As we learn more about the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting, we struggle with the contrast between the vulnerability of the worshippers and the armament of the shooter who murdered so many. One can’t help ask the age-old question: Where is God? It is a question even Jesus asked on the cross.
Many churches around the world will read the gospel passage from Luke 13:1-9 this Sunday which puzzles over this same question. Where is God in the middle of pain and suffering? Are the sufferings we endure retribution for our bad deeds, our sins? If not, what kind of God lets the innocent suffer or be slaughtered at the hands of Pilate or gunned down in a mosque?
Jesus answers the first question. He says, no, tribulations and suffering are not God’s way of punishing us. Frustratingly, we have no answer for the second question. However, Jesus does point out that when we make choices that separate us from God, suffering is an inevitable consequence. As a Pulpit Fiction podcast puts it: “Suffering is not evidence of sinfulness but sinfulness will lead to suffering.” (Pulpit Fiction 3:16; Lent 3C)
In fact, the little story of the fig tree reveals that God is far more merciful than we can ever imagine. Many of us, if we are truthful, are uncomfortable with how recklessly forgiving God is, at least when it is offered to anyone other than ourselves.
This is a day to lament fear:
- for young men who get lured into greater degrees of hate because of the fear of seeing the dark hollowness of their souls;
- for leaders who use these moments of fear for political gain to feed mindless populism;
- for Muslim children and all children of persecuted peoples, who wake at night in fear and wonder why they and their families are hated;
- for families that fear an empty future without those they love;
- for people of faith who fight back wave after wave of fear with persistent and reckless love.
“Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give you praise.” Psalm 63
LUKE 13:1-9 At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or 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; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
ISAIAH 55:1-9 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
PSALM 63:1-8 O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water. Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give you praise. So will I bless you as long as I live and lift up my hands in your name. My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips, When I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the night watches. For you have been my helper, and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice. My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.
1 CORINTHIANS 10:1-13I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.