I was greatly inspired by Brian McLaren's response to John Piper on theodicy in the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Brian's article struck a chord with me, that is certainly reflected in this sermon.
Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
Giving all glory and honour to God.
Jesus heals a man who was born blind. Our reading is referred to in the hymn Amazing Grace, which quotes the blind man in the story, “I was blind but now I see.” This could also be the story Hank Williams mentions in his song I Saw the Light: “Just like the blind man who God gave back his sight, praise the Lord, I saw the light.”
And the followers of Jesus ask him, “Who sinned so that this man was born blind, him or his parents?” At that time people believed that illness was the result of sin; if you were blind or deaf or had a physical deformity, it wasn’t because of bacteria or genetics or some environmental cause, but was a punishment for something you had done wrong or your parents had done wrong. And Jesus breaks this link between sin and sickness; he says that neither this man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness, and heals him.
In the story the Pharisees keep saying that the man was blind because of his sin. Even the followers of Jesus ask who sinned to make the man blind, him or his parents. They are trying to figure out why bad things happen to people, and their answer is that the people must be bad. And we still struggle with this. We may not think that sin causes disease or disability. But we look around the world and see natural disasters, floods and earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and hurricanes. In just the last year or so we have watched flooding in Pakistan, and quakes that have devastated Haiti, and New Zealand, and Japan, and places we hear less about in China and Burma, and we are still hearing about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, and the Indian Ocean tsunami. And we ask for answers, just as the Pharisees and followers of Jesus did, 20 centuries ago. It’s an age-old question: why do the innocent suffer? It’s easier to come up with answers in the case of war and poverty, where sin does play a role – but it’s the reverse of the attitudes on display in this story, for it isn’t the sin of the victims causing their suffering, but the collective sin of societies and empires that perpetuates violence and injustice.
But it’s different in the case of natural disasters, because they are, after all, natural. Society doesn’t cause the earth to shake or winds to blow or volcanoes to erupt, although humanity’s impact on the earth’s climate may play a role in hurricanes and flooding. But the earthquake and tsunami that devastated part of Japan and killed 10,000 people – that was completely natural, the result of two giant plates in the planet’s crust grinding together.
So did someone sin to cause this? Some Christians have said yes, the disaster in Japan was brought about by the country’s sins in the Japanese aggression that led to World War II in the Pacific, 70 years ago. Others have laid the blame on all of us, saying that God is punishing humanity as a whole for wandering from the right path. But many Christians, the majority according to opinion polls, do not believe this.
We call these natural disasters acts of God. If you read your home insurance policy, or travelers’ insurance if you’re going anywhere, it refers to acts of God.
So there is even bigger and more difficult question for us, if human sin doesn’t cause these catastrophes. Are these truly acts of God? Did God make the earth heave in Japan and a tidal wave wash over towns and people, killing thousands and leaving millions more suffering in their grief and homelessness and under threat of nuclear radiation? Well, some pretty respected Christians say yes. A prominent theologian named John Piper points out that in the Bible earthquakes are attributed to God, because God is Lord of heaven and earth. Nature does not have a will of its own. God controls everything. Nothing is random. So, somehow, God has a good and wise purpose for this tragedy, as God has hundreds of thousands of purposes, which remain hidden to us until they are finally revealed at the end of time.
So there’s an answer. God took thousands of lives, as one step toward achieving an unknown purpose in God’s plan for good. We have probably heard this before, about deaths and cancer and all kinds of events we don’t understand: It’s God’s will. It’s God’s plan. This is a simple answer, clear cut, and it solves all our problems about why there is suffering and where God is in tragedies.
I think this is trying to get at the truth, as God’s purposes are indeed unknown, but I’m not sure this is a complete, or satisfying, or helpful, answer. I’m not sure that the explanation of evil and suffering in the world is this simple. And I’m not sure that this does solve our problems, as what seems simple can just get more complicated as we ponder whether this makes God seem, well, less loving than heartless and uncaring. We may wonder if this answer is really spiritually blind, blind to who God is.
We know that the Bible says that God is love. We know that the Bible says that Jesus came to show us what God is like. So what do we see Jesus doing, in this story and the other stories we read? Another prominent Christian thinker, Brian McLaren, and I like his work a lot, says that the scandal of God becoming human in Jesus is how Jesus acts. Jesus doesn’t take control. He doesn’t micro manage. He doesn’t eliminate all suffering and evil, yet he doesn’t cause any additional suffering and evil either. He doesn’t give in to the temptation offered to him, to take power over all the nations of the world and become an earthly ruler.
Instead, look at what Jesus is doing at the beginning of today’s story. He’s walking along. He’s on his way from one place to another. Brian McLaren points out that that’s what Jesus does, goes quietly from town to town, confronting suffering and evil, urging people to turn away from their sins that inflict suffering and evil on others, and healing and liberating people from suffering and evil so they can see spiritually, people like the man born blind. Jesus doesn’t force this healing on anyone; he allows them in faith to accept it, and to become, as the letter to the Ephesians says, children of the light. And then, at the end of this season of Lent, we will hear again how God ultimately deals with suffering and evil, in Jesus on the cross: in pain and tears, taking all of the suffering of the world into the heart of God and healing it, no through vengeance, but through forgiveness and love. Martin Luther talked about how God is made known to us, not in glory, not in control, but in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. God’s power and God’s kingdom appear in weakness.
So, if we look at our universe with spiritual eyes, eyes of faith, maybe God is not a dictator. The realm of God, the kingdom of God, is not totalitarian. Instead, perhaps God allows the universe to evolve on its own. So possibly the way God rules is not through absolute control, but through absolute commitment to be with us whatever happens, working to bring healing from suffering, good from evil, hope from despair. This is how we see God appear to us in Jesus, the king who is born as a tiny, vulnerable baby, the king who washes his friends’ feet, the king whose power is not through conquering and violence but through suffering and dying, and rising again. God is not waving an almighty hand and sweeping away homes and lives; God is wrapping us in loving arms and holding us close. God is present with us in suffering, feeling our agony, crying with us, sharing our loss, bearing our hurt, moving in the Spirit to give us courage and to empower us to offer empathy and aid to victims of catastrophe, in huge disasters like Japan, and the personal disasters we experience of sickness and fire and death.
This may not be a complete answer. But, you know, the best answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the world work better in a classroom or from a church pulpit than in a hospital room, or beneath a pile of rubble from an earthquake. When we are in pain, or see pain in our world, an intellectual answer is of little comfort. We can’t always, or ever, understand what is happening when tragedies strike and lives and land are devastated. But we can know this – when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.