Second Sunday of Christmas: January 2, 2011
Copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
Some of you know that for years I have made a practice of setting my annual plans for preaching in the summer during a study week, usually in the month of July. During that week, in the slow pace of summer, I look over the scripture lessons for Sundays in the months to come, beginning with Advent. It is a glance toward a future which cannot be known; even so I try to plan for a word to speak in those coming weeks. So it was that in the summer I made initial plans for this Sunday, what is often referred to in churches as a “low Sunday” because it comes in the weeks following such a high holy day as Christmas. I looked at the Psalm for the day and decided it was an intriguing text, another of the Bible’s many references to God as the Lord of creation. Even so – and I think this is vitally important for our understanding of the nature of God – it presents God as being continually at work in creation, rather than sitting back, no longer actively involved with what has been created.
Anyone who wants to think of God as Creator must, from time to time, come to terms with ways in which this good creation of God sometimes includes hurricanes, lightning storms, and – just a few weeks back – a tornado in tiny Aumsville Oregon. The earth on which we “live and move and have our being” is capable of unexpected events, from the moderately interesting to the completely terrifying, like modest eruptions on Mount St. Helens, or unimaginable destruction as with tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides and hurricanes. Those who commonly state flatly that they prefer to worship a god of nature – most typically in the pleasant surroundings of a golf course or on a sunny day of fishing by the riverside – must come to terms with the fact that nature itself is a capricious and temperamental god, capable of brutal, senseless destruction, as we frequently witness in locations around the planet. If we plan to worship the daffodils, we must also take into account the volcano. No wonder the Bible is always careful to distinguish between God and God’s creation. I have, in some weeks, found in words from I Kings no small comfort in the face of mounting death tolls from natural disasters. There, the prophet Elijah discovered that God was not to be found in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the still, small, reconciling voice of God’s word.1
We do believe this about God’s work in the created world: that God is still at work in an unruly creation, that the work of creation is not finished and is still under way, and it truly is work. At the very least, calamitous events are calls to God’s service in aiding those who are victims through no fault of their own. Psalm 147, in verses just prior to those read today, declares the way we know we are in the presence of the God of creation, because the true God is one who
gathers the outcasts of Israel,
[who] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.2
If we are to be people of the Word, we cannot believe that natural disasters we witness in the world express the intention of God for the world. It is a question that is continually asked of course. Once, following a natural disaster in Southeast Asia, I remember hearing on CNN one woman who spoke for many when she appeared on screen asking, “God, what have we done to make you so angry?” Was this event, as legal documents sometimes state, an “act of God”?
We have to be extra cautious about ever claiming to know the intentions of God in such complicated circumstances, and especially careful in casting about for reasons God might be judging others, when Jesus' chief advice about judgment had to do with self-reflection.
I also recall hearing from the usual gaggle of self-proclaimed broadcast religious leaders who declared that the horrific events of 9/11 were somehow God's judgment on the sinful actions of certain scapegoat groups of people in our country. Of course, these were the same people who in 1999 predicted that a "Y2K" cataclysmic shutdown of computers around the world would lead to the return of Jesus, and for his part, Jerry Falwell said at the time that he was stockpiling food, sugar, gasoline, and ammunition.3
(I have to wonder what sort of God such a person worships. It seems clearly not to be the God of the Psalmist.)
“So far I haven't heard of any imams preaching a similar message about the victims of the tsunami. And I suspect I won’t – primarily because many, if not most, of the victims are Muslims. I feel confident of this because I’ve noticed the tendency of imams – and I suspect preachers of all faiths – to cite the wrath of God when they’re talking about other people’s flaws. For example, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell suggested that God allowed the attacks as a warning to the nation because of its “moral decay” and said Americans should have an attitude of repentance before God. He specifically listed the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People For the American Way as sharing in the blame.”
(Dr. Hassaballa went on to say) “This attitude deeply angers me. To say that terrorist attacks are a divine “warning,” or that a hurricane in Florida is God’s “revenge” for the U.S. invasion of Iraq or “punishment” for the sinners of Florida is simply callous.
I want to ask the imams: Is it the “wrath of God” only when non-Muslims are victimized? I don’t get satisfactory answers to questions like this during a typical sermon. And I disagree with them (and clergy of other faith of this ilk) because their approach strips us of compassion for the suffering of other human beings – which is completely contrary to the principles of Islam.”
…and of Christianity, as we know. Dr. Hassaballa went on,
“No doubt, both the Bible and the Qur’an are full of stories documenting how the rebelliousness of a people caused their destruction. We should heed the lessons of those stories, but we should never let ourselves become heartless. Just because God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquities does not mean we should have no compassion for the victims of a Florida hurricane – or of an Asian tsunami.”
Is it only God’s vindictive justice when people unlike ourselves suffer? A hurricane or earthquake or Pacific Northwest mudslide, which takes the lives of a handful or a hundred thousand people of any faith is equally tragic, because each of those who suffer and die are people made in the image of God.
When Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was in prison and you visited me,” the disciples responded asking when he was in such circumstances. Of course, little did they know he would one day be in just such circumstances with no one to feed him, and certainly no one to visit him during his brief imprisonment before his crucifixion. But he declared that when we do these things for the very least, we do them for him. I take note of the fact that he did not specify what faith these “least people” should have before we attend to them in their suffering.
If you want to know my personal thoughts on natural disasters, I have come to believe that the creation of God is still a work in progress, that it is not yet a finished work, and that natural disasters, whatever else they may be, are not expressions of God’s particular will concerning those who suffer the effects. There is still a force in the universe that is resistant to the creation of God’s good world.
Perhaps the judgment that lies in such circumstances, if there is to be judgment, has to do with our relative willingness or unwillingness to respond with compassion and care and generous, even sacrificial gestures of assistance for those who suffer.
Once, during his teaching ministry, people approached Jesus asking about the will of God in tragedies. They asked him about a recent event when a tower under construction fell –probably due to an earthquake – and killed eighteen people. They wondered, had they deserved it somehow? Jesus said,
...those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you... 5
Jesus did not equivocate. “No!” he said. Natural disaster is not an expression of the will of God. We encounter the words of the Psalmist originally directed toward a people who had been overrun, carried off into exile, held for 70 years, and finally allowed to return to a devastated homeland. They were depressed, dejected, dispirited, downhearted, but then they heard a faint song ministering to them in their distress:
The Lord is the one who “gathers up the outcasts of Israel,” who “heals the brokenhearted, who binds up their wounds.” This God whom the psalmist praises is awesome and powerful, it’s true – but this God is also committed to tenderness and mercy and asks his people to be the same. Those who fear the Lord do not flee from the divine presence; rather, they seek God out, offering up, as in our psalm, their sincere gifts of praise and their acts of mercy to a merciful creator.
I’ll end with a little paragraph that Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors, once wrote:
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”6
Copyrght © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 I Kings 19:9-12
2 Psalm 147:2-3
3 Caryle Murphy, "'Millennium Bug' A Matter of Faith," The Washington Post , 11/23/98, B-1.
4 Will the Imams Remain Silent?, available on Beliefnet.com , http://www.beliefnet.com/author/author_144.html.
5 Luke 13:1-5
6 Wishful Thinking, Harper & Row, 1973.