During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”
This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).
But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:
First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.
Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.
Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.
God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.
As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.
May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.
I preached this message on 1 December 2019, the first Sunday in Advent, but did not have a chance at that time to publish it. I thought today would be a good day to post it, given that so many people in South Africa and globally are staying away from church to promote physical distancing during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In the recording, I apply the message to Aids and violence against women and against children. But in this blog, I apply it to the Coronavirus.
This message draws on Matthew 24:36-44, where Jesus speaks about That Day when he will return – one day still in the future (as of writing this blog!). Jesus’ teaching in his passage tells us two main things:
First, God does not want us to know when he will return again.
Indeed, he explains that NO-ONE knows. Not even the angels. Not even the Son of Man! If God wanted us to know, God would have told us. Or at very least, God would have told the Son. This means for us:
We need to stop worrying about when he is going to come back and should stop believing people who think they’ve worked out the date.
We need to believe and accept that Jesus WILL return. One day, perhaps not in our lifetime, or perhaps tonight, he will return.
Second, Jesus’ return will be unexpected.
Whenever it is that he returns, we will be caught off guard. Jesus uses the story of Noah and the flood as an example – in those days, life was just going on as usual. There were no signs to warn anyone of the flood, until the day the flood started – then it came unexpectedly. This means for us:
“Therefore, keep watch” – stay awake, be alert – so that when Jesus comes, we will awake to see him.
And keep watch not for the signs, but rather for Jesus himself. It is for Jesus we need to keep a lookout.
During this time of the Coronavirus – as we watch the death toll rise by the hundreds day by day, and as we experience countries closing borders, hear of people stopping work, see the empty streets – we may think that these are the signs of the end times.
But no! Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 clearly indicates that because we might think these are the signs, he will not be coming back now. If we are expecting him to return, he is not returning.
There are many things we may learn from Coronavirus, but it is not about the End Times. Rather, it is about the present times. What may we learn?
We may learn how reversable the negative impact of humanity on the environment might be.
We may learn how important human relationships are, while we have to keep away from each other.
We may recognise the vulnerability of certain groups of people, such as those in precarious employment, older persons and single parents.
We may learn that we are not really in control of the planet and that nature can, if it wants, profoundly disrupt human society.
These are not lessons for the End Times. Rather, they are lessons for the present time and for life after the Coronavirus. Just imagine how stupid we’d have to be to exit the Coronavirus crisis and revert to our former ways of living. How dumb would be? I don’t believe God has sent this virus to punish or teach us. But I do believe God desires us to learn something important from this virus.
The summary of this message:
Live your life in such a way that, when you are surprised by Christ’s return, you will be ready for him!
Lent, which kicks off on Ash Wednesday (26 February this year), is usually associated with fasting, and this, together with prayer and giving to the needy, is the topic of the first half of Matthew 6 (part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). In this passage Jesus differentiates between fasting that is done for public approval and fasting that is done in secret and for God. It is this latter fasting (and prayer and giving to others) that Jesus esteems. It is this fasting, done in secret, that Jesus says “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” And we know that this reward is eternal, in heaven, as this is where Jesus encourages us to store up our treasures.
For those of you who are fasting during this Lent, I encourage you to fast for yourself and for God, and keep your fasting secret and hidden. It is in this fast of the heart that we allow ourselves to experience discomfort and difficulty. And this reminds us of the discomfort and difficulty Jesus faced as he journeyed towards the cross.
(This message was preached at Irene Homes, a residential care facility for women with intellectual disabilities. They are an engaging and participating congregation. I was moving around a bit, so the volume varies as I move away from the recorder. Also, at about 13 minutes, we spent a few minutes passing out battery-operated candles; I’ve edited this out, which explains the slight jump a few second after 13 minutes.)
He states this as a present fact – you are, not you should be or you will be or you ought to be or one day you might be. No! He states is as Truth: You are! In our lived experience, however, we’re probably often not salt and light. So, Jesus here appears to be declaring a Truth that is to come as a present reality, much as he does when he says “The Kingdom of God is here”. It is a ‘now, but not quite yet’ statement. A prophetic Word, that encourages us to live up to the image Christ already has about us.
What does it mean to be salt and light?
