[Note: This is a re-post from a sermon I preached in January 2005] In typical end of the year fashion, on Thursday night, ABC ran a special called 2004 That Was the Year that Was. It was kind of amazing to watch and think about all the things that have happened this past year - historic and momentous events. It was truly a fascinating and devastating year. I found it interesting that ABC spun the whole thing in a satirical garb, stringing events together to kind of make fun of some very serious events. Of course, they didn't do that with Abu Ghraib or the death of American Soldiers or the death of Ronald Reagan in particular, but the tone of the whole show was one of mockery. It was almost like there was so much heaviness in this past year, that only satire and irony could deal with it. Let's face it, this past year was a difficult year in history for a lot of reason. There has been a lot of devastation and a lot of death this year. We've had devastation at the hands of our fellow human beings in extraordinary numbers and horrific events.
- 191 people killed by terrorists on a train in Madrid in March.
- 300 people, over half of which were children, killed in School Number One by Chechen Militants in Beslan, Russia.
- Prisoners tortured and humiliated by our own troops at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
- The regular daily death by Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli military intervention in Israel and the Gaza Strip.
- 1,481 Coalition troops, 1,331 of which were Americans, killed in Iraq this year. (CNN)
- Though there is no official count in Iraq, estimates range between 10,000 and 37,000 civilian deaths. (BBC, Iraq Body Count, Lanclet)
- 1.8 million people displaced from their homes in the Sudan, with a death toll of over 70,000 since March alone with projections ranging near 300,000. (W.H.O., CNN, UNICEF)
And each of those events were caused by deliberate action by our fellow human beings. But deliberate actions or terror or war are not the only things that brought devastation this year. Issues of neglect and the injustice arising from either our unwillingness to make a greater difference have a huge effect as well. · According to the UNICEF 2005 State of the Children Report, 10.6 million children die each year before the age of 5, most of which could have been prevented. (Based on 2003 statistics) · 1 Million Africans each year die of malaria and 2 million of AIDS. Most of these are children. (www.datadata.org) What kind of world is this that we live in when such devastation by our own hands and our own neglect has become so commonplace that we have become almost anesthetized from the daily reality? How is it that human action and human inaction can be so inhumane? Recently I've read some projections about the future from those who study the past and present and trends, and I hear it over and over again: the future is violent. What world are we passing on to our children in which terror is a common word, power seems to reign, commerce comes before the lives of children, and where we Americans strive more and more to isolate ourselves from the reality of suffering in and around the world? A couple of weeks ago, I said something like these words: In the incarnation of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmastime, God did not remain at a distance, but came up close to each of us in our individual pain, sorrow, and struggle. The pattern of God is to not remain at a distance, not to isolate himself, not to build protective walls and dispassionate existence. Instead, God's pattern is to infiltrate, to integrate, to incarnate - to enter into the middle of the world's pain and sorrow and struggle, to come up close, and to bring to that place hope, healing, life, and a future.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." [Jeremiah 29:11]
Are those words that we truly, deeply believe? Because this year was a year of devastation at the hands of our own fellow human beings, including ourselves, we ought to be asking ourselves, "What have we done and what are we doing with our world?" Something has gone terribly wrong, and we are part of it. Though our pop understanding of ourselves and our marriage to technological innovation may allow us to say over and over to ourselves that we are smarter, stronger, and more civil human beings than in years past, the raw numbers only show that we are able to kill and destroy on a grander scale with more precision at a greater distance from the devastation we exact upon each other. We have got to wrestle with this reality of what we are doing to one another and to our world not only on a global scale, but on a day to day personal scale. But there is another reality we have to wrestle with. This morning, it's being reported that almost 150,000 people have died because of the earthquake and ensuing Tsumani in Indonesia. Those are the immediate deaths, and it looks like there will be many more due to disease and malnutrition. And it's virtually guaranteed that this devastation will be something to wrestle with for years to come. But the question that comes to mind is the question that Job asked years ago: "God, where are you? I thought this was your world? Why would you allow so many people - so many children - to drown or die of disease because of an earthquake in the middle of the ocean? Don't you own the seas? Didn't you form the mountains and the seas, and are faults in the earth's core part of your creation? What gives, and where are you?" The philosophical question of The Problem of Evil upon which many great books have been written, becomes a real, existential battle in the lives of real human beings who cry out to God with the language of Job, with the fervor of the Psalmist in full lament, who cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes and mourn with uncontrollable weeping. I get impatient with the academic philosophical question, but my heart breaks at the real life experience. So, what do we say, or what can we hear this morning when we turn to God, looking back on a year of human-to-human evil and the devastation of natural events? The first thing we have to say is that this is God's world. He created it, he sustains it, he is sovereign over it, he rules it, he redeems it. This world belongs to God. But who is this God is he allows his people to destroy each other? Who is this God if he allows disasters like the Tsunami in Indonesia?
- He is a God who comes up close.
- He is a compassionate God who grieves, laments, cries.
- He is a God of hope who promises that he will put an end to all this destruction - both human and "natural".
- He is an active God who seals his promise by coming in the flesh, bearing in his own body the suffering of his people.
The second thing that we can say is that God calls his people to follow him in his ways.
- God wants us to come up close.
- God wants us to be compassionate, grieving, lamenting, and crying.
- God wants us to offer the hope that he has spoken to us that he will put an end to all this destruction.
- God wants us to actively be working out his promise with the grace of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, living in revolutionary opposition to the kingdom of darkness that so pervades this world in which we live.
Where do we begin? We begin with the acknowledgement that this is our Father's world, and that he is able to command even the winds and the waves. HE created it, he sustains it, he is soveriegn over it, and this world belongs to God. Some are called to immediate action. Others of us, for whatever reason, are not on the "front lines". But we bear out part. Then we do as Jehosaphat did: Jehosaphat and the people were faced with a huge coming devastation.Jehosaphat proclaimed a fast. (2 Chronicles 20:3)
Jehosaphat called all the people together to seek the Lord. (2 Chronicles 20:4)Jehosaphat called on God for who he says he is: Are you not the God of the heavens? Are you not the ruler of the nations? Is not power and might in your hand? (2 Chronicles 20:6)
Jehosaphat said: "IF calamity comes upon us, we will stand in your presence before this temple that bears your Name and will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us and save." He was speaking of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus has present himself as our temple, and so calamity has come and we stand in the presence of God before Jesus, the temple that bears God's Name and we cry out to him in our distress, believing that he will hear us and save. (2 Chronicles 20:9) Jehosaphat realized that he and the people were powerless to face the calamity coming upon them. (2 Chronicles 20:12) He fully realized that they didn't know what to do, and that their eyes were fixed on him. It's true in so many ways that we don't know what to do about violence in the Middle East, about AIDS in Africa, about the crisis in Darfur, about the civil conflict in Chechnya and the Ukraine, about the devastation in Indonesia, about starving, disease ridden, and dying children around the world. Admitting that is an important step, and fixing our eyes on Jesus is where we can truly find not only hope, but answers about what to do.Then, all the men of Judah, with their wives and children and little ones, stood there before the Lord. (2 Chronicles 20:13) They really trusted that the God of the heavens, the ruler of the nations, the God of power and might not only cared, but would come with his presence and with real answers. We can do that same thing today.
- Acknowledge the sovereignty of God.
- Admit our need.
- Admit our inability to address that need without God.
- Seek his face.
- And respond to him when he answers.
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