The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s013e05 Lockleys Lent 2 20/2/2005
trust "him who justifies the ungodly" Romans 4.5
I have avoided speaking about the "traditional" exposition of the tsunami and the theology of Dean Philip Jensen from the Diocese of Sydney, simply because I had not found a coherent written explanation of what he said. He seems rather coy about what he actually did say, as he was when his comments in England were "misconstrued" by the media.
However I did find this editorial in "Christianity Today" where the author was "disconcerted" that Christian leaders were "offering something less than a fully Christian response to the disaster. One case in point: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams." After he had "mentioned traditional Christian teaching on natural evil, he acknowledged only its defective forms. Otherwise he devoted himself to desultory comments on the value of human life and the persistence of religious faith in the face of disaster." (Christianity Today. February 2005, Vol. 49, No. 2, Page 28 also http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/002/4.28.html). I suspect that this reflects what the Dean may believe, but I could be wrong.
When I checked on the meaning of the word "desultory" I found it meant "hotchpotch". So the Archbishop of Canterbury is being criticized for not expounding concisely the correct nature of God given the opportunity.
The article goes on to list traditional lines of Christian thought with some basis in revelation on the subject. These are:
"God allows evil events in order to bring greater good; God allows evil in order to challenge us to spiritual growth and maturity; God may allow tragedy, but he rewards us with greater blessings in heaven; God is in control of whatever happens, and his ways are inscrutable; God punishes the wicked with disasters."
Let me say that this is quite correct, that each and every one of these can be found revealed in the Bible. However they are not the only ones; and they seem to miss out a couple of important ones in the New Testament as well as some in the Old.
The words of Jesus in Luke seem to put a different picture on the likelihood of God punishing the wicked. We are told: "Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." (6.35). I find it a strange perception that wiping out a quarter of a million people, the majority children, and leaving countless others bereaved and homeless, as an act of kindness.
I am more and more fascinated that we say so frequently "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" and think that this is restricted, of course, to Christians who think like us. God, of course, cannot forgive Moslems, Jews, Hindus or atheists !?!
I find it disturbing that a religion based on the cross and resurrection of Jesus being about forgiveness and atonement for all, is being defined by some as setting itself apart from the mass of humanity and accusing everyone else as being wicked, or simply assuming that they must be.
And surely the statement by St Paul in my text for today: that God "justifies the ungodly", must figure in an evangelical exposition of the relationship between God and humanity. It is not as if I am quoting from the Koran for heaven's sake!
Trust "him who justifies the ungodly". I don't care if you don't trust me, but don't trust someone who condemns the victims of disasters with the thought, "Well they must have done something to deserve it; otherwise I might have to alter my picture of God."
Of course Jesus does have something specific to say about natural disasters, and again I am surprised that the list of traditional Christian responses in the "Christianity Today" article omits this entirely.
In Luke (13.4,5) Jesus says to the crowds: "those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them -- do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." So no, these eighteen did nothing to deserve what happened. But before we rush off thinking that we must all repent and turn to the Lord; we do well to remember that Jesus reinterprets what repentance means. It means "rejoice with me" when someone else is found.
So we will all perish, each and every one of us here in this building, just like those eighteen of long ago. The question is, will we live a life rejoicing at the goodness of God, and mourning when others lives are cut short and they lose loved ones and livelihoods? Or will we live a life separating ourselves off from others, defining who is good and who is wicked according to what happens to them, and hoping to God that nothing bad happens to us?
As I said last week, the reality is that God will not arrange for all tectonic activity to cease when everyone repents and becomes a Christian. There is a good deal of evidence that tectonic activity is vital for the renewal of creation.
I mentioned before that the tenets of the traditional answer are found in the Bible. It is Eliphaz the Temanite who asks Job: "Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?" (Job 4.7) It is Bildad the Shuhite who says "the hope of the godless shall perish" (Job 8.13). It is Zophar the Naamathite who says: "The eyes of the wicked will fail; all way of escape will be lost to them, and their hope is to breathe their last". (Job 11.20) The implication of all of these is that God punishes the wicked. Job answers them in his pain: "I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all." (Job 16.2) The "Christianity Today" editorial even quotes: "in The Wall Street Journal, Orthodox theologian David Hart described talk of God's inscrutable counsels as "odious" and the suggestion that such disasters serve God's good ends as "blasphemous."" I have little doubt that Job found the "comforting" of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, both odious and blasphemous. Indeed we are told that, twice, God said to Eliphaz: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right". God as well finds these doctrines odious and blasphemous folly. (Job 42.7,8). So it is not even a case of New Testament against Old.
I do not know if I even want to link the devastation of the tsunami to the actions of God, for the god who would destroy so many people for not being "Christian" is a demon in disguise. I am much happier trusting "him who justifies the ungodly", much happier with a God who welcomes others as well as me.
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