But what can we do?

A sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold, delivered by The Rev’d Wendy Morecroft.

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.

Like so many parts of the Bible, our reading from Jeremiah tonight contains some lines that may trouble us. Take for example the following:

Therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am feeding this people with wormwood and giving them poisonous water to drink. I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known.

These words seem in stark contrast to what we heard later in our reading tonight, where God had said:

I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight.

Hmm … ‘feeding this people wormwood and giving them poisonous water to drink’ and this is God acting ‘with steadfast love, justice and righteousness’? I’m reasonably sure that, like me, you must have friends or perhaps just acquaintances who are atheists and who raise in their defence Biblical citations like this evening’s. If they engage in conversation, they are wont to say:

How can you believe in a God like this? I thought you said God is love – some love!

How do you answer such questions when you hear them? More seriously, when such questions are born of the pain of living, they may come with an angry:

What sort of God is this, that can allow such suffering?

Theologians call this situation ‘theodicy’ whose technical definition is:

An attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil

To which can be added why he does he permit the existence of suffering.

This week I was listening to the ABC program ‘Soul Search’ where Meredith Lake was interviewing Rabbi Ariel Berger who spoke about his experience as a student of Nobel Prize winning writer Elie Wiesel. Wiesel had survived the death camps of WWII, unlike most of his family. Understandably the experience had led him to question his faith. During the program, Rabbi Ariel Berger said that Elie Wiesel had said:

Believe me my life would have been much easier if I didn’t believe in God because then I would only have one question about humanity but now I have two dominating, overwhelming questions about humanity and about God. But what can I do? I believe in God so then I have a problem and I have to wrestle with that problem.

Our reading from Paul’s letter to Timothy tonight seems to allude precisely to that wrestling when he wrote about holding ‘fast to the mystery of faith’. Of course, Paul was speaking about the mystery which we touch upon in our Eucharistic liturgy when we together proclaim the mystery of Faith:

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

Furthermore, Paul’s reference in that statement was specifically about the responsibility of deacons. But it would not be unreasonable for us to extend the ‘mystery’ to which Paul referred beyond that of God made Man and who defied the natural laws of life and death, to a consideration of the question of why God permits suffering.

We’re human and so we have this simplistic belief that questions always go with answers; and if we encounter a question that doesn’t have any answer, let alone an unsatisfactory one, then we may well challenge the one questioned. That is what the atheist does – God has not provided an answer to the question asked and so God is rejected – there can be no God.

Yet this approach denies a fundamental difference – the difference between problems and mysteries. It was in Guillermo Martinez’s novel ‘The Oxford Murders’ that I first read of the difference. That novel is a true murder mystery, whereas most such detective novels are in reality only murder problems which will inevitably be solved. For a problem can always be solved, in other words it is a question which can be answered. Whereas, a mystery cannot be solved – it is a question without human answer.

In his interview on Soul Search, Rabbi Ariel Berger spoke of Elie Wiesel’s treatment of the question and answer conundrum. Speaking about the Holocaust which killed almost all Wiesel’s family, Berger said:

(it) defies explanations, nothing can stand in the presence of that question – so rather than offer answers, (Wiesel) sat with the question and he allowed it to generate responses, not answers but responses.  … an answer closes the door a response opens one, a response could be because the Holocaust happened we have to make sure it never happens again – that’s not an answer, it doesn’t explain why it happened, it doesn’t explain anything about God’s silence but it’s a way of converting or transforming the energy of the question into something positive.

He was speaking about the Holocaust, an event in history of incomprehensible proportions. But we mustn’t think that his comments can’t also speak to us circumstantially. I don’t know all of your individual life stories and you don’t know mine; yet I will be presumptuous enough to say that most of us, if not perhaps all, have encountered situations in our lives where there was no answer to an awful question – where nothing could explain God’s silence.

In those situations, many have sought to destroy the questioned, to kill God in their lives. Your presence here this evening suggests you have not taken the same step or, at the very least, you are allowing your judgment to be suspended for a time.  

