Sermon for Sunday, March 20, 2011 || Lent 2, Year A || Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
It’s been a week of such darkness and destruction that one is left gaping, wordless, at the incomprehensible magnitude of it all…Japan, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now Syria…an earthquake, a tsunami, a nuclear crisis… brutal dictatorships, protesters shot point blank, women and children with limbs blown off, faces contorted in anguish.
“The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
it is he who shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.”
So sings the psalmist. Yet I wonder: Really, God? Cause it doesn’t exactly look to me like you’ve been preserving these people from all evil or keeping them safe. It doesn’t look to me like you’ve done much watching over their going out or their coming in. And not to be impertinent, Lord, but how in the name of all that is just and merciful can you allow this horror to happen?
Now you may think these questions are unfaithful, but the biblical witness is filled with reports of God’s most faithful servants asking just such doubt-filled questions. Let’s not forget Christ himself crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And yet…
And yet, why do we so readily blame God? Why does an internet search of the terms “Japanese earthquake” and “God” yield more than 2500 articles discussing whether or not this death and destruction is divine retribution, and if it is, what for?
So I wonder: Why is it so hard for modern Christians to blame suffering and death on the powers of darkness and destruction— even though Jesus refers to Satan twenty-five times in the gospels—and three times he specifically calls him “the Ruler of this World.” Why then, do we insist on blaming the all-loving God who we worship as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer instead of blaming the Destroyer, the Deceiver, the so-called Prince of Darkness?
Or, put another way, how can we blame darkness and death on the very God we claim gave his life to end darkness and death, and who rose victorious over darkness and death in his resurrection? Are we so afraid of being mistaken for wild-eyed fundamentalists or unsophisticated literalists that now we’re afraid to talk about not only Jesus (as if that weren’t risky enough!) but about the existence of evil, too?
Listen to what C.S. Lewis says about evil: “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously,” Lewis writes, “was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin…” Christian theology asserts that this Dark Power was created by God, Lewis explains, and that it was originally good—like all of God’s creation—but that it abused its freedom and rebelled. Since then, Lewis says, we’ve been living in a world occupied by rebel forces.“Enemy occupied territory—that is what this world is,” says Lewis. Enemy occupied territory.
“Christianity,” Lewis concludes, “is the story of how the rightful king has landed…and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage…” against the rebel forces occupying our world. I wonder.
Last week at the Wednesday Eucharist, as we sat quietly in our time of reflection and meditation, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an impulse to veer away from the prescribed liturgy. Rather than continuing with the Creed, which is what would normally follow the homily, I got this inexplicable notion that nothing would do but that we should all stand and say together the “Song of Creation” from the office of Morning Prayer.
“Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord,” we began, “praise him and highly exalt him forever…in the firmament of his power, glorify the Lord, praise him and highly exalt him forever!”
We went on praising God on behalf of everything from “drops of dew and flakes of snow” to “beasts of the wild, flocks and herds.” For ten full verses we invoked all manner of the cosmic order, the earth and its creatures, and the diverse people of God to “glorify the Lord,” and to “praise him and highly exalt him forever.”
By the time this magnificent canticle had reached it’s conclusion in a crescendo of triumphant doxology, I knew God was smiling –and what’s more, I knew just exactly why the spirit had nudged me so compellingly to set aside the recitation of the Creed to do this impromptu, unscripted thing instead: Pure defiance! Defiance of the powers of darkness and destruction…defiance of the rebel force!
Because praising God with all of God’s creation, when God was taking a serious hit for a tsunami he neither caused nor willed, was nothing less than an act of faithful defiance—faithful defiance as part of what Lewis called the “great campaign of sabotage” to which Christians in this enemy-occupied territory are called. It was like thumbing our noses at the powers of death and destruction and saying, “Go back to hell where you belong. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. We know who you are, and we will not be deceived.”
I wonder: On a silent retreat I was once invited by my spiritual director to meditate on Mary’s journey to the cross with her son. As you can imagine it was a really tough meditation to stay with. But I figured if Mary could stay with Jesus at the foot of the cross, the least I could do in this meditative journey was stay there with her. Yet there was no way I could have predicted what would happen when I did.
Much to my astonishment, I discovered Mary faithfully reciting the words of The Magnificat—that marvelous song of praise that actually appears in scripture much earlier, when the still-pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. But here she was at the foot of the cross! “My soul magnifies the Lord,” I heard her say through her tears, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…” Talk about an act of faithful defiance against the powers of death and destruction!
