February 7, 2021 Psalm 18:1-6; Genesis 45:1-8; Romans 8:28-39; Mark 8:22-26
All things work together for good. A Good Ending
One of the most difficult theological questions over the centuries is: “Why do people suffer?” If this question is not hard enough, let’s add to the complexity: “Who do good people suffer?” One could argue, wrongly, that wicked people deserve their suffering but good people do not. And let’s up the ante one more time: “Why does a good and powerful God allow the existence of evil, and suffering.”
This is what is called the theodicy question. There are various ways to ask the same question: “If God is powerful and good, why does God tolerate evil? If God is omnipotent and almighty, how is it possible for evil to exist outside of God’s power?” And perhaps the most sensitive and confusing question is: “Do evil and suffering fall within the realm of God’s will?” In other words, is it God’s will that bad things happen to good people? Many good-meaning people have tried to console suffering people by saying something like: “It is God’s will that this or that terrible thing happened to you.” These words of course do not really comfort grieving people for what normal person wants to worship a god who wills terrible suffering of innocent people?
The word theodicy is relatively new, used for the first time in the 18th century. However, humankind has wrestled with the concept of evil and suffering from the very beginning. For example, the disciples of Jesus in John 9:2 are looking for a reason why a man was blind. “Rabbi”, they asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” For them there had to be a reason for his blindness. Someone must have sinned. Jesus replied: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
Many have tried to explain the reality of suffering and why a loving God would tolerate bad things to happen. Most of you are familiar with what is called a dualistic solution. It goes like this: There are two opposing forces, God and the devil, good and evil, light and darkness. Evil is constantly attacking God’s good creation. Evil or the devil is responsible for suffering- not God.
Another solution to justify evil as part of the good creation is called the harmonious solution. This solution suggests that good is appreciated only when it is seen as the opposite of evil. You cannot really appreciate light if there is not darkness. Without the existence of evil, everything would be good; goodness would simply be normal and expected.
The pluralistic solution suggests that good and evil are both part of God’s essence. God’s creation reflects the complexity and mystery of God.
The Judeo – Christian tradition does not directly answer the theodicy question. The Bible however, reveals that God is the Source of all good, completely wise and just. God is not the author of evil.
The Bible is clear that God’s creation was very good at the beginning. But as you know, shortly after God created everything good and saw that it was very good, something went wrong. Evil and sin entered God’s good creation and things then quickly spun out of control. Mundane things like work and giving birth became a burden, relationships between brothers deteriorate and family became mortal enemies. And with the mystery of sin and evil, suffering and death became part of this world.
Most of us perhaps don’t spend much thinking about the theodicy question, or contemplating about the origins of evil or the impact of sin on this beautiful creation. But all of us know, from experience, that our world, our relationships, our lives are a constant struggle, filled with suffering. We are all aware of how random, dangerous, broken, evil, wretched, and painful life can be. We are aware of how selfish, unkind, immoral, greedy, wicked, and vulnerable our human race can be. Our generation is living through a pandemic, that is causing more suffering, death, and trauma than this country has experienced in more than a century. One of the world’s most-cited and comprehensive multi-disciplinary scientific journals published a scientific study about bereavement multipliers. Their analysis shows that for every COVID-19 death, approximately nine surviving Americans will lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child. This is a staggering number. Consider that we are approaching 500, 000 deaths in the USA. This means that about 4.5 million people have lost a close family member in the last year. The suffering is immense!
Where is God in all of this? Why does God allow this kind of suffering? What does the Bible say to us today? Is God absent?
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel, who is our God too, does not promise that suffering will never happen to people. Believing in God does not mean that everything will be smooth sailing. People of faith is not excluded from suffering, they too will experience pain and loss, and ultimately, we will all die. This is certain and the Bible does not present us with any false hope.
The Bible is very honest about life. We see in our Genesis reading today that an ancient family lived in a real world similar (and worse) than ours. Here is the brief background of Joseph’s story: Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel. He had one brother, Benjamin and 10 half-brothers. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, a dreamer, maybe a bit arrogant. His half-brothers did not like him – actually they hated him. They wanted to get rid of him. Yes, they wanted to kill him. Reuben, one of his half-brothers suggested that instead of spilling blood, they threw him into a pit. They did that. But then Judah, another half-brother suggested they sell him. Joseph got sold for 20 pieces of silver. The Ishmaelites who bought Joseph took him to Egypt. There Joseph rose to power when famine came over the Near East. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to buy food and after the powerful Joseph detained his brother Benjamin, Judah makes an impassioned speech that their father would die if Benjamin is not released. His words show that they had learned from their mistakes. Joseph then revealed himself to his brothers.
