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January 2, 2005 (Second Sunday after Christmas)
Intern Pastor Katy Grindberg
Brothers and sisters, grace and peace to you from God our loving creator and from Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen
One of the first things I do each day is turn on my computer and check a website with news headlines from various news agencies. Since Sunday, every time I have checked this website, there has been an update on the South Asia Tsunami--by update I mean a new and larger number of people who have died. It's hard to remember for certain, but I think the number of casualties was around 20,000 the first time I saw it. Then, the number increased by large steps. I remember the numbers 52,000, and 75,000 clearly, because I was able to relate them to the population of cities I'm very familiar with. At 75,000, I said to myself, "it's just like Lawrence, Kansas got wiped off the map." And then it topped 100,000 and the numbers became nearly impossible for me to really comprehend.
I have also been checking in with various news channels and watching some of their coverage. I caught the tail-end of a report from a mosque in Asia, where the imam was preaching on God's action in the tsunami--relating it to Noah and the flood. He reminded his congregation that in the story of Noah, the wicked were killed and Noah, the one righteous man, was saved, along with his family. I'm sure that he preached this sermon because the people of his congregation as well as people all over the world were and are asking where was God?
And, where was God? Not just in this disaster, but in others--whether they affect 100,000 or just you...where is God?... You may be either amazed or dismayed to know that there is a branch of theology that deals with just this question. Theodicy looks at where is God in human suffering, where is the hand of God in tragedy?
I have a confession to make here. I struggle with the image of God that the imam shared with his congregation. It brings to mind an avenging, angry God that kills multitudes of people. The people of the Old Testament certainly saw God in this way. We can relegate this kind of thinking to an ancient view of science, where there was no knowledge of undersea tectonic plates, or cancer cells, or mental illness and all came from God, the good and the bad--illness and healing; success or failure at war; bumper crops or famine--the people saw themselves as subject to God's pleasure or anger. Well, you may be saying, we are much more enlightened. We live in a modern (some of us in a postmodern) world. But then I ask you the same question, "where was God?" God may not have caused the earthquake that set of the tsunami, but certainly God could have stopped the giant waves that destroyed so much and killed so many.
This past summer, I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education in Kansas City. As a hospital chaplain, every day I met people who asked this question, and I asked it nearly every day myself--variations on "what does all this pain and suffering say about God?" Whether people believed that God was trying to teach them something, or that they had somehow displeased God, or that God would surely heal them "because they were good people of faith," or they were feeling abandoned by God, many were struggling with this question.
I didn't come up with any grand answer, but I think that John's gospel can help us. The gospel reading this morning was what some people call John's birth narrative. It's a cosmic view, certainly, placing Jesus with God from before even time began. I wonder, however if it isn't more like a narrative of Jesus' purpose, why he came to earth. The final verse we heard this morning, "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has make him known." The Greek word that is translated "who has made him known" is the word "exegete." An exegete is someone who studies and interprets, most often biblical texts. They look at the historical setting, literary style, and the original language of the text and interpret it for their time. John is telling us that Jesus is a living exegete of God--he is someone who has studied and interpreted God--for us.
What does Jesus tell us about God? When you think of Jesus, what kind of images or words come to your mind.....? What qualities of God does Jesus bring to life for you?...... I think of Jesus as compassionate, merciful, brave, a leader, charismatic. When we look to John's gospel, we find the seven "I am" statements, where Jesus said "I am..."
The gospel reading today mentions "light" several times in reference to Jesus. I think that even as post-modern people we continue to see light and darkness in much the same way as the ancient peoples did. We may have come a long way in geology and science and medicine, but light and darkness evoke similar emotions in us as they have for generations. For many, darkness brings up feelings of fear, ignorance, or danger. Light brings to mind safety, knowledge, or maybe bravery. For you light may bring different words to mind, but I think that as John identifies Christ as the "true" light, he represents all of the positive aspects of light.
The gospel tells us "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it." There is no darkness in this world that can extinguish or completely obscure the light of Christ. Whether the light is a dimly flickering candle or a red neon sign, the light of Christ will not be extinguished. In our baptism, as we were received into the family of God, as Collette Jones is today brought to the font--we were given God's promise to be with us through all of the times in our life--in darkness and in light.
Back to the question of theodicy. Where was God? Where was God in South Asia, or where was God in your personal tragedy? I believe that as a parent is holding a beloved child who died all too soon, God is there, hold the parent in God's arms and comforting him or her. God is working through the relief workers as they hand out clothing and fresh water and food. God is here among us as we worship and pray for those who are so far away. God is standing beside those who weep, weeping with them.
Does God "take" people who die at a time we might consider "too soon"? I don't know, but I am confident that God welcomes them with open arms when they arrive into God's presence. Because Jesus is the exegete of God, and that is what Jesus did. When the children who came to him and when others would have turned them away, Jesus opened his arms and welcomed them home.
May the true light, Jesus Christ, bring you light today and always.
Copyright © 2005 Katy Grindberg
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org