Salt has many uses (primarily flavouring and preserving), but Jesus emphasises the saltiness of salt. If I presented a white powder to you that did not taste salty, you’d be reluctant to call it ‘salt’. Saltiness is the essential characteristic of salt; without saltiness, salt is not salt. So what are the essential characteristics of a follower of Christ, without which we can hardly call ourselves Christians? The most immediate answer is the qualities Jesus has just presented in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), which open the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which speak about being poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking and being persecuted because of being righteous. These qualities of Christian living – love, mercy, inclusivity, justice, reconciliation – are the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower. They are the saltiness of a Christian.
Light also has many uses, but Jesus emphasises that light enables things to be seen. It is not the essential characteristic of light he highlights, but rather the purpose to which it is put, viz. so that people can see us putting into practice these distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower, so that people will praise God in heaven. He thus speaks about how silly it would be to place a light under a bowl, or to put it in a corner on the ground rather than up on a stand. When we do that, you can’t see the light; it is wasted.
When Jesus says, “You are the salt/light”, he uses a plural ‘you’, thus “You all…” or “Y’all”. Our individual distinctive qualities and our individual light may be insufficient to be seen from far or to make much impact. But our collective qualities and our collective light, like a city on a hill with many lights burning from many windows, can be seen from far and make a real difference in the world.
Just imagine if every Christian truly put into practice the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower set out in the Beatitudes! What a remarkable place the world would be!!
The ladies of Irene Homes being the light of the world!
Are you wise or foolish?
Are you smart or stupid?
Are you sensible or a moron?
These are the questions Jesus implicitly asks of his followers in Matthew 7:24-27:
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise woman who built her house on the rock.25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
This passage draws to a close Jesus’ lengthy Sermon on the Mount, which covers the whole of chapters 5, 6 and 7 in Matthew’s version of the Gospel. In his sermon, Jesus covers a wide range of topics about ethical and Godly living in the world, speaking to the hidden inner thoughts of our hearts, to the public actions we display to the world and to the prayers that we offer to God. It is, arguably, a crucial distillation of Jesus’ wisdom teaching.
And at the end of this long sermon, he says (in effect), “All of you who have heard my words? Don’t think that merely hearing them makes you wise or smart or prudent or sensible or thoughtful. No! In fact, you are foolish, stupid or a moron if you hear what I’ve said and don’t act on it. To be wise, is to put what I have said into practice.”
(At this service, we were observing Education Sunday, and after the service people were also invited to sign up to participate in the life of the church – music, tea, men’s fellowship, etc. So, I spend some time applying this point that Jesus makes to those of us who are educators and to all Christians who attend church.)
In short, don’t be stupid!
Personal note: This year year marks my 30th year as a social worker, my 13th year as a university educator, my 3rd year as an Anglican clergy person and my 13th real birthday (I was born on 29 February). A year of threes! I give thanks to God for all of the opportunities God has given me to do God’s work in the world through various intersecting ministries. It has been an amazing journey so far, and I look forward the years ahead. I am at your service, Lord.
This message is a call for us to see and look at Jesus, the Lamb of God. And to point him out others. This was the mission of John the Baptist, and it as much ours today.
We are still in the period of Epiphany, where we focus on the manifestation or revealing of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God’s Chosen One. Our reading for this Sunday is John 1:29-37:
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One [or Son].”
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
Bruner, who has written a wonderful (1200 page) commentary on John, translates some of these verses differently, emphasising the use of present and continuous tenses in the original Greek, notably:
29 The next day John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look! The Lamb of the God, the One who is taking away the sin of the world!
36 And John looked intently at Jesus as Jesus is walking by and he says, “Look! The Lamb of God!”
I focus on these two verses in this message, as I have felt God speaking to me particularly insistently this week about verse 29. And I make five points:
John sees Jesus coming and walking towards him. Jesus is always coming towards us, even if we are moving away from him. His trajectory is always in our direction.
Look! John twice says, “Look!”. I like Bruner’s addition of the exclamation mark, as it emphasises that this is a call, an imperative. John wants us to stop drifting through life blindly. Or from being so focused on other things that we don’t notice Christ coming towards us. So he calls out, in excitement, perhaps even in alarm, “Look! Look out!”
Jesus is taking away the sin of the world. This is a pretty packed little sentence:
John speaks about ‘sin‘, not ‘sins’. It is the condition of being sinful that Jesus takes away, rather than the individual sinful acts that we do.
