“FALL SERIES:Welcoming Doubt…Building Faith
Why Does God Allow Suffering & Pain?” 2/2
Isaiah 40: 1-8
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ October 1, 2017
As we move into our second Sunday focusing on the big question of where is God amidst suffering and pain in the world, I wanted to begin with a Zen tale told many, many years ago. It goes something like this …“Soyen Shaku was a well-known elder in the community. He walked past a house where he heard much crying because the master of the house lay dead. He entered, and after being invited to sit down, he cried with them. One of those present was curious and inquired: “Master, how can YOU cry? Surely YOU are beyond such things?” He answered gently, “It is THIS which puts me beyond such things.”
Last Sunday we began our two week conversation on the question of why God allows suffering and pain in the world. We began our conversation talking about our human nature, our design, and our evolution as human beings. As we found ourselves in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve, we were reminded of how God’s love extended so deeply and fully to us that it even allowed us to take full control of our lives when we asked for it. We viewed the ‘Garden’ time to be symbolic of that time in our human evolution when we seized our free will and became fully human. It was that time when God allowed us to walk our own path, make our own mistakes, offer love or hate, kindness or violence. God’s love extends beyond our very creation, giving us the freedom to walk own paths. So much of the suffering in the world, we considered, has resulted from the freedom God gave. With this gift of freedom to humanity, our conversation continued as we pondered where God is in the grand scheme of things. If God is not a ‘puppet master’ pulling the strings in the universe, we were reminded that God is not absent or distant either, but rather God is right beside us amidst the pain and suffering being experienced. As we examined the second text, we were reminded that Jesus’ first response to Lazarus’ death was that of being “deeply moved in Spirit”. In fact, Jesus was so moved that he wept, indeed he cried, with the mourners. And so, we discovered the question is not simply ‘why does God allow suffering and pain?’; It became a larger question of WHERE God is located amidst the suffering and pain in the world? God, we discovered, is right beside us, holding us, comforting us, weeping along with us at the pain, suffering and injustice that continues to live in our midst. Indeed we are not, and have never been, alone. God is right beside us, surrounding us with comfort, upholding us with care. God is with us in our suffering and our pain.
As I look back on last week’s reflection, it is somewhat amazing that you have all returned to church this week. It’s amazing you returned because that was not exactly a good-news way to end. As we continue our conversation this week, I think the Isaiah passage brings further depth to things. While there is suffering and pain in our midst, and we know that God weeps and joins us in our pains, we learn this morning that suffering will not have the last word in the human condition and it, therefore, should not become our preoccupation. The poetic 40th chapter of Isaiah is referred to by scholars as one, of the four, “servant songs” and it was a song of hope to the plight of the Israelite captives enslaved in Babylon. This middle section of Isaiah ~ second Isaiah as it is uncreatively named, contains some of the most poetic words of hope and comfort throughout all of scripture. For the Israelites, even while they lay in slavery, while they lay in chains, even when they could not yet see it, Isaiah prophecies of a time of hope. It was a time when God was going to bring restoration and return to the promised land. For Isaiah, there was a time to come when valleys would be “lifted up and hills would be made low”. A time when the “uneven ground would be level and rough places a plain”. It would be then that the glory of the Lord would be revealed. Isaiah refers to as being akin to the changing of things throughout the seasons ~ and we are seeing this right now as the rains return and the leaves fall, aren’t we? Isaiah proclaimed: “The grass withers, the flower fades” ~ so much of life is temporary, isn’t it? Even our suffering and pains, as difficult as they are, are temporary. But Isaiah continues, the “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever”. But in the end, God’s goodness will triumph, God’s peace will be restored, and God will wipe away every tear.
And I think this is a critical part of our acknowledgement in the suffering and pain dilemma. As Christians, we know that one day God’s justice will be complete; one day God’s love will reign; one day the captives will return home and be free. That was the message to the Israelites held captive in Babylon and this same message extends to all of us who find ourselves living held captive by our own experiences of suffering and pain. It is that same hope that we know in the parable of the lost son, that after everything had occurred, the Loving Father will still welcome that prodigal son home with open arms; he will kill the fatted calf and throw a party ~ for the son who was lost has now been found! It is that image of the relentless shepherd who will not give up until she finds that one last lost sheep, even though the other 99 are safely in the pen. It is that beautiful image in the Book of Revelation of the vision of the kingdom’s restoration: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). One day…freedom; one day…restoration; one day…pain and suffering no more.
Perhaps that is why the image of Jesus being the Passover Lamb has always been so significant for us in our faith. That image of the one who is sacrificed, the Lamb, who will endure suffering and pain, yet whose Way will bring glory and restoration. We spent some time with the poetry of William Blake last week, with his poem “The Tyger”, and I would like to do so again this morning as we listen to his poem entitled “The Lamb”:
THE LAMB ~ William Blake Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee Gave thee life & bid thee feed. By the stream & o'er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing wooly bright; Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice! Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee Little Lamb I'll tell thee, Little Lamb I'll tell thee! He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, We are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee.
The biggest challenge, I find, with this wonderful news we have in our Christian story, is that we are so very impatient and do not generally like God’s timelines amidst our suffering and pain. These are wonderful words we hear of a future that will one day be restored, yet we find it hard to live amidst the day to day suffering, pain and injustices. While modern day has only one understanding of time, it is probably helpful to remind ourselves of the two different versions of time that were common in the day of Jesus. The ancient Greeks had two understandings of time: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the reference to the quantitative nature of time we generally live in. It is a chronological, sequential understanding of time. The latter, Kairos, signifies a proper or opportune time for action; it is the qualitative, permanent nature of time. In the New Testament, it was that Kairos understanding of time, for example, when Jesus was born. It was: “the appointed time in the purpose of God” (Mark 1:15). The coming of Jesus was all about Kairos time, and it was used 86 times in the New Testament. Jesus’ coming; Jesus Way was all about that opportune time, that season, that harvest time that was found in the Way of Jesus ~ the one who is both Lamb and Lord.
And so, as we live amidst the joy and the pain, amidst the happiness and the sorrow, knowing that we are not alone, knowing that God walks with us, and knowing hope for the future. Perhaps we should end this morning as we started, with the Zen tale that continues to speak to us. “Soyen Shaku, a well-known elder in the community, walked past a house where he heard much crying because the master of the house lay dead. He entered, and after being invited to sit down, he cried with them. One of those present was curious and inquired: “Master, how can you cry? Surely you are beyond such things?” Soyen Shaku answered gently, “It is this which puts me beyond such things.”