Monday, March 14, 2011

Disaters and Theology, Part 2

Monday after the first Sunday in Lent (Invocavit)
March 14, 2011

The Lord be with you

The newspapers are full of yet another disaster, this one in Japan. There was a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami. The devastation was immense. This once again brings disasters to the front of our minds and so I thought I’d do a “part 2” to the Disasters and Theology post I put up last month.

There are those who instantly think that any disaster that strikes a person is God’s just retribution for some sin the individual (or city, or nation) has committed. The Bible seems to indicate differently.

Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). In spite of this, in very short order his property was stolen by raiders and his servants slaughter by them, followed by a great wind that knocked down the house his children were in, killing them all. Both natural and man-made calamities devastated his life. God’s evaluation of Job, both before and after these disasters, is the same, Job is a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil (Job 1:8; 2:3). Job is further afflicted with some kind of loathsome disease. Why did these disasters befall Job? Did he bring them on himself? The answer is clearly no. In fact, God is so impressed with Job that God even brags about him to Satan. Wouldn’t it be great if God could brag about us?

In the book of Genesis, Joseph comes front and center beginning with chapter 37. He is 17 years old, a good boy who obeys his Father and tells the truth. This earns the enmity of his older brothers, who first plot to kill him and then, instead, decide to sell him into slavery. He first works as a slave in Potiphar’s house. Things are going okay for him when the wife of Potiphar tries to seduce him. Joseph, holding fast to his integrity, refuses. The result is that she accuses him of trying to rape her and Joseph is thrown into jail. This period of time lasted years. Throughout the account it is clear from the biblical record that Joseph did not do anything to merit or deserve this mistreatment.

The prophet Elijah, due to his faithfulness to the Lord, spent three years in exile. After the exile he has a major confrontation with the prophets of Baal. God demonstrates his superiority to the idol. The thanks he gets is death threats from the queen Jezebel, and running for his life. (1 Kings 17-19). Steven was a faithful believer and deacon of the early Church. He was stoned to death (Acts 7).

The list could go on. Calamities, whether natural or man-made, have never been an automatic mark of God’s disapproval. We are not to conclude from this, however, that God has abdicated from the world. Quite the opposite is the case.

God is working something good for his kingdom out of the messes we get into. Joseph tells his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. … God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Genesis 45:5, 7-8). In Genesis 50 Joseph tells his brothers “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (20). Clearly Scriptures depict God as involved in Joseph’s calamities, working things towards his goal.

Many other examples could be cited. Jacob deceives his father and steals his older brother Esau’s blessing. This treachery left him fleeing for his life. In exile for 21 years, he meets and marries Rachel, the ancestor of Jesus. Moses murdered an Egyptian, and flees for his life to Midian (Exodus 2:11-22). In exile he learns about survival in the wilderness, lessons that will be vital in keeping Israel alive as they wander for forty years in the same wilderness. It was while in exile that Moses first came to Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:1), the very place Israel would camp, receive the Ten Commandments, and build the tabernacle. A fierce persecution of the Church began in Jerusalem, leading to the spread of the Gospel beyond that ancient city (Acts 8:1). Paul is arrested (Acts 21) which leads to him sharing Christ before kings and governors, and even Caesar.

Of course the greatest example of God working through calamity to further his kingdom is the cross of Christ. No greater miscarriage of justice has ever occurred, yet through that dark event God worked redemption for humanity.

The work of Christ is not adequately considered when people are claiming God is punishing people for their sins by the calamities in their lives. Probably without realizing it, they are claiming that Christ’s work on the cross was insufficient.

In speaking of the “Suffering Servant,” that is, of Jesus, Isaiah wrote “Surely he had borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6). St. Paul wrote of Jesus to the Corinthians, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In Romans Paul wrote that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses” (5:25). The list of such passages could be greatly multiplied. They are all commentaries on what Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Our sins were all paid for on the cross. Jesus finished the job. Every time someone says God is punishing someone for their sins, they are saying Jesus didn’t get the job done. If you want to see God’s punishment for your sins, or the sins of anyone, do not look to calamities but to the cross.

So, if a disaster is not God’s direct punishment for some sin, and yet God does remain involved with his creation, what exactly are we to think about them?

In my last post I referred to how all calamities are general calls to a life of repentance. This is true whether or not the calamity happens to us personally. I also wrote of how all calamities are a call for the Church (that is, you and I) to reach out with the mercy of God.

A third point I made was how calamities are simply the result of living in a fallen world. This is reflected in earthquakes and the like. There is also another aspect to this, a personal one. If we lead a sexually immoral life we should not be surprised that our marriage falls apart and we die of some loathsome disease. God did not directly intervene to wreak your marriage of give you the disease. You did it to yourself. Your sinfulness produced these results. Blaming God is not the answer. Repentance is.

The last point I wish to make relates to the stories like that of Joseph referred to earlier. Not only was the hardships he endured not due to his sin, but God was actually involved in them. In part God was ensuring that the hardships never drove Joseph to the point of despair. Joseph never abandoned his faith. But God was also using Joseph’s calamities to further God’s plan. In this case it was to preserve the Israelite nation so that the promise made to Abraham would not be lost. This promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus.

Paul summarizes this whole theme in Romans 8:28: “For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Now that is a bold statement, especially for a man who suffered all kinds of abuse for the sake of Christ. Paul, though, can use his sufferings as a vindication of his faithfulness (Job should be able to relate to that). In defending himself against the accusations of false teachers, his tribulations are his badge of Divine approval. He wrote, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often with out food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). Of course, eventually, Paul will pay the ultimate price for following Christ with a martyr’s death. Paul, though, would assure us that in all these calamities God was indeed working all things together for good.

With 2,000 years of hindsight, we are able to see all the good (or at least much of the good) that God accomplished through Paul. That, though, is a perspective Paul did not have. For him, the statement that God was working all things together for good for those who are called according to Christ’s purpose was a statement of faith.

When considering what God might be working through earthquakes, down turned economies, illnesses, or whatever, we may be able to discern an answer that is personally satisfying. That possible answer may or may not be accurate. We will not know until we reach glory.

Through Isaiah God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Paul put it this way: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).

Passages like these indicate that we will never have a perfect knowledge of God’s actions in this world. We know only in part in this life. Therefore all calamities are also a call to faith. We are to trust that, even when we do not see it, God is still working all things together for the good of those who love the Lord, who are called according to his purpose. We trust that the Lord is our Shepherd, even when we walk through the valley of death. Disasters, hard times, etc., should teach all to trust in Jesus.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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