As I am writing this a family that is very close to our church is mourning the death of their son and brother. Terrible things happen on this earth; things that leave us shocked and disturbed. How do we deal with them as Christians? That’s the topic I have addressed in my Sermon on Palm Sunday. Here it is in written form:
On Palm Sunday we are reminded of the triumphal Entry of our Lord Jesus into Jerusalem. He rode into the City on a young donkey – the symbolism was very vivid and clear for his disciples: Here is the long awaited Messiah, the Redeemer, the King coming to Jerusalem.
It was a wonderful day for them. They were happy, excited and full of expectation for the best things to happen. Little did they know that within a week’s time they would be totally traumatized, bewildered and disoriented by the events that would take place. Joy and Sorrow are sometimes very close to each other in this world. Too close for our liking.
Last week, as I was preparing to go to Germany for a little break to celebrate my parent’s golden anniversary, I heard the terrible news that Antony Carrig had committed suicide. At the age of 22 he deliberately chose to end his life. I could only imagine what that would mean for his brother Luke and his mother Trish who are both very close to this congregation.
Just a few weeks before that Marion Smith’s sister had died in Portugal. Terrible things happen on this earth. They happen to people individually – and they happen to large numbers of people simultaneously – like the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
How do we deal with them as Christians? What do we do? How do we cope?
This is what I would like to talk about this morning. The sermon Topic is: “When something terrible happens”.
In a way I am not really qualified to speak on the issue – because God has allowed me to go through life without experiencing a major disaster or loss to this point in life. But as a pastor I have ministered to many people who have. And the bible has a lot to say on that topic. So I want to try and give some pointers in this sermon that will hopefully be helpful for us in dealing with these things.
Jesus has said these words in his famous sermon on the mount: Matthew 5, 4: ”Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Obviously it is OK to mourn. Jesus even pronounces those who mourn to be blessed. And he promises to them that they will experience God’s comfort in their life.
So the first thing I would like to suggest is that we
1.Refuse to soften or explain it
When tragedy strikes, when something terrible happens to us or to those close to us – the initial reaction of well meaning Christians often is to somehow “soften” the blow. We search for explanations that would somehow make sense to our troubled minds and ease the pain.
If we are devout Christians we even feel the urge to defend and justify God who has allowed such evil to happen. We are afraid to let the sadness, the anger and the pain come to the surface, so we hurry to put a lid on our emotions.
And we come up with “explanations” like:
“It’s all part of God’s curse on the earth.”
“It’s God’s judgement”
“It’s meant for a warning”
“It’s ultimately for our own good.”
“God is sovereign so that must make it all OK in the end.”
But the fact is – we don’t know why terrible things like that happen. And God doesn’t explain them to us.
We are not in the position to understand and grasp the meaning of what is happening on this earth. God has very clearly pointed that out to his prophet Isaiah:
Isaiah 55, 8-9:” For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
It is hard to admit that we just don’t understand God. And the most difficult part of it is – we don’t understand why he allows terrible evils to happen.
So rather than jumping to premature explanations and conclusions – we need to face it: What happened in Haiti is a terrible evil. Several hundred thousand of lives wiped out in a few moments. It should not have happened. It is terrible that it happened. Period.
A young man of 22 throwing his life away is a terrible thing – and it shouldn’t have happened. It’s bad. It’s terrible. Period.
Marion’s sister dying alone at a relatively young age in Portugal – is awful. It shouldn’t have happened.
Deep inside we feel the offence of evil. It is not fair. It is not just. It doesn’t belong in this world. It is disruptive and terrible.
But the world is full of it. There is so much evil in this world. – Why? Where does it come from? Why did God – the good God in whom there is no evil at all – why did he allow Evil to enter his good creation? – The answer is – we don’t know. And the bible does not explain it to us.
You may say – well, evil came because we humans have rebelled against God. In the story of Genesis it is explained – human beings opened the door for evil to enter our world by their rebellion and disobedience against God. – That is true. But Evil has existed before. Adam and Eve were tempted to disobey God. They didn’t come up with the idea themselves.
So the point I want to make is: We need to accept that there is a mysteriousness about EVIL that we simply cannot understand. And we don’t have to soften it or explain it to make it more acceptable.
There is a book that I would warmly recommend to all who want to deepen their thinking on that matter:
Christopher Wright: “The God I don’t understand”
So what do we do then? If we refuse to soften it and to explain it – if we accept the fact that we simply don’t understand it – what do we do with it?
2. Release your pain and grief before God
This is something we might find hard to do. Especially here in the western world Christianity has focused all its attention on voicing Thanksgiving and Praise to God – there are very few songs of actual lament and protest.
In Kazakhstan, where I was born and where I spent the first 11 years of my life, we sang many songs in our services that would deal with the difficulties of life, with suffering and affliction. We hardly have any songs in our hymnbook that do that kind of thing.