John says that Jesus ‘is taking‘, emphasising that this is a continuous activity, that has already begun, is presently happening and will continue to happen in the future. While Jesus’ death on and resurrection from the cross are surely pivotal in salvation, God has been saving humanity through the Son from the time of the fall, throughout the First Testament, through Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry, through his death, resurrection and ascension, by the outpouring of Holy Spirit, and continuing to today and into the future. The Son of God has been and continues to be in the business of taking away sin.
It is the sin ‘of the world‘ (the ‘cosmos’) that Jesus takes away, not just the sin of those who repent, those who believe, those who are members of certain churches or religions, those who adhere to certain church rules or doctrine. Scripture abounds with verses that reinforce that salvation is for and of the whole world (the cosmos). It is a radical inclusion of the entire created order – the cosmos!
Salvation is thus possible for all, but we have to take hold of it. That’s why John keeps saying, “Look!”, and why we are told in verse 37 that John’s disciples leave John to follow Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. In the Eucharist or Mass, we celebrate and re-member this great work of God the Son.
And finally, we, like John and his disciples, and like Jesus’ disciples (about whose calling we learn in the rest of John 1), are invited to continue John’s ministry of pointing people to Jesus. We remind people that Christ is coming towards them. We call them to ‘Look!’ We point them not to our denomination, our pastors, our worship, ourselves; but towards Christ himself. And we show through our lives, our inclusivity, our radical love and our walking towards others that he is indeed taking away the sins of the world .
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually takes place on 6 January tomorrow). ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. Something is revealed and made known to us. What is this thing? Let me answer in thee steps.
1. Jesus is the light
Our key reading for today, from Matthew 2:1-12, about the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus, refers repeatedly to the star that the Magi see, interpret and follow. It is a light that they see that reveals the coming of a King, a saviour, and the follow it:
1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
9-10 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
John 1:1-9 tells a similar story about John’s cosmology of Christ as the incarnate light:
1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The lightshines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6-9 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
The prophecies of old also speak to the coming of light into the world, as we see in Isaiah 9:2:
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Simeon, a righteous, devout and Spirit-filled man of God, prophesies similarly over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for a blessing, in Luke 2:29-32:
30-32 “For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
While all of these references to the light refer to Jesus as the light, Jesus himself refers to us as the light, in Matthew 4:14-16:
14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
So, the narrative of Jesus being the Light is compelling. But what does it mean? What is he the light of?
2. Jesus is the light of God
Central to our (Western Church, i.e., Protestant and Catholic) understanding of the Epiphany, is that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, as the Anointed One, as the Messiah, as God in the flesh. This leads us to the concept of the incarnation, which is foundational to everything we understand of Christ and his work among us. (Click here to listen to a previous message I’ve preached on the incarnation or hereand hereto read reflections on the incarnation and the kenotic U.) The incarnation is the idea that God emptied God’s self, pouring himself out to become smaller and smaller, more and more finite and situated, into a single cell, into an embryo.
For our friends in the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, Epiphany focuses not on the Magi but on the Baptism of Christ, where the revelation is not just about Christ, but about the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in essence, Epiphany lead us to a manifestation of the Triune God, made visible in the light that Jesus Christ brings into the darkest of places.
(If you are listening to this message, you might like to watch this video during this section of my sermon. It was playing on the screen while I presented it. Be patient – it takes several seconds before you’ll see anything. And be at peace – it was designed to be a subtle visual cue in the background, not a wildly exciting video.)
So, who is this light for?
3. Jesus is the light of the world
The importance of the Magi is that they were not Jews. They came from a long way away (for those days) – Persia (now Iran) or Yemen (where the ingredients for Frankincense and Myrrh are produced and a conduit of gold from Africa to the Middle East). Wherever they came from, their symbolic significance is that they were Gentiles, and thus represent everyone else who is not part of the ‘inner circle’.
In Jesus time, and even in the early church, this meant those who were not Jewish. The fact that Gentiles were among the first to worship Jesus (let’s not forget the shepherds, who represent rural, blue collar workers) indicates that the Gospel is for them also.
Today this means that the Gospel is for the LGBTQI+ community, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. For the smart and not so smart. For the morally good and for the morally bad. For young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For everyone. No person is excluded from the great project of God to redeem humanity, as we read in many passages of the Bible, e.g.,
God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ,to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations. (Luke 2:30-31)