Let’s think for a minute what it did for this poor blind man when the disciples began a theological debate over his blindness.
“So, they tell us that you were born blind? Well, let’s get out our Bibles and Sabbath Day School Quarterlies, and see if we can find some theological reasons for your blindness. Of course, everyone knows it is because of sin. But since you were born blind, perhaps it is not so much your sin as much as it is the sin of your parents.”
Yes, I’m sure all of that theologizing and rationalizing and Bible Study did absolute wonders for that poor man. I am sure he really appreciated it!
But how often have we’ve been guilty of doing the same. For some reason, because we are Christian, we believe it is our holy responsibility to try to explain human suffering in light of our faith in God.
When the earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan several years ago, I heard some preachers say that God was judging that area of the world because Christianity was not the prominent religion.
When the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center Towers on 9-11, some preachers said that corporate greed was to blame.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi, many blamed it on all the new casinos that had been built in along the Gulf Coast.
And whenever there is an outbreak of strong storms, especially strong storms with tornadoes, I have heard many Christians say, as I am certain we will hear them say in the next couple of months: “God must be trying to get our attention!”
For whatever reason, when suffering occurs, we believe that God must have had some pretty good reasons to allow it.
In the face of human suffering, two predominate responses are echoed by the church.
The first response is the one I usually hear from the TV evangelists. It is the response of those in our text this morning. God is sitting at the command center in complete control of every earthly thing that happens. God has got a plan for the world, and it’s a good plan, and we human beings need to trust that plan. Even if people suffer, we shouldn’t question the plan or God’s judgments. Because God’s judgments are always just. You just have to have faith and believe God has God’s reasons. God has a driving purpose for everything that happens in this world.
The other response comes from some liberal scholars. And that is one of silence. They say that God is completely unknowable. Life, and the suffering that comes with it, is utterly mysterious. It is ok to question God, to ask “why?” But we simply have no answers to any of our “why” questions. Silence.
Frankly, I find both of these responses to human suffering to be troubling.
First of all, those who believe God has some kind of divine, driving purpose behind every evil thing that happens in this world, in my estimation, paint a very evil, mean portrait of God.
And those who respond only with only silence, those who refuse to say anything or do anything in response to human suffering paint a very detached, indifferent portrait of God. God is watching us, but as Bette Midler sings, “God is watching us from a distance.” God is reduced to this mysterious abstraction devoid of any real meaning.
The gospels, however, paint a very different image of God through the words and works of Jesus, who we believe to be the incarnation of God—which means that if we want to know how God responds to human suffering, all we have to do is look to Jesus.
I believe the life, suffering and death of Christ teach us that when a landslide shook the earth in Washington State a few year ago, so quivered the very heart of God. Last year, as the flood waters swelled in Southern Louisiana and North Carolina, tears welled up in the eyes of God
As the livelihood of many were suddenly poured out, so emptied the very self of God. God was not causing the evil, neither was God unmoved by it.
This is where I believe our gospel lesson this morning is especially helpful. When Jesus is questioned about this man’s lifetime of suffering by his disciples, Jesus really doesn’t answer the question, but he certainly isn’t silent or detached.
Jesus responds by saying that this is a good opportunity, not for theological debate, not for some long discussion theodicy (the problem of evil), not to assign blame or responsibility; but rather, it is an opportunity bend to the ground, spit in the dirt, and get his hands dirty, so that the glory of God might be revealed.
Jesus responds to a fragmented world by becoming involved, even if it means some work, even if it means rolling up his sleeves, lowering himself to the ground, and getting his hands dirty to touch the places on others that most need touching. Jesus responds to a fragmented world by becoming a movement for wholeness—bending, stooping, humbling himself to the ground—working, touching, healing, restoring.
And with that, a huge argument ensues.
But notice that Jesus refuses to engage in the argument. Jesus doesn’t have time for that. Jesus is not interested in doctrinal debate or theological speculation. Jesus is interested in simply being there with the man, for the man; thus, revealing the peculiar glory and power of our God.
I think it is interesting that the great Southeast-Asian Tsunami of the last decade struck the day after Christmas. One of the world’s worst natural catastrophes took place the very first day after the church’s celebration of the Incarnation, the celebration of the good news that our God did not remain silent, aloof and detached from us. Our God came to the earth, became flesh, became a part of the earth, to be with us. Our God is a God who descends to us. Our God is a God who bends, who stoops to the earth to be for us. Our God is a God who has selflessly and sacifcially chosen to suffer with the creation.
The story of this healed blind man comes in the same Gospel of John that begins, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh…and we beheld his glory.”
The great, grand glory of this God who became flesh with us is not that God is in complete control of everything earthly thing that happens, and it is not that God has an explanation or a reason or a driving purpose for everything that happens to us, but rather that God is Emmanuel, God here with us.
In the face of our suffering, our God reaches in and reaches out to us, bends to the ground, gets God’s hands dirty, and touches us.
And then God calls us to do the very same.
Every year as Holy Week approaches, I think about the worshippers of the Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama.
It was Palm Sunday in 1994.
About midway through the worship service at 11:35 am, as the choir began to sing, a tornado ripped through the church building destroying it completely.
Eighty-three out of the 140 worshippers who attended the service that day were seriously injured. Twenty-one worshippers were killed. Eight of the dead were little children—children who had just walked down the aisle waving their palm branches.
There was absolutely no driving purpose, no theological explanation for that tragedy, except for the fact that we live in fallen, broken, unfair and sometimes senseless world where tornados, tsunamis, hurricanes, landsides, heart disease, dementia, and cancer can develop and arbitrarily destroy.
Thankfully, Christians from all over the world didn’t just talk about that tragedy in their Sunday School classes, trying to figure out if there was some reason God allowed it. They responded to that great tragedy by emulating the God revealed to us in Christ, by bending themselves to the ground, getting their hands dirty, to raise that church out of the rubble. Christians everywhere imitated their Savior by suffering with and being with the grieving. Doing whatever they could do to bring hope, wholeness, and restoration.
On the church’s website today, you will find these words:
After the tornado, we received many gifts from all over the world. They lifted us up and helped us to know that we are not alone. Among those gifts were a banner and a painting of Jesus walking on turbulent waters. These and other gifts are reminders that God is with us through our storms, and with His help we will rise above them and be stronger because of them. We can now affirm the truth of the message that is contained on a plaque and in the words of a song: ‘Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes, …the storms rage, and God calms the child.’
And in the end, isn’t that much better than any theological explanation?
Let us pray together…
When Jesus was asked about the reason for human suffering, he did not answer the question. He did not get into a theological debate. He did not assign blame or responsibility. Instead, he chose to be a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world by bending to the ground and getting his hands dirty to bring about healing and restoration. In the wake of the storms of our lives, may we do the same. Amen.