Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why so many denominations?

Fourth in the "Tough Questions" Series

NIV Matthew 16:16, 18; Ephesians 1:22-23 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Why so many Denominations?

Why are there so many Christian denominations in the world? I mean, really! Does God care if I’m a Baptist or a Methodist or a Catholic or a Pentecostal? How many times have you heard that question? Maybe you’ve brought it up yourself. It’s a good question. It’s a fair question too. Because it’s a question that really gets at the heart of who we are as human beings, and who God is and what God means in our lives. But in order to understand the answer to the question, we’re going to have to understand the history behind the splits in the first place.
So let’s first take a look at all the church splits down through history and why they happened.
The first one I want to suggest to you, you won’t find in any history book. It took place before the church was officially called the church. Look at those first followers of Jesus, twelve men with different ideas about who Jesus was. Before they ever got to “graduation.” Before Jesus’ ministry on Earth was finished, one of them split off from the rest. Judas had his own ideas about what Jesus was supposed to do and who Jesus was supposed to be. When Judas’ ideas were not realized, he split from the rest of the disciples. In essence, Judas was the very first split in the church. And it was exemplary of almost all of the church splits that would follow, because it was about the misunderstandings between humans and what God’s intentions for us are.
But let’s get into the divisions that took place after the initial formation of the church. We commonly acknowledge that the church was born on Pentecost, when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples and many new members were taken into the faith. From there the church grew across the known world primarily by the missionary journeys of Paul and some of the other apostles. Over hundreds of years, Christianity went from a new religion on the fringes, to a religion for which one was persecuted and martyred, to the official faith of the Roman Empire, to an established faith in the entirety of the Western World. And while there were controversies during this time of growth and development, none of them actually split the church like those that were to come.
In 1054 we find the first major split in the church, what is now referred to as the Great Schism. It split the church East ad West, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The primary cause of this split was over power and control of the church. (Anybody surprised at that?) The Eastern Orthodox Church would experience its own divisions, (Russian/Greek/etc.) but let’s continue to focus on the Western Church.
The next major split in the Western Church took place in 1517 when a Catholic Monk named Martin Luther published his 95 theses of protest against the practices of the Catholic Church. Luther and others were particularly concerned with doctrines concerning purgatory, indulgences, devotion to Mary, the sacraments, and the power of the Pope. Because of the nature of Luther’s statements, protest, this new movement was dubbed the Protestant Reformation.
Four prominent church traditions arose from the Protestant Reformation, Lutheranism, the reform movement led by John Calvin which became Presbyterianism, the Anabaptist movement, and the Anglican Church, otherwise known as the Church of England. Let’s look at each of those a little bit and see where they lead us.
First, the Lutheran Church.
The Lutheran church has certainly had its share of controversies and divisions, but overall, it remains rooted in the teachings and reformed doctrines of Martin Luther. Lutherans celebrate communion every Sunday and believe that the communion elements are actually the body and Blood of Christ. Lutheran churches also baptize infants. In fact, doctrines aside there is not a great deal of difference between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.
Let’s look at the Calvinists and Reformers
John Calvin also began the reformed theology movement in the sixteenth century. Calvinism and reformed theology are probably best known for the doctrines of predestination and election. I spoke a bit about these last week, so I’m not going to recover that ground this morning. Suffice it to say that reformed thinkers primarily believed that “man is incapable of adding anything from himself to obtain salvation and that God alone is the initiator at every stage of salvation, including the formation of faith and every decision to follow Christ.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calvinist
As concerning communion and baptism, the reformed churches including the Presbyterians again, differ little from the Catholic Church. They practice infant baptism and Holy Communion.
So let’s look at the Anabaptists
The Anabaptist movement also began in the 16th century. The term "Anabaptist" comes from the practice of baptizing individuals who had been baptized previously, often as infants. Anabaptists believe infant baptism is not valid, because a child cannot commit to a religious faith, and they instead support what's called believer's baptism. Today the Baptists, Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ are the most common bodies referred to as Anabaptist. And apart from believer’s baptism, the Anabaptists also have a different view of communion. In these churches, communion is often seen simply as a memorial meal. It is celebrated as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice, nothing more.
Which leaves us with the Anglicans
