Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Psalm 40:1,2
I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.

Where is God?

What a week this has been. Last Sunday we were thinking about and praying for the people up north in Rockhampton, Theodore and other places out west as flood waters surged through their communities leaving a trail of mud and debris, flooded houses and ruined businesses and farms. I was worshipping with my parents thousands of kilometres from here and we prayed for those people up north.

Within a few days unexpectedly this whole situation came closer to home than we would have preferred. The day I was due to fly back from Adelaide ferocious storms and subsequent flooding hit our community. Then there was the devastation that hit Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley and the loss of life that accompanied such an "inland tsunami" as it has been called. Then the flooding of the Brisbane River with homes, schools, the central business district of Brisbane shut down, sports facilities inundated with muddy sludge.

We witnessed on our TVs the bravery of those who rescued people being washed away by fast flowing water or from the roofs of their homes. We witnessed the despair of those who tried to save people only to watch helplessly as those in the water were swept away. We saw men and women, some victims of the floods, others rescue workers, others state and community leaders fight back tears as they recalled what had happened and what was still unfolding.

Right now people are going back to their homes and discovering the devastation. Some houses have been completely destroyed, cars wrecked, slimy oozing mud covering everything in their homes and businesses.

People and congregations around the world Canada, USA, Denmark, Japan, - around Australia who have come to know St Paulís through the internet have emailed that they are praying for those affected by all that has happened. We are told that this is the largest natural disaster that our nation has ever had.

One man in his email said that he couldnít help but ask the question, "Where is the hand of God in all of this?" Maybe he is reflecting the same thoughts as the psalmist when he calls on God to help him. He wrote in Psalm 69,
Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can't find a foothold to stand on.
I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me.
I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched and dry.
My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me.

The writer isnít talking about floodwaters in a literal sense but using this image to refer to the many things that are threatening to overwhelm him and drown him in grief and pain, and yet in spite of this he calls on God to help him. He is exhausted from praying. He believes that God knows what is happening and wonders why God has let all this happen Ė he is waiting for God to intervene. The imagery of these verses about floodwater, mud and sludge and being overwhelmed emotionally could well be a description of the experiences of this past week and how people are feeling. We understand and can sympathise with those who join the writer of Psalm 22 and ask, "My God, where are you? Why have you abandoned me just at the time when I need you the most?"

The writer of Psalm 147 says that God sends the snow and frost and hail
God speaks, the ice melts. God breathes, the waters flow.
If we believe that God directs the weather
that God speaks and the earth shudders
that God can calm the waves with a word
it follows then God has power over a flood and a bushfire.
Is it possible to take one more logical step and say that God causes disasters like those we have seen this week or perhaps stands back and lets them happen?

In recent memory we have had bushfires, drought, tsunamis, cyclones, other places have had snowstorms and blizzards and now floods Ė all involving loss of life. Thatís not to mention all the human tragedies like September 11, wars, abortions, suicides, and so on. It only takes a small step to conclude that if God is a loving God as Christians claim, then why does he do nothing to prevent floods, tsunamis, and bushfires, brain damaged babies and youth suicide? How can anyone be expected to believe in a God like that?

Sometimes we try to defend God and in the process give pat simplistic answers that really arenít very helpful when people are struggling to come to terms with personal loss and suffering as experienced by our fellow Australians at the moment. Answers like Ė
"God has sent this to test (or strengthen) our faith" or
"One day we will be able to look back and see why God has allowed this to happen".
We might even say that these natural disasters were never intended when God created the world, but to use Paulís expression "because of death and decay, all creation is groaning" - groaning as a result of the sinfulness of humanity.

Though there is truth in these statements from a head knowelge point of view, they arenít all that helpful in a situation of overwhelming emotional pain and anguish. They donít help the suffering person who is trying to make sense of his/her pain. They only add to the conflict in their minds of how God can allow this to happen to the people he claims to love.

There is one thing that is clear. We have more questions than we have answers. There is certain hiddenness about God. There are so many things that we donít understand about the way God works.

As Christians it's ok to question God and ask him what he thinks he is doing. The writers in the Bible did that when trouble overwhelmed them. Didnít Jesus call out from the cross quoting Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me"? No doubt there will be times when each of us in the depths of trouble and overwhelming emotion question God and ask where he has been during everything that has been happening.

We are people who like to have answers. We are uncomfortable with the whole notion that something is beyond our grasp. We have an acute sense of what is fair and just and what we have witnessed this week doesnít match what we would consider to be fair and just. What have people done to deserve this kind of trouble? We have to admit that we donít have all the answers.
We have to say that the indiscriminate way that natural disasters strike people confuses us, makes us sad and even angry and we wish we had more answers to the questions that fill our minds.

The question that faces us is this: In pain, in suffering, in bewilderment and confusion, in sickness and in disasters, can we still trust God to be our God?
Can we love God in spite of the cards that are dealt out to us in life?
I guess for many of us we can keep on trusting most of the time, but occasionally something hits us and really overwhelms us like a raging torrent. It strikes us so deeply that our love and trust in God is rocked.

Because we have been shaken to our very core, we find it hard to have the faith, the strength and the trust to hang on to God. Our own personal resources to cope are as low as they can get.Thank goodness God is right beside us, holding on to us and keeping us safe. Even when we think God has left us all alone in our personal sadness and grief, God promises that he will keep on loving us and holding on to us and supporting us and helping us whatever may happen. As Christians we know that when we have come through it all we realise that it has been God's strong hand that has held us up above the thing that wants to drown us.

It just so happens that the psalm set down for today is Psalm 40 and it says it so well, "I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along".

The writer has come to the realisation that even when it seemed that God hadnít heard his prayer and his pleas for help, he was there all the time. He did hear his cry and he has lifted him up out of the mud and sludge of despair; he has set his feet on solid ground and steadied him when he felt as if would fall again.

As we think back on all that has happened in our lives, the mistakes, the tragedies, the one thing that enables us to keep our senses is knowing that the love of God supports us through every tragedy and difficult time. It is the love of God we see in Jesus that assures us that God does care. Even when we are in the murkiest and muddiest places the psalmist reminds us that the love of God will hold us up and steady us as we move on with our lives and that he will hold on to us even when we are too weak to hold on to him by ourselves. In the arms of Jesus we know what kind of heart God has for us no matter what may happen.

Without a doubt, we struggle to make sense of the disasters that cause so much ruin and pain in our world. There will be times when we will seriously question God's wisdom.
We will struggle to make sense of the disasters and find ourselves saying again and again, "I donít understand".
But one thing we do understand is that God's goodness and love can be trusted, that gives us a new hope for the future and thatís all that counts.

As the writer of the psalm said,
I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.


 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
9th January 2011
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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