege. We know from non-biblical sources that Pilate had form in doing this kind of thing as he is recorded as taking the temple money to pay for a viaduct, and erecting idols of other Gods around or near the temple complex. So this event, although shocking is in character. The people want to know why these worshippers, so close to God’s arc held in the temple, had been allowed to be murdered. They don’t ask directly, but they invite Jesus’ comment. How can this be justified?
Jesus simply points out the fallacy. The people were not being punished by God for their sins. They hadn’t done anything to deserve what had happened to them particularly. He gives another example, a tower had collapsed, presumably in an accident and 18 people had been killed. Similarly, Jesus explains, they were no worse sinners than anyone else in Jerusalem. But in both cases He explains that important thing isn’t when or how they die, but whether or not they had repented.
Its important to stop and consider that for a moment. So many times, when disaster strikes, when someone we love is dying or we are injured or sick, or facing some grossly unfair situation, we try to give blame to something or someone. My friends, when faced with those awful times in life that happen to everyone, often there is no one to blame and even if there is blame never brings peace to a disaster anyway. No one deserves cancer or suffering, or being trapped in a warzone or whatever. Many people I speak to often blame themselves as they grieve over what has happened or what they have lost. Here Jesus explains, there is no blame. Sometimes bad things happen and its not ours or anyone’s fault.
The opposite is also true. Any blessing we receive are not ours by right. It’s so common to hear people say, I worked for everything I got, as if they deserve what they have. Now no doubt, people work hard, but do we really believe that a peasant, say living in rural India, who struggles to feed their family worked less hard than a comfortably off person retired in Cleveleys? Any blessing we get we are lucky to have. We don’t deserve the wealth we have no more than we deserve any disease we contract.
Jesus is clear, there is no one to blame for natural disasters nor are victims to be blamed if they are caught up in politically motivated violence. Jesus here is saying concentrate on repenting and being part of God’s Kingdom because none of us know what is around the corner. We live in a fallen world, and in a fallen world evil and suffering exist.
But if we are not to blame, what about God? Why didn’t He stop Covid? Why didn’t He save all the civilians killed in the Ukraine? Why didn’t God protect His faithful in the temple from Pilate? Why didn’t God stop the tower collapsing? I don’t have an answer to the problem of suffering, and perhaps one of the first questions on our lips when we see Jesus face to face will be to ask why there is so much suffering. But what I can do is look to scripture. In scripture we see how our world became a fallen world. In scripture we can see how God starts His rescue plan for the broken creation as He makes promises with Abraham in the wilderness. In scripture we can read psalms that celebrate the good that we experience in life, and about half the other psalms cry out to God as we experience the bad. In scripture we see that war one day will end as swords are beaten into plow shares. In scripture we see how God came to earth to be Man. In scripture we see that God entered into human suffering in the desert and on the cross. In the scriptures we see that one-day God will be with His people and He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” God has made a way, we are in need of salvation and Jesus says repent and live. I don’t know why there is suffering in this life but I do know that at the centre of our faith is the suffering servant who understands, who suffers on a cross to end all suffering one day. That same God on the cross said ‘My God, My God why have you abandoned me?’ and we are invited and allowed, while holding onto our God, to express that same emotion.
None of this topic is easy. We live in a broken world. But more than anything, this passage is a reminder of the fragility of life and life’s preciousness. Jesus invites us to live each day as the huge blessing it is, to share the good news of forgiveness of sins and the offer of life eternal. Often, in my own life, when I am tired or just don’t want to get on with a difficult day, I try to remind myself, today I have the opportunity to love the people around me. To love my family, to love the people of Cleveleys and to love everyone in the name of God, inviting them to become part of God’s family, because I have no guarantee that I will be able to do that the next day. That is an awesome joy for me. When disaster strikes we are invited lean on God, not to give ourselves blame, knowing and trusting that the God of justice will set all things right in the end one way or another.
Finally, we are invited into repentance, prayer and action. God is working in our broken world and to see prayers answered is an awesome joy. We are also given the task of bringing some of that suffering to an end by loving one another. Whatever this transitory life brings us, we face it together as sisters and brother of Christ, loving our neighbour until that day His Kingdom fully comes and all is set right to the glory of God. amen.