Because it is not possible to start with what we do not know, or what we do not understand, in order to know and understand better, we simply have to start at what we do know or understand, and work from there.
But our very human tendency, when we are faced with something as huge and tragic as the earthquake in Haiti, is to start in exactly the wrong place. We want to know why. “Why did this earthquake happen? Why were so many lives ended? Why so much suffering?” And of course, since it’s a long way from over, our questions also include, “Why will so many more die in these coming days – absent proper food, water and medicine?”
But we cannot start with the “Why?” question because we do not know, and we do not understand. This is the Monotheists’ dilemma: How can a good, all powerful God allow suffering? We feel like God has some explaining to do. We do not know why.
The wrong answer
I’m sure that by now most of us have heard the televangelist’s explanation: he attributed this catastrophe to God’s retribution for sins he believes the Haitian people committed two hundred years ago. This kind of comment will probably make atheists like Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins squeal with delight – it gives them more reasons to be smug.
But it provides cold comfort for the families of the two American United Methodist ministers who were killed in the earthquake as they met to plan how to help the poor in Haiti. I want to ask Pat if he really believes that God is as clumsy as he believes he is brutal.
Didn’t the book of Job spend 42 chapters debunking the whole notion that you can trace the cause of suffering back to sin? In fact, isn’t that whole book a huge pain-cry of a person who wants to know the one thing none of us ever knows: Why?
Why earthquakes? Why cancer? Why clots? Why this? Why me? Why now? As we lean over the rail of that deep, dark chasm of mystery and shout out those questions, all we hear is our own voice as it echos back and forth, all the way down. We could toss a stone over the edge to follow the echoes, but we would never hear it hit bottom.
So if we cannot make any headway at all by starting with what we do not know, let us begin on solid ground with what we do know. Maybe we will not arrive at an answer in full, but perhaps we will look into that deep chasm of mystery from a more secure place.
Start with Jesus
We start with Jesus, whom we call Messiah, or Christ: the one anointed by God. Through the gospels, we can hear his voice, listen to his teaching, observe his actions; Jesus were we begin. Jesus is what we know (or at least constantly struggle to know).
The story we read today is perfect for us, facing these questions today, because in this text, Jesus starts at the beginning and gives his inaugural address. The setting is his hometown, Nazareth.
Picture a small village, may 75 or 80 humble homes (200 – 400 total inhabitants: men, women and children). It’s on a hill, surrounded by valleys and other hills. There is a small synagogue: all of the faithful gather there on the Sabbath to worship, pray, and to hear the reading of Torah. Jesus arrives.
He has been away from home just recently. He has traveled, probably on foot, from Nazareth all the way down to the Jordan River where he was baptized by John – that was when the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. On his way back, he has detoured into the wilderness for 40 days during which he was tempted. After that, Jesus has spent time teaching in other synagogues in Galilee; we don’t know how many or for how long, but his reputation is growing.
Now, he is back with his extended family – his clan; back on home soil. He probably grew up in that synagogue, hearing Torah read every Saturday from his regular seat on the bench. Now this local boy has grown up; he is a rising star. It is his first chance to take the floor.
The Song of Servant of the Lord
They give him the scroll. It’s a big one – the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls its stiff yellow, hand-sewn sections, until he finds the text he wants. It’s one of the poems , or songs Isaiah wrote called a “servant song.” The singer is “the servant of the Lord.” Jesus reads the words of the song:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Ah, yes; the Servant Song; a well known; beloved text. A good choice for a first sermon back home. All eyes, Luke tells us, were fixed on him. What will he say about this text? They all know the words, but no one really knows to whom it refers.
Who is that Servant of the Lord who is coming? All they know is that he will be called Messiah because, as it says in the song, he is “anointed”, Messiah means anointed, by God – specifically by means of the Spirit.
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…”
The Servant’s Spirit-empowered mission
So what will be the mission of the Spirit-anointed Messiah, the servant of the Lord? He will go to where the pain is, as a channel through which the Spirit, who anointed him, may flow out to suffering people.
The Servant is anointed by the Spirit to bring good news – a word that means, an official pronouncement, a cause for rejoicing – to people like those sitting there in Nazareth with hard-calloused hands and dirty finger nails; the poor. He will proclaim that the days of their bondage, their oppression, their captivity to the enslaving powers-that-be are over. He will open up blinded eyes and let the oppressed go free.
Isaiah’s Servant sings this song with a melody in a minor key; a lament that began long ago. There was a time when the people were shackled together in chains, force-marched out of their land at the point of a Babylonian spear. Their king was in that chain-gang too, along with his sons, the heirs to his throne.
When the ones who survived finally arrived in the land of their captivity, the royals were taken to the king of Babylon. The last thing King Zedekiah of Judah saw before they blinded his eyes was the execution of his sons. The Servant sings of a time when blind eyes will see again, exiles will be released, the oppressed will be freed; it will be an official proclamation of good news to poor people.
And one more thing: the Servant sings of a restoration of the Year of Jubilee; the year of the Lord’s favor. This was the year when debts were forgiven, land was returned to its original tribes, clans, and families; everyone got a fresh start to live in the promised land as originally intended.
Jesus’ Inaugural 9 Word Sermon
And so, with every familiar eye fixed on him in the synagogue that smelled like home, Jesus finished the reading
20 “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.”
And from the teacher’s chair, he began with the nine words (in English) that cast the dye:
21“…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
The Spirit-filled Servant of the Lord, the anointed Messiah, is present: the proclamation of the good news of Jubilee has commenced, right here, right now.
“Why?” becomes “Who?”
Why do people suffer? Why are there cruel Babylonians? Why are there pap-doc Duvalier’s, and Saddam Hussein’s, and Osama Bin Laden’s? Why are there tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes? And why do the poorest of the poor suffer so disproportionally every time?
The “Why?” questions echo; the chasm is bottomless. We do not have a solution to “Why?”. But we do have a “who.” We can start with what we know. We can start with Jesus. We can fix our eyes on him, as they did that day. We can listen to him as he teaches us.
What do we know?
What do we know from Jesus? What is our solid-ground starting point?
From Jesus we know that God is Good. That God is our Father in Heaven. That God’s will, God’s purpose, is not to find bad people to crush, but to go to where the pain is, and bring good news. God is on the side of people who suffer. He is for the poor, for the exiled, for the oppressed, for the blinded, for debtors and debt-slaves.
From Jesus we know that God’s Spirit that anointed Jesus at his baptism and flowed out through him to those poor folks in Nazareth and Galilee, has been poured out on us, his church! Now we are the vessels, the channels, the conduits of his mercy.
We do not and never will know “Why?”; but because we know Who, because we know Jesus, we know at least something true and solid about God: God is Love. God is Good, and God’s heart breaks for the suffering of the men and women, the boys and girls, and the little babies made in his image.
We do not know all the answers – but we do know what God wants of us; to join him in his mission to the world he made and loves. To fix, not only our eyes on Jesus, but also our hearts; to be followers of Jesus; disciples of Jesus, doing what he did. This is our mission: to Love God, to grow in faith, and to share Christ’s love.
What do we do?
Last week you made me so proud; we have already collected over $1,000 for Haiti – and that was only from the Sunday collection; more has come in since, and continues. You also gave me cause for joy as many of you met here for the Christian Service Center volunteers training. You also made phone calls, wrote cards, prayed for the people among us in hospital and in pain. You came here yesterday to support the Boy’s Ranch, and now, here you are in worship again.
Why do people suffer? We do not know. But we know God through Jesus Christ, his Messiah; and so we know why we are here, and what we need to do. Bless you!