The Anglican Church or the Church of England has much deeper roots than other Protestant denominations. It is believed that the English church began sometime in the 5th or 6th century with missionaries from Scotland and Ireland. It remained a part of the Roman Catholic Church until the 16th century and King Henry VIII. Because the Catholic Church would not allow Henry to divorce, Henry decided to declare that the English crown was the only supreme head of the Church of England. This action made the Anglican Church officially separate from the Roman Catholic church. The Anglican Church is the parent of such denominations as the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist church. And again, Anglicans of all manners celebrate infant baptism and Holy Communion. In most Anglican based churches, communion is celebrated as a Holy Mystery wherein Christ is present in the act in a way that is not wholly understood.
Now in all honesty, this is a very very brief overview of how we’ve moved from one Church to many church denominations. I have not touched on many of the controversies that caused these splits. I haven’t looked very much into the differences in doctrine and sacraments. I’ve really only scratched the surface. If I were to go deep on the subject of Church History…. Well, suffice it to say that it is a full two semester course in seminary. I couldn’t cover it in the space of one simple sermon.
And that’s not really what my intentions are today anyway. Because in looking back at our history, the question resurfaces: Why are there so many denominations? Why can’t we all agree on the tenets of the faith? Isn’t this whole Church thing about something more?
Yes, it is about something more.
But first I’d like you to consider something important. For all its value, for all its importance in the world, the Church is a man-made institution. It is run by human beings. It is governed over by human beings. And just like any other human institution, it is a mess. I suppose it’s a matter of our fallen, sinful nature, but we cannot even take an institution ordained and started by God incarnate and not mess it up! I guarantee you folks, it was not God’s intention to have all these splits in His church. God knows it’s not a very good witness to our unity of faith to come from so many different perspectives. I can tell you this morning without a doubt in my mind God does not want us to divide over our differences. God wants us to unite over our commonality.
We are not called to many little bodies of Christ. We are called to be the whole body of Christ for the whole world. The Christian Church is not just a human organization: Its strength and authority come from Christ! Jesus Christ came to earth to give us an insider’s view of the Father’s love and to establish our personal relationship with Him.
When the time came for his return to the Father, he made provisions for bonding his disciples together in a special organization. This organization came to be known as the Church. It is a collection of those who are called out from the secular world to serve Christ. Jesus told Peter that the Church would be built on his confession of faith. As the big C church, we are more than the sum of our parts. The Church is not a building, it meets in buildings. The Church is the entirety of believers, all who confess Christ as savior.
Christ is the head of the church: We are the hands and the feet of Christ called to do His work here on earth. In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote: We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." Very plainly, Paul sees the Church as the people of God, not the institutions and structures that humanity has placed on the practice of Christianity.
Jesus also came to earth to establish the Kingdom of God. His life and ministry focused on building that Kingdom. What is a kingdom? Well, we often think of landmass, a monarch or a castle. But a kingdom is none of these. Rather, it involves people subject to a ruler. So the Kingdom of god exists anywhere you find people who give god control of their lives. That’s what we mean when we pray the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that says: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are asking God to do his will in our lives as fully as it is done in heaven. The Church then manifests the Kingdom of God on earth. Every group of believers, every denomination, is a branch office.
Critics often look at the church with its flaws and its problems and conclude that it has drifted far from its roots. Not true! The Book of Acts and most of Paul’s epistles document all manner of problems with the early church. Anytime a group of imperfect people come together, problems soon follow. As one evangelist once said: “The only way to have a perfect church is to throw out all the current members and don’t take any new ones in.”
The genius of the Church is not that it is trouble free but that the Holy Spirit works to resolve our problems. The world should see a difference in the way we live. And I guess that’s where I’m really going this morning.
We’re not perfect. But we are forgiven. We are called to work for unity in the Church and in the church. So I’d offer you some food for thought this morning.
How can we be more unified as a church?
And, how can we be more unified with God’s church in the world?
I know that right now there are rumors that our denomination might split over a controversial issue. And what kind of witness to the "United" nature of the United Methodist Church are we if we cannot avoid a split over controversy?
How can we work toward keeping our unity and our unified witness?
What will it take for us to be the complete Body of Christ in the world?
Can we do it?
Can you do it?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

