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September 9, 2017

Where Is God?

Sermon manuscript for September 9, 2017 (The original title of this sermon was Ascending Liability. But the sermon morphed from my original conception, so I’ve changed the title here to reflect the actual content.)
For Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 John 2:1-2

It’s been a rough week.

First there was Hurricane Harvey and the flooding of Houston and other communities in coastal Texas. I have a friend who lives in Houston who gave periodic updates on the rising flood waters until eventually he had six inches of water inside his house.

Here in Seattle we have had murky skies and ash falling on our cars and even sifting through the screens on our windows. Reminders of the wildfires that are raging all across the countryside just over the mountains to the east.

Again, a friend brought home the reality of this fiery devastation. She lives in Montana and posts pictures and facts from the fires there. Over a million acres have burned so far this year.

Meanwhile

Thursday night a magnitude 8 earthquake hit Oaxaca, Mexico. At least 65 people are reported dead from the quake.

A third of the entire nation of Bangladesh was under water and over a thousand people died in floods in India.

A rough week.

Where is God in all this?

Many of my friends are quick to exclude God from all this stuff. Hurricanes happen. We can explain them using what we know of interactions of pressure systems and temperature regimes in the ocean. Earthquakes happen. Especially along subduction zones like the one that runs down the west coast of Mexico. Leave God out of this, they say. God does not cause hurricanes and earthquakes. They argue this way out of a concern to defend the reputation of God. But the Bible does not exclude God. God sends storms and earthquakes, fire and hail.

Even when we dismiss this active language and insist that what the Bible really means is that God allows storms and earthquakes and fire and hail, we come back to the other words, the words that give us hope:

The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. 8 O taste and see that the LORD [is] good: blessed [is] the man [that] trusteth in him. 9 O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for [there is] no want to them that fear him. 10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good [thing]. … 15 The eyes of the LORD [are] upon the righteous, and his ears [are open] unto their cry. 16 The face of the LORD [is] against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 17 [The righteous] cry, and the LORD heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. 18 The LORD [is] nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. 19 Many [are] the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all. 20 He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken. 21 Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate. 22 The LORD redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate. Psa 34:7-10, 15-22 KJV

Sitting in my dry house untouched by the raging fires except by the smoke and bits of ash it is easy to say, “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” But what about my friend in Montana watching her entire state go up in flames? What about my friend in Texas starting the clean up process in his flooded house? What about the relatives of others in this congregation whose lives have been disrupted by the earthquake in Mexico? What about the millions of people—nameless to me—whose homes have been invaded by the floods in India and Bangladesh? They lack no good thing?

These words make no more sense as literal language than do the words about God sending storms and earthquakes, fire and hail. They make far more sense as a declaration of the ultimate purpose of God. It is God’s desire that his children lack no good thing. But the actual, lived experience here in this world is far more complicated.

So I come back to the words of Jesus:

God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good. You be like that.

The ancient prophets argued that nature favored good people. Bad things happened to bad people. Good times came to those who were good. There is some truth in this, of course. Living wisely and righteously usually produces better results than living foolishly and wickedly. But nature is a hopelessly blind judge. Floods and earthquakes, fire and hail—they happen to all sorts of people.

It is also true that nature blesses people indiscriminately. The glory of sunrise, the blessings of harvest, the beauty of moonlight, the pleasures of health and strength come to all humanity. We, as believers, affirm that it is these sweet things which express the purpose of God.

Nature is recklessly indiscriminate both in its loveliness and in its horror. Both in its bounty and in its storms. Jesus challenged us to see God’s benevolent intentions in the blessings of nature and then to mirror the generosity of God.

Sometimes, we are most immediately aware of Jesus’ call when we are confronted with the kinds of so-called “acts of God” that have surrounded us this past week.

The first pictures coming out of Texas were visions of devastation. Roads under water. Cars immersed to their roof tops. Then came the pictures of the human response. People helping people.

In southern California, first there were the photos of raging fire, then news of convicts fighting fires, earning a dollar an hour. Men who in other situations had acted like the devil showed in this emergency, the genuine goodness still living in their hearts and hands.

In Mexico and Bangladesh humans banded together to carry out the will of God—survival, rescue, sustenance.

Where is God in the earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and other suffering that haunts our world? God is present in those who rescue and help and heal. And God is present in those who devote themselves to the work of prevention. Much of the suffering of the past week was theoretically avoidable. We know where flood zones are and could require developers to build on higher ground. We know how to build houses that will not collapse in earthquakes.

If God intends salvation, if God favors life, then it is the essence of faith to join with God in the present work of rescue and fire suppression. And we can work with God in building communities that are more resilient and more protective. We can be the angels of God, working for salvation and hope.

Let us be about our Father’s business.

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