“God’s Presence in Tragic Times”
Psalm 67, Isaiah 56: 1-8, Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32 ~ Northwood UC ~ August 20, 2023
Tragedy is a word that we are all familiar with. As a global family we have lived through the Covid pandemic and witnessed the human response during these tragic times. Tragedy, we have discovered, arrives in many forms. In parts of the world, we see forest fires burn. In other parts, we see waters rise. We see starvation and disease. We see unhoused individuals frequenting cooling shelters as temperatures rise. A very unsettling health diagnosis is received. Family say goodbye to a loved one. Loving relationships come to an end. Sometimes it seems as if life continues to unfold as a great tragedy before us. Individually, communally, and globally, tragedy arrives. And our response (sometimes our raging shout) is to ask where God is in these tragic times of life.
I’m wondering what comes into your mind when you think of tragedy? On the screen before us, you can see the before and after pictures in Maui, Hawaii, where the fires tore through the once lush landscape in Lahaina that many so many travel goers love. Whatever your image of tragedy, the natural response for people of faith is to ask theological questions: Where were you God as the fires raged? Where were you as the waters rose? Where were you as the diagnosis came back positive? Where were you…where were you? Where were you God amidst the tragedy?
Now, before we delve ahead too far with this inquiry, I want to briefly touch on the thought some may hold of God being a causative agent behind tragedy. Some may believe God causes tragedy. It is important for us, I believe, to unequivocally be assured that God is good; that God would never cause tragedy. As we read about Creation unfolding in the book of Genesis, each movement of God’s birthing of the world concludes with God’s loving blessing: “it is good”. Reading through the scriptures, we are reminded that the very essence of God is love. And at the tragic sight of the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, we know that Jesus was moved to tears. So, any thought (sometimes even unprocessed faith ponderings) that God is, somehow, behind any tragedy must be removed. God is Creator; God is love. And God is not absent in the tragic times. So, if God is not the cause of tragedy, where is God we now ask? As we turn to the two scripture texts assigned for this morning, what we discover is that while God is not absent during tragedy, we are often absent from God. We find ourselves pushing away, turning away, neglecting our relationship with God. We will find that it is not God who is absent; rather we who are turning away (and therefore) absent from God.
As we turn to the text from Romans, we find ourselves reading the letter Paul offers to the church in Rome. The tragedy for them comes in the challenge of naming Jesus as Lord amidst a Roman rule that requires its citizens to name the Emperor as Lord. Imagine…the Roman followers of Jesus find themselves in the epicentre of Roman power and dominance. This morning’s brief text is the conclusion to the statement that Paul began 3 chapters earlier: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” How many of you have heard those words at a funeral? Or at graveside as we said goodbye to a loved one? And, Paul continues assuring the Roman followers of Jesus that they are not alone in their tragedy, in their suffering, in their pain…that God is…indeed…with them always. He continues for three chapters assuring them that they are not alone in these tragic times. And in the culmination of that assurance, he concludes in this passage proclaiming “by no means!” Has God left you alone in your suffering?...By no means! Has God left you alone in your pain?...By no means! Has God left you an orphan in this time of tragedy?...By no means!
They might have turned away through their fears; they might have turned away and worshipped idols; they might have turned away from God…yet God has never left them alone! By no means are they alone. God, indeed, is with them. Scholars note that this is the same language used throughout many of the Psalms of lament (see Ps 43, 44, 60, 940. You are the God in whom I take refuge. You have not gone out with the armies. You have lifted us up on eagle’s wings to soar above the pain, the suffering and the tragedy. Yes, God…you have not left us alone. Yet, sadly, when tragedy does occur, we often feel very alone, very afraid, and very far from God. This text is a powerful reminder that Paul gives. “By no means” do we need to feel alone! “By no means” has God left! “By no means do we walk through the shadows of death unaccompanied! While we might have lost sight of God’s presence, God is with us always.
Shifting to the text from Isaiah, we find a community asking the same type of question. Now, for the Israelites, they are now returning to their homeland following generations of captivity and exile in Babylon. Prior to Babylon, they had memories of Assyrian captivity a few centuries earlier. Their return home; however, home was not a return to things as they once were. Their return was to the ruins of war and destruction. Buildings in ruin, an uncertain economy, a future that did not hold any resemblance of the past…tragedy.
And in response to this tragic time, the prophet instructs them to draw closer, not to move away in fear or anger, but to draw closer to God. For the Israelites, the way that they drew close to God was by deepening the Covenantal relationship established through Moses. Yet during their time in exile they had forgotten the Covenant Law; they had forgotten the Commandments; they had forgotten what it meant to be God’s children. This text is Isaiah’s call to get back to God…to re-establish the holy relationship that placed God at centre…to see God as the ground and centre of their being. It was a call to return home, not just to the Promised Land, but home to the heart of God that is their source of life! Isaiah calls them back to the Covenant: They were to hold fast to the Sabbath; they were to offer a radical hospitality to all. The requirement for membership in keeping the Sabbath was to obey the covenant! It meant living in a certain way. It requires, as Isaiah put it, that one “do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. It was contained in the prescription: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.
I suppose that it is understandable for us to feel a closeness to God at times and a distance at others. When you think about it, the culture we live in teaches a conviction that if we work hard, our efforts will be rewarded and will pay off. And, by way of contrast, those who are lazy or ineffective will find themselves at the bottom of the heap. Yet, there is little in the scriptures which supports this view. God is madly and deeply in love with all Creation! God is madly and deeply in love with you! While we might distance ourselves, God is with us always and would never leave. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who lived in a Nazi concentration camp for his ministry taught about this amazing grace that God bestows upon all. He taught about two kinds of grace: costly grace and cheap grace. Cheap grace is the shallow grace that we bestow upon ourselves – work hard and be rewarded kind of grace. Yet costly grace confronts us with a call to follow Jesus. Costly grace comes as a deep word of forgiveness to the broken spirit. Costly grace is a balm to the broken heart. Costly grace is a deep knowing that God has never left, despite the smell of death in a Nazi concentration camp or the reality of evil that seems to be winning. Costly grace is an assurance that God is with us: in each breath we take. With us…in each tear that we shed. With us…in the beating of our broken hearts. God will (one day) mend our broken hearts, wipe every tear, fill our bodies with new life.
Indeed, God is with you; God never leaves you. While we may distance ourselves, God is always there to be found. Indeed, God is good! I have the joy of doing a little bit of travelling to different churches through the year. And if we were in a black gospel church, we would hear an immediate response to that assurance. To the call “God is good”, the response is a quick “all the time”. And the leader would then call back “all the time” and the church would reply “God is good”. God is good…all the time. All the time…God is good.
Thanks be to God for a presence that is beside, around and within us always! Indeed, God is good and with us in the joys and the tragedy. May we live embracing God’s presence always. Amen.