If God knows all, where's free will?

Third in the "Tough Questions" series looks at the dynamic between predestination and free will.

Romans 8:29-30, Ephesians 1:5, 11
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free will. Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions. But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. "Who sent you here?" they asked. "No one sent me," he replied. "I came of my own free will." "Free will!" they exclaimed. "You can't join us! You belong with the other group!" So he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, "When did you decide to join us?" The young man replied, "Well, I didn't really decide--I was sent here." "Sent here!" they shouted. "You can't join us unless you have decided by your own free will!" (Today In The Word, August, 1989, p. 35)

Free will versus predestination. It’s one of the stickiest subjects in all of Christian theology. In layman’s terms it sounds a little like this:
If God knows everything, then he knows everything I’ll ever do. He knows whether I’ll choose salvation or not. My choice is an illusion if God already knows what I’ll choose.
Well, first let’s set some definitions in front of our discussion.
We all understand free will, right? It means that we’re not puppets. It means that God does not control our actions, we choose what we want to do and don’t want to do.
Predestination is a little different. The best definition that I’ve come across concerning this word is as follows: Predestination means to work out beforehand. In theology, predestination is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God. John Calvin interpreted predestination to mean that God willed eternal damnation for some people and salvation for others. As far as being marked out beforehand, well, there’s been a whole lot of discussion and disagreement over the course of church history concerning just what that means.
Some say God pre-selects those who are invited to receive salvation. And that pre-selection is seen in two ways.
One says that all people deserve to go to hell, but God in his infinite mercy chooses some to go to heaven. Theologians call this single predestination.
The other explanation says that he chooses some for heaven and some for hell. It sort of says that God makes up two lists. Theologians call this double predestination.
Those teaching pre-selection views base their views on two assumptions.
First, they emphasize God’s sovereignty. God’s omnipotence. God’s the boss. He can do anything he wants to do. Second, they say Christ died on the cross for those whom god selected, not for everyone. Otherwise they say, God’s plan failed if Christ died on the cross for people who would never accept him. So, since God’s plans are perfect and cannot fail, God obviously didn’t plan for those people to be saved in the first place.
Both assumptions are faulty. Because both of these views leave free will out of the equation. If God makes the choice for us, if we are either chosen for heaven or chosen for hell, then where is our free will?
Without question, God is sovereign.
Without question, God has power over all of creation.
Without question, God knows all.
But the reality is that God has chosen to limit himself at the point of our free will. God does not mess with the free will of humanity.
You can see this illustrated very clearly in a film that came out a few years ago. When God gives Bruce (in Bruce Almighty) his powers, he tells him, “You have all my powers. You can do anything you want, you just can’t mess with free will.” This is demonstrated very clearly later on in the film. After Bruce uses God’s powers to selfishly set his own life right, he loses his girlfriend Grace. Bruce shows up at the school where Grace is a teacher in order to try to get her back. When she rejects him again he tries to use his God power to force her to love him. It doesn’t work. She just looks at him and asks what he’s doing.
No doubt God could disregard our freedom if he wanted to. But God doesn’t treat us like hand puppets or chess pieces. He respects our freedom to serve him or to choose not to serve him.
