Carlos Wilton, November 25, 2012 — Non-Lectionary Sermon, Isaiah 40:12-23; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand…?”
– Isaiah 40:12a
Round about now, in our recovery from this hurricane, I suppose it’s understandable if you’d start asking the question, “Why?” Why did it happen? Why did God let it happen?
What role did God have in the course of that mighty tropical-storm system, that slowly worked its way up from the Caribbean? God, according to Isaiah 40, our sermon text, “has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand.” Yes, the waters — including the same floodwaters that have bedeviled so many of us in recent days.
Did the Almighty send Sandy spinning on her way northward? Did the Creator arrange for that perfect confluence of winds and high-pressure system and wobbly jet-stream and warmer-than-usual ocean waters? Did God set Hurricane Sandy on a collision course with a nor’easter, then cause the two storm systems, rather than changing each other’s course, to merge, becoming the much-heralded Superstorm? And finally, did God position a high-pressure area just south of the Canadian Maritimes, acting like a huge pool-table bumper to bounce the superstorm right into the side-pocket that is the Jersey Shore?
If the Almighty indeed arranged for such things to happen, what was God up to?
Did the storm’s highly unusual right-angle turn indicate some kind of divine judgment? Back before the hurricane hit, it appeared that its eye was going to pass right over Seaside Heights. In a weak attempt at humor, I posted a question on my Facebook status, wondering aloud whether perhaps the Lord was drawing a bead on the house once occupied by Snooki and her friends from the Jersey Shore television show — the ultimate negative review, that would have been!
The fact that the thought occurred to me — even as a joke — seems to indicate there’s an ancient line of reasoning, imprinted deep within our brains, that assumes God uses hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes as a sort of alternative language. Kind of like a modern version of the plagues of Egypt. If that’s the case, you’ve got to admit: it sure does get our attention!
There are some, as you know, who eagerly try to discern, in the comings and goings of such mighty acts of Nature, a message of judgment. Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist, was once famous for this sort of thing. On more than one occasion, he explained the particular course a hurricane took as God’s judgement on gay people. (He also blamed the collapse of the twin towers in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on the same thing.) But then, a hurricane made straight for Virginia Beach, which happens to be the headquarters for his Christian Broadcasting Network. Ol’ Pat was strangely silent on that one. Neither did he have anything to say, as far as I know, about Hurricane Sandy. Do you suppose he’s learned his lesson — that maybe the meteorologists, rather than the theologians, are best equipped to explain why a hurricane goes one place, and not another?
The other day, I was talking to a former member of this church who grew up in Point Pleasant. He’d returned to this area to volunteer for a few days, cleaning up after the storm. He told me how, after several days of driving around, looking at one heavily-damaged neighborhood after another, only one word occurred to him to describe the magnitude of the destruction: “Godsmacked.” To me, that’s the heart of the fundamental theological question that arises out of this hurricane: were we Godsmacked, or were we not?
Another way of putting the question was voiced by a woman I saw interviewed on a public-TV documentary about the storm. This woman, from New York City, had the miserable misfortune of losing her teenaged son. He left their home when a friend called up and asked him to come over and help him with something. Over his mother’s objections, the boy complied, walking into the howling wind.
He never came back. A day or two later, the police showed up on the woman’s doorstep, bearing the devastating news that both her son and his friend had died when a tree fell on them. So overtaxed were the city’s first responders that it was twelve hours before anyone was able to do anything about the two bodies.
She just couldn’t make sense of why this happened, the mother was saying, tears in her eyes. What a random, senseless thing it was, for her boy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe, she suggested — by way of explanation — there had been some sort of disturbance in “The Force,” that led God to look away for just a moment. In that instant, the tree fell.
A grieving mother has the right to grasp hold of any belief that comforts her, I suppose — although her peculiar mash-up of Star Wars theology and the Judeo-Christian tradition does seem a bit peculiar. Yet, in many ways her statement is the mirror image of the “Godsmacked” comment of my friend, its precise opposite. He was assuming God is the master manipulator, using acts of extreme weather to smite people and places that, in some sense are sinful or unworthy. She was assuming there’s a universe of bad things out there, and it’s God’s job to maintain a sort of force field around good people like her son. When a tree falls on such a person, it can only be because the Lord was asleep at the switch.
This problem I’m outlining is known, of course, in theological circles, as the problem of evil. It’s a conundrum as old as the hills. Among all the brilliant philosophical minds of Western civilization, no one yet has come up with a satisfactory explanation of why one community is Godsmacked and another untouched; why a tree has to fall in the precise instant when two good and promising young men are standing under it, rather than a few seconds later.
We may kid about it from time to time, but there’s something deeply unsettling about the old-fashioned language found in the fine print of many insurance policies, even to this day, that holds the company harmless from “Acts of God.”
All these thoughts are dancing around a time-honored theological concept that finds expression in a word that’s all but forgotten in our modern era. It’s a word that occurs far more often in the Old Testament than in the new — although it’s present in both. The word is: wrath. The wrath of God. Now, if there’s a better symbol for divine wrath than a swirling mass of fifty- or sixty-mile-an-hour winds, bigger than the Middle Atlantic states, accompanied by a storm surge of six feet or more, that just happens to come ashore at the precise moment of high tide, then I’d like to hear it!
I saw a picture not long ago, taken from a satellite. It was taken at the time of the power failure we all lived through, just after the hurricane. It was a night-time picture of North America, and, in the areas of the greatest population, you could see brilliant light — the light of millions, maybe even billions of electric lamps.
Except for the area where we live. Except for an unbelievably vast chunk of North America, that covered the entire Middle Atlantic states, going as far west as western Pennsylvania, maybe even eastern Ohio. It was as though the country were a cookie, and some ravenous cosmic mouth had taken a huge bite out of it, with the Jersey Shore its leading edge. Where the bite had occurred, there was utter and complete darkness.
