Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

A sermon focussing on the devastating fires in southern Australia

Text: Mark 1:40-41
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."  Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.
A firefighter stops to help a victim of the bushfires in Victoria

He reaches out and touches me

This past week to 10 days have been heart wrenching. There have been the floods up north with damage to property, supplies unable to get through flooded roads and railway lines, the loss of crops and income; jobs put on hold as people wait for the flood waters to recede.

Down south in Victoria we have seen through our TV screens and newspapers the ferocity of a fire driven by a strong dry winds and fuelled with sun dried grass and bushland. We have grieved with those who have lost so much Ė bushland, homes, cars, farms and every material possession people have owned as the results of years of hard work and sacrifice. We have wept with those whose family members and friends were caught up in the flames and were either killed or severely burnt.

In our lounge and family rooms we witnessed the heartache and emotion as people who were still clinging to some kind of hope hear that a member of their family, or in so many cases, several members of their family did not make it to safety.
On the other hand we have rejoiced with those who have been reunited with people whom they feared had perished in the fire.

We have heard stories of miraculous escapes, of heroism, of desperation, fear and sacrifice as the raging out of control wall of flame devoured everything in its path and threatened to overwhelm every living thing that stood in its way.
We witnessed how schools, churches, homes, farms and bushland would suddenly burst into flame as hot embers were carried by the wind and fell down indiscriminately on anything below and setting it ablaze.

We have watched the death toll rise during the week to over 180 people and itís predicted to go even higher as more are found in the burnt out ruins. This has been labelled the worst loss of Australian lives in peacetime.

What a rollercoaster ride of emotion we have endured this week and added to every feeling we have experienced this week comes anger as we hear that it seems that some of these fires were deliberately lit. The images we have in our minds are so vivid and the feelings so strong that itís no wonder that some people are saying that they canít sleep or when they do these images keep flashing back in their dreams.

With all this happening itís normal for us to ask the question, "Why has this happened". Itís part of our human nature to want answers and so some resort to the same kind of theology that Job in the Old Testament had to endure. He was told that his personal loss of family, property, house and everything he owned was a clear indication that he was guilty of some deep sin. Just acknowledge and confess it, he is told, and his pain will cease.

When a blind man approached Jesus to be healed, the onlookers were convinced that he was blind because either he or someone in his family must have done something really terrible and his blindness was God's punishment.

You can bet that every time an event like a tsunami, flood, fire, earthquake or volcanic eruption happens someone will say that these have happened because God has pronounced judgment on those people who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as their Lord. Iíve heard this said again during the past week. If that is the case then the question needs to be asked, why have good, God-fearing, innocent people suffered as well? Why have the homes, family and friends of small children been taken away? Why have Christians suffered as much as anyone else? And so we are left confused because the God we know doesnít seem to match up with the God of the firestorm who appears to be uncaring and heartless.

I wonder if the leper in todayís gospel reading was ever confused about God and wondered whether God really cared about him or not. I wouldnít be surprised if he did because leprosy was such a terrible disease and everyone avoided lepers and cut them off from the people they loved and every other meaningful relationship. It wouldnít surprise me to hear of a leper challenging God and asking why such a horrible disfiguring disease should fall on him especially if he was conscientious in following God's ways, studied the scriptures and regular in worship. It wouldnít surprise me at all if he asked "Why me? What have I done to deserve this?" Maybe he had a wife, children, a good job and lived a good respectable life, so it would be normal to question God.

If the leper had any thoughts like this we certainly donít hear about them in the gospel reading. He simply comes to Jesus and begs Jesus to help him. He knows Jesus has the power to help him; he knows something of the love that Jesus shows to others, even the least deserving. The gospel writer records numerous occasions in the first chapter that Jesus was able to drive out demons and so it follows that if he can do that he has the power to cure leprosy. All questions are put aside, all the whys and wherefores are not important and he simply kneels before Jesus in trust and confidence.

The healing of this man has stood for two thousand years as a testimony that God's love can be trusted. We may not always understand what is happening but God does and we can be confident that he doesnít let go of us for one single moment. He keeps on hugging us and comforting us even in those times when we are the most confused about the events that have unfolded, full of doubt, with more questions than there are answers.
He keeps on holding us close even when we are overcome with tears and hurt, and all we want to do is scream at him.

I am reminded of Joseph in the Old Testament. Here was a man beaten up by his brothers and sold into slavery. He is wrongly convicted of a rape and ends up in jail.
I wonder how many times Joseph was close to despair because it all seemed so unfair and so wrong?
I wonder if Joseph at some time yelled at God "Why?"

When Joseph meets up with his brothers, they are scared. They are sure Joseph will be out to get revenge. They were wrong. Joseph makes the point that even though he didnít understand what was happening to him at the time, God was with him. In fact, he states that God used the situation to put him in a position to be able to save his family from certain starvation.

Joseph recognised that even though bad things had happened to him and it seemed as though God was nowhere to be found, in actual fact, he was never far away. We donít understand everything that happens in this world. From our point of view it seems all so unfair and that God, for some reason, has stopped caring for us and protecting us.

When we see suffering and disasters as we have witnessed this past week, we just have to say, "I donít know why God has allowed this to happen," and 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 he loves us and wants us to be happy and secure.
We do know that God wants to be in a relationship with us and thatís why he sent Jesus to live, die, and rise again.
We do know just how much God loves us as we gaze at the cross and realise that God's love will lead him to do anything for us.
We do know that through faith, through baptism, through Jesus, that God's commitment to us is certain and strong and that he will raise us from the dead.
We do know that he is our loving Father, our Shepherd, our Friend, our Saviour.
We do know that he promises that he will renew our strength and we will rise up on wings like eagles.

We know all of these gracious, merciful, wonderful works of God. We will hold on to these things even while weíre seeing disasters all around us. We will hold on to what we know about Godóhis love, his plan to give us a life of hope and peace in eternity, his promise to be with us through all suffering. We donít understand the tragic events that have happened but we do understand what a powerful love God has for each of us.

And even if we should be caught up in something that will lead to us suffering or dying, we know that God's love will never change and that nothing in the entire world, not even death itself, can separate us from the love that God has for us.

I donít pretend to understand why things happen the way they do. But I do know that Jesus does for us what he did for the leper. He sees us in our anguish. He has compassion on us and reaches out, touches us and soothes our troubled minds and confused souls with the knowledge that, in spite of what we see happening around us in the world, the love that God has for us never stops.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
15th February 2009

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