Look at Luke 2:10! Angels announce to the shepherds in the field “good news of great joy that will be for all people.”
Look at John 3:16! “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life.”
Look at Matthew 24:14! Jesus tells his disciples to preach the gospel throughout the world and make disciples of all nations.
Good news for all people.
Whoever believes.
All nations throughout the world.
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for everyone. Obviously, that’s not what predestination is all about. There’s a better way to understand this concept.
First, consider that God is not constrained by time like we are. God does not live a linear timeline like we do. In fact, it reminds me of something from a book I once read.
In “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut there is a race of aliens who are not limited to linear time. Instead, they explain that they can hold up time like a film and look at any scene at any time. This didn’t change the content of the movie and they didn’t change the movie. They simply knew what would happen.
God is much the same. God can look at any moment in time. That doesn’t change what will happen in that moment. Our free will is not thwarted by the fact that God knows what we will do.
Instead, consider that predestination does not determine who is picked for salvation, but what happens to those who do choose God’s gift of unmerited favor. Everyone who has faith in Christ, everyone who simply trusts Him for salvation, is guaranteed a place in heaven. Remember that God offers salvation as a gift. But he does not predetermine or force our choice.
Think of it this way.
Where I grew up in Palmyra the NJ Transit bus stop was a block from my house. The 9A bus stopped there several times every weekday and a few times a weekend. The sign on the front of the bus read “Center City.” It ended at Broad and Race Streets in Center City, Philadelphia. Now that bus driver didn’t carry a list of who could ride the bus. Anybody with the fare could ride to Center City. Nor did that driver just go wherever he wanted each day. He had a predetermined travel plan that took that bus to Center City. If I chose to get on that bus, NJ Transit guaranteed that I would end up at Broad and Race. Now I’m not forced to stay on the bus to the end. I can pull the cord over the window and get off at any time. But if I choose to stay with my original decision, I will get downtown, sooner or later.
That’s the way predestination works.
The bus of salvation passes by our heart. Jesus Christ sits in the driver’s seat. The sign on the front reads “Heaven.” The driver doesn’t have a predetermined list of riders. He invites everyone to come aboard. If we choose to get on and stay on the bus, God guarantees that we will end up in heaven. We can get off anytime we want. But if we choose to stick with our original decision, we are certain to make it to heaven someday.
So then what do we do with all this newfound information?
Well, I’d like to offer you a suggestion that I saw at the end of a movie the other night.
The movie is “Back to the Future part III.” In the second movie, Marty’s GF Jennifer picks up a fax in the future that Marty had received from his boss. There are two words in very large type on the sheet, “YOU’RE FIRED.” Toward the end of III, Marty avoids an auto accident that would have broken his hand and kept him from pursuing his dream of being a musician. When Jennifer looks at the paper after the accident, the words fade from the page. Shortly thereafter they encounter Professor Brown, the inventor of the time machine. Jennifer says: "Dr. Brown, I brought this note back from the future and now it's erased." Doc replies: "Of course it's erased." Jennifer: "But what does that mean?" Doc: "It means your future hasn't been written yet. No one's has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you."
So I offer you Doc Brow’s advice this morning.
Your future is not set.
It’s whatever you make of it.
So make it good!
Live well.
Serve one another.
And love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Isn't Good good enough?

Second in a series of messages answering tough questions non-Christians ask about God and Faith.

