A sermon by Harry Goodhew
Good morning. I wonder if you can recall anything of 1992?
In late November that year, Queen Elizabeth II, speaking at an occasion to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, said that for her and her family 1992 was an ‘Annus Horribilis’ – a horrible year; and with good reason. There was a number of upsetting family events. Perhaps the saddest and the most public was the impeding separation of Charles and Diana to be announced officially a couple of weeks later.
The recent bush fires in New South Wales will make 2013 an ‘horrible year’ for many. The attack in the mall in Nairobi, Kenya has left many Kenyans grief-stricken and bewildered. Perhaps for you, news of serious illness or the death of someone near and dear will forever mark 2013 for you as ‘horrible’.
What do we think about in the turmoil of a ‘horrible year’?
What thoughts does a ‘horrible year’ generate in us? I guess the answer might be – “many” – “many and varied”. They may vary if we are reacting to a personal sadness or set back, or to some more public event that shocks our sensibilities and offends against our sense of justice and fairness.
They may well be very different if we are seeking to live with trust in God or whether we have no such faith and simply believe that chance and mindless and purposeless inevitability mark our human existence.
In the latter case there is no problem as far as questions about God are concerned. People simply make the best of it and reconcile themselves to the fact that such things can and do happen in a meaningless world: in a world where people do cruel and hurtful things and where natural events just occur because that is the way things are. Such people often act with courage and compassion because they are human but with no thought of accountability to any ultimate arbiter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
With those who believe in God and trust him the matter can be different. Questions about God’s justice and of his love, mercy and care for me and for others may arise. If we do not raise them ourselves others will from time to time challenge us with them.
Let me for a moment address myself to any listener who is sceptical when it comes to the matter of God in a world where ‘horrible’ things happen.
There was a prominent unbeliever who later became a powerful advocate for faith in God. He said “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got the idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction to it? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.” “Consequently”, he said, “atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we would never know that it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning”
If, we are seeking to live a life in the presence of God how are we to respond to ‘horrible’ events that overtake us, or members of our family, or friends for whom we have a deep concern? In addition, how are we to think of those who were victims of the Nairobi massacre or, for that matter, the multitude of ‘horrible’ events that are constantly presented to us in our various media?
For me, I want to go back to the fundamental things that the Bible teaches about God and about his relationship with us, his attitude to us and to all people, and his purpose for his creation, beautiful but imperfect and lying under the shadow of futility and death.
It teaches me first that God is: that He is there as the Creator and Upholder of everything and that He has an ultimate purpose of wonderful good for his people and for his creation.
Recall that there was a day when the nation of Israel was defeated and desperate: crushed by mighty Babylon. The prophet Isaiah reminded them that in the face of all the devastation and misery that had befallen them they had a Sovereign Lord who had not forgotten them
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and complain, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
(Isaiah 40:27-31) (NIV)
In the face of enemies that crushed God’s people the author of Psalm 94 sings: “But the Lord has been my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge” (Psalm 94:22, NASB95).
Nicholas Herman of Loraine was a nobody; a man of no great account. He entered into the barefooted Carmelites at Paris in 1666 as a lay brother. Yet, he was to become the source of a small book that has shaped the lives of millions. Brother Lawrence, the name by which he is known around the world, developed a life with God that has inspired countless believers. Here is a quote from his Ninth Letter.
“We cannot escape the dangers which abound in life, without the actual and continual help of God; let us then pray to Him for it continually. How can we pray to Him without being with Him? How can we be with Him but in thinking of Him often? And how can we often think of Him, but by a holy habit which we should form of it?”
Hence the title of his work “The Practice of the Presence of God”
St. Paul set us an example in that whether free or in prison he knew he was with God and God was with him. Thus he sang when his back bled and his feet were in the stocks. We may or may not feel like singing in the midst of our ‘horrible’ circumstances but we can draw strength and hope from the same source that refreshed Paul.
If my first recourse is to the fact of God, my second is to the demonstration of his love and desire for us in the person of Jesus. Born into the world to be God-with-us he suffered, died, and rose again to restore us to the Father and to loose the clutch that sin and death had over all humanity and over all created things.
The mystery of evil is a mystery, a reality about whose ultimate origins we are not really told. What we are told is what God has done about evil and what he will do about it. Evil in all its shapes and forms, evil in its totality met its match in Jesus. He took all evil of every kind onto himself on the cross and in his dying and rising again defeated evil and broke its power. As a consequence, there will come a day when the fruits of that victory won by Christ on the cross will be evident through all creation. When Christ returns defeated evil will be totally abolished. There will be a new creation; a new heaven and earth. When we turn to Christ now, we are, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, participants already in new creation.
For the present, we live our new life in a world where people do evil things, where they fight, kill, cheat, lie and deceive: a world where things like bush fires, tsunamis, avalanches, and volcanic eruptions, motor car accidents, and plane crashes occur.
God’s saving love and purpose is extended to all human beings. They are invited to be reconciled to God and enter into new life with Christ and to experience the presence of his Spirit working deep within them.
Years ago, C S Lewis, writing on the subject of human pain penned some words that have been quoted many times. They express a stark truth about pain for us humans. He wrote: “… pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. A bad man happy, is a man without the least inkling that his actions do not “answer”, that they are not in accord with the laws of the universe … No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul”
So, even our ‘horrible years’ are not without lessons for us if you use them well. They provide opportunities for us to draw closer to the One who loves us most.
Queen Elizabeth’s Annus Horribilis, her horrible year, was particularly associated with issues in her family. Your horror year may have been made up of a variety of painful events. It matters little in what area of life our pain and sorrow is generated – it all hurts. It is important what we do with our pains and sorrows. Ignored they may seal the heart up in rebellion against God. Accepted and carried to our loving heavenly Father in prayer and dependence they can be occasions for proving afresh how much he loves us. Again Paul would say that nothing can separate us from the love of God, even the most distressing experiences.
Here is a prayer worth offering: “that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith. And … that being rooted and established in love, (you) may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV).