Readings: Hosea 11:1-4, 7-9, Hebrews 11:23-28, Matthew 2:13-18
The question of evil is one we can never really escape. Why do so many bad things happen, why do so many suffer untimely and unavoidable deaths, and how is any of this reconcilable with all we say about God’s love, goodness, and power?
Sometimes, I think, well, it’s an unanswerable question, nothing satisfactory can be said – all we have is God’s presence amidst the pain, God’s promise that one day pain will end, and so rather than seeking an answer let us just attend to the work of justice and mercy and love as best we can with the time we have, letting these questions slide away.
And then you stand in front of your year 3 scripture class, speaking about God’s perfect love, or God’s power in Jesus to heal the sick, and the kids ask you straight up – well why doesn’t God just stop COVID.
Last month, when we were preparing the kidzchurch nativity play, one of the kids asked us if Herod was going to be part of the play. We then got to talking about the chronology of the story and how, despite the massacre, God protects the baby Jesus by warning Joseph, so that was good news… to which she asked the most important question, which was (more or less): why didn’t God also protect the other children?
The question of suffering and evil, demands attention.
Matthew takes pains in his gospel to connect the story of Jesus with the story of Moses. Naturally here, the massacre of the innocents by Herod, recalls to mind the massacre of the Hebrew babies by Pharaoh; the salvation of the infant Jesus mirrors that of the infant Moses, placed among the reeves. Jesus, like Moses, escapes the violent tyranny of a despot, only to return to bring deliverance to the captives.
And so, one strategy to satiate the question from kidzchurch might be to point to this literary and theological tradition, to demonstrate the way Matthew is making a larger, perhaps even symbolic point and not to get hung up on the details of these innocent deaths – they serve to illustrate a greater truth, to point to a confession about Jesus and the world…
Interjection 1… and yet that’s hardly satisfying! Because even if that is true of the innocents of this story in Matthew, it can hardly be said about the many innocents of history who called on the name of the Lord but received no earthly deliverance, what about their suffering?
Absolutely, and to start one might say, look, at least the Bible is honest. The world is cruel and violent, and that cannot be ignored. Indeed, as we explored in the lead up to Christmas, part of what makes Christmas good news, is that Jesus is born into times such as these, into a world of suffering, a world yearning for justice, redemption, peace. If the Bible ignored the reality of evil, if it silenced the lament of those who suffer, if it stifled the questions of the harmed, what good would it serve any of us… instead, the story of God’s loving presence and God’s work of salvation is woven into the story of a violent, tragic, chaotic world. To which, a new voice retorts: [SLIDE]
Interjection 2 … why does the second of those stories (that of worldly violence and injustice) seem to triumph – or at the very least persevere – in spite of the story of God’s love and promise… couldn’t God’s love, God’s power be a little more visible?
Now here, one might point to the question of freedom. Human beings, created – adorned with honour and glory – must have freedom, lest we be simple automatons. We must have the freedom to act. Of course, when given the freedom to act, some see the suffering man on the street and cross the road, and others go to his aid, some achieve levels of power and influence and use that to preserve justice and equality, and others use it to crush all opposition. Human freedom, a gift of a loving God, can, because of sin, be abused and innocents suffer… someday all will be redeemed, including our own hearts and minds, so that this freedom will only be exercised in the way of love, but that day has not come.
Interjection 3… I don’t think that day will ever come because of the many reasons you have already stated above. All persons have the freedom to think but may not have or believe they can act or speak and show that love for one another because of embarrassment, cost, retribution and control by others more powerful than them.”
So if the day can’t come without God, without the eschaton, surely, we might say, enough tears have been shed, surely Rachel has wept enough, why doesn’t God bring about the promised end when every tear shall be wiped away and we shall study war no more? If there is a way out of the brokenness that allows a Herod or a Pharoah to perform unmitigated (and often unpunished) evil, why doesn’t God bring that to fruition in our days… or some century long past? How many, suffering in ways we cannot fathom, have called out for the Lord to bring about the great day of judgment so that their suffering will cease, their redemption will come, their hopes realised?