Ephesians 2:8-9

You’ve heard it. Maybe you’ve said it. It usually sounds a little like this:
I’m a good person. I treat people right. I don’t steal or kill or anything bad like that. I know that God will see that and wouldn’t keep me out of heaven. After all, being good is good enough, right? Well, let’s look at that.
There is a story of Billy Graham when he was visiting a city for one of his crusades. He had finished writing a letter and began to look for a place to mail it.Walking around the city for a while, he came across a young boy. He asked the boy if he knew how to get to the post office. The boy gave Billy Graham the directions and before leaving, Billy said to the boy, “Come on over to the arena tonight and I’ll tell you how to get to heaven.”The boy looked at him and replied, “How can you know how to get to heaven? You don’t even know the way to the post office!”
Today I want to tell you that I do know the way to the post office, and more importantly, I know how a person gets to heaven, because the Bible tells us how. But I want to take a different route to that same goal, by focusing on how to NOT get to heaven.My purpose today is really to discuss the various ways people think they can go to heaven, and why those things do not work to bring us to heaven. I have a feeling that if you’re here to hear the answers to some tough questions, you may find yourself in one of these camps.Ready, here we go.
The first way to NOT get to heaven is…. Trust your good works. I once heard a story about a businessman who was once asked if he knew if he was going to heaven and why God should let him in. He replied, “Oh yeah, He’ll let me in. I give turkeys to poor people every year at thanksgiving, and other stuff, too.”
I wish our reply to that could be, “Congratulations! You made it into heaven! Way to go!” Unfortunately, that’s not what God says. Look at this verse with me: Ephesians 2:8-9 says:God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.And we’ve already talked about this at the open of this message.
You see, folks, there is no amount of charity, no amount of community service, no amount of kind words that will ever add up to be enough to get you into heaven.
I am not saying we should never do good works. In fact, we are commanded to do them. Let me read you the next verse, verse 10: For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.Just because we do not get to heaven by good works does not mean we should not do them.
In fact, as we can see from this verse, we are to do them all the more. They simply don’t get us to heaven.
And there’s a certain reality that needs to be understood here. Because God does love us. God doesn’t want us to perish. But God is also completely holy. And nothing that is not also completely holy can be in the presence of a completely holy God. So we need to be holy for this God. And yet we’re not. How can we be holy? I’ll get to that later.
So if you want to NOT get to heaven, trust in your good works to get you there.
The next way to NOT get to heaven is…. Trust your traditions.
I like traditions. I’m a big fan of traditions. Some of my favorite traditions are things like singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at baseball games. Actually, I like singing the national anthem at sporting events. Another favorite tradition of mine is the All-American Sunday afternoon nap. In fact, I’d put that up there with breathing as one of my favorite things to do.
But what I’m talking about here is mainly traditions of a religious nature. We will be talking in more general terms about religion in a bit, but I want to talk in specifics for a moment. As I’ve just mentioned, I like traditions, but if we are not careful, we can fall into the trap of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. In their desire to serve and please God, they added to the law of Moses hundreds of other laws. And it came to the point that these guys were putting all their faith in these traditions. Jesus had some things to say about this.Matthew 15:6 - And so, by your own tradition, you nullify the direct commandment of God.
“We’ve always done it that way!” becomes the rallying cry of the traditionalist. “Don’t bring that new Bible translation in here. Don’t bring them new-fangled ‘worship choruses’ here. If Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace were good enough for Jesus, they’re good enough for me!”
Tradition can get in the way of knowing what is behind the tradition. For instance, many churches say the Lord’s Prayer at every service.That’s a good tradition. But saying that prayer can become just a matter of rote if you don’t remember why that tradition was started.
I’m reminded of a story of a young newlywed couple. The bride decided to bake her groom a ham. But just before she put it in the pan, she cut off both ends of the ham. Her groom asked her why she did that, and she answered, “That’s the way my mother did it.” So the next time the groom visited his mother-in-law, he asked her about this. “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham before you baked it?” Her answer was the same as her daughter’s, “That’s the way my mother did it.” Well, this got the young man even more curious, so next time they visited his wife’s grandmother, he posed the question to her, “Why did you cut off the ends of the ham before you baked it?”Her answer was straightforward and simple, “Because my pan was too small, and that was the only way it would fit!”The tradition started out with a good reason, but it was lost over time.
Tradition, no matter how wonderful it is does not get you into heaven. So if you want to make sure you do NOT get to heaven, just trust your tradition.
Closely related to this is the next way to not get to heaven.... Trust your religion.
“What do you mean, Preacher? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it – to be religious?”
We come here to give God honor in worship and to listen to His Word so we can be better servants for Him.
Too many people come to Church three times primarily. They’re baptized, they get married, and they have their funeral service at the Church. The first time they throw water on you, the second time they throw rice, and the third time they throw dirt! (Mark Hensley – Sermon Central)
Folks, you cannot trust your church to get you to heaven. You cannot trust your denomination to get you to heaven. You cannot trust your baptism. You cannot trust your taking of communion. You cannot trust your Bible reading.You can’t trust any of that.
When you put your trust in your religion rather than a relationship with Christ, you run the danger of becoming a hypocrite. Hypocrites are religious on the outside, but still corrupt on the inside. They follow religious tradition and man-made teachings instead of the Word of God.
Jesus had something to say about these types as well.Matthew 15:7-9: You hypocrites! Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said, ’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.’"
You see, there are lots of people who think that because they go to church on Sunday, or because they were baptized, or because they take communion, or whatever,they are okay with God and can go to heaven. Unfortunately, that’s not what God says. In fact, God says that the righteousness we bring on our own is nothing but filthy rags in his sight. We have nothing in the way of true religion on our own to offer God.
So trust your religion if you want to be sure to NOT get to heaven.

