Isaiah 60.1-6; Luke
2.28-32; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.