This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Sermon prepared by Rev. Roger Gelwicks, Orangeville , Ontario
Sermon Theme: Even if God allows some things to happen, we want to blame Him for many of the bad things that happen. God calls upon us to stop the blame game and get right with Him.
Dear People of God:
People - you and I, our fellow church members, our neighbors - we all face a host of dilemmas, difficulties, and hardships that often leave us with more questions than answers. How do we understand these life shaking dilemmas, and how do we come through them on our two feet as Christians?
As Christians, and especially Reformed Christians, we believe in the providence of God. Providence is that idea whereby God upholds, directs, provides for, and governs all that happens. God is sovereign; he leads everything to his appointed goal. Now in God’s providence there is the idea that there are things that happen by God’s decretive will and others that happen by his permissive will. There is much that God allows to happen, even much that seems bad, to fulfill his purposes and plans. That whole idea of God’s permissive will still doesn’t smack very well with a lot of us.
In his spiritual autobiography, William Barclay, the well known Scottish scholar, tells the tragedy of losing his 21-year-old daughter and her fiancé who were drowned in a boating accident. He writes, “God did not stop that accident at sea, but he did still the storm in my own heart so that somehow my wife and I came through that terrible time still on our own two feet.” Barclay also tells of receiving an anonymous letter about his daughter’s death. This letter said, “I know why God killed your daughter. It was to save her from corruption by your heresies.” Barclay said, “If I had known the writer’s address, I would have written back in pity, not anger, saying, as John Wesley once said, ‘Your God is my devil.’”
In this story are two different interpretations of God’s involvement in the event that took the life of Barclay’s daughter. Both interpretations lay the blame squarely at the feet of God. Barclay implies that God could have stopped that accident at sea but chose not to. It was part of God’s permissive will. The letter-writer expressed the belief that it was God’s breath that caused the winds that night and God’s hand that tipped the boat over thereby killing the young couple. In other words this was part of God’s decretive will, which I would question.
We who may know something of Barclay’s pain may know the feeling that God was somehow involved. Lewis Smedes, in his book Forgive and Forget, retells an old story about a tailor who leaves his prayer time and on the way out of the synagogue meets a rabbi. “Well, and what have you been doing in the synagogue, Lieb Astrom?” the rabbi asks. “I was saying prayers, Rabbi.” “Fine, and did you confess your sins?” “Yes, Rabbi, I confessed my little sins.” “Your little sins?” “Yes, I confessed that I sometimes cut my cloth on the short side. “I cheat on a yard of wool by a couple of inches.” “You said that to God, Lieb Astrom?” “Yes, Rabbi, and more. I said, ‘Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth. You let little babies die, but I’m going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins, and I’ll forgive you your big ones.” You see, his daughter had died in infancy.
Do you think that tailor knows something of Barclay’s pain? Smedes said, “The Jewish tailor grabbed hold of God and held him to account.” Do we also sometimes want to grab hold of God and hold him to account? Or is our first reaction to jump to God’s defense. God is just and good. God cannot be blamed for anything. Our instinctive piety does not allow us to confront God with blame.
I believe God welcomes our angered and hurt confrontations. He willingly allows us to grab hold of him. He seizes the opportunity to wrestle with us. But be warned: those who wrestle with God sometimes get more than they bargained for. Just ask Jacob of the Old Testament or even Job.
Before we get into a discussion on when God is to blame, let’s spend a few moments talking about those things for which God is not to blame. Even I can’t resist the need to come first to God’s defense. Now, it’s true that God allows some terrible things to happen in this world. He could have prevented some terrible crimes, some terrible catastrophes. But before blaming God for allowing these things to happen maybe we should look elsewhere to cast blame. God is not to blame if you suffer the consequences of another person’s sin. Children of divorce, children of workaholics, and children of the me generation are often (not always) angry kids. I’m quite sure that many teachers can testify to the anger they see in many a neglected child. Newsweek has called this generation the “angry generation.” The problem for these children and often adults is that they’re angry at the people they love the most. And many of them, who have any concept of God, are also angry at him. God wasn’t fair. But God is not to blame, and if we are blaming him we’re blaming the wrong person. Parents who refuse to work through their disagreements, or workaholics who refuse to give time to their families should be held accountable.
