A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

We are now in the fifth month of the current bushfire season and the toll has been dreadful in terms of human and animal life, property and the economy. As of this morning, 29 people have died and it is estimated that over a billion animals (excluding bats, amphibians and invertebrates) have perished; 107,000 sq km of land have been burnt, an area equal to Iceland, with more than 2,200 homes destroyed. The economic impact is currently estimated to approach $5 bn nationally, with an expected hit to GDP of 0.15%; though this masks the 25-50% reduction expected in the economies of areas directly affected. Catastrophic as the situation has been thus far, we still have at least a couple of months more of the current bushfire season to worry about. Last Sunday, Dean Frank gave a particularly thoughtful and insightful sermon on the subject. I found his comments especially helpful as I know so many of you did too. In the course of his sermon, Frank challenged each of us, including himself with words such as these where he said that so many of us have been:

Blind to the warnings … of climate change … It’s not that we did not know, but that we chose to ignore (them)

He went on to talk about the theological concept of skotosis – a “deliberate and intentional choosing to remain in the darkness, not to see the consequences of action, turning one’s back on a crisis.”

Other than to concur totally with what Frank said, there is little more that I feel I can add in that direction this morning save to talk for a moment about the difference between the ‘misinformed’ and the ‘uninformed’. In 2000, James Kuklinski and other political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described the difference between these two groups, giving the following definition of the misinformed:

People are misinformed when they confidently hold wrong beliefs. [1]

Contrasting it with the uninformed who will let go of beliefs proven to be incorrect. For the misinformed, however, their beliefs become ‘indistinguishable from hard data’ in their own minds even when objective information contradicts those beliefs. Last Sunday Frank effectively challenged us to reflect upon whether we are misinformed or uninformed in our thinking about what is happening to God’s creation.

This morning, however, I want to reflect from another angle on the current national emergency that confronts us. I don’t know how you have been reacting to the unceasing flow of news over these past weeks about the bushfire disaster but, for my part, I have found the unfolding situation quite deeply distressing. Not that I have been personally touched through any direct loss, but I have been weighed down with a sense of grieving for those who have been directly impacted. The heroism of the ‘firies’, the outpouring of community camaraderie within the fire zones and the overwhelming generosity from the wider population have lifted my spirits. There have been so many wonderful stories, not just from people but even animals – such as Patsy the sheepdog in Corryong in Victoria who, at 4.15am on New Year’s Eve morning, brought a mob of 220 sheep to safety losing only six to the flames. Yet notwithstanding these beautiful stories through all of this, a question has seemed to loom ominously in the background of my mind:

When disaster strikes, where is our God?

My faith is not threatened by such a question, but it is challenged; and so it should be. I don’t ever want my faith to be based upon nothing more than misinformed prejudices which inevitably produce simplistic answers to the profound complexity of the question ‘where is our God?’ in times of dark events. Instead I yearn for my faith to be located in the innocence of my realising that I am uninformed so that, like the psalmist, I might simply ask God: ‘Why?’ whilst at the same time knowing I will never, in this life, become fully informed by receiving definitive divine answers, but nevertheless knowing that God permits that I may still ask the question.

When the Asian Tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004, I was Regional Vice-President [Asia-Pacific] for World Vision International, and thus had overall regional responsibility for that organisation’s response to that devastating event. In parallel to assisting the provision of urgent supplies and personnel in the various theatres of that disaster, I also contacted our Christian Witness Director, Dr Saphir Athyal. I said to him that, confronted by that cataclysmic event, both local survivors and those who had gone to help them might feel themselves crying out in a darkness of despair – ‘God – why?’ So I asked him to prepare a series of devotionals which could be circulated to World Vision’s frontline teams to help shed some light for them upon the darkness of that question.

Saphir came back with a series of four studies under the broad title ‘When Disaster strikes, where is our God?’. The four parts in the series addressed firstly what many, in time of disaster, perceive to be God’s silence or absence at the very time when He is most sought; secondly, the concept of shared pain and comfort; thirdly, moving onto considering God as the source of our strength; and finally, the hope that is unseen.

I want to summarise each of those, starting with quotes from his study, and considering them in the context of our Bible readings this morning and the current national emergency.

God’s temporary silenceLife is more than a simple formula; our lives are imbedded in God and his mystery – its ultimate meaning is found only him; it is often in most intense suffering that we stand nearest to God.

