January 9, 2005
St John’s, Bangor The Rev. Kevin G. Holsapple
I spent last week in my bed, flat on my back. I was born with a defect in my spine, so I have problems with my back. I was born with five fingers, but some little boys are born with four fingers. We all make do with the body we get. That is God’s will.
I couldn’t do very much. Moving just a fraction of an inch produced a frightful jolt of pain. I had to lie completely still. Sometimes I could hold a book to read it; sometimes I could hold a mandolin to play it, but most of that week I spent just listening to the radio. Lots of news last week: terrible, terrible news! There was an earthquake under the Pacific Ocean, and the earthquake produced a wave, and the wave came to shore and washed away a hundred thousand people.
You know I am a bookish person. That’s my temperament; I think I was born that way. I know more about the history of a thing than I know about the thing itself. As I listened to the radio describe the earthquake in Asia, I thought about an earthquake in a history book. In 1755, there was an earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean, near the coast of Portugal. It shook the city of Lisbon so hard, nearly every building collapsed. And then, as those poor people stumbled out from the smoking ruins of their houses, the tidal wave hit the city. A hundred thousand people died.
You might remember that Europe in the 18th century was entering a period of disenchantment from the Christian religion. Some historians believe that the Lisbon earthquake played an important role in the disenchantment. The French philosopher Voltaire, for one example, considered that the Lisbon earthquake provided proof that the Christian religion was not true. For Voltaire it was obvious: there cannot be a loving, all-powerful God governing the world! How could the Christian revelation be true, with such suffering and destruction in the world?
On the Sunday following the Lisbon earthquake, Christian clergy across the European continent climbed into pulpits and called the people to repentance. “Repent! Fall on your faces; beg God for mercy!” Voltaire was disgusted. The earthquake was discouraging enough; the sermon that followed the earthquake was even worse.
Mr.. Voltaire was certainly a smart man, but he was also a vain, sarcastic man, and he could be wrong. In fact, he was often wrong. In fact, history has proven almost everything he wrote to be wrong. And he was certainly wrong about earthquakes.
Jesus said there must be earthquakes. Matthew 24:6,7 Jesus said, “And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled: for these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.” Earthquakes and sickness and suffering and death are part of the created order. God created matter with a particular character, so as to follow certain laws. The created world is not just a dream in your head. Matter has its own rational structure, independent of our desires, or opinions. We call it “Nature”: matter has its own nature.
The spine of the earth is supposed to shudder, and crack; the waves of the ocean are supposed to wash over the beaches; and every man, woman and child is destined to die.
I do not make light of this dreadful disaster, but I want to show how you yourself are in it. It’s not only the victims of tsunamis that get overwhelmed, and carried away by the forces of Nature. Every person is destined to be overwhelmed: if not by water, then by sickness, or hunger, accident, violence. A human life is short and uncertain. An earthquake is a revelation of the shortness and uncertainly of every human life.
Earthquakes do not disprove that God is the Creator. No. Earthquakes show you the real world that the real God created.
The world does have a design, and a Designer, but the world was not designed for the purposes that Voltaire imagined. It was not designed for your safety, or your comfort. The world was made for God’s glory, and it does that job exceedingly well.
The events of this world, the good and the bad, certainly follow the plan of God. That what the word “God” means: God is that Power, that Mind, that Reality, giving order and being and purpose to the universe.
Human life has a particular purpose. The purpose is not longevity, or prosperity, or pleasure, or good health. You were created to glorify God: to manifest His goodness, and to exercise His love. You were created to glorify God: to manifest His goodness, and to exercise His love.
Christian: You need to understand this. Otherwise, your life will turn to bitter disappointment, and God’s will for you must remain a dark mystery.
Everyone has heard the verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter eight,
verse 28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purposes.”
St Paul wrote that, near the end of his life, a life he described in these verses: “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift on the sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (II Corinthians 11:24-27 RSV). That’s the man who gave us the verse, who gave us the doctrine, “All things work together for good to them that love God…”
St Paul did not say, “Everything works out well, in the long run.” Why would he say that? It never worked that way in his life! He ended in a dungeon, abandoned by his few friends, and wretchedly executed. And that is the life that taught us to say, “All things work together for good, to them that love God…” St Paul found that saying to be true. We will also find it to be true.
The sermons that followed the Lisbon earthquake may have disgusted Voltaire. Nonetheless, they were true sermons. Why does God permit such suffering in the world? So that your heart will be softened; so that you might manifest God’s goodness, and exercise His love.
Let me say this more bluntly: God put money in your pocket, so you could give it to somebody else, who needs it more. That is God’s answer to world hunger: your money. God gave strong muscles to this one, so she could lift that one. God is working in them both, to save them both. “All things work together for good, to them that love God…”
You might think that God should have made a world without need, without hunger. In fact, the world God made works by hunger. Hunger is the engine that makes Creation move. Hunger makes the lions leave their dens, and prowl the deep forest. Hunger makes the trees to reach for the sun.
Right now, hungry people in Asia are bringing the whole world to repentance. Our proud hearts are melted inside us: “God have mercy!”
Do not be the fool that rails against God. No. You be the saint that follows His commandment.
II Corinthians 9:14 “…your abundance at the present time should supply their want…”
Hebrews 13:16 “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (RSV).
Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
That is God’s will. This is what life is for: to manifest God’s goodness, to exercise God’s love. Of course, you will not be able to end all the suffering. Why should that discourage you? Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mk 14:7). Yes. There must be suffering, right to the very end of the world. You are included. Do not be discouraged. “All things work together for good, to them that love God…”
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND OF THE SON AND OF THE HOLY GHOST, AMEN.
copyright 2005 The Rev. Kevin G. Holsapple