Interjection 4 … but yes, amidst all that was life – so much life in all its variety, beauty, compassion, tenderness, and touch – amidst even the most vicious of times people fell in love, produced profound art, sang songs together, enjoyed the scent of flowers, the feel of sunshine, the laughter of children, the wonder of community… the great mystery of being alive!
Yes, No one’s life is just one thing, and no one time is either… there are some whose lives were cut off before anything could come after suffering, but others have suffered a great deal and then their life became something else, that brought immeasurable happiness… no one person, from one point in history can make the call to end history; this is why no one, not even the angels, know the appointed time of the day of the Lord.
But here another voice might say…
Of course, we now see how this can go on and on… I mean, that’s the book of Job right, a host of reasons and rebuttals for the existence of suffering. It is not a modern concern, we have never lived without these questions and conversations. And again, I don’t bring this up to valorise the earlier position of “oh well, it’s all been discussed, let’s just focus on the presence and promise of God and get on with whatever good works we can” – though I don’t think that is an unhelpful approach. Instead I bring up the unfinishable nature of this conversation on suffering and life and evil and hope to draw us all in together.
I imagine at different points in this sermon you have identified more with some arguments, less with others, found some convincing, others infuriating – perhaps your feeling on the matter went entirely unsaid. For some the reality of suffering, personal or not, becomes too much to hold within the reality of God and so God can no longer be comprehended as active… for others the reality of suffering draws them closer to God… for many it is a bit of both.
To return to today’s readings, what might each of these offer us as we take up this ongoing conversation, as we consider what it means to be the church in between the reality of suffering and the promise and presence of God?
From the letter of Hebrews, we are encouraged by the example of the parents of Moses and the midwives; who were not afraid of Pharoah, and risked everything to preserve life. We are encouraged to follow the example of Moses, who chose the ill-treatment of his people rather than align with the mighty and enjoy the transitory pleasures of sin. In the face of the world’s pain, we, as Christians, are encouraged to stand in solidarity with the suffering, to risk our own comfort for justice, to choose love over fear, never giving way to the nihilism of evil, but the rewards (earthly and otherwise) that come from faithful living.
From the Gospel we are reminded that Rachel refused to be consoled, for her children are no more. We do not need to rush to silver linings, stifle grief, explain away tragedy… we do not need to assert a meaning in everything, nor insist that what people mean for evil God turns to good. If the church cannot be a place for the inconsolable grief at the violence and injustice of our world, then it is not ready to receive Emmanuel, who though he held the power of resurrection, wept for his friend Lazarus, lying in a tomb.
From the prophet Hosea we are drawn back to the steadfast, unwavering love of God. Despite the ways Israel contributed to their own calamity, God does not abandon them in their suffering. Instead, God recalls the relationship, as one of loving parent and child – God is the One who nursed Israel and taught them to walk. Despite human arrogance and apathy, God speaks,
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
My heart recoils within me,
My compassion grows altogether warm.
And here’s the vital bit, God says:
For I am God and not a mortal
(Unlike we who are so quick to anger and forget, so ready to hold grudges, to let our love diminish in the face of mistreatment (understandably of course), God is not like us… God isn’t a mortal whose love is conditional and finite, but God is love, God is love, The Holy One in our midst, who will not come in wrath).
Whether or not, after everything else, this is enough, this is what we are promised. God loves us and cannot give up on us. God loves us and lives among us amidst the horror, fragility, and violence of our world, in order to confront that which binds us. And God has never left us without faithful examples – be they midwives, prophets, saints, or martyrs –who exemplify and inspire us to live lives that neither ignore or accept the suffering and injustice of our world, but confront it – even at great personal cost – in the faith that with God, life and love will not be vanquished.
Image: Salvador Dali, Out of Egypt I have Called My Son (1967)
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.