A worship experience on a Sunday morning doesn’t just happen on the spot. Our worship services at Northway are driven by the church year and the Biblical texts that have been pre-selected to fit the seasonal theme. I am a series preacher, which means that I preach a group of sermons in sequence that fit the emphasis of the church year. Right now we’re in Eastertide – Easter is a season and not just a day. On Easter Sunday I preached Romans 6:1-7 on the theme of “Living the Resurrection.” My focus was on how the Easter reality of Christ’s resurrection is not just something that we believe happened in history, but it something that happens in our hearts as well. Working with Paul’s baptismal reference, I talked about how when we believe in Christ we are raised to walk in newness of life. This message set the preaching theme for the rest of Eastertide, a sermon series based on Colossians 3:12-17 called “Putting on the New Self.” Each week we are taking one of the qualities that Paul said we “put on” as Christians like the pieces of a new wardrobe that fit our identity in Christ. Yesterday (Sunday April 21) the section of the text that we were scheduled to look at is the part about forgiveness – “…whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you (forgive).”
The order of worship for Sunday (April 21) was prepared on Monday with this text and theme in mind. It was reviewed by staff on Tuesday during staff meeting and musical resources were mixed in. Worship leadership assignments were made. By Tuesday afternoon support staff was beginning their preparations for publications and publicity, and on Wednesday evening the choir went into rehearsal for the musical offerings tied to the worship theme that had been selected and reviewed. Meanwhile I had gone to work on the sermon, taking the Biblical text and the sermon note outline that had been prepared on Monday and fleshing it out through research and reflection. By the close of day on Wednesday I have a fully annotated sermon “map” for the Sunday message that I will then use to write my manuscript on Friday. All of this was done last week in this sequence.
And then West blew up.
Watching the news reports of this disaster on our front doorsteps, and coupling it with the terrorist bombings that had taken place earlier in the week in Boston during the Marathon, by midmorning on Thursday it was clear that we were going to have make a shift and plan a different kind of worship experience for Sunday morning. It was the theologian Paul Tillich who wrote about what he called the “Theology of Correlation” – how the world poses the questions that the church has got to answer. Well, the events of this past week posed the question that we felt like we had to try to answer as a community of faith when we gathered on Sunday morning. And so music, liturgy and preaching were all refashioned on Thursday for a different kind of worship service on Sunday morning. Ministerial and support staff went the extra mile to make this change possible, and as always, I am so proud of them and grateful to them for their flexibility, creativity and effort.
“Why Doesn’t God Do Something?” was the replacement message that I brought last Sunday. I based it on Romans 8:31-39. You can find the text of it on the church web page – www.northwaychristian.org – follow “Worship” to “Sermons” to access it. This message was an attempt to answer the question in the title: “Why Doesn’t God Do Something?” You can be the judge of whether or not I was successful in this effort. One church visitor told me after the second service that she didn’t hear an answer to the question that I’d posed and that was heavy on her heart. I’ve been mulling her observation over in my head and heart ever since. I recall an editorial I read years ago in Christianity Today about an ordination interview in which the candidate had been theologically careful and nuanced in his responses to the committee’s questions. Finally a member of the panel, a layman, frustrated by what he perceived to be the evasiveness of the candidate, blurted out: “Do you or do you not believe in the Virgin Birth? And no trick answers!” Despite my best intentions to be clear in my message on Sunday to answer the question “Why Doesn’t God Do Something?” At least in the mind of one listener, I wasn’t. And so, with “no trick answers,” let me take another run at it.
1. Tragedy, and what theologian Marilyn McCord Adams calls the “horrors,” are part of the fabric of life in this world. We are not given an exemption from suffering just because we are Christians. There are religious teachings that suggest that we can escape tribulation. I find them to be neither Biblical nor Christian. They offer magical thinking and not Divine wisdom. Bad things happen. Bad things happen all the time. Bad things happen to good people and to bad people. Bad things are going to happen to us and to the people we love. There is no one who is going to get through this life without some trouble – without some painful losses, some confusing circumstances and some soul-shaking experiences and events.
2. When the trouble comes, and it always comes, the “God Questions” get posed with a particular urgency: “Where is God?” “What is God doing about it?” “Why didn’t God stop it from happening to start with?” If you’ve been told that believing in God is going to provide you with an exemption from all the sadness and suffering in your life, then when that sadness and suffering shows up in your life, it can only be regarded as some kind of failure. Either a failure in the faith of the people who had bargained for immunity, or a failure in the God they had been told that they could count on to keep them safe and make them happy. It is out of the wreckage of this inadequate system of belief that a more adequate belief system can and must be built.
