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.
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