It is one thing to have to deal with such unanswerable questions on one’s own part; it is quite another when someone you love is grappling with the same situation. Elie Wiesel’s answer for his own part was:

                But what can I do? I believe in God.

He could then commit himself to wrestle with the problem of ‘the two overwhelming, dominating questions about humanity and about God’.  But how to do that when you encounter another who is painfully grappling with such an existential situation in their own life, not yours? God may seem to be silent in their situation, but the person before us may be expecting, or at least hoping for more than silence from us in response to their question. We are left trying to explain the mystery of it all, to give a meaningful response in the absence of an answer; we try to transform the energy of the question into something positive. A meaningful response pretends at wisdom – we want to be wise as we must of necessity sidestep giving an answer, for answer there can be none. It is where we go for that wisdom that will merit our response. Worldly wisdom inevitably turns into clichés such as:

It is always darkest before the dawn; and

As one door closes another opens.

They often turn to ash in our mouths as we seek to respond to the difficult questions others may ask about their living pain. Our source of wisdom needs to transcend human capacities and seek the divine.

Our reading from Jeremiah tonight opened with these verses:

Who is wise enough to understand this? To whom has the mouth of the Lord spoken, so that they may declare it?

“Who is wise enough to understand this?” – in other words who can understand what came from the mouth of the Lord? With talk of wormwood and poisoned waters, it certainly is difficult for us to understand what came from his mouth. But somehow, even if we do not find answers in our reading, we have to seek responses that may enlighten us; and seek those responses from God not from the clichés of our lived experience.

Later in that same interview with Rabbi Ariel Berger which I quoted earlier, he spoke about interpreting difficult texts:

(There is what) I call an ethic of interpretation …. And what it comes down to for me …. There has be a balance between fidelity to the text, in other words when you encounter a difficult text it is easy to throw it away or skip it but then you are not being true to your tradition; but we have to balance that with a sense of conscience and really ask the question – how might this interpretation lead to blessing?

How might we approach our reading from Jeremiah tonight. We have only looked at some of the verses from chapter 9. The whole of this chapter is a reporting of what God said to Jeremiah and a commentary by him on the current events of his day. Thus we need to read the chapter as Jeremiah hearing God through the lens of what he had been observing around him. In verse two we read that Jeremiah wished he had a holiday home to get away from the desecration and desolation of the lives of those around him.

Oh, that I had in the desert

    a lodging place for travellers,

so that I might leave my people

    and go away from them;

for they are all adulterers,

    a crowd of unfaithful people.

Jeremiah knew that what he saw around him failed God and his vision for his people. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that what Jeremiah thought he heard from God dealt with that desecration and desolation which people were making of God’s vision. In verse 7 we even hear God echoing the words of Elie Wiesel ‘what else can I do?” when he said:

See, I will refine and test them,

    for what else can I do

    because of the sin of my people?

“What else can I do?” God had said. In these five words we have been given an insight as to how we should interpret this difficult text in order to see God’s blessing rather than his curse.

In his time, from everything Jeremiah saw around him, all that he thought he could hear God saying was that dreadful judgment would be wrought upon his people. And so all the misfortunes that actually befell God’s people in that time were laid at his feet – God was doing all this and he was doing it as a punishment for sin. But we may read more into God’s question – “What else can I do?” From our psalm tonight we may understand the true depth of God’s self-questioning:

Who is like unto the Lord our God that hath his dwelling so high:

And yet humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and earth?

Before God had asked the question, he had said – “I will refine and test them” – these were not words of destruction but of nurturing, albeit with the sense of tough love; for this is a God who reached out to humanity, humbled himself. The psalmist did not know in his time just how much God would humble himself; we, however, through Jesus know precisely how much.  

In Jeremiah 8:22 the question was posed – “is there no balm in Gilead?” – which was later answered in Jeremiah 46:2. There is reference to that answer in a hymn by Washington Glass in 1854:

There is balm in Gilead,

To make the wounded whole;

There’s power enough in heaven,

To cure a sin-sick soul.

God may not answer our questions when we are burdened with woe, he may seem to stay silent, but nevertheless he does respond with the balm of his abiding love if our hearts and minds are truly open to receive it.