Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Psalm 77 - “I Don’t Know Why God Allows Natural Disasters”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 16, 2005

In this the last of our series called “What Would Jesus Say?” where we’ve been trying to address the questions that you’ve asked, we’ll look at natural disasters. There was quite a number of you asking about this, especially because we’ve had the Asian Tsunami on our minds.

There was one question that summed it all up: Why does God allow such massive tragedies in the world?

I don’t know. (sit down, wait)
(back to pulpit) OK, I can’t just sit down, but it feels like the questions you’ve asked in this series are ones that only Jesus can really answer. He didn’t leave us the answers. When you asked about prayer, a few weeks ago I had to say I don’t know why God doesn’t answer all of our prayers the way we’d expect. Last week, I heard Pastor Miller have to say that he doesn’t know why some people live a long life and some people die so young. It seems like for these questions the only answer I have is “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God allows such massive tragedies and disasters in the world.

So I’m just going to sit down. Perhaps it’d be better if we’d just use this time to read silently Psalm 77 to ourselves. It’s on the back of your bulletins. Maybe rather than me being up here saying, “I don’t know,” maybe it’d be better just to meditate, think about Psalm 77. (sit down)

Oh, but the question burns, doesn’t it? You try to just accept that we don’t know why God let the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, why there’s tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and earthquakes and avalanches. You try to just accept that God is in control, but the question burns, doesn’t it? Even when we tell ourselves, “God is watching over us” or “God has a plan,” even then, the why’s are still on our minds—like in Psalm 77.

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.

You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Those are the questions on our minds, aren’t they, when we see terrible natural disasters in the world? “Will the Lord always reject us? Will He never show His favor, His help again? Has His love vanished from the world?” Those are the burning questions, and when there aren’t answers, when all we can offer is “I don’t know,” well, we start to get a little more nervous when we hear about a severe weather warning.

I remember growing up knowing that when I looked out my bedroom window that the storms would approach us from the direction. We’d watch from my bedroom as the storm started to grow, as the skies turned that strange gray and green, as the patterns in the clouds really started to look like funnel clouds, as the sirens went off and told us to go downstairs. Whenever I looked out the window, I always knew that the storm would come from that direction, and really, there was nothing I could do about it. The tornadoes and wind and hail and rain could come and sweep away our house, or they might hit somewhere else. I knew then, even as I know now, the answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God allows such massive tragedies in the world. That questions burns and aches in our hearts, tempting us to find an answer.

Matthew Harrison, the Executive Director of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod World Relief, was traveling to survey the damage from the tsunami, and he met someone who thought they could answer the question: why would God allow such a massive tragedy? Harrison writes about the conversation in the current issue of the Lutheran Witness.

(leave pulpit, go near side door) He met a relief worker from another American denomination. The man said, (read quote off piece of paper), “Our people in Sri Lanka are telling us they are having great effectiveness in evangelizing. Yes, they are asking Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, ‘Where was your god in all this? Was he strong enough to prevent this evil from coming upon you? Jesus Christ can protect you!” (crumple up piece of paper and throw it out the side door)

(going back to pulpit) That’s not the kind of answer to give. Harrison says it was like getting “sucker punched” to hear this man imply that only non-Christians died in the tsunami. Harrison had already been to Sri Lanka, seen the devastation, seen “The Queen of the Sea,” the train which had been picked up and tossed around by the waves killing a thousand people. Among the people on the train was Pastor Ranjith Fernando and his wife. Pastor Ranjith had just translated the Lutheran Confessions into one of the native languages of his country. Pastor Ranjith and his wife were believers in Christ—their lives lost in the tsunami, the same as Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims, and people who didn’t believe in any god.

It is so tempting to give an answer, a reason as to why God would send a disaster like the tsunami. It bothers us so much that there is no clear reason that we’re tempted to come up with our own answer like that relief worker did, decide that if people were killed in the disaster, it must be because they didn’t believe in Jesus.

But as Matthew Harrison knew, the tsunami also took the lives of Christians. To tell people that they would’ve been protected if they believed in Jesus is to ignore this fact. It’s to ignore the fact that Christians suffer from natural disasters in this world too. In fact, that’s the most amazing fact about Jesus—He came and suffered among us. He didn’t come to promise that there would be no suffering in this life; He came and shared our suffered, shared our death, in order to give us victory after death. If we go around claiming that Jesus will always keep us from suffering in disasters, not only would we be denying reality, we’d be denying that Jesus came to share in our sufferings, the Christian life comes through the suffering of the cross, the Christian hope is that the suffering will not last for eternity, but until that day, Jesus will walk with us as we go through many difficult days and trials.

What does Scripture say, then? I don’t know. Why does God allow disasters? I don’t know. Read the second half of Psalm 77 to yourselves. I’m going to sit down again, because I just don’t know how to answer the question. (sit down, wait)

(back to pulpit) Did you notice this? Psalm 77 asks all of those tough questions, just like our tough question about why God allows such massive tragedies. Psalm 77 asks all of those questions, but did you notice? Psalm 77 doesn’t attempt to give an answer. Psalm 77 just appeals to God’s past gracious acts.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

With all of the questions on the psalmist’s mind, he decides that all he can do is appeal to God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s loving acts that He did in the past. It’s like He’s saying to God, “Look, I don’t know why this is happening, Lord. I don’t know why we’re suffering, but don’t forget your gracious acts, your miracles, your works that are powerful.”

So that’s it. When we see suffering and disasters in the world, we just have to say, “I don’t know why it happened,” but then we turn our attention to what we do know about God. We do know that God made this world, that God made us, that we are His Creation. We do know that God wants to be in a relationship with us and that’s why He sent Jesus to live, die, and rise again. We do know that through faith, through baptism, through Jesus, God will raise us from the dead. We know all of these gracious, merciful, wonderful works of God. We will hold onto these things even while we’re seeing disasters all around us. We will hold onto what we know about God—His love, His plan to give us a life of hope and peace in eternity, His promise to be with us through all suffering.

I’ve talked a lot about what we don’t know tonight. I’ve talked a lot about the fact that disasters come and there doesn’t seem to be any reason, any answers from God about why they come. BUT I’m asking you to hold onto what we do know about God.

We could spend our whole lives speculating about God, trying to look into things we never could understand, trying to figure out things that are never explained in Scripture. We could sit around and wonder and question and doubt and decide we don’t like any of the answers except for the answers we come up with on our own. We could do all of that—but in the process, we’ll miss out on what we do know. I could stay seated every time I preach, because I don’t know the answers to those difficult questions, feeling like there’s nothing to say because I can’t answer some of your questions. But if I stayed in my seat, we’d miss out on hearing again what we do know about God.

God made you—each one of you is unique, has gifts and abilities, has been given so much in many different ways. God wants to be in a relationship with you—He is your Father, your Shepherd, your King, your Friend, your Savior, your Eagle raising you up on His wings. God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to rescue you—Jesus is your Redeemer, your Brother, your Victor over death, your Life, your Light.

This is what we do know about God. This is what we can say when we see disasters in the world and when disasters hit our lives. We can ask God all of those questions, but then we turn to Him and say, “God, don’t forget that You made us. Don’t forget that You want to be in a relationship with us. Remember that You sent Your Son to give us life after death.”

So if someone asks about tonight’s church service, don’t tell them that your pastor answered questions about why God allows such massive tragedies in the world. Tell them that your pastor reminded you of what we know about God. We know God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s unfailing hope and promise of life after death.