JOY TO THE WORLD?
Where is God when people are suffering?
by Ian Robinson
Zechariah 3.14-20, Luke 3.7-18, Isaiah 12.1-6
I have a story about Jacov.
“When I build my business, they tax me twice and then I’m ruined. They press-ganged my son into the military. They stole my little girl for ‘domestic service’ and who knows what else. My wife is afraid to go to the market and have to hear those soldiers’ stupid comments. Some women have disappeared. They grind us like wheat. They own us like dogs. When my little ones ask ‘why?’ there is nothing I can say or do.
There are many fights between neighbours in my town. The anger boils over but not against the cause – too dangerous. Sadness upon grief, violence upon oppression. There is nothing we can do. Except sing. Is 12.1-2. If we did not sing we would surely die. If Isaiah had not brought us the Lord’s hope, our souls would have shrivelled up. V3 That’s what we can do – sing with a joy that they can never take away. And it really irritates them!”
That’s the end of the story.
Every one of those Bible Readings comes from a terrible situation. Isaiah, John the Baptist’s associates were like Jacov. Isaiah’s nation has been ransacked, raped and taken in slavery to greater Assyria. JB’s people have been not deported but enslaved in t heir own land by the Roman military occupation. Today still there are wars and rumours of wars and millions taking refuge. In Australia , Aboriginal people are trapped in a series of imposed poverty cycles in their own land. It seems there is nothing they can do.
Friends, how can we sing ‘Joy to the World’ with this suffering around us?
Shall we come closer to home? MY friend has a beautiful house. Good education. Beautiful wife, and he had cancer. He had a great job, supportive family, but doesn’t know whether he would take his daughter to her high school ball. We are all praying. But why isn’t it working? Where is God? Have you ever wondered that?
There must be thousands who wonder this, after a war, after an earthquake, a tsunami, an epidemic. Not so newsworthy, some of us know the pain of waiting in our own families. Kids going feral or turning away from good beliefs, or becoming so influenced by success and materialism you can see them heading happily to emptiness. Where is the miracle? How can we sing the Christmas hymn ‘Joy to the World’? It’s pretty easy in Australia, safe and prosperous, but the Christian cares about their neighbour. Gathered here, we care about our people and our extended family. So it hurts here too.
So what does God think he is doing all this time? Sitting on his hands? These two Bible readings are the beginning of our awareness, and I will only begin to open this up, hopefully in some new ways.
First, we wait and we sing, because God is changing the world. GOD GIVES HOPE.
Zeph 3 wants us all to sing again. V14. The pain isn’t over, if you read it, but they have learned some hard lessons, and some truly great things. Like most people who suffer for a while, who stop asking ‘why me?’, they see everything the right way up. They say how they value so much more and so much often the gifts they are given, value their loved ones, every day now. They think better of living the half life of security and spin and the perpetual gathering of comfort. Instead they face, like Zephaniah, the fullness of life that comes as a gift and comes as hope. V 17-19.
Zeph’s whole world has changed because he sees it differently. There is joy in knowing to who he belongs v 20a. And he will bring them home. It still hasn’t happened for him yet, but he knows to start singing ‘Joy to the World’ because we belong to Great god and God guarantees our hope. John the Baprist did the same when he looked for the Messiah to come. How much easier it is for us, who have seen what Jesus can do and who he is. The new king is coming. Join the winning side.
In our waiting, in painful waiting, some of life’s great gifts are waiting to be received. V 14. That’s my experience too. At one time I was very ill for four years. Emotionally, physically and mentally shot to ribbons by an immune disease. But in my distress, my waiting, my helplessness before the distress of my family, my depression and the sharp pain, I found something. I experienced the Spirit of God up close and present like never before. It was exquisite. I discovered the kindness of friends like never before. IT was humbling and beautiful. Now, because of those great gifts, I am actually grateful for the illness.
In apartheid South Africa, I am told, the government-sided people would say:”See! They can’t be all that badly off – they sing all the time.” But one of my colleagues there tells me: ‘We knew that if we did not sing we would die.’
GOD SUBVERTS SYSTEMS
There is a second reason for joy. Let me try this idea on you. If I step back and look long and hard, itself a luxury, Jesus seems to overlook crashing waves and instead turns the tide. In his day he didn’t overthrow the Roman oppressors, though pressured to do so, and though he well understood the suffering they caused. He called for them to be treated as brothers and sisters. AND by doing so, he turned the tide. A war-like rebellion which won the peace might have lasted say 100 years, or two years? Then it would be all on again. The peace that Christ made with the overwhelming might of the Empire of Rome, this other way, has lasted 2000 years.
