Isaiah 60.1-6; Luke 2.28-32; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
The devastating floods in the Philippines in the last three weeks remind me that in January 2004 many of our brothers and sisters in the human family experienced the darkest moments of their lives. A powerful earthquake off the coast of Aceh province in Indonesia caused a tsunami wave that hit the coasts of many countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean very, very hard. We are told that more than 200 thousand people lost their lives. Four million people also faced extreme hardship in the aftermath of the wave. In the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, dwellings and centres of economic activity were gutted, while public amenities were either destroyed or rendered ineffectual. At the same time, there were grave concerns for the health of survivors as they face the triple-wammy of depleted food and water supplies, flesh decaying in and near waterways, and a severe lack of medical resources for tending the wounded. It was very heartening, you will recall, to see that both government and non-government relief efforts swung into action immediately. What much of that effort never addressed, however, was the emotional and spiritual devastation at the heart of it all. Can you imagine what it was like for those thousands of families that lost everything—beloved family members, dwellings, livelihoods? Can you imagine the overwhelming power of that grief, as it came upon folk like the wave itself, a veritable tsunami of feeling, colour and sensation that threatened absolutely everything taken for granted up until that point? Maybe, maybe not. Personally, I struggled. I have felt grief, who hasn’t? But how could I possibly assume that my own experience in any way qualified me to understand theirs?
Now, I imagine that for some of you the images on our television screens in 2004, and the more recent images of the floods in the Philippines, give rise to a number of faith questions. Questions like, ‘how can a good and loving God allow such a disaster to occur?’ Some of you will have noted that the 2004 tsunami was an apparently ‘natural’ disaster, and should therefore be distinguished from those disasters which stem directly from the evil will and actions of human beings. ‘The holocaust of the 1940s killed a great many more people that this tsunami,’ you may be saying to yourself, ‘but I can come to terms with that because the holocaust was clearly the result of a specifically human action and will. This tsunami is, however, different. No human being willed it. That puts the blame squarely at the feet of God. If this is God’s world, if God made and sustains it in being, then a so-called ‘natural’ event is really an event that God has either willed or allowed. Which then raises the question, how could a good and loving God will or allow such terrible suffering?’ Some of you will have looked at such questions before, perhaps in philosophy courses at university. I remember examining the question for the first time during a religious studies course in grade 12. Anyone who has done so will know that the question of God’s justice in the face of suffering is not a new one. It has been discussed for at least two and a half thousand years, perhaps more. Still, for all that, an event like the 2004 tsunami brought the rather academic question home to many of us in a very existential way.
I do not propose to rehash what the philosophers have said this morning, although I am happy to talk about it all with any of you, at a time that is more conducive to lengthy discussion (I am, as some of you know already, well-trained in philosophy). For I stand before you today not as a philosopher, but a preacher. And what the preacher is constrained to do is this: to address whatever has occurred within our world with a word from the God we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In order to do that, the preacher must begin not with the God of the philosophers, but the God of Scripture, a God who has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, his life and his words. Furthermore, the preacher is not at liberty to simply choose his or her favourite passage, in order to repeat a comforting mantra for himself or his congregation. A preacher who pursues his or her craft within the faith and practise of the church catholic must work from the Scriptures of the day as they are set in the lectionary. What that very often means is that the word of Scripture contradicts both what the congregation would like to hear and what the preacher would have liked to have said, if the matter were left to his or her own wisdom.
So, as we turn to the Scriptures for today what we discover is this: that God would address the human experience of suffering and disaster with a burning light of hope and a call to have faith. For what each of the Scripture passages we read have in common is this: they are all of them, in their literary contexts, addressed to situations which might be described as dark, dismal and despairing. Isaiah preaches to a people worn out and dispirited by decade upon decade of forced exile in a foreign land, a people who are very often tempted to believe that God does not care for them anymore. To this defeated and weary people he dares to address a word of contradiction: “the Lord is rising upon you,” he says, “to make you bright with glory among the nations. Kings will come to the brightness of your dawning greatness, bringing offerings that befit your greatness.”
Paul, too, offers a word to contradict how the Ephesians actually feel: “You may feel small and insignificant in the world, you may feel as though the most powerful rulers and principalities of this world have it all over you, but this is not the case,” he says. “But you are of great significance,” he says, “for in you the powers who rule the world are being confronted with a mystery they could never have discovered for themselves: that God is not a tribal warlord, who forever supports one faction against another; no, God is one who plans to reconcile even the most common of enemies in one body through the cross of Jesus, across all the terrible enmities and differences that would otherwise keep them apart. In the church,” says Paul, “that dream of reconciliation is already taking place: you are therefore a sign of contradiction in the world. You make it possible for the world to believe that enemies may become friends, and that peace may become a reality.” The people feel small, powerless to change their world. But Paul offers a word to contradict how they feel. All is not as it seems.
