Monday, March 12, 2012

Lent 3B

I was in my car when I first heard about the earthquake last March. And to be honest, the magnitude of the catastrophe didn’t register with me until much later. The CBC reporter simply announced the quake and the resultant tsunami as if he was reporting the hockey scores.

It wasn’t until later that when I arrived home and I turned on the news and saw the pictures. The homes and businesses destroyed and the thousands of lives lost penetrated the noise that is usually the nightly news.

And I had questions. Natural questions for any believer, after seeing or experiencing such devastation. I asked “Where is God in all this? How could God allow this to happen? If God is the creator of heaven and earth, if God put the stars in the sky and the earth on its axis, then why wouldn’t God prevent this from happening?”

Those are important questions. And they have led more people away from faith than any other. And it’s easy to see why. Suffering affects everyone. And when we are on the receiving end of life’s cruelty, we ask where God is, or why God didn’t stop this. Or we ask if God even cares. Or we may ultimately ask, if God is who we say God is, are we lying to ourselves? And those are - good if difficult - questions.

That’s why I have little patience for what some people call “the parking lot God.” I think you know what I’m talking about. This is the God who makes life go so smoothly, the God that limits our inconveniences, the God who will find you a great parking spot close to the shop door the morning of Christmas Eve, so you don’t have to walk an extra 50 metres to get to the store.

Have you ever heard people talk about God like that? As if God is in the business of making the little daily actions of life a little less troublesome?

I have. Far too many times. And of course, the “parking lot God” is a metaphor for the God who makes an easy and already carefree life. I’ve heard people give God credit for them getting all green lights on the way to work. Or for helping them pass an exam they haven’t studied for.

But that always makes me bristle. As one who has been present at the deaths of children, and buried other people who were far too young, and have prayed over the graves of too many with their potential still in them, I get a angry when I hear people talk about the “parking lot God.” I want to ask if God either has a time management problem or a lack of priorities. I know what I would prefer God to be doing.

If I had to make a choice for God, I would rather someone walk an extra couple of steps to go shopping than pray with a family who has lost their son in a car accident. I would rather someone sit at a red light than stand over the grave of a dad lost to cancer. I would rather someone flunk an exam rather than turn on the news and learn that thousands of people were killed in a natural disaster.

But, of course, I don’t have to make that choice. Because that’s not how God works. The Parking Lot God doesn’t exist. The parking lot God isn’t the God of the bible.

But the question remains, if God, does in fact, intervene in our lives and in our world, then how do we reconcile an all powerful God with the suffering of a powerless people? Why doesn’t God stop bad things from happening?

That’s the basic question that everyone asks, isn’t it? I’m guessing that question has crossed your mind if not your lips at one point in your life. It’s the first question people of faith asked. In fact, the Book of Job, which is the book of the bible that struggles with this question is the oldest in scripture. Which tells me that people have been asking this question from the very beginning.

From the beginning, people knew there was a God. And they knew that God was good. People knew that God was loving. But they couldn’t understand why a good and loving God would allow awful things to happen to them and to those whom they loved.

That’s when most people throw up their hands and declare in frustration, “It’s a mystery! We can’t know why these things happen. Only God does!” And to a degree they’re right. We can’t know because we are not God. But the trouble with that is that also let’s us and God off the hook too easily. Especially when people have a primal need to know “why.” And we know that the question of God and suffering isn’t a mere intellectual exercise, but a blood and bones human one.

But the apostle Paul might provide an answer. It’s hidden, but it’s there. It’s there when Paul says he “[proclaims] Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

For Paul, Christ crucified isn’t just for our sins and for our forgiveness. Jesus’ death wasn’t just the penalty for those things we’ve done that have hurt God and each other. In Jesus’ death, God revealed in Christ also knew suffering. The God revealed in Jesus shared our suffering. The God revealed in Jesus knows what it is like to be betrayed, humiliated, and tortured. The God revealed in Jesus knows what it is like to lose a child. The God revealed in Jesus knows what it is like to die.

That’s why God weeps over suffering. Any suffering.

And that’s also why Jesus rose from the dead. God raised Jesus from the dead, breathing new life into the world, God has put the world on to a course where all people shall rise with him. God has put a New Creation in place, so that - one day - there will be no more weeping, no more suffering, no more pain. Because by dying Jesus has defeated the power of death and he rose again victorious over the powers that take life from us.

And so now, if we want to see what God is up to, look at the face of suffering, look into the eyes of the lonely stranger, the grieving mother, the dying patient.

If you want to know where God is, look at your own battered and bruised heart. Look at your painful past. Look at the moments of pain and desperation.

It is from those moments of suffering and pain, those moments of the cross, that God knows you most deeply. It is in those moments of grief and sorrow that God draws closest to you.

Because it was at that moment when Jesus hung on the cross in Calvary, that God came closest to us, enduring the worst of human experience, receiving the brunt of human sinfulness, and so that God could create something new and beautiful for us. There cannot be a resurrection without a cross. There cannot be new life unless the old life passes away.

That’s why Paul said that God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. That’s why God chose the lowly and despised to overcome the strong.

And if you want to know where God is, look to those who helped clean and re-build after the earthquake and tsunami. Look to those contributed to relief and aid. Look to to those who brought healing and care to the survivors. Look to those who gave of the treasure and their labour that peoples’ lives might be put back together again. That’s also where God is. That is where God is bringing resurrection from the cross.

So where does that leave us today as we remember the victims of last year’s earthquake? I’m not entirely sure. All I do know is that God was deep in their suffering. All I do know is that God wept that day along with the whole world. And all I know is that - one day - when the final resurrection is announced, that the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise, and all creation shall behold the mercy of our God. All creation will breathe new life. All creation will rest in God’s joy.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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