In verse 36 in our reading from Acts we heard of the purpose of Jesus’ coming to live amongst us:

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.

However later in that reading, we were reminded of the crucifixion not withstanding all the good that Jesus had done during his earthly ministry:

We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem (but) they put him to death by hanging him on a tree. [v39]

What Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, did not include in his narrative about this path to the crucifixion was that, after all his ministry of healing and consoling, Jesus had reached a point there on the cross where his humanity felt profoundly separated from his divinity and so he had cried out:

My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? [Matt 27:46]

Even our Lord felt abandoned and so how much more could he understand the desperate sense of separation that may come in the wake of disaster. Thus it can be through him, that we may reach out to others which brings me to the second point.

Shared pain and comfortGod reaches others through us, so when we suffer what happens through us is more important than what happens to us.

In our Gospel reading this morning we have been reminded in v17 that God said:

This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.

These words were spoken at Jesus’ baptism by John, an event which inaugurated the earthly ministry of the Son of God. The baptism, which John had tried to resist, was essential – John had said that he needed to be baptised by Jesus [v14], to which Jesus in essence had replied that he needed to be baptised by John.

Why? Unlike our own baptism, this baptism of Jesus by John was not a symbolic washing away of sin but a sacrament of union – of God with humanity. Though he had been born of Mary, at that moment, Jesus sought through the agency of a baptism by a human to come into union with us. Let me come back to Saphir Athyal’s devotional about what this union with humanity means:

In our shared brokenness we are shaped to love and care for one another. We are in solidarity with God and also with our people. So God’s comfort (which) we have received we are to give to one another.

Sharing implies something going from a source to a receiver; which brings me to the third point.

God, the source of our strengththe affirmation of God’s presence in a protective capacity is the basis of confidence in the words of the community ‘We shall not fear’

From our psalm this morning we heard verse 10:

The Lord will give strength to his people: the Lord will give to his people the blessing of peace.

Overall Psalm 29 speaks of the glory of God. As Frank has written in his message this morning:

There is only one response to all of this – the cry of all: Glory

But Psalm 29 is only one of 150 psalms in our Psalter; and we don’t know if the order in which they appear may have had any relevance to the chronology of their authorship. Whatever the case, I find it interesting that the psalm immediately preceding, number 28 while speaking of the glory of God, did so in the wake of pleas for help, phrases such as:

To you will I cry [v1], hear the voice of my supplication [v2], do not snatch me away with the ungodly [v3]

The whole body of the psalms always leads us to the glory of God, but it does so through the process of cries for help, with humanity seeking a source of divine strength – and in doing so, humanity believing in a hope beyond itself. This brings us to the fourth point.

Hope that is unseen In Christ  life triumphed over death, and anyone who captures the vision of the reigning Lamb can live in hope as he puts his trust in the eternal God.

In our reading from Isaiah we heard v9:

… new things I declare: before they spring into being, I announce them to you.

Notwithstanding whatever may seem to be the ‘evidence’ the world presents to us, God has something greater to say than the world can ever claim of itself. There is a breach between the two – a chasm which nothing humanity can ever say of its own strength will ever close. That breach, that chasm, can only be crossed by He who has:

Taken (us) by the hand and kept (us) [v6]

Why has He done this? In verse 7, we hear God’s purpose for us:

To open eyes that are blind, bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. [v7]

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Earlier I mentioned that Jesus’ baptism was not the same as ours; that does not mean that we can’t share in his baptism. In Mark’s gospel we read of Jesus asking James and John:

Can you … be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with? [Mark 10:38]

Answering that question Jesus in part had said:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve. [v45a]

So as we hear the question ‘Where is God?’ in the wake of disaster and may even ask the question ourselves, let us remember that when humanity had cried out ‘Where is our God?’, He responded in the person of Jesus. What does that mean for us in the wake of the current national emergency? We know from both Romans and Corinthians that we all have different gifts. In normal circumstances we may feel confident that we know what those gifts are. But do we know what our God-given gifts are in extraordinary circumstances? At times like this we pray to God that He may do something about those circumstances. Shouldn’t we also pray to Him asking how we might serve in those same circumstances so that we might be evidence of the Hope that is unseen, of the God who is the source of all our strength and, by so doing, seek to share in the pain of those for whom God may seem at such times to be silent?

[1] Kublinski J et al, Misinformation and the Currency of Democratic Citizenship, Journal of Politics, Jan 2003, p790.