Sunday Message for 24 March 2019 (3rd Sunday of Lent): “Stuff Happens”

Stuff happens. Terrible things occur all the time and the crucial question is what lay behind such tragedies. In searching for answers, people have developed an insatiable appetite for causes and explanations.

For better or for worse, there’s no single, satisfying answer to suffering. The human condition is fraught with peril and punishment, calamity and consequences. Disease, frustration, persecution and all sorts of chronic pains haunt humanity.

It’s notoriously difficult to try and explain why bad things happen. Theologians use the term “theodicy” when referring to a study of the causes and concept of suffering. One of the vexing problems is that bad things don’t necessarily happen only to bad people; bad things also happen to innocent people. Wanton destruction seems to occur randomly, or in a way that makes it tempting to assign responsibility. Skeptics of religion point to the way in which suffering counts against the existence of an almighty, all-powerful and loving God. Critics have valid points here, and we need to be humble and admit that satisfactory answers to suffering don’t come easy if at all.

Jesus addressed the topic of bad things happening when he discussed two incidents (Luke 13:1-9): Pilate’s persecution of Jews and the collapse of the Siloam tower. In the first instance, the Roman Governor Pilate had Galileans killed, likely as a response to rebels’ threat against imperial authority. This incident suggests that some of the bad things that happen are done for an explicit purpose and a single person or group of people are responsible.

As to the Galilean worshippers that Pilate ordered murdered, Jesus said that they were not being punished. It is tempting to think that God is always judging people. This tendency is supported in the Old Testament, which gushes blood from a punishing God who hurls everything from flood and plagues to diseases and the swords of enemies. It is not wrong to question whether such tales are historical facts or fanciful myths. We needn’t be afraid to look to the heavens and ask how or why a loving God could simultaneously create and destroy the universe.

In the calamity of the collapsed Siloam tower, the disaster occurred for no apparent reason and with no apparent human cause. In every day talk such disasters are often referred to as “acts of God.” Such a designation is seldom helpful because it encourages a view that God seeks to hurt people. The Old Testament is filled with harsh judgments and it is easy to walk away and dismiss the entire Judeo-Christian religion based on how God acted in the Old Testament. The challenge is to remain open to a different God, the one who in the New Testament emphasizes love about all else.

Thankfully, Jesus set things in a proper perspective when it came to assigning blame to people and their fate: “. . . 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 just as they did” (Luke 13:2-3). Jesus said this in likely response to those who thought the Tower of Siloam victims were being punished by an angry and vindictive God. Jesus was saying that sometimes bad things happen for reasons that may never be known.

Whether a person dies at a ripe old age or is stricken in their youth by rulers or faulty towers, death must come. Resist the temptation to blame the victims. The loving God revealed by Jesus is not here to condemn. The emphasis is not on punishing people as it is on helping them grasp the redemption that God offers. Life isn’t so much about assigning blame as it is about rescuing people before they experience the greater tragedy of spiritual death.

Death is inevitable but everyone can still choose how to interpret what happens to them. You can’t control other peoples’ decisions. You can’t control weather or natural disasters, but you can decide to better manage your attitudes and action. Everyone succumbs to death but the crucial difference is that no one need die spiritually. Choosing spiritual life lessens the tragedy of an eventual physical death. The body must return to ashes, but the soul is destined for redemption.

The universe is designed to operate in a certain manner and a person can’t selfishly change the way it works simply to make life an easy breeze. Despite a harsh universe, each person can accomplish a faith-filled journey of joy, resulting from a decision to follow God. Perishing in a collapsed Siloam tower or being tortured by an evil ruler must not blind people to the power of love. The universe claims victims every moment but despite physical death no one need die spiritually.

Suffice to say that all life on earth is subject to widely varying circumstances. It’s helpful for a positive faith life to perceive God more as rescuer than punisher. Suffering is often due to direct and obvious consequences of someone’s actions or the interplay of laws of nature. Nonetheless, God’s faithful are cautioned against definitive accusations of guilt. Bad things happen, but blessings also occur which can more than compensate for losses.

God’s love, mercy and grace can keep you going. It’s not helpful to dismiss or ignore the problem of suffering, but you need not dwell on it or nurse a grudge against God because of what has happened against yourself or others. A real test is your willingness not to abandon love and truth even when it seems that the world or even God have abandoned you. Keep the faith and in so doing you will reap God’s life-sustaining redemption.   –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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