There it was, displayed in stunning satellite imagery, the blazing glory of our civilization: the invention we call, with almost unbelievable hubris, the power grid. Our power! Human ingenuity banishes the darkness. Human cleverness pushes back the night. Well, on the night of Sandy’s arrival, our power grid met a much greater power. And it lost the contest. It lost miserably.
Think back to how it felt on those cold, dark nights, to light the candles or the oil lamps, to live surrounded by hulking shadows, to go to bed early for a change, because, after all, in such all-encompassing darkness, what was there to do but sleep? We became reacquainted with the darkness our ancestors knew, and took for granted. We saw the constellations again. Before the storm, you and I — and all our brash, can-do culture — imagined that our electricity had made us masters of the darkness. Such a brilliant invention: our power grid! Sandy put a stop to that self-delusion.
The storm reminded us of an uncomfortable truth: that, just beyond the borders of our proud and self-congratulatory culture, there lurks, still, a fearsome chaos. Much of our psychic energy is expended trying, vainly, to deny such chaos exists. We deny there is such a thing as suffering. We believe that, in life, we are entitled, by right, to every comfort imaginable. We even allow ourselves to believe, for long stretches of our lives, that there is no such thing as death. We, in our foolish pride, do something no generation in human history, until the two or three most recent, has been able to do: to live most of our days pretending, for all practical purposes, we are going to live forever. Our ancestors never had that luxury.
When death does intrude — when we’re called, by obligations of friendship, to attend a viewing in an funeral home, or sit through a memorial service in church, we treat it as an affront, as something unnatural. It seems wrong to us. We want, with the poet Dylan Thomas, to “not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
Paul points out, in 1 Corinthians 15, that although Christ on the cross has vanquished evil once and for all, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” — and that hasn’t happened yet, neither in his time nor ours. Death is still a potent and dangerous adversary. Yes, Christ has won the victory, but the enemy is still in retreat. And you know what they say is the most dangerous, the most unpredictable enemy, don’t you? An army in retreat. The members of that armed force, desperate and filled with fear, fight with unbelievable ferocity. Their lines of communication, even the chain of command, are disrupted. Senior officers are nowhere to be found. Mistakes are regularly made, regulations overridden, even the so-called laws of war are discarded in panic.
It is, in short, chaos. Like the chaos of a hurricane. We’ve all lived through that sort of chaos in recent days. Some of us, depending on the condition of our homes, are living through a fair degree of it, still.
It’s that sort of unbridled chaos that I take to be the wrath of God. Lots of people hear that phrase and think it denotes some kind of clean, surgical strike — God vanquishing specific evildoers, the Navy Seals going after Osama bin Laden — but, really, it’s more like a Civil War battlefield, wreathed in smoke, the soldiers fighting on in uniforms so dirty and mud-caked, they can barely tell friend from foe, and all the while, accompanied by the banshee chorus of the cries of the wounded and the dying.
God’s wrath, you see, is not a specific, targeted wrath, directed only against the bad guys and none other. It’s a sort of unfocused rage. It’s rain — yea, even hurricane-force wind — that falls on the just and the unjust.
Do you think the Jersey Shore deserved the hurricane? No more than Louisiana or Texas deserved the last severe ones. It was just our turn — an extremely long-delayed turn.
Do you thing one family deserved to have their house flooded, and the family up the street, high and dry, did not ? That’s nonsense, because we all know it had nothing to do with God’s detailed, individual choice of victims, but everything to do with elevation above sea level.
There’s a part of us, though, that wants to abandon such an uncomfortable thought. More than 60 years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr looked around at the church of his day and summarized, with incredible precision, the creed of a comfortable, easygoing American Christianity that has in it no room for the wrath of God: “A God without wrath brought [people] without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Note well that it’s not just God’s wrath that this easygoing, feelgood Christianity doesn’t need. It doesn’t need the cross, either. Where there’s no sin, there’s no grace. And where there’s no grace, there’s no salvation — nor the need for it. We save ourselves — maybe with our power grid. (Yeah, right.)
What a contrast this is to what the Bible says! The oldest story in the scriptures tells of Adam and Eve being driven out of paradise after their first encounter with the wrath of God. Henceforth, the Lord tells them, their days are to be characterized by a certain chaos. The Lord curses not only Adam, but the earth itself, for his disobedience, saying:
“…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” [Gen. 3:17b-19]
Yet, the scriptures also tell us it wasn’t just about the one man Adam, and his wife, Eve, and whatever piece of forbidden fruit they may have stolen. The Hebrew word adam simply means “human.” The message of that ancient story is that all humanity are condemned to live under the generalized, unspecific wrath of God.
Well, what kind of God is that, you may be inclined to ask? What kind of God allows a world of such chaos and yes, sometimes even suffering, to exist?
According to the Bible, we don’t even have the right to ask the question, anymore than any of us can trade in the parents we were given for new ones. There’s only one God, the great I Am, the one who is, and we get no other to choose from.
Yet, all is not lost. All is certainly not lost. For the Old Testament God of wrath is also a God of infinite mercy. God’s own son, Jesus Christ, has come into this fallen, chaotic, wrath-battered world to redeem it. Yes, responding to the reality of sin, God may have permitted the green and ordered paradise of Eden to descend into chaos, but even now God is engaged in a slow and deliberate process of repair and rebuilding. It’s happening through the amazing grace we come to know most completely in the person of Jesus Christ.
So, in these days of rebuilding, let us not focus on the fearsome chaos of the storm. We have to put that behind us, as best we can. There’s work to be done, good work: work of repair, rebuilding, restoration. Let us join together, Godsmacked as we may be, and do it!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.