September 8, 2019

Grim Reaper or Safe Keeper
John 9:1-5

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When I left home for college my 39 year old mother was a very healthy lady. She worked 40 hours a week potting plants in a nursery because she loved putting her hands in the soil. Two years later, she could hardly walk. Five years later, her hands were so deformed she couldn’t even feed herself. Because of severe Rheumatoid Arthritis, she spent the last years of her life as an invalid suffering with excruciating pain. She died, an old woman, at age 54.

Nothing in life has influenced my theology more than my mother’s suffering. At times, when she was alive, I begged God to heal her. Toward the end, when mom longed for the relief of death, I begged God to take her. At times, I found myself clinging to God as my only refuge. At other times I found myself furious with God, angry because he allowed my mother to experience such excruciating pain.

Over and over I asked why. Why would a loving God allow someone like my mother to suffer so much? She was a good woman, a woman who loved her family, loved her church, and read her Bible every day. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I asked the question “why?”

You’re probably like me. Most of us grew up believing that God is our “Safe-Keeper,” that God is the one who protects us from hurt, from harm and from the tragedies of life, but when tragedy strikes, sometimes our “Safe-Keeper” looks more like a “Grim Reaper.”

Grim Reaper or Safe Keeper? Which title best fits your God?

Today’s sermon is a sermon about theodicy. Theodicy is the theological term used to discuss the relationship between God and tragedy, sickness or evil. It’s a subject often debate but one always leaving more questions than answers. So before I go any farther I want to warn you. Despite all my theological training and ministerial experience I do not have an answer for the question “why.” Instead, in this sermon I want to simply share the conclusions I’ve reached through my own struggles in hope of helping you as you struggle with your questions of faith.

Before I share what I believe about God’s role in our tragedies, let me share two things I do not believe.

First, I do not believe tragedy is simply a result of our personal sin.

I know some would disagree with me by pointing to stories of the Old Testament, and indeed, there are numerous Old Testament examples of God directing tragedy as a punishment for sin. Shall we forget Noah’s flood or the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah? Yes, at times the Old Testament paints God as a Grim Reaper, but my basic understanding of God is not from the Old Testament. I understand God, by looking at Jesus Christ who was God incarnate.

So what did Christ say about a theology that views tragedy as a direct result of personal sin? In Luke 13, Jesus overhears his disciples talking about a group of Galileans who had recently been murdered by Pilate. Evidently, the disciples suggested that the Galileans were simply being punished by God for their sin. To that Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!"

Then Jesus referred to another tragedy where 18 people were killed by a falling tower and said, "those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them. Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!"

Without hesitation, Jesus dismisses a theology that always views tragedy as a direct result of personal sin.

In Matthew 5, Jesus reminded the disciples that blessings and sufferings are simply a part of life and they come to us regardless of our merit. He states, "For God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."

In the text I read just a few minutes ago, Jesus also dealt with the question of tragedy and sin. When the disciples saw a blind man they asked Jesus, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered quickly, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned."

Like so many people of our day, the disciples wanted to make a direct link between sin and tragedy, but Jesus refused to do so. Instead, Jesus indicates that blessings and tragedies fall upon us all, the just and the unjust, the good and the evil.

When I pastored in Georgia I remember reading an editorial in the Macon Telegraph. During a long, hot, dry spell one person wrote, “We are having this extraordinarily hot weather because God is sending a message to the sinners and to evil Georgians who are destined to hell.”

I was tempted to answer the editorial but better sense prevailed. I wanted to say, “If God is designing this pre-hell session for the evil sinners in Georgia, how come the rest of us have to suffer, too?”

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that sin gets us into all sorts of trouble and we all suffer as a result of our sin, but if I am to believe the words of Jesus, I must believe that tragedy is not simply a result of our personal sin. Suffering and blessings come indiscriminately to us all.