3. A more adequate belief system has got to be rooted and grounded in God’s reality – in who God really is and in what God has actually promised to do. This raises the most basic of all theological questions, the question of knowledge. How do we know anything about God? Is it all hunches and guesses, hopeful longings and wishful thinking? Biblical Christianity says that the God who is there is not silent. God has spoken and acted in lots of different ways, but decisively in Jesus Christ, and we have an entirely reliable record of what God has shown us and told us about Himself in the pages of Scripture. This is the watershed decision that each one of us has to make. If God has spoken and acted, and if we have a credible record of that speaking and acting, then it is to that record that we must turn to answer our “God Questions.” Put me squarely in the camp of those who believe in God’s self-disclosure. Who I know God to be, and what I expect God to do is based on what God has said and done to make himself known, climaxing in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the One to whom the New Testament documents bear witness.
4. Jesus Christ is what I believe that God is doing about the tragic brokenness of this world. It is not a “quick fix” that He offers, but rather a redemptive process that unfolds methodically throughout history and into eternity. God is not absent from this world in all of its tragic dimensions or disinterested in the anguish of people who were made in His image. In Jesus Christ we have “Emmanuel,” the “God Who is with Us,” the God who has stepped into this world as one of us. He is “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15), because he has become one of us “in all things” (Hebrews 2:17), sharing our “flesh and blood” and facing power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15). On the cross Christ challenged the powers of darkness that are arrayed against us and that seek to undo us, and His resurrection on the third day set in motion their final defeat (I Corinthians 15:20-28).
5. Here and now we live in-between God’s initiation of this solution to the problem of pain in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and God’s consummation of the plan when Christ returns at the close of the age to fully and finally finish the work of salvation. While certain, this solution is still in the process of unfolding, and it would be a painful mistake for us to think or act as if were already finished. The unwarranted anticipation of the completion of the response that God is making in Jesus Christ to sin, suffering and sadness is a spiritual overreach that has shattering consequences. We are still in the battle. We cannot let down our guard. We must not act as if evil is not still active. We must not think that it will not touch us and those we love, or promise this to others. What we can and must say is that death, disease, darkness and despair will not have the last word. In Jesus Christ, God is in the middle of doing something about them all. God is not finished yet; the solution is still in the process of unfolding, but it’s on its way.
6. And so, for now, we live Romans 8:31-39. This lyrical, powerful text runs its course between two banks: the bank of the painful realities of this world – “tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril sword” (8:35) – we get no exemptions; and the bank of what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ – “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, who was raised” (8:34). In Jesus Christ God is solving the problem of pain. In Jesus Christ God is fixing everything that’s gone wrong with us and the world. But God has not finished this saving work in Jesus Christ yet. And so while we continue to struggle and suffer, we have the consolation of knowing how things are going to finally play out, and we have the empowering and indwelling presence of God’s Spirit to comfort and encourage us in the face of the troubles that we will face, reassuring us that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed” (8:18), and reminding us that nothing that might come our way has the power “to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39).
7. And finally, when we know these things, when we have been “comforted in our afflictions” by God in Jesus Christ, we are given a capacity to comfort others in their afflictions “with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4). As we live in-between the initiation and the consummation of the response that God is making in Jesus Christ to the problem of pain, we don’t just batten down the hatches and ride out the storms that break in upon us. No, we rise up in compassion to comfort and console. Knowing that the sadness and sufferings of this present world are contrary to God’s purposes, and believing that God in Jesus Christ is actively engaged in a process of reversing the damage that’s been done, we rise up in courage and care as people of faith to provide specific and concrete help at the point of people’s hurt and hopes in anticipation of the full and final healing that God is busy bringing about in Jesus Christ. While we are not surprised by tragedy and the “horrors,” neither are we indifferent to them. Believing that God is doing something about them in Jesus Christ, and will finally bring about their defeat, we now take our stand in the direction of that future that is coming by binding up the wounds of all people and by contending with the powers and principalities that inflict them. And when we are asked why we are doing this, our answer must be “Jesus Christ.” He is, after all, who God is and what God is doing. DBS+