How to get to heaven:
We have looked at a number of things that people are trusting in order to get them to heaven, but the truth is that none of these will give us favor with God allowing us into heaven.
None of these will make us holy. And one of the things I have been stressing this morning is that God says we can’t trust these things.
Now, it’s easy to trust a minister, because we think that ministers know it all. Then again, most of you know me well enough to know that’s just not true, amen? So one of the things I have challenged you to do over the last couple of years is to get into the Word of God. The main reason is that because God’s Word is perfect. I am not perfect (no amens from peanut gallery), so you need to be in the Bible to make sure I am communicating truth to you.
A person once asked me why we should believe the Bible instead of the minister who contradicted the Bible. My answer was, “If God’s Word isn’t good enough, what is?” If you can’t trust God’s Word, than how can you trust a man’s word? The key to this is to see what God says about stuff, and particularly about what God says about going to heaven, because you will spend way more time in eternity than you will spend on earth. Get the idea?
So what can we do to get to heaven? Only one thing: Trust in Jesus.
Romans 10:8-10: Salvation that comes from trusting Christ – which is the message we preach – is already within easy reach. In fact, the Scriptures say, "The message is close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart." For if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved."
This is the absolute grace of God. That our creator would give up His only son to set things right between himself and his creation. And this is how we are able to be holy and thus be in the presence of that holy God. You can do nothing except trust the work that Christ has done for you. We need to trust in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
How do you trust Christ? You call out to Him, believing that He has done everything necessary for you to get to heaven. The Bible says that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. So you are going to have the opportunity to do that this morning.
I hope that if you have never done that before, that you will take advantage of this time to make sure you have a home in heaven. Remember, you can’t get there on your own. Your only hope is the Lord Jesus Christ, and trusting Him as your Lord and Savior. I am going to lead us in a prayer. I want all of us to pray together.
Let’s pray.
(Lead a sinners prayer)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Where was God at Nickel Mines?

First in a seven-week series of sermons asking and trying to answer tough questions about God and faith

October 2, 2006, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A gunman holds an Amish schoolhouse hostage. Charles Carl Roberts IV has devious plans for ten little girls but is foiled before he can bring his plan to fruition. In the end he takes the lives of five little girls and himself. The last of the survivors of this tragedy returned home three days before Christmas.

August 29, 2005, Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orleans head on. Almost 1,700 die and many thousands are left homeless. One year later, less than half of those displaced by the hurricane had returned to the city.

December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean. A devastating tsunami caused by an underground earthquake, wreaks havoc on coastal communities in Southeast Asia. 230,000 people die in the floods and the aftermath.