But there is another common belief about tragedy I refuse to accept. I refuse to believe that tragedy is a necessary part of God’s will.

You’ve heard people espouse this belief at the scene of some tragedy. As they attempt to make sense out of the terrible thing that has just happened, someone will say, “We can’t understand why this happened but we can take comfort in knowing that it was the will of God.”

I know people who say these things are just trying to help, but I can’t go down that road. If an evil person rapes my daughter am I supposed to call that the will of God? If a drunken driver turns my son into an invalid, am I supposed to take comfort in believing that the accident was the will of God? If a bunch of evil terrorist kill thousands of innocent people by crashing airliners into skyscrapers am I supposed to see in that the hand of God? Quite honestly, if that represents the will of God, I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with him.

The God represented in Jesus is not anything like that. The God we see in Jesus is a God who goes out of his way to give healing to the sick and life to the dead. He is the God who weeps at gravesides, not the God who insists on hurting people in order to have his will.

No, I don’t believe that tragedy is the punishment of God, nor do I believe that tragedy is a necessary part of God’s will. So what do I believe?

First, I believe that God helps me handle the tragedies of life by offering his loving presence. Time and time again the Bible reminds us that God is with us in every tragedy we face. As we look at scripture, we don’t seem to get a clear answer to why we suffer, but the Bible is replete with answers about how we can suffer.

This was the testimony of the Old Testament Psalmist when he stated, "And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me."

This was the testimony of the Apostle Paul who said, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Yes, even when we don’t know why, our faith sustains us by reminding us that God walks with us through the worst events of our lives.

Our hearts go out to the people of the Bahamas whose lives have been turned upside down by Hurricane Dorian. I can’t imagine what it would be like to face the devastation that surrounds them. Nor can I imagine what it would be like to serve as their pastor.

One of the news reporters interviewed Neil Roberts, a pastor on Abaco Island and asked him how this terrible storm impacted his faith. Roberts responded, “. . . storms come, and sometimes life becomes shredded. But God is there with us, and if your faith is intact, you’ll make it stronger and better than you ever were.”

Obviously, Pastor Roberts’ faith has no answer regarding “why” this tragedy happened, but his faith does tell him how to deal with it. He deals with this tragedy by realizing that God stands with him, that God’s presence is there to sustain him even in the most ungodly times. Yes, God’s presence in our lives makes a real difference, even when we don’t understand all the whys.

But there’s one more thing I’ve learned about God and the tragedies of life. I’ve learned that God is willing to take our tragedies and do something constructive with them. Yes, God is anxious to redeem the bad experiences of life and use them for something good.

Again, Paul testifies in Romans 8:28, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those called according to his purpose." Yes, God wants to bring good out of all our experiences, not only the glorious experiences but the tragic ones, too.

When I think about my mother’s suffering and death I realize that God was able to bring some good out of it. Was it good for my mother to suffer and die at such an early age? Of course not, but God has used the tragic experiences of my own family to make me the pastor I am today.

Because of my mother’s suffering, I have a deep place in my heart for those who suffer. Because of my mother’s untimely death, I can reach out to you when untimely death invades your home.

Did God make these tragic things happen to my mother just so he could teach me a lesson? I refuse to believe that! Did God use these tragedies to make me the minister I am today? Without a doubt!

As a young adult, watching my mother go through unbearable pain and suffering, I sometimes considered abandoning my faith. But even in those darkest moments, even when I shook my fist at God, I realized God was still there with me, loving me and sustaining me in ways I could not understand.

One day, as I was dealing with my unanswered questions about God, I came upon a realization that helped me come to peace with my struggle, and that realization continues to be the basis of my faith, today. Here’s the thought God placed in my heart. I’d rather walk with a God I do not understand than to walk alone. Yes, that is the basis of my faith.

So when tragedy and heartbreak enter my life, and I cannot understand why, I rest on what I can understand, and that is this: I’d rather walk with a God I do not understand than to walk alone.