Don’t blame God, either, for cancer, diabetes, AIDS, malformed babies, or any other disease or ailment that causes pain and suffering. They weren’t a part of God’s created order. They came along with humankind’s fall. God hates those things as much as we do. God works along with us to defeat them. And often we see God’s power as we see scientists make break-through discoveries and cures.
And we are to blame ourselves, not God, when we treat the “bride of Christ”, the church, like a postscript in our lives. We expect the church to flourish, even when Christ’s body only gets the left overs of our lives rather than our complete commitment.
Some would blame God when he doesn’t prevent some young punk from raping and brutalizing a young girl on the way to her car in the University parking lot. Could God have stopped that man from doing what he did to the young girl? Yes, I believe he could have. Then why didn’t he? Because he gave us the kind of world we want to live in. It is a world where people can touch us to make us feel good or touch us to cause us great pain. He made us free spirits in a world of free spirits. God is not to blame when people choose to abuse that freedom. So in so many instances, even though God allows much to happen to fulfill his permissive will, we still should look elsewhere if we want to blame someone.
In fact, rather than abandoning us in those kinds of situations, God comes to our aid and comfort. He comes beside us, even when others are to blame, to help us through those difficult times. That’s what William Barclay testified to, and I know that many of you can testify to God’s comfort and strength in difficult times.
But now I want us to consider what God has to say to us when we do want to blame him for our hardships. We may feel that my situation is different and here in my case God is to blame.
Let’s first consider our New Testament Scripture. One day Jesus took advantage of an opportunity to teach about atrocities and accidents. He brought up the barbaric act that some Roman soldiers inflicted upon some innocent men, women, and children from Galilee . He asked his listeners, “Do you think these men, women, and children from Galilee were deserving of such brutality? Do you think they were worse sinners than all the rest who met in the temple that day? I tell you the truth. The same thing could happen to you. Be spiritually prepared. Repent.”
Traditional Jewish belief taught that good people succeeded in life, but the wicked suffered. Catastrophe indicated the victims were wicked and God was punishing them. But Jesus wouldn’t fall prey to this blame game, and calls on us to repent and get right with God. Our English dictionaries may indicate that to repent is to feel or express sincere regret or remorse. But the biblical idea is that of turning away from something and turning in the completely opposite direction. So to repent in this instance where a catastrophe has happened, we would turn away from wanting to bitterly blame God and turn in the direction of trusting in him and relying on him for strength when those difficult situations might come into yours or my life.
After this first catastrophe Jesus then referred them to an accident involving a tower that fell on eighteen construction workers killing them. He said,” Do you think these eighteen were to blame for this accident? Were these eighteen men worse sinners than the rest who were working on the construction site that day? I tell you the truth, the same thing could happen to you. Be spiritually prepared. Repent. Get your life right with God”
Some of us don’t want to believe that stuff happens to people and that they are not to blame for it. Surely someone must have been to blame for that boating accident of William Barclay’s daughter and son-in-law to be. Someone must have been drinking. They shouldn’t have been out at night. They should have checked the weather report first. Maybe they weren’t qualified as boaters. You see, if these things just happen, then it could happen to anyone - your kids or mine, or even to myself. That’s the point that Jesus is making. It could happen to anyone, so repent or, in other words, be spiritually prepared.
Moving ahead, let’s recognize that God is totally and unapologetically to blame for one thing. He disrupts our lives and sometimes uses us to stand in for himself. Consider Abraham and Sarah. God entered their lives and called them out. “I want you to pack up,” he said. “Move to a country that I will show you. Leave father and mother. Leave all the security behind. Go and I’ll go with you.” That was the only guarantee Abraham got: “I’ll go with you.” God used Abraham and Sarah to bless the world, and nowhere in Scripture do I find God apologizing to them for the inconvenience it caused them. In the process, they too were blessed. Later in history Jesus entered the scene, and he began to call men out. “Come,” he said to Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew. He said, “Come and follow me.” And nowhere in Scripture do I find Jesus apologizing to these men for interrupting their lives and using them to spread the Good News to the rest of the world. We would have to acknowledge that most of the disciples had their lives disrupted in some pretty serious ways, most of them, even, being put to death violently for their faith. And yet there is no apology from God.