September 11, 2001, New York City, NY, USA. Muslim religious extremists hijack four passenger planes in American airspace. One each is flown into the tallest of the buildings of the World Trade Center. A third is crashed into the Pentagon in Washington while a fourth is overtaken by the passengers and ditched in a field in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania. In all, almost 3,000 people lose their lives in the most tragic and disturbing day in American history.



Massive loss of life.




What in the world is going on here? Why so much? Why so many people? And good people too!Why do these kinds of bad things happen to good people? Why do we have to suffer loss and pain?

Well before we get to the whys and the what to dos, let’s talk a little about suffering and loss and pain.

First of all, suffering is real.
There are people of a philosophical bent that says that pain and suffering are all in the mind. They’ll tell you that you can just get over it. That you can just “think your way out of it.”
You want to know that suffering is real? Just look at Jesus on the cross. God incarnate yells out in pain. God in the flesh cries in anguish as he suffers on the cross. If you need definitive proof that pain and suffering are not illusory, look to Jesus.
Second, suffering and pain are universal.
We all experience loss and pain in our lives. Every one of us here today has lost a loved one or a close friend. Each of us has been sick or injured in a way that scared us. And even if you’ve not had any of these experiences, you’ve lived through 9/11. You’ve watched all of those other dramas unfold in the last few years. There really is no way to escape the pain and the suffering that happens in this world. It’s a part of life. It’s part of what it means to be human.
Suffering has two other traits.
It is in the world because of humanity’s fall from grace.
And it provides us opportunities to be in ministry to one another.
“The world God created was perfect and the life God created for humanity was perfect. Part of that perfection is that God did not create people to be robots. Instead, God gave us free will so that we’d make choices for ourselves and so that we would truly live free.
But human history makes it painfully clear that we have chosen to use our freedom and our free will in ways that bring pain to others. We have chosen to exercise our freedom to live selfishly.
And so nations have warred against other nations always with innocent civilians taking the worst hits.
And then there’s Adam. The first man. And Eve, the first woman. They chose to use their freedom in order to sin, to assert their will over God. The Bible tells us that this is when suffering entered into the world.In Romans we read: Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned- Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.This first decision to live selfishly was the root of all future decisions to live selfishly.
Selfish living in this world causes suffering in this world, period. So we can understand that suffering came into the world, not because of God, but because of human sin and human rebellion.
That is what we find in the Bible.We see in Scripture that even natural disasters such as hurricane Katrina are linked to the human condition:In Romans 8 we find: The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the onewho subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.Katrina and Rita groaned and acted out and inflicted serious damage on the Gulf Coast.”
“Why does God allow suffering?” Matthew Parker as found at http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon.asp?SermonID=71761
Undersea earthquakes shook the sea floor and induced tidal waves that groaned across the face of the planet.
All confirming that these things happen in our world because of the fact that God gives us free will and we’ve used that will to mess up God’s creation.
But one last thing about this suffering and loss and pain before we move on.Because there is opportunity in our strife. When someone hurts, when a friend experiences grief and loss, It’s an opportunity for us to be in ministry. It’s a chance for Christians to be the Body of Christ.
And I won’t tell you that you need to look for the hidden meaning in something bad happening.
I do not believe that God allows bad things to happen, Or evil to exist so that God’s plan might be fulfilled.
But you’ve been around people who do this right? You’re hurting. You’ve lost a friend or family member, maybe even tragically, And someone asks you what God’s plan is through your pain.
Not terribly comforting is it?
I tend to refer to folks that do this as Christian terrorists. They’re not really helping the situation. They're really just making you feel worse.
Let me assure you folks, when we’re in pain God hurts. When we weep over tragedy, God weeps too. The loving God that I know doesn’t wish any of this on us. Nor does that God plan these things to somehow make us better people. God hurts with us when we hurt.
And in our hurting is an opportunity. When others around us hurt, we have the opportunity to witness to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. When we love one another and care for one another, especially in our grief and pain, We are, without doubt, doing what Jesus would do. When we comfort one another, we are demonstrating the presence of God in our lives.
