Sermon for 02-21-10: “Does God Love Haiti? Part 1”

February 24, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 13:1-5

Last month, after tens of thousands of people died in the massive Haiti earthquake, Rev. Pat Robertson drew very unfavorable attention of the world when he said that this natural disaster was the result of a deal that the people of Haiti made with the devil in order to end their enslavement to the French 200 years ago. They were reaping what they sowed, in other words.

His statement raised many questions: Why would the devil be interested in ending slavery? If God were doling out punishment for the sins of Haiti, why not start with the French, who enslaved the Haitians to begin with? I have more information on my blog about this, but suffice it to say that the very idea of a “deal with the devil” doesn’t fit with our best theological understanding of how demonic forces work in the world.

But the biggest problem is the question of God’s complicity in the earthquake. Does God work in this way? Does God indiscriminately kill tens of thousands of people—including babies nursing at their mothers’ breast—and for what crime? Meanwhile, by this reasoning God sees fit to spare the lives of so many people who are nothing less than wicked. Would that an earthquake had struck Branau, Austria, in April of 1889 and spared the world Hitler! Would that God eliminated a thousand other genocidal killers, tyrants, and power-mad dictators, whose spectacular sins account for millions of deaths! Why pick on people who are nothing more than the poorest, most defenseless, and least threatening in the Western Hemisphere?

At the very least, before we apply a coat of theological varnish and try to scrub the problem away, can we at least concede that it feels deeply unjust, deeply unloving—and cruel? It feels deeply out of character for a God who is not merely all-powerful and all-knowing, but all-loving—so much so that 1 John tells us that God is love, Love itself. In other words, the very heart of God’s nature and character is love. At our best, human love is only a distorted reflection of the Love that is God. Whatever else we say about God—that he’s just, that he’s sovereign, that he’s holy—let’s please start with love. Our Father Almighty, Love Divine, all loves excelling, does not will anything that is not perfectly loving. By the way, that means that even when God disciplines us, God does so out of love. When we say, “God is good all the time; and all the time God is good,” we Christians really mean it.

It isn’t just the Pat Robertsons of the world who say things about God that unintentionally raise these same troubling questions. After the Robertson statement, I was reminded of that earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, which struck during the World Series between the Giants and the A’s. The morning after the quake, I was listening to a well-meaning Christian radio DJ who told his listeners that he had friends in the Bay Area, and he was rightfully relieved that they weren’t injured or killed. But he went further than that. He said, “I just want to thank God that they’re O.K.” Even as a 19 year old believer, I thought, “Hold on a minute! I don’t know if that’s a properly Christian response.” It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that you don’t get to thank God for “saving” your friends’ lives unless you’re willing to blame God for killing and injuring many others.

As a pastor, I also bristle inside when I hear people trying to make sense of suffering, pain, and death by saying, “Everything happens for a reason”—as if God not only permits but actively causes evil to happen, like earthquakes and tsunamis, concentration camps and genocide—to fit into God’s overall plan. It’s as if they’ve reinterpreted Paul’s words in Romans 8:28, “For in all things God works for the good” to mean, “All things are really good, if only we could see things from God’s perspective.” I’m aware that some Christians see no difference between what God actively wills and what God allows, so that everything that happens is automatically God’s will. But I strongly reject that idea, as does most of 2,000 years of Christian tradition.

Consider Jesus himself. Jesus Christ is the sworn enemy of evil, suffering, and death. They are contrary to the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. As one contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian said of Jesus: “sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Consider today’s scripture: Jesus and his followers were obviously discussing the news of the day. Pilate, the brutal and oppressive Roman governor, had recently murdered some of Jesus’ countrymen from Galilee when they were in the Temple in Jerusalem offering sacrifices. He likely suspected them of engaging in treasonous activity. Jesus’ followers, in a way similar to Pat Robertson, interpreted these men’s death as a sign of God’s judgment against them. Jesus rejects that interpretation out of hand: “He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?’”—by implication, if you think that their death was God’s judgment against them, why do you suppose God has spared you? Similarly, Jesus also mentions some freak accident in which a tower collapsed on some people in Jerusalem—was it because of their sin? No, Jesus says. When we start attributing people’s deaths to God’s judgment, we risk being incredibly self-righteous. If God were in the business of exacting retribution in this way, who would be spared? “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”[2]

Events like Haiti don’t happen because God is punishing people for sin. It may help to remind ourselves of the story of Jonah. Jonah resisted God’s call to preach God’s judgment against the wicked Ninevites—if you recall, that’s when he got into that mess with the big fish—not because he didn’t want to see the Ninevites suffer, but because he did. He knew, despite what God told him to say, that God was going to show mercy. Why does God have to be so full of mercy and compassion? True to form, after God relents from punishing Nineveh, Jonah tells God, “That’s why I ran away to Tarshish to begin with! Because I just knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[3]

And why is God like this? Because God is far more loving than we are—far more than we can imagine. And God desires to save us, not destroy us. I’m reminded also of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Remember the older brother? His sin wasn’t simply that he couldn’t forgive his younger brother; it was also his seething resentment over the fact that his father could!

