A sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Minneapolis, November 11, 1990 Jeremiah 18:1-10, Luke 12:22-34, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-19
What on Earth is God Doing?
This has been a week of upsets! Some powerful incumbents have been voted out of office due to questionable principles and practices. As I think of some incumbents in other states—might not mention specific names—I think some incumbents should have been voted out of office. I won’t tell you that I originally came from the state of North Carolina! An additional 120,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed to the Persian Gulf in case the diplomatic negotiations fail and we begin deadly warfare. Also, flooding in Washington state has caused many people to lose their homes this weekend.
These upsetting events and many others you can name remind us that human suffering occurs all around us in painful and devastating ways. The reality of suffering is seen in the gaunt appearance of those who are hungry in this community and around the world. Suffering is experienced as persons struggle with addictive behaviors that destroy their lives while they deny that they are causing any difficulty in their homes. Suffering becomes a nightmare as a child stands crying and feeling overwhelmed while watching her parents physically hit one another. You see, she has no way to stop them and nowhere to go for safety.
This depressing picture does not end here. For all we need to do is read the local papers while drinking a cup of coffee or tea in the morning to see stark injustices that do not go away. For example, the soaring costs of health care make it virtually impossible for millions of Americans to afford or to receive proper medical attention. Similarly, as unemployment increases, there will be less job security for many people—yes, in this Church and in our community. Some individuals make more money in less than one year than most people will hope to make in a lifetime of hard work.
Even closer to home, suffering is manifested in personal anguish found within ourselves. Such suffering becomes visible on those unintentional occasions when you and I have either spoken or written a disturbing word in haste, or have rationalized reasons for not taking time to do things for others, or have longed for forgiveness to occur but out of stubbornness, anger, or fear have been reluctant to take the first step to correct the wrongs.
It is at times such as these, when suffering, injustice, and personal anguish are so pronounced, that the question emerges for me—what on Earth is God doing? This question is addressed in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., in which he highlights Job’s anguish by exclaiming, “If God is God, then surely suffering will cease.” Or in the Presbyterian Publishing House manual, My God Why? which depicts a complex discussion on making sense out of human suffering and deliverance. Certainly, the story of suffering is clear enough to each one of us here, and often our responses leave us upset, disappointed, perplexed, and isolated.
The Providence of God
Thank goodness the story of suffering does not end here, because, if it did and if we aren’t already depressed, then we would be depressed for lack of hope. But in turning to the Word of God, it is clear that God’s Providential care is attested to throughout Scripture. God cares about you and about me and has given us the gift of grace in Jesus Christ. Handle this gift as a treasure!
Turning to Jeremiah, our attention is drawn to the story about the vessel of clay being marred in the potter’s hands, and then, with tender care, the potter reshapes and renews the vessel. And even though flaws are evident, beauty emerges in the new vessel. Another way to say this is that it is never too late—never too late to start afresh regardless of what circumstances you face this day. You see, as believers, God gives us opportunities anew for renewal.
This theme continues in Luke as Jesus promises the disciples, “Fear not, Little Flock, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. . . For where your Treasure is, there will your heart be also.” You see, God’s pleasure is that all who believe in Christ will enter the Kingdom of God. It is here and now, your citizenship is already there, and your passport is in hand through faith. Note how Abraham, by faith, went out not knowing where he was to go. I don’t know about you, but as for me that would seem extremely difficult. Especially for someone who loses her sense of direction—I’m the only person I know who can get lost in a one-door phone booth! Please don’t tell me north or south, just tell me if I have to go left or right! And by faith, Sarah, his wife, received power to conceive even when she was past the child-bearing years. What a shock that must have been! Can you imagine the gossip that went around about that story? Isaac is born.
Even when circumstances in your life or mine appear impossible and the odds stack up against us, remember—God opens unexpected doors. The key is our having courage to go through each door, though it may mean we go with unused tools. “I don’t know how to go through that door.” “I don’t know what it would be like not to drink.” “I don’t know what it is like to have terminal carcinoma.” Often it is only in retrospect, only after the fact, that we look back and can comprehend clearly that God was present all along. For in those times of trouble often we think God has disappeared. You see, God is present. In everything God works for the good of the kingdom. You see, people of faith, God is with us all the way, but frequently we just do not allow ourselves to experience it. The focus here, as seen in Abraham and Sarah, is on faith, for only by faith, not by sight, can each one of us make this kind of statement. Only by faith can you and I see beyond the obvious to the significant—because some experiences of life help us know that God’s providence does not always lead to “happy endings.” It would be nice to have a happy ending as in the play, Three Penny Opera. As you recall, MacHeath, who was a scoundrel, was sentenced to hang for his misdeeds, but in the last split second in the play he is pardoned for no good reason at all. The curtain comes down on this play with the chorus singing, “Happy Ending, Happy Ending!”
