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Approaching God in Suffering. A sermon preached by Rev Scott Watts on March 11th at Great Staughton Church

On March 11th 2012 Rev Scott Watts preached the third in our series of Evensongs offered during Lent in St Neots Deanery.

Scott is lead chaplain at Hinchingbrooke Hospital and the service took place at St Andrews Church, Great Staughton.

St Neots Deanery Evensong

Great Staughton

11 March 2012

 

‘Approaching God in Suffering’

 

Isaiah 53: 1–5

Psalm 130

Luke 23: 26 & 32–43

First, let me say what a privilege it is to be here with you.  I come, of course, with greetings and love from the Chaplaincy Team at Hinchingbrooke Hospital.  My thanks to Annette for inviting me to preach and for helping me to remember, when I feel isolated at the hospital, that I am part of a big and loving family.  And, although she can’t be with us this evening, I also want to thank Judi, for allowing me to preach here.

As we explore together over the next few minutes the vexed issue of suffering and, more particularly, where God is to be found, or, indeed, if God is to be found, when we encounter suffering in our lives, or in the lives of those we love and care about, I want to begin with this quote from Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and author.

The quote is taken from his book, ‘Night’, a personal memoir of the Holocaust, and here he’s recounting witnessing the hanging of three people – two adults and a child.  As he and the other prisoners are forced to watch, Wiesel writes:

“I heard [a man behind me] asking: “For    God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I             heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is        where – hanging here from this gallows.””[1]

Let’s pray… Heavenly Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and so give each one of us a glimpse of the glory of the Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

For Elie Wiesel, who had witnessed more atrocities at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, than we can ever imagine, the quote that I just read marked the beginning of the end of his faith.

As one who has never had to witness such an horrendous example of man’s inhumanity to man, I read something different in his words.  I agree with the answer that Wiesel gave.  Where was God in that suffering?  He was right there, hanging on the gallows with those two men and that angel-faced, as Wiesel described him, boy.

But, unlike Wiesel, I don’t accept that God was dying.  He certainly isn’t dead.

In our own recent history, we, too, might have some questions for God.  Where was God in the Trenches of the Great War?  Where was He in the devastation that Hiroshima and Nagasaki became?  Where was God when the six young soldiers were blown up in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan on Wednesday?  Where is God to be found around the person dying of HIV/Aids and with the children that they’ll leave behind when they die?  Where is God in the suffering of the patient dying slowly, yet with so much dignity, of cancer, or Motor Neurone Disease?  Where was God with the young man who died in the hospital recently, as his wife and six-month old child looked on?

To begin to find the answers to questions like the ones I’ve just vocalised, but that, if we’re honest, most of us have thought, or even asked, at points in our lives when we, too, have encountered suffering, we must turn for a while to the three readings that we listened to a few minutes ago.

The prophet Isaiah reminds us, in chapter 53, that God, in and through his beloved, Jesus Christ, not only understands suffering, but knows it personally.

Isaiah was foretelling that when God took on human form, when he became like one of us, in every way – except sin – he became a ‘man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity’.  He was to be ‘despised and rejected’, despite suffering for us, despite healing us, in the most holistic understanding of that word.  He is one who knows what sickness and disease and suffering is all about because He has carried them – and does carry them – and will carry them – for us.

The pen picture that Isaiah paints here is not of a God who sits aloof and distant in the heavens, but one who, in any and every situation, is right there with us.  That, surely, is what the Incarnation is fundamentally all about – God with us.  Always.  Forever.  No matter what.

We see this illustrated perfectly in Luke’s account of the crucifixion.  No throne of splendour for King Jesus.  No royal robes.  No jewel-encrusted crown.  The crowds witnessing this event weren’t crying out ‘Vivat!’  Having successfully called for His crucifixion, they were now mocking Him: “He saved others; let Him save Himself if He is the Messiah of God, His chosen one!”

For this King, his earthly throne is a cross – a place of torture and suffering; his robes, his own flesh; and his crown, one of thorns.  As Isaiah foretold, ‘a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmities’.  And, yet, in all of that, a God who, in the words of Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, ‘promises a place of honour and bliss to one who requests it.’[2]

This is all the more amazing when we understand the Greek: the word ‘scoffed’ in verse 35 really means sneering, or ‘turning up their noses at Him’; and the rather sanitized ‘deriding Him’ of verse 39, better translates as ‘blasphemed’ or ‘abused’ Him.

Psalm 130 was, of course, written many thousands of years before the crucifixion, and yet for us, exploring where God is to be found in suffering, it brings together Isaiah’s and Luke’s themes.

It is a stark reminder, one, perhaps, that we’d rather not hear, that it is all part of the human condition to know suffering.  The opening words set the scene, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…’

What do those few words tell us?   They tell us that there will be times in our own lives when we will find ourselves in the depths – of sickness: physical, mental, emotional or spiritual; the depths of despair, of separation or divorce, of unemployment, of homelessness, of financial austerity, or grief and bereavement and so much more.

They tell us that, even there, or, I would say, especially there, that we can, and should, cry out to God.  God isn’t simply the God of the good times – He is that, of course.  He rejoices when we rejoice.  But, far more importantly, He is the God and perfect Father and Mother who walks with us through the depths of all kinds of suffering and, when we weep, who weeps with us.

You see, the answer to each of the questions that we posed earlier, is the same: Where was God to be found in the trenches?  He was right there – in the mud, blood and gore.

Where was God to be found in the suffering caused by the nuclear weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  He was right there – amidst the ashes of human remains, amidst the flattened, charred landscape, that those places had become in a moment.  He was right there, holding the foreheads of those sick because of radiation poisoning.

Where was God to be found on Wednesday, when those six young soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device? God was right there with them in their Warrior armoured vehicle.

Where is God to be found in the person dying of HIV/Aids and with that person’s soon-to-be orphans?  He is right there in the fighting for breath, in the weeping for loss.

Where is God to be found in the suffering of the terminally ill patient in the hospital, or hospice or bedroom at home?  He is there in the midst of the chaos and devastation.  He is there in the acute, unbearable pain and brokenness.

Where is God to be found with the young man who died in hospital recently, as his wife and six-month old baby looked on?  He was tangibly present in the side room of that busy, noisy and chaotic ward – His presence felt and acknowledged by all those who visited, even those who professed no faith.

All of our readings remind us that hopelessness does not equate to abandonment by God.  The opposite, in fact, is true.  Our Father stands with arms outstretched, ready to comfort us and carry us through all suffering, if only we seek Him.

He was present, is present and will be present in those and every other example of suffering.  In the words of the Franciscan priest and theologian, Richard Rohr: ‘God is to be found in all things, even and most especially in the painful, tragic and sinful things – exactly where we do not want to look for God.’[3]

But it is there, in those situations, that we, as God’s people, are called, by virtue of our baptisms, to look for Him.

What people find, when they do that, when they seek God in suffering, is often surprise – surprise that God is there – not superficially present because of any religious hype or priestly incantations, but powerfully, majestically and tangibly there – the Word who became flesh and who made His dwelling with us.

Seek, and you, too, shall surely find Him.

Amen.


[1] Wiesel, E, 1958 ‘Night’, (London: Penguin), 65

[2] Wright, NT, 2001 ‘Luke for Everyone’, (London: SPCK), 284

[3] Rohr, R, 1999 ‘Everything Belongs’, (USA: Crossroad Publishing Co), 177

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright, 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

March 15, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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