Over the last few weeks the presidents of two North African countries have been deposed. There have been protests in many others. There appears to be the beginning of a civil war in Libya. There has been a huge earthquake in Christ Church, New Zealand, and another this week off the coast of Japan, both causing massive destruction and loss of life.
What are we to make of all this? It seems to me that our beliefs and faith have to be able to make some sense of this kind of thing, or they are not really much good. I believe that they are good, and that they can help us make some sense of what is going on, and more than that, I believe that our Christian beliefs can guide the way that we respond to what is happening in the world around us.
Following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I asked Keith if I could change the Bible readings for this morning so that we could have the chance to think about these things together.
One of the big questions that face us when we hear about these things is, “If God is so good and so mighty, then why do these awful things happen?”
I think that part of the answer to that question is found in Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus who lived in Rome. He is writing about suffering, both the suffering of the believers, and also of the general suffering that goes on in the world. Paul’s thoughts are expressed in a fairly complex way, but it seems that his basic idea is this: when God created everything, God did so in a way which meant that human beings and the rest of creation were linked together. What human beings chose to do would have an impact on what happened to the rest of creation.
We were created to be in perfect, loving relationship with God, but we decided that we knew better than God, and were not satisfied with our rightful place in creation, we wanted to be God. Our insistence on breaking out of our place in creation, twisted the rest of creation. It was broken, and we broke it. Our ongoing rebellion against God’s ways leads to wars and conflict. It also leads to the groaning of creation, which is not able to be as it was created to be, and so unnatural disasters happen and cause death and destruction.
“But why doesn’t God stop it?” Paul answers that God has provided a way for it to be stopped. Jesus came to live, die, and be raised to life so that people can have a relationship with God again. Because of this, in time, creation will be released from its captivity and these horrendous events will stop happening. However, God has not brought time to an end yet, because God wants more people to become God’s children. God could bring this age of waiting to an end today, and restore creation to its perfection. Who do you know who has not yet met with Jesus? Do you want God to stop waiting for them?
So, it seems to me that these kinds of things happen because people have decided that they do not want to live in God’s ways. God has not stopped them yet because God has made it possible for people to change their minds, and God is waiting for them.
So, if it is right that these kinds of things are going to keep happening until Jesus returns, what should we do about it? What should our reaction be?
It seems to me that the first thing to say is that we should not be alarmed. In our reading from Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, we hear Jesus talking to his followers. He’s telling them about some of the things that will happen after he has left them. He warns them that they will hear about all kinds of wars and conflicts, and even natural disasters. More importantly, he tells them not to be alarmed. They have been warned that they are coming, and that they are part of the process of the new kingdom, God’s kingdom, being born.
Being a man I am a little fearful of following Jesus’ illustration, but usually when a woman goes into labour there is a certain amount of urgency about getting to the hospital or getting some water boiled, but as long as it’s at about the right time and the contractions aren’t too close together, the pains of childbirth are not a cause for alarm. They might hurt like fury, and cause a lot of shouting and screaming, but they are a sign of new life coming. Jesus has warned us that painful things are going to happen as his new kingdom is born, but we can trust him that in the end there will be new life, so we do not need to be alarmed.
So, if we are not to be alarmed, what are we to do? What can we do for those caught up in these events? It’s all very well for us to say that we do not need to be alarmed, but what about the people who live in these places, whose families and friends are dead or dying. What can we do for them?
Sometimes it feels to me like whatever I do in response to these events is futile. Last year, when John and I ran the Potters ‘Arf, we raised money for the relief work in Haiti. Now we sit and watch news stories about how it’s still a compete mess out there. We might feel like we should pray, but we don’t know where to start. Do our little prayers here really make a difference? I believe that we should not be discouraged by how little we think we can do. On the practical side I do think that many people doing what they can to help can add up to a massive outpouring of support. The Red Nose day things going on at the moment prove that. On the prayer side, we might not feel like we know what to pray for, but as Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us to pray.” We just need to make up our minds to do it.
North Africa may seem a long way from here, but the impact of the conflict there is felt here as the petrol prices shoot up to record levels. How high do they have to go before there is unrest on the streets here, before there are riots and maybe even deaths? One of the things that I think shocks us, especially about things like natural disasters, is their randomness, suddenness, their unexpectedness. I know of two friends of mine who had family in Christ Church, New Zealand, within the last fortnight. It seems to me that there is a feeling that it could have been us, or someone we know.
So, although we know we are not to be alarmed by these events, there is a question that I think that they prompt for us. A question that we need to take seriously: Are we ready for our deaths? If it had been us, or if it was to be us next week, are we ready for our death? Lent is an appropriate time to be thinking about this. It is the period of the year that leads up to Easter, the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The forty days are inspired by the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, being tempted. It was these forty days that prepared Jesus for his life of ministry and, in the end, for his death.
It is also a good time to be thinking about this question because two of the traditional disciplines of Lent: self-examination and repentance, and giving away money and things, are two of the disciplines that need to be a part of our life if we are to be ready for our death, whenever it comes.
The first of these, self-examination and repentance is important because it is part of us keeping short accounts with each other and with God. In self-examination we spend time thinking about the way that we speak to people, the thoughts that we have about them, and the way we act towards them. We ask the Holy Spirit to show us where we get these things wrong. We then change them, and say sorry to people for the ways in which we have been wrong.
We refuse to hold grudges. We don’t talk about people behind their backs. We build up and encourage, rather than attack and pull down. As we develop these ways of relating to people, we break away from the holds of regret and of hatred, holds that can last through death unless we choose to break them in life. As we change, we also build up our relationship with God. We can be confident that when we die and face our Creator and Judge, we will not have so much to be ashamed of, because we will have dealt with it before we got there.
The second of these disciplines, giving away money and things, is important because it is part of us sitting easy to the things of this life. Jesus taught us that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He was quite clear that we need to take every opportunity to build up our treasure in heaven and to break the hold of treasure here on earth. It really is true that “you can’t take it with you” and “there are no pockets in a shroud”. Whatever physical things we have in this earthly life will not be there in our new one. So, let us enjoy the good things that God has given us here, but not become so attached to them that at the moment of our death we are looking back at them rather than forward to the glory that awaits us.
So, for the sake of creation which is waiting with groans for the children of God to be revealed, and for the sake of living a good life and dying a good death I invite you, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. Amen.