So we’re back where we began: why? Why do these terrible and tragic things happen? Jesus doesn’t say. When given this perfect opportunity to interpret suffering and death and answer all of our difficult and nagging questions, Jesus fails to do so. Maybe so much of it is beyond our comprehension, as finite trying to understand the infinite. Given that, whatever we say about suffering in our world, we should be very humble. I’m not going to solve the problem of suffering… Larisa is going to do that next week! That’s why she’s going last. But here are some things to think about.

I like what one theologian said[4] about natural evil that we see in the world, like earthquakes. I’m going to paraphrase an analogy he uses. He said that most of the time we like gravity. We want to live in a predictable world. We want to know for certain when we get out of bed in the morning our feet will touch the ground. Most of the time, gravity works out well for us. Except when through the consequences of our own free action we find ourselves on the wrong side of a boulder hurtling toward us. Then we want God to make an exception for us. “In this case, God, please prevent gravity from working!” If God were in the business of granting these exceptions routinely to God’s beloved children—constantly intervening with miracles everywhere—before long, the world would no longer be a predictable and stable place. Far from having our feet touch the ground, we might float away. And it is true that the same physical forces that bring us beautiful, mild, sunny spring days, are the same forces that wreak havoc when a tornado strikes a trailer park.

I am willing to say that at least some kind of so-called natural evil is a necessary consequence of living in a stable, predictable world—and of living in a free, but sin-stricken, world. If God were constantly working miracles to protect us from ourselves and counteract our own harmful choices, then human freedom would lose all meaning. And freedom is a very good thing, apart from which love itself would have no meaning. It’s worth emphasizing that most of the time in most places, God has blessed us with a world that does a very nice job of supporting human life. These are not helpful or compassionate words to say to people whose loved ones die in natural disasters or are victims of violence, but there is an appropriate time to be tough-minded and unsentimental, as Jesus is in today’s scripture, and that time is now.

Because, believe me, skeptics and atheists who complain about Christianity whenever a disaster strikes—as they have in the past month—are very quick to resort to sentimentality and emotional appeals. They talk about the scale of suffering: who can be naive enough to believe in God when 100,000 people die in Haiti, when 400,000 die in the Indian Ocean tsunami? As if, what? It’s O.K. when two or three to die in a trailer park after a tornado touches down? Give me a break! C.S. Lewis, in his profoundly good book The Problem of Pain, writes about what skeptics referred to in his day as the “unimaginable sum of human misery”—as if you can take the pain of 100,000 dying Haitians, add it all up, and make a case against God. We hear skeptics in our day complain about believing in God who created a “world of so much suffering.”

Lewis writes, “There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it.” In other words, no one feels the pain of 100,000 people suffering. Each person can only suffer their own personal pain, and that pain, as terrible as it is, is “all the suffering that there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.”[5] Perhaps the pain and suffering of that one person is too much, but the good news is that God will redeem it through Jesus Christ. We believe, based on Jesus’ resurrection, that the scales of justice will be balanced, if not in this world then in the world to come. If that seems like a cheap and easy answer—that we have to resort to heaven and resurrection—I don’t know what else to say. We’ve known from the beginning, since Genesis chapter 3, that this world is not as it should be, that God wants to save it, and the overarching story of the whole Bible is of God’s rescue plan, which culminates in Revelation 21 in a new heaven and new earth. There is no other gospel.

Meanwhile, those righteously indignant bystanders who complain about God have the luxury of being righteously indignant, first, because their sense of right and wrong comes to them from God, without whom justice itself has no meaning. And secondly, because they’re still alive to do so! What are they doing with this gift of life and time that they’ve been given? We have no guarantees of life in this world; we have no entitlements before God; we have no rights. If Jesus himself didn’t escape suffering and death, on what basis do we think we should?

God deeply loves us. God deeply desires that we repent and return to him, who is our heart’s true home. By all means, God will use tragic events like Haiti, like the Gulf Coast hurricane, like the 2004 tsunami, like 9/11, to shake us out of our complacency, to wake us from our spiritual slumber, to inspire us to repent and return to him. Why not? These things are going to happen anyway in a fallen world. It’s good to be reminded that life is fragile. It’s good to be reminded that our gift of time is running out. It’s good to be reminded that we need to live life with purpose and a sense of urgency. This is the main point of Jesus’ tough words: “Repent, or you will perish as they did.”

Jesus is talking about perishing in an eternal way. Losing our opportunity to repent and find eternal life. We still have time to do that! Do you need to do that? Isn’t it great that we still have the opportunity to experience the grace and mercy and love of God through Jesus Christ—this same Jesus, God made flesh, who himself did not avoid suffering but suffered in a profound way, and in so doing defeats the force and power of evil once and for all on behalf of the whole world? Through this victory, in the world to come, evil, suffering, and death will be no more.

Much more to say, but I’ll stop here… Does God love Haiti? Only enough to die for it.

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 87.

[2] Romans 3:23

[3] Jonah 4:2

[4] This is a paraphrase of an argument by William Temple, an archbishop of Canterbury in the 20th century.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116.

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