Christopher Wright says:
“It surely cannot be accidental that in the divinely inspired book of Psalms there are more psalms of lament and anguish than of joy and thanksgiving. These are the words that God has actually given us. God has allowed them a prominent place in his authorized songbook.” (The God… p. 52)
We are exhorted to pour out our hearts before God. Express our true feelings and release our emotions before God.
Psalm 62,8: “ Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
When I think of that I have a picture in mind – a picture of a little toddler who is very upset with his daddy. Something happened that he really didn’t like, and he sits on the lap of his dad, and he cries his eyes out, he hammers with his little fists against the chest of his daddy and he screams: You are unfair, I hate you, that is so terrible… And his dad just holds him in his arms and he allows him to vent all his anger and rage until he is exhausted and falls asleep in the lap of his father.
Christopher Wright again: “Our suffering friends in the bible didn’t choose that way (of softening and explaining the evil they experienced). They simply cry out in pain and protest against God – precisely because they know God. Their protest is born out of the jarring contrast between what they know and what they see. It is because they know God that they are so angry and upset. How can the God they know and love so much behave this way?” (p. 53)
Listen to the words of Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 15,18: “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails?
Or Psalm 22. It is the psalm that Jesus prayed when he hung on the cross. Let’s read it together.
Psalm 22, 1-8: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.
You see how honest he is? He feels abandoned by God, forsaken, not really cared for. And he cries out to God. He reminds himself of who God is – he has helped the Israelites before. So why does he not help him? Why is it that he is like a worm, not a man…
Do you pour out your heart like that before God? To be honest – I find it hard at times. And we find it hard in our churches to corporately voice the grief and the mourning in our worship.
Again Christopher Wright: “I feel that the language of lament is seriously neglected in the church. Many Christians seem to feel that somehow it can’t be right to complain to God in the context of corporate worship when we should all feel happy.”
It is tragic that often people feel – I can’t go to church, or I don’t want to go to church because I am sad and struggling. In church I will have to pretend to be happy. I am not allowed to show what I really feel inside. So I stay away from public worship in times of distress – and I come again when I feel better.
That’s terrible, isn’t it? We have to change something in our worship services if they compel people to hide their true emotions and to act happy all the time. We are not happy all the time. So we need space to voice the sadness, the mourning, the grief and the unhappiness as well. The bible allows us to lament, protest and be angry at the offensiveness of evil. It models it for us and gives us the words to use in many of the psalms.
But that is not all. Thank God that is not all – otherwise the world would be a very dark place indeed. Although we don’t understand why God allows terrible things to happen; although we cry out in anger and lament at times, – as Christians we know that the decisive blow against Evil has already been given.
On the Cross God has won the victory over evil. There is hope – tremendous hope for us, even in suffering and pain, in affliction and disaster. We have something to rely on. My last point
3. Rely on the Hope of God’s final victory
Christopher Wright argues in his book that God has not told us all that we would like to know about the Origin of Evil – because we are not to understand it, or make sense of it. We are not to accept it and incorporate it in our world. Instead we are to reject it – and to believe against it.
Ultimately – evil does not make sense. It does not belong in the good creation of our good and just and righteous God. And as his children we are to live lives of hope. God has promised that he will ultimately rid his creation of evil. There will come a time when Evil will be totally dealt with in all its forms – and it will be banished from creation.
Revelation 7, 16-17: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We are a people of hope. And although we live in this world where there is so much evil – we know and we believe that the decisive victory over evil has been won. On the Cross Jesus has already defeated all the powers of evil and darkness. And the final victory is not far away. He will come again and he will establish his eternal kingdom soon. – That is the hope of the believer.
When the evil regime of Nazi-Germany was oppressing nearly all of Europe – there came one day that sealed the outcome of the war. Many historians say that D-day – the day when the allied troops landed in France – was the decisive blow against the Nazis. After that it was only a matter of time until the war would be over.
But the fighting continued several months after that. Many soldiers lost their lives. The war was still going on – but the final victory was guaranteed.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus – that was God’s D-day in his fight against evil. When Jesus died on the Cross and rose again three days later – he broke the backbone of Evil in creation. Death and evil have lost their power. God is Victor over evil in any form.
And now it is only a matter of time until the final victory will come – when God will put an end to all wickedness and evil on this earth.
This is the source of comfort and hope – when something terrible happens. Evil does not have the final say. He will deal with it in the end. He will wipe away the tears from our eyes in the end. And there will be no more death and no more war and no more terrible earthquakes and disasters. Evil will be forever banished from creation.
Until that day we are to live, and laugh, and suffer, and cry and lament and protest – as people of hope. We are to believe against the evil, we are to fight it in all its forms where we can. And God will use us as beacons of light and hope to those who are still in darkness.