Suffering in the Presence of Providence
It would be great always to have happy endings, and when such endings occur, we certainly do rejoice. But the Scripture passages this morning help us see that suffering also does exist in the presence of God’s providence. Returning to Jeremiah, suffering is heard in God’s warning to Jeremiah: “Behold, I am shaping Evil against you and devising a plan against you.” Here God was warning the people not to follow their own plans and actions which usually lead to attempts to push God away or to replace God. Whichever the case, God knew that either approach leads to personal destruction and alienation.
Jesus warned the Disciples, “In this World you will have Tribulation.” The journey of life will not be easy, no matter how hard or how well you and I try, and we will be tempted if we have not been, then we will be. Often, we are tempted by power, prestige, and possessions. Your faith will be tested many times in a variety of ways. “One more drink never hurt anyone.” “One little affair never hurt anyone.” “One unanswered plea for help never hurt anyone.” After Abraham received Isaac, we note that he questioned God, “But what about those, who all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth.” Even though their life experiences were painful, incomplete, and unpredictable, the people of Jerusalem continued to spread the Word of God wherever they went.
Views of Deliverance
What becomes evident in these Biblical stories is that suffering is both a word of warning and a word of grace. God’s warning to Jeremiah was a gift of deliverance. “Tum from your evil ways.” You and I are given multiple opportunities and warnings to amend our hurtful words and destructive actions. Jesus warned the disciples, “Watch ye . . . for the Son of God is coming at an unexpected hour.” You see, no one knows when that time will be, so the providential warning—is always remain faithful and faith filled, place your allegiance on God, seek and participate in God’s Kingdom. There is no excuse good enough to justify our being lazy in the faith and in the ways we conduct our daily lives. The word of grace came to Abraham as he was ready to off er up his only son, for God said to Abraham: “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” The word of grace is—you are my child, and you are blessed!
As you and I remain faithful, we will be blessed. And at the same time, a son or daughter will not always be restored to us as Isaac was to Abraham. The ultimate picture of grace is Calvary where there was no ram to be substituted for Christ as a ram was substituted for Isaac. Yet through Christ’s death and resurrection, the greatest of all blessings has come to us through faith. Remember: Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Certainly, no greater love exists!
As I think about this love, I think about a friend of mine who told me a story that is very painful but powerful. It happened last Christmas. He was on his way, driving a long distance to visit with his parents on Christmas afternoon. What he did not know was that, while he was driving, his parents’ home had caught fire and had burned to the ground. As he pulled into his sister’s driveway, she came out, ashen and in tears, and told the devastating news about their family home. The parents were safe and were staying with neighbors. And so, he went with his sister to the family home. They looked at the charred ruins all around them. They walked over to one of the standing walls which still had windows which were blackened. He stood there looking through the windows and was reported to have said, “Let’s return in the morning when the sun is out and we can see better.” After a moment of silence, the sister said sadly, ‘‘The sunshine won’t make it get any better!” A harsh reality indeed.
On its own terms, the situation does not get any better, but in God’s providence, it does get better. By this I mean, only in retrospect was my friend able to say, “Before the fire, my aging parents, who were becoming feeble, were unwilling to move to a facility where they could be taken care of properly. After the fire, they moved willingly and were grateful for a new place to live.” The fire enabled his parents to make a difficult move away from their familiar surroundings. God is with all of us, even when fires occur, but often we do not realize it.
In a story such as this, and you can think of other powerful stories, the point of God’s deliverance is depicted in the old saying, ‘‘Whenever a door closes, look around; God will open another door.” Deliverance is not the working out of the old, but rather the starting of something new. Such change is often difficult for us, even under the best of circumstances. In every crisis or change there is a gain and there is a loss. In retrospect, we realize that we are equipped to grieve the loss and to celebrate the gain. Healing takes place when both of those are dealt with together.
In responding to the original question, “Where is God?”, I would like to say clearly that we see in the texts this morning that God has conquered adversity and turned it into victory in Jesus Christ Look to Christ, “lest you, too, be tempted.” As Leslie Newbigin puts it in Foolishness to the Greeks (1986),
The Gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation of the whole human experience. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offers the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. It is a new starting point. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. To believe means to be turned around, to face in a different direction, [to stop drinking when it is problematic], to be a dissenter, to go against the stream.
Newbigin goes on to say that “the Church needs to be bold in bearing witness to Christ who alone is Head of the Church. For that demonstration, the proof, we have to wait for the end. Until then, we have to be bold and steadfast in our witness and patient in our hope” (pp. 148-149).
As we prepare to leave this Worship Service, know and experience that God cares for you and for me. And we are to respond by “running with perseverance the race that is set before us”, by praising God for the gift of grace, by looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and by serving and caring for one another.