Make no mistake: The all-powerful, all-loving God we worship doesn’t cause or will darkness, death, disease, or destruction. In fact, you can stake your life on the reality that He is present in them with us. Because the all-powerful, all-loving God we worship chose to weep. The all-powerful, all-loving God we worship chose to suffer. The all-powerful, all-loving God we worship chose to die. And then—if you’ll pardon my use of the vernacular—the all-powerful, all-loving God we worship kicked death’s butt.
And that, my friends, was the ultimate act of defiance against the powers of this world. That’s why the reality of the resurrection is so key to everything I believe as a Christian. With Christ’s victory over the powers of death and destruction history was changed forever. A new age, what the bible calls the Kingdom of God, broke into our world and began to reclaim this so-called enemy occupied territory. But the decisive battle has already been won. Christ won it. And guess who’s not too happy about having lost?
So I wonder: Could we be witnessing the death throes of evil? Is that what this new chapter in cosmic history is all about?
More than 30 years ago, the South African theologican Fr. Albert Nolan wrote that, “The beginning of faith in Jesus is the attempt to read the signs of our times as Jesus read the signs of his times; to recognize that all the forces working against humankind are the forces of evil, and to believe as Jesus did that every form of evil can be overcome.”
“The only power that can achieve this,” Fr. Nolan wrote, “is the power of a faith that believes this…”
Jesus taught us to pray that God’s Kingdom would come, and that God’s will would be done, on earth just as it is in heaven. Jesus taught us to pray that prayer, precisely because God’s Kingdom hasn’t fully come, and God’s will isn’t always done in this enemy occupied territory. Not yet.
But by recognizing that all the forces working against humankind –regardless of what we call them—are the forces of evil, and by actively defying the powers of death and destruction in response, we proclaim our faith in the victory of Light over Darkness, we reclaim what rightfully belongs to God, and we advance the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. Surely we ought not expect the powers of death and destruction to go gently into that goodnight. Why would they?
So when the horror of reality flies in the face of everything we believe about a just and merciful God…when we are surrounded by so much death and destruction that we are left gaping, wordless, at the incomprehensible magnitude of it all—it’s perfectly okay, and faithful, and human– to ask God why. But we don’t want to get stuck there.
We want to remember that when Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was uttering just the first line of a psalm as familiar to first century Jews as the Lord’s Prayer is to us. And it’s a psalm that begins with a forlorn lament but that ends with deliverance and praise– a psalm that moves from, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to, “You who fear the Lord, praise him…for he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
It is a psalm of defiance… a psalm of defiance against the powers of death and destruction—from the cross!
What this tells me is that when we are surrounded by the kind of death and destruction that we have seen this past week…when we are left gaping at the incomprehensible magnitude of it all—the darkness may rob us of our words, but we must not—we can not—let the darkness rob us the Word that lives in us … the Word that was with God at creation and through whom all things came into being… the Word that is the Light of all people.
And I wonder: Might this be how we’re called to be God’s people—by being His Light in a world occupied by enemy forces? Might this be the campaign of great sabotage to which we are called—a campaign of faith-filled, nose-thumbing, defiance against the powers of death, darkness and destruction?
A campaign of defiance that praises and affirms the God of Love and Creation who weeps when we weep and mourns when we mourn – and does not yield to the temptation to blame him…
A campaign of defiance that stays, like Mary at the foot of the cross, with those who are suffering and in pain—and does not yield to the temptation to look the other way, or change the channel, because it is too hard to be there so utterly powerless…
A campaign of defiance that makes us vulnerable, like Jesus, through generous acts of self-giving love and compassion that advance God’s Kingdom—and does not yield to the temptation to hunker-down in self-protection or to give up and do nothing…
A campaign of defiance that prays, with our brothers and sisters around the world, in hope and expectation that God’s Kingdom will come, and God’s will will one day be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
So I call on you this morning to defy the powers of death and destruction!
Praise God. Give to those in need. Feed those who hunger. Welcome those who are strangers. Visit those who are lonely, sick or in prison. Comfort those who mourn. Defy the power of Darkness by being the Light of Christ.
Because, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…”
…and through him working in us—with faith-filled, nose-thumbing, defiance against the powers of death and destruction. Amen.