from the Service at Warragul, 13 July 2003


Psalm 24

2 Samuel 6: 1-19

Some of you may remember that last week we heard how Jesus visited his home town for the third time in Mark’s Gospel, and was unable to do many deeds of power, “because of their unbelief”.  His neighbours felt they knew him too well.  Who did this carpenter, this son of Mary, think he was?


They had almost the mirror image complaint against Jesus from the one Michal had against David.  She felt David did not act in a proper kingly fashion.  He behaved like a commoner, or perhaps a prophet.  The people of Nazareth felt Jesus should have behaved like a commoner, and instead behaved like a prophet!


Then Jesus sent out the twelve to act as prophets, and our Gospel reading takes up the story after their triumphal return.

Mark 6: 14 – 29


And from Ephesians we hear a passage that is part academic treatise, part hymn of praise to the God who is in control of the universe and all that is within it.

Ephesians 1: 3 – 14


The four Bible readings we have sung and heard read today place a hard choice before us:

How do we understand our God, “when bad things happen to good people”?


A couple of weeks ago the evening book club discussed a book of exactly that title by Harold S. Kushner.


There the hard questions that must be dealt with in this sermon, were addressed in a more appropriate forum.  There as we shared our faith, we could immediately stop one another and ask questions, if what was said did not make sense, or touched a raw nerve, or seemed too harsh in a place of deep pain.  This is the great value of small group interaction.  But not all of you wish to or are able to set aside time for such small group discussion, so we must make do with the sermon.  Please do contact me or another Christian friend and talk, if anything I say today really touches you at a deep level.  Our readings face us with real issues that will arise in each one of our lives at some time.  For most of us they have already touched us, and we have reached some sort of a resolution.  Issues of life and death, and worse. 


Our difficulties arise because we want to say our God is all powerful, all knowing and all loving, and when bad things happen to good people that leaves us with a problem.  How can an all loving, all powerful God, let bad things happen to good people?


In many religions the issue does not arise, because god is not seen as all loving, or perhaps is not seen as consistent, and justice is not an expectation.  In our modern society, people expect, but rarely get, justice, and that creates a problem.  And as Christians, knowing Jesus’ teaching about God’s love, we expect love from God. 


Kushner and I decide to allow that God has limited his powers, and chosen to live within certain rules of cause and effect, so allowing us his creatures free will to choose good or evil, and to learn from our choices.  By so limiting his power, God allows us a free choice as to whether we will love, ignore or hate him.  But never, under this theoretical understanding, does God stop loving us.  For me, God’s love, God’s grace, is God’s primary attribute.


Others in the discussion group chose a different way of answering the riddle.  They retained an absolute faith in God’s unlimited power, and were able to live with a lack of understanding about God’s love.


Now these four readings today face me with the problem again.  And they seem to come down with the second understanding, not my own.


What do John the Baptist and Uzzah have in common? They both fell to a flash of power that transcended them. This happens. An “accident” takes place, a sudden illness, perhaps a heart attack, occurs.  Sometimes those who tell the story see the hand of God as primary in the person’s demise. Other times the agent is more apparent. A drunken driver is involved, or a hereditary condition is diagnosed, or a terrorist action is discovered.  Another way to interpret the event is to assign it to fate, “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Is it not inconsistent to give God the credit for our being “in the right place at the right time” and consign the other to bad luck?  These are not just academic questions.  They face us with the issue of how we understand God, of who God is for us.  And how we understand God, who God is for us, affects the way we live every part of our lives.  Perhaps we have to wrestle with
the problem of God’s hand being in the evil that befalls us as well as the good. Otherwise, these Scriptures seem to suggest, our suffering becomes meaningless. Would we rather suffer at God’s hand than at the hand of a stranger—or worse, a mindless universe?  Satan can be offered as another agent, though not in these Scriptures. If I die because of Satan, I die related to Satan, not to God. I die because Satan has the greater claim on my life. I believe that regardless of how we die, the children of God die in relation to God.

Would you rather make a pastoral call on Uzzah's wife and children to say that his death was just one of those things that happens occasionally when a person tries to steady the arc, a million to one chance -- or come to say that the anger of the Lord "was kindled against him?"


A tough choice.


It is tough because we always want to represent God in a winsome way. More important, is that we represent God truthfully. Was God angry? Or, was God off duty when it happened? Or, is there a dispassionate side to God's power, God's provision for the consequences of our actions apart from our
intentions? I wouldn't presume to tell his wife more than I know, but I wouldn't withhold the truth I do know. She may well blame God anyway. These Scriptures suggest that it is better she should remember that God's anger does not endure like God's faithfulness.


There are people here today who are wrestling with the memory of dreadful loss, not limited to death. If we forbid them from wrestling with God, how will they ever find blessing?

Is God powerful only to save, not to destroy? Psalm 24 and our Ephesians passage celebrate God's power to save. The story from Samuel and Mark invite us to ponder God's power to destroy. Oh, yes, it was Herod's order, but that order would never have come had it not been for God's calling John to preach. Can the one who knows all things not bear some responsibility for all things? The way John died fits his calling and his obedience to that call. Is it bad that he died that way rather than some other way?  Is it bad that he died then, at the height of his prophetic ministry, rather than years later, perhaps in the Jerusalem Nursing Home for those suffering from alzheimers disease? 


See, these issues thrown up by our scriptures are still very real issues today. 


Still today God calls some of us to make difficult decisions in order to follow Jesus.  Christian discipleship still today is a way to the cross, and we sell our listeners short if we try and make out that life will always be easy and prosperous if they make a decision for Christ.  Christian values run counter to  western materialism and individualism.  We may not be beheaded as John the Baptist was, but we will probably be called on to make significant sacrifices in many areas of our lives.  We need to hold on to the faith that through crucifiction is resurrection joy.  And we need to learn to live by that faith, not from a need to “understand” everything.  There is a mystery at the heart of life and death, that we will interpret in various ways.  It is the living of God’s love, not the knowing of correct formulas of interpretation, that is essential.


The authors of these passages decide to understand God as one who has all the power to save or destroy us, and has chosen to save us. They reject the notion of God as one who only has the power to save us, and who has managed to snatch us from Satan who has the power to destroy us. That is one of the early, and still present, heresies of Christian faith.  That there are equal forces of good and bad in the world, and these are locked in combat.  To believe this heresy is to live in constant fear of the power of evil.  Real as it is, the power of evil can never overcome the power of God’s love.  As Christians we believe that God is God, and all things come from God.  That is one of the meanings behind the powerful myths in the first chapters of Genesis.  God gave us free will, and allows us to choose good and evil.  All have sinned, but our God has chosen grace over judgment... It is the mystery of God choosing us... 


Yes, we may choose to interpret this mystery in various ways.  Our Bible readings do it in one way, Kushner and I would choose another, which has, I believe, greater scriptural warrant.  But always we are left with the mystery.


It is the mystery of God's choosing us for grace over judgment in Christ Jesus that is the Gospel.


May you know, at the very core of your being, the truth of that mystery.  When life faces you with the hard questions and the difficult choices, may you be enfolded in the wonderful, all healing and all forgiving love of God.

When life and death collide, three things remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

When we know this love, we can dance as David did, for only God’s love is of ultimate concern.  Amen.

(In this sermon I have explored further some thought from the MCGREGORPAGE, which is available free to your e-mail inbox. To unsubscribe,
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