Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
The pictures are dramatic and harrowing as they enter our homes and present us with floods, refugee camps, the maimed and starving casualties of wars, mostly civil wars, riots and demonstrations.
And the cry goes up: “Where was God in all this? Why did He allow it and not prevent it? Why does He intervene sometimes and not others?”
And the stock answers never really seem to satisfy:
God was always in the midst of it, for what do you think that He was doing on the cross except to be within the midst of the human-induced hell on earth, which always contrives to make a disaster into a tragedy.
Or that God has given us humans free will to be with Him or against Him, to be and to bring blessing to our societies or to be their curse and their destruction – so do not be surprised when greed and corruption, ineptitude and incompetence make any situation incomparably worse.
Even in our own country people respond with surprise to winter storms and floods, as if they were wholly abnormal and unpredictable.
And while these responses may be true, both the questions and the answers conceal a further level of anxiety and doubt for Christian theology does not always supply all the answers to all the questions.
The point is that it was never intended to. That is part of the mystery of faith: that we are given sufficient revelation of God, in Jesus Christ, to support us in our lifetime journey of faith but we are definitely not given a handbook on every aspect of creation and human responses.
And so faith and suffering come before us, and awaken in us responses. For some the vision of another person’s distress is enough to move them to offer assistance, to give money, or volunteer in the places where needs are assessed and met.
For others they may join rescue and emergency services or support the life-boats or mountain rescue teams.
But for still others it is all part of a wider debate with God: in the face of all this, why should I serve You? Why should I believe or trust in you or anything or anyone else?
In short the vision of suffering, whether of a personal nature or mediated to us by the media only exposes who and what we are and what we are becoming. It may support some in their prior determination to abandon and avoid God and to make themselves the centres of their own universes.
Here one may be lord of all relationships and transactions, no rebuke or outside constraint is accepted, and we design our own fates – for eternity.
An eternity, deliberately separated from the person and glory of God, would indeed be a very desolate existence, stripped of real communion or communication, of art and society and love.
So the alternative is difficult but tenable. It does not always serve us up with every answer to every question on demand. Rather it offers us pointers in faith, to received in the spiritual realm and exercised in faithful and loving obedience to God.
This is not a particularly glamorous or fashionable approach and it reaches into the deepest parts of our hearts and souls if we are to follow it. It enables faith but never compels it.
It means that we have to bring every concern, every question, every sorrow and every sin before the Throne of Grace and ask for mercy.
Perhaps we are in the position of Jesus’ disciples who had committed themselves to following Him, but were still not that enthusiastic in what it could involve.
They might be welcomed in one village but threatened with stoning in another. They may face cold, hunger and on then lake, the violence of the evening squalls.
They certainly did not understand all that Jesus said or did, but they believed and trusted in Him sufficiently to give Him the benefit of the doubt. Even Judas who continued with the disciples to the end and shared all their hardships, is shown as being suborned, not by personal doubt or apparently misguided calculation, but by personal greed for money. And up to that point he might indeed have overcome.
But Jesus’ life itself was never free of threat or danger. As a baby He was threatened by the murderous insecurity of Herod, and His ministry made Him a permanent target for criticism and rejection.
Nevertheless He also persisted, knowing the end to which He was directed, and following it in loving obedience anyway.
The Massacre of the Innocents of Bethlehem was an act of murderous delusion, for Herod was never going to be threatened by Jesus anyway. But Herod still wanted to play at being God.
Perhaps in the finality of it all the questions is whether we are also tempted in the same way as either Herod or Judas.