Jesus did not overthrow slavery. He said to his followers to call them brothers and sisters (Read the book of Philemon) and that subverted slavery. That sort of hope needs courageous faith. Personally and politically, we know it works; not against the waves of suffering so much, as against the tide of human relationships that are underneath them.
That is why we can wait, singing in hope of a certain victory, in fact the only victory on offer.
We know how to live while we wait. We are holy wherever we can, even in the presence of very heavy circumstance. BY holy I don’t mean perfection. John the Baptist was Jesus’ fore-runner and co-worker and his teaching in many ways mirrored Jesus’ own (v 18).Notice what he teaches to those who come for spiritual help from under the brutal Roman military and crushing taxation system.
1. John says: don’t kid yourself. V 7-9. God does want holy children, not halfbaked grandchildren.
2. Don’t accumulate too much v 11. We have enough
3. Government collaborators were highly compromised individuals – he taught integrity within their sphere of responsibility. But still it may come at personal cost v 12-14 (John did as he preached v 19-20)
So we live as holy children, having enough, sharing the rest, keeping personal integrity while we can’t change the system. Like John, we personally may lose out, but our integrity and grace is the only thing that can change the system for everybody from the bottom up.
So yes, the people of God waiting upon God can live with hope and integrity – and those two things alone will subvert oppression. It shows them up . That too is why we sing.
When we wait, we are expectant, for our God is a just God, and so we sing. And as we wait our sings of joyful expectation give us life and passion.
How do we know this is solid? In times of hard pressure, we need to know this is rock solid. If we are going to make daily decisions that might cost our families for the sake of holiness or integrity, are we going to hold up? Zephaniah and John the Baptist were both able to see that the hope is solid. Luke 3.15-18. The good news is that Jesus came, Jesus brought light, Jesus suffered with us, Jesus rose from the dead and sent His Spirit upon us who believe. This is rock solid. For this we live and die. Jesus came. Until he returns to make anew heaven and a new earth we will not stop singing, As Philippians 4.4-7
GOD DOES NOT TAKE BACK RESPONSIBILITY
This the third reason for Joy is the most challenging.
Philosophers say that it is because of our human freewill that suffering continues. I doubt it. I suspect that by keeping on asserting our freedom, people become more selfish, not less. I see it another way. God has given to all humans the enormous responsibility to care for our neighbours. In every religion, cover to cover, it is the most obvious foundational value. So when a war or famine happens, where were you? You and I are responsible to help and share. We have the power to do so. IN 2010 humanity has never had so much power to help. Sometimes we see it in short term emergencies like the Haitian earthquake. Most of the time, it is too little too late. It’s no good complaining that God has the power to act, when he has given that power, that capacity, t hat command, that responsibility to you and I.
If God were to take back that responsibility, that would be the wind up of the whole human experiment. It would be ‘Judgement Day’. If he took it back we would become pets, and not humans. If God should intervene in 6 million atrocities, in that same moment there would be 6 billion people who would suddenly turn into chooks.
There is a cartoon which shows a young woman : “ I was going up to God the other day, she says, to complain that he should do more about the suffering in the world. But he said to me – ‘funny I was about to ask you the same question.’
It was meant as a joke but this talk about Joy suggests that it is deadly serious. All of Jesus descriptions about Judgement say the same thing – ‘as much as you did it to the least of these,… you did it unto me’ (Matt 25). There is a day when God WILL ask that question. That ‘love your neighbour’ thing, he says, ‘I meant that. You all knew that. On the day when I come to take back that responsibility, make sure you are ready. My son shows you how.’
It is hard for wealthy peaceful Christians to grasp this. Those who feel powerless before an illness, we grasp it a little. Those who watch our adult children ruin themselves – we feel the stupid futile senselessness that greet s the mornings in many neighbours’ lives. We must be careful how we speak of these things or act. It is easy to be patronising unintentionally.
It is not hard to act, to give our second shirt away (Lk 3.9-11). Generosity is not too hard, it is actually really joyful. As we collect generous money for this or that project, we can sit at our Christmas feast in the joy that we are living the Kingdom of God. If we have shared the feast with others, that joy cant be taken away. That joy is subversive and acts like a dawn wherever our gifts go.
Or we can settle for token gestures, and settle for ‘a little happiness’ instead. Half life or full life – that’s your choice today. So dare you pray with me now?
We find our home in you, we are your children
We wait with open eyes and open arms to see
all the gifts you are giving,
to see and share with those who need our support,
to see all the things we can do to be holy children
And we look with joy to see your return.
Fill our mouths with thank-you songs
Lest we perish on the way.
In the name of Christ