But now if Abraham and Sarah and the disciples were used by God, going a step further, we’d have to say Job was abused by God. Satan is given free reign to ruin Job’s life. God’s only restraint is that Satan can’t take Job’s life. Job’s friends blamed Job for all that happened to him. “You must have done something to deserve all this,” they said. “Ask God to forgive you,” they advise.
Job’s wife comes to Job as he is sitting on a rubbish heap scratching his boils, and she places the blame for this right where it belongs—at the feet of God. “Curse God and die,” she advises Job. Well, Job’s not able to do either. He can’t bring himself to blame himself, as his friends suggest, and he refuses to blame God even though God is the one to blame. What we finally learn is that Job is being used by God to win a wager with Satan. Job is God’s stand-in, his champion. (Read Job 38:1-11) Job’s faith is being tested for all the world to see and draw upon in their time of trial. Job finally does what each and every one of us would finally do if we were in his shoes. He goes to God looking for an explanation. But instead, what he gets is an explosion. Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, sums up God’s response to Job’s question: God asks Job, “who do you think you are?” The explanation Job wants would be like trying to explain Einstein to an ant. Buechner says God does not reveal his grand design; God reveals himself. Throughout the book of Job, Job whined, “Why are you treating me so unfairly, God?” “Put yourself in my place.” “No!” God thunders in reply. “You put yourself in my place. Until you can offer lessons on how to make the sun come up each day or where to scatter lightning bolts or how to design a hippopotamus, don’t judge how I run the world. Just shut up, Job, and listen!” The impact of God’s speech on Job is almost as amazing as the speech itself. Although God never answers one question about Job’s predicament, the blast from God’s response flattens Job. He repents in dust and ashes and every trace of disappointment with God is blown away. “Are you spiritually prepared?” Jesus asks in our New Testament Scripture. “Repent.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. God’s response to Job is not his response to those who find themselves in the middle of unfair suffering. This is not what God says to a young woman who is abused by her husband. This is not what God says to the Barclays either. To them he brings his comforting presence. But to those who have been sitting on a rubbish heap for a long time complaining about their lot in life, God comes and lifts them up from that rubbish heap and looks them eyeball to eyeball and says, “That’s enough. Stop blaming. Start trusting. In other words, Repent!
There are those here this morning who may need a counselor, a professional, to help you deal with some bitterness and anger in your lives because of past events. There are others here this morning who need a friend, someone to come alongside and walk with you through a difficult and trying time. And there are others who need God to come alongside and say as only God can, “It’s time now to stop blaming yourself, or blaming others, or the devil, and stop blaming me. It’s time to start trusting.” That finally is the choice that God puts before us. He won’t explain himself, and he won’t apologize for his actions or lack of them. “Blame me or trust me,” he seems to say. Be angry, be bitter, or be at peace. Job’s story has a happy ending. So too will be yours and mine. It’s time to stop playing the blame game. It’s time to start trusting God.
Suggested Order of Worship
* = Congregation Standing (if able)
*Welcome *Call to Worship: Psalm 100:1-4
We pray O wonderful Lord that you will bless us with your fatherly love, the grace of Jesus Christ, and your abiding presence through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*We Greet One Another
*Opening Song of Praise: PsH # 560 ‘Like a River Glorious’
God’s Will for Our Lives: Matthew 5:1-12
Song of Response: PsH # 182 ‘Give Thanks to God, for Good Is He’
*Response: PsH #384 ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’
Scripture Reading : Job 38:1-18, Luke 13:1-5
Message: ‘Who Can We Blame?’
Prayer of Response
*Song of Response: PsH # 500 ‘How Firm a Foundation’
*God's Parting Blessing
We pray that your love will go before us, that Christ's blessing will be around us, and that the Spirit's joy will be within us. Amen
*Closing Song: PsH # 634 ‘Father, We Love You’