This story reveals real emotional agitation. There is something real about their experience that we can all relate to: Jealousy, evil scheming, ruthless actions, sorrow, regret, pain and loss. The narrative reveals how complex human life is: A father’s preference for one child leads to envy, envy leads to a bad decision and a bad decision leads to pain, loss and suffering. A combination of an external catastrophe, famine, and people’s existential concerns turn this situation into a perfect, tragic storm. We see how evil flourishes and gets the upper-hand and ultimately ends in human heartbreak.
But as the narrative unfolds, we see what is of paramount importance in the entire Joseph story: God’s hand directs all the confusion of human guilt ultimately toward a gracious goal. A close reading shows that God is in fact the acting agent: “It was not you who sent me here, but God; God has made me a father to Pharaoh”. It was not the brothers’ hate but God who brought Joseph to Egypt and “to preserve life.” The great theological point is that God saw to it that a “remnant” and “survivors” (verse 7) remain.
The narrative thus shines the light on the saving activity of God. OT scholar, Gerhard von Rad says it best: “Joseph interprets the confused event in this comprehensive sense as the mysterious realization of a divine act of rescue, for as often in the Old Testament, “remnant” is a word of hope”. In the remnant, the whole group survives to new life. By God’s guidance everything, including suffering, pain, loss, and regret, appears in a completely new light and is turned into a divine act of rescue!
This is what a faith perspective does to anything and everything that come our way – whether good or bad. God is able to take the worst that life and evil can throw at us, and uses it, bends it, and shapes it so that God’s purpose for our lives is accomplish. God’s mysterious work sees to it that there is always a remnant, always hope. So, whenever we feel abandoned, disappointed, despair, and regret, the story of Joseph reminds us that God is at work in a divine act of rescue and divine hope.
Nostalgia means a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. A New Testament professor of mine once said that people of faith should not have a longing for the past but a longing for the future. He based it on the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8. The Apostle considers the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with glory about to be revealed to us. And after referring to the work of God’s Spirit he too refers to hope; for in hope we are saved. The Spirit of God helps us in our weakness for the Spirit intercedes for us.
The next few verses give us a deep theological insight into the Apostle’s view of God’s work in the midst of a real world of random suffering, pain, regret, lies, loss and guilt: We know that all things work together for the good for those who love God. One could say that people of faith take the long view of life. There may, no there will be distractions of suffering, pain and real work of evil forces, but the outcome is certain – God will see to it that all things work together for good. In other words, people of faith have seen the conclusion of our life’s story and the ending is a good one!
He explains further: God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Now I know that one word here has captured your attention: predestined. Unfortunately, over the years this word has led to many and serious misconceptions. Some believe that God has pre-determined your fate, so you have no say in it. This is not the purpose of this text. We need to look at the whole context. All of these 5 words are in the past tense. The Apostle Paul is so convinced of God’s love for humankind, of the redemption in Christ, of the fact that our story with God will end well, that he explains the grounds for our wellbeing in the past tense – it is a done deal. In essence he is saying: “Yes bad things can and most likely will happen. You will suffer and I will suffer and we won’t live on this earth forever. People will say bad things about you, friends and family will disappoint you and you will disappoint others. Life is about loss and loss is always painful. Life is hard and people can be cruel. But when everything is said and done, you can be 100% sure that God will still love you, God will be with you, and God will see to it that you are welcomed in into God’s presence!” Consider verse 38: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, rulers, powers….nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Once again, the apostle is so convinced of a good ending that he sees it as a done deal!
The early church understood and embraced this message. They accepted that everything will end well for them – even as they were ridiculed, persecuted and executed because of their faith. They held onto this hope and somehow God enabled them to find joy in spite of their suffering. For them the goodness and love of God, outweighed everything else.
The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of our standards, agreed with them when they asked a question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
Here is their answer: “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven, in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him”. Yes, we know that the stories of our life will end well. Amen.