[message shared with the people of Friendship Church, January 2, 2005]
Not many days ago, two tectonic plates below the earth, under the Indian Ocean, shifted. The result was a 9.0 earthquake on the Richter Scale and massive tsunamis that killed at least 120,000 people in twelve different countries.
It's difficult to even understand the enormity of this natural disaster. This past Friday, on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, columnist Mark Shields said that on September 11, 2001, had our country suffered loss proportionate to that experienced by Indonesia with the tsunami, we wouldn't have lost 3000 people, but 706,000 people!
In the wake of such tragedy, we look for explanations and there are some people more than willing to accomodate us in that search. One Christian web site says that the tsunamis victimized more people in Islamic and Hindu countries, proving that God was angry at them for persecuting Christians. Some in India claim that the tsunamis are punishment for the arrest of a Hindu leader and a rabbi has written that the massive death toll is indicative of God’s great anger with the world’s wickedness.
These "explanations" remind me of the words of a Christian leader who, after the 9/11 attacks, claimed that they were God's punishment on America for countenancing homosexuality. He later retracted that statement.
From a Biblical perspective, all such explanations are, at the very least, highly suspect. Jesus says that in this world, the sun shines and the sky rains on the good and the evil.
This morning, I’m called by God to speak Jesus’ Good News to the world's often indescribable pain. But I have to say that I have no definitive answer to the simple question of, “Why?”
I can tell you a few things though, that might help us all to cope not only with this tragedy, but with all the tragedy that can beset us in this life.
First, I can tell you, as I have before, that this isn’t heaven. God created this world, including you and me, to be very good.
But things are not as they should be. The singer, Sting, once said in his song, Consider Me Gone, “To search for perfection is all very well; But to look for Heaven is to live here in Hell.”
The Bible agrees. In the New Testament, Paul writes that since sin and death invaded our planet, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now...,” just waiting for a second chance at new life.
Even, Paul says, those who follow Christ, groan under the weight of a world where sin and death exist. Followers of Jesus, he says, “groan inwardly while we wait for...the redemption of our bodies.”
So long as this world exists, tectonic plates will shift, malevolent people will plot terror, disease will claim innocent victims, and sin-tinged human beings will dismiss the suffering of others as only being what they deserve. All of that will happen because this isn’t heaven.
But here’s the second thing I want to share with you. There is hope. We are not alone. We can have a different future.
I love the opening lines of the New Testament book of Hebrews where the preacher says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son...” God has broken the silence and spoken to us in words and in actions. He did that through Jesus Christ.
That’s what our Bible lesson is all about. It says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things came into being through Him...What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it...And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth...”
On the first Christmas, two-thousand years ago, God didn’t offer explanations as to why every tragedy happens. I'm not sure such explanations would enable us to cope any better with tragic events anyway.
Instead of issuing an explanation, God became one of us to help us see and experience His good will for us, His love for us, His desire for us, His promise that, thank God, the darkness of this present age is not all there is for those who follow Christ.
Jesus, the Word, speaks a message to us, “If you let me, I will light your ways clear to eternity!”
But there’s a problem, as there always is when the human race is involved. Do you remember the movie, The Shawshank Redemption? When Red Redding, the character played by Morgan Freeman, was released from prison, he could hardly adjust to life on “the outside.” In one scene, he approaches the supervisor at the grocery store where he’s a bagger and says, “Boss, permission to go to the rest room.” He doesn’t know what to say when the supervisor, with a kindly voice, tells him that if he needs to go, he should just go.
We’re like Red, you and I. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the darkness and the confines of this world, that it’s hard for us to accept the goodness of God, the depths of His love for us, the eternal dimensions of the life He offers to those who follow Christ, or the permission that He gives to us to dare to be our best selves!
Writer Clark Cothern tells about the Christmas that a squirrel fell down his chimney and into the wood-burning stove in the basement. Cothern says, “I thought that if [the squirrel] knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out. Nothing doing. As I reached in...it began scratching about like a squirrel overdosed on espresso.”
Cothern and his family finally constructed a cardboard box “cage.” There was a hole in one side of it. The squirrel walked in and once inside, Cothern was able to take it outside into a nearby woods.
Later, Cothern says, he thought about how strange it was that before the squirrel was set free, he tried like crazy to bash his way to freedom from his “dark prison” and that the harder he tried, the more pain he caused to himself.
“In the end,” he writes, “he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger--one who could peer into his world--could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged. That is what we need the Lord to do for us.”
And that, according to the Bible, is what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.
But how do we know it’s all true? How, in the face of tragedy like the tsunamis, can we dare to believe such good news?
First, there are logical reasons to believe that Jesus is the Word made flesh Who lights our way to eternity with God. Among them is this inborn sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Where does that come from? And what of our sense that life isn't as it should be? Where does that come from? C. S. Lewis said that throughout human history, across cultures, people have had what he called "good dreams," the notion that there is a better, sinless place once inhabited by the human race and that, people hope, we can live again. The songwriter Randy Stonehill put it this way some twenty years ago: "Like a child who dreams of flying and aches for something more, we hold a dim remembrance of an ancient golden shore."
The religious impulse also seems to be universal among the human race. Anthropologists and archaeologists have noticed that all over the world throughout the span of time, people seem to have this incessant sense that there is Someone bigger than all of us Who deserves our worship. Freud, of course, believed that resulted from an infantile desire for a Father. But when you look at all the other evidence, assuming as it does a single, pervasive human dysfunctionality, that explanation just doesn't make sense.
Something inside of us says that life isn’t meant to end at the grave and that God wants to offer new life to us. Belief in Jesus just makes sense.
There are also good empirical, factual reasons to follow Him. The early documentary evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is, for example, vastly more extensive than similar evidence for such ancient figures as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or many of the Greek philosophers.
But, none of us can ever know the truth about Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, until we dare to experience Him. The great Norwegian Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby, in his book Why I Am a Christian, gave us five things that we can do to experience Jesus.
He suggests that we first of all, read the New Testament. Contrary to some of the psuedo-scholarship referred to in the novel, The DaVinci Code, the New Testament is accurate in its portrayal of Jesus. By reading the New Testament, you will get to know Him. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand. Instead, savor and apply what you do understand.
Next, Hallesby suggests, that we begin to pray. Talk with God honestly about your doubts, fears, hopes, and joys.
Third, he says that while praying, we should make an honest inventory of ourselves, asking God to show us what we need to do to live life as He designed it to be lived.
Fourth, he says, participate in Holy Communion whenever it’s offered. We Christians believe that in the bread and wine, Jesus offers Himself body and blood and embodies His forgiving love to us. In Communion, the Word becomes flesh and lives among us again. How that works, I don't know. One reason we designate Communion and Baptism as sacraments is that they are mysteries. Sacrament is a word that means mystery.
Even if we don't understand how the bread and wine of Holy Communion are also Jesus' body and blood, we have His word on it.
Father Robert Capon, in his book, The Third Peacock, says that Holy Communion is "the hat on the invisible man." We can't see Jesus. But when Jesus' Word and the elements of bread and wine intersect, we're able to taste, see, and experience the presence of Jesus with us.
Finally, Hallesby says, we should fellowship with people who are wholeheartedly convinced that Jesus is the real deal, the Word, the Savior Who lights our ways.
When we allow ourselves to experience Jesus Christ, He will light our way through even the darkest of passages of life, enabling us to cope and inspiring us to love our neighbors--even those across the ocean--so that they too can be given light in their darkness and hope for their futures.
Do you believe that?