So let’s look at that Scripture passage:
Romans 5:1-11 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Now here’s a passage that certainly talks to us about suffering.
suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us
Paul is telling us to rejoice in our suffering. Now I don’t know about you folks, but I can’t really fathom being happy about being in pain. I cannot remember a time when I rejoiced in my suffering. And yet, Paul tells us to grow through that suffering. Because the hope of God will not ever fail us. Our real hope in all our trials and tribulations is found right in this passage.
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!
There’s the real rub in our lives. There’s our hope and our salvation all in one neat little package. Christ died for us while we were still living in a sinful state. Everything else is just a distraction from that reality.
Which really leads me to the big question of the morning.
What do we do about it? What does it mean to our daily lives? Where was God at Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania?
I want to get to that answer by offering you some suggestions for living in a troubled world.
These suggestion come right out of this morning’s discussion and, like any good sermon, there’s three of them.
First, don’t lose hope.
We do live in a troubled world. We live in a place where no one is immune from pain and suffering and grief and loss. But the apostle Paul assures us that persevering through our troubles leads us to hope. Don’t let the world rob you of your hope by offering you the quick fix for your troubles. Persevere. God is with you.
Second, take care of one another.
This is the most powerful witness opportunity we are likely to get as Christians. When one hurts, we all hurt. And nothing demonstrates the love of our God better than our actions when one is hurting. Take care of each other. Minister to each other. And reach out in Christian love when others are in need. Living out your faith in real life is powerful, powerful witness to the presence and providence of God in the world.
And finally, keep your eyes open and be discerning.
Now this is where we really get to where God was at Nickel Mines. Because it’s hard to imagine that God was even close to a situation like that. But I’d ask you to think about how that situation panned out and how those involved acted and reacted to it.
First, think of that gunman.
We’ve heard that he apparently had a plan that involved more than just killing those little girls.
There is evidence that he plotted some very unsavory things. And yet, he called the police himself and they arrived before he could carry out the worst of his plans. What do you suppose compelled him to call the police on himself? Was God at work? I’d call that very likely.
Think about one particular girl that was in that schoolhouse.
Marian Fisher was 13 years old. She had her whole life ahead of her. And yet, when faced with the prospect of almost certain death, Marian did something incredible. She offered herself to the gunman in an effort to get the other girls in that classroom released. Published reports state that Marian Fisher asked that she be killed first and that the other hostages be let go. Was God a motivating force for Marian? Probably. But more importantly, Marian is an awesome witness to the sacrificial nature of our salvation. Jesus offered himself up for our sins so that we would not have to suffer that punishment. Marian Fisher demonstrated that very same sacrificial love by her actions that day.
And consider that entire Amish community.
Without hesitation and down to the last person, they offered forgiveness. There were no responses of rage or anger or vengeance. There was certainly great grief in that community, But there was also an enormous outpouring of grace and forgiveness. Consider that the grandfather of one of the slain girls went to the home of the gunman’s family that very evening to offer forgiveness. Consider that many of the people affected by this tragedy attended the gunman’s funeral. Consider that a portion of the money that came in to help the Amish, Was set aside by the very same people to help pay for college educations for the shooter’s children. Folks, that’s forgiveness! That’s the kind of Grace that comes from God.
I gotta tell you, I don’t know if I could do that. I do not know if I could be that forgiving if it were my child. I’d like to think I could, but I just don’t know.
Where was God at Nickel Mines?
God was present in the actions and the reactions of some of those involved.
God was saving those girls from unspeakable cruelty.
God was demonstrating sacrifice and forgiveness through people of faith.
And God was weeping with all of us who wept over this tragic loss of innocent lives.
Friends, I don’t believe that we can do any less than our Amish brothers and sisters.
As you go out to live your lives in this world, consider how your life is a witness to the reality and the providence of God.
Persevere through your pain and suffering, you’re not alone.
And never lose hope that god is with you always.