And finally, in the passage from Matthew’s gospel, we read about a star of prophecy that appears in the dark winter of the ancient world’s oppression under the Roman emperor and his agent in the province of Judea, Herod the Great. The star rises in the East, and is recognised by both Jewish and Oriental sages as a prophecy about Christ: a child born to be king of the Jews, certainly, but also a light who (like the star) reaches into the darkness of the non-Jewish world as well. In the context of Matthew’s birth stories, in this world torn apart by barbarism and fear, the star is a sign that a redeemer has come who will save not only the Jews, but also the whole world, from its many, many sins. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, says Matthew, and that light is the sign of Emmanuel, that God is with us.
Now, what if we were to believe that these ancient words of prophecy, addressed to these several ancient experiences of despair and hopelessness, were also a word for ourselves today—and especially for everyone affected by tsunami or flood? What if we were to believe that even death and destruction is finally unable to quench such a word? What if we were to believe that God is not in fact mad, or on holiday, or evil, but rather is with us in exactly the same way as God was with us in Christ—through his love, copping the very worst of our humanity in order to show that human beings can be a hell of a lot more human than that, that we can be like Christ himself? Well, if we were to believe such things, and if we were to show our belief by the way that we love, then we would be Christians, imitators of Christ. And that is what we are in fact called to be this Christmas season, the season of tsunamis and floods, as we are called to be in every other week of our lives: Christians who imitate Christ’s love for a world in trouble and despair.
So what the Scriptures give us today is not a philosophical answer to a set of questions about the justice of God, but the possibility of a practical faith that actually changes things. Karl Marx once said that our task is not to understand the world, for that is ultimately impossible, but to change it for the better. Let me suggest, with Isaiah Berlin, that he learnt that from faith. Allow me to conclude, then, with a few comments about how a Christian might respond, practically, to what has occurred this last few weeks in the Philippines, or in January 2004 around the rim of the Indian ocean.
First, a Christian would not pretend to understand the grief of the victims. Their grief is theirs, and our grief is ours. We should not confuse the two, because doing so can prevent us from really hearing what the victims are saying about their experience and their needs. Listen to how many times the journalists and anchor-persons at channels nine and seven project their own vision onto that of the victims they are interviewing, thus making it very difficult for the victims to tell their own stories and state their own needs.
Second, Christians respond not as individuals but as a community. Maggie Thatcher was wrong. There is such a thing as a society, and it began with the church. Christianity is an irreducibly communal faith. We talk together about what is most important. Out of that talk comes decision and a plan of action. Then we do it together. I would welcome a congregation-wide conversation about (a) how we are feeling about what has happened; and (b) how we might respond to what has happened together. Why not meet this week?
Third, Christians love their neighbours as they love themselves. The victims of the tsunami and of the Philippines floods, I suggest, might well be our neighbours. So how might we love them as we love themselves? Well how about this, for starters. At Christmas time you all received Christmas gifts that you really didn’t need, and you possibly bought gifts for others that they really didn’t need. Apparently Australians spent around $22 billion on this strange process of mutual self-enrichment. I would suggest, then, that each of you consider giving at least as much to your neighbour as you received yourself at Christmas. For that would be a truly Christian gift, a gift that is given without thought of repayment. Imagine if every Australian did the same! That would amount to $22 billion worth of disaster relief each year.
Finally, Christian love is not only about the sharing of resources, it is also about the embodied love of the face-to-face. In Christ, God faces us and we face God. In is primarily in the face-to-face of Christ that God is with us. Perhaps we ought to consider, together, the establishment of a more personal relationship with a local community affected by the floods? In 2004 many of us did so with Sri Lankan and Indonesian communities. Perhaps we can now do so via the many Filipino brothers and sisters who worship in our churches.
To conclude, then. When disasters like these hit, we can allow it to overwhelm our faith, hope and love. Or we can see it as an opportunity to exercise, in real and practical ways, our faith, hope and love. What is faith unless there is uncertainly and ambiguity? What is hope, if all that is hoped for has already come to pass? And what is love if no-one is in need of it? Some might see the floods as a sign that God is either dead or wicked. I myself think differently. I see it as an opportunity for people of faith to actually exercise their faith. Perhaps it is only as we do so that the world will once again learn that God is love. For Christianity is unique amongst the major faiths in this: that the word of God can only arrive at its purpose by becoming flesh. The star from the East did not remain a star, you recall, an idea or a prophecy enshrined in the heavens. It waned to give way to a child, a child who grew to become the human face of a loving and suffering God.