Sermon: Sunday 20 July 2014
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19 Romans 8: 18-25 Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
Dear sisters and brothers!
Where does evil come from? How does evil come into the world? How can God allow all these terrible things to happen? This so called theodizee problem is one of the prime reasons so many people find it difficult to believe in God. If God is almighty, why does he let it happen? How can there be a God who allows Auschwitz to happen? How can earthquakes happen? Why tsunamanis? Why does the one I love have to die? Why do I have to die? Why do the innocent suffer?
Today’s readings try to give several different answers to this problem. The book of Wisdom says: ‘For there is no god, other than you, who cares for everyone, to whom you have to prove that your sentences are just. No more could any king or despot challenge you over those whom you have punished.’ This means that God as the creator and ruler of the universe has no need to justify himself for his actions; he can do what he wants with his creation and those who do evil get punished.
I am sure you all know things in your life which went wrong; you did not get a certain job, you failed an exam, this man or this woman did not fall in love with you. After some time, maybe after a few years one can sometimes see what good it was for. For example: that my relationship with my girlfriend many years ago fell apart led me to a completely new quality of life; but in the situation itself it was absolutely horrible. But viewed from today’s perspective I am somewhat grateful for it – I am glad where I am today in that respect. But I do not believe that everything evil happening to me in my life has educational reasons. I do not believe that God either punishes or gives a reward.
Driven to extremities this theory implies that if I live a good life with lots of money and no strokes of fate I am blessed by God. This is supposed to be Calvinism: if I am rich I am blessed by God. At the other end: if I die wretchedly in a concentration camp I deserve this as a punishment by God. A Jewish theologian actually said this a few years ago: that the Holocaust was the punishment for the assimilation and the liberalism of the European Jews. You see, driven to extremities this sort of theology becomes madness, at least it does so in my eyes: I do not want to believe in a God who punishes like this. There are many bad things in this world which nobody deserves. Terrible things happen to people who are innocent and the villains often get away with it. For example: if a newborn child dies I will never accept this explained to be a punishment either for the child or for the parents. I accept that sufferings and set-backs can have an educational meaning; but this is certainly not the only case for evil in this world. There is more to evil than the simple idea of punishment and education. If that would be all, God would be merciless and unjust and this is not our Lord Jesus tells about, and I neither want to believe in such a God nor worship him.
The gospel reading offers a different possibility: when the darnel appeared beside the wheat, the Lord told his servants, ‘Some enemy has done this.’ ‘The field is the world; the good seed is the subjects of the kingdom; the darnel, the subjects of the Evil One; the enemy who sowed it, the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels.’
Following this text the evil is explained as something differing from God. God is neither responsible for the evil, nor its source. The source of evil is personified or embodied in the figure of the devil; but whether you believe in a personal devil or not: the church has always insisted that God has nothing to do with evil. He is not the source, but suffers it. Some theologians would say that God suffers evil for a greater good, similar to the story in today’s gospel: God lets the good grow together with the bad, otherwise there would be no good. Some stress that creation is on its way to God through the evolution. The creation is not yet finished and still in labour pains, still away from God. What Jesus left us is a certain hope of the goal of God’s creation. To quote St Paul again: ‘In hope, we already have salvation, in hope, not visibly present. But having this hope for what we cannot yet see, we are able to wait for it with persevering confidence.’
The problem with these theological thoughts is that they are general thoughts and not personal ones. The whole thing looks different if I suffer myself, if I have to endure evil people, evil circumstances or tragic events. I could not care less about the greater good of evil in the great plan of creation – this does not explain to me why my son had to die. I still have no answer after almost 11 years.
Two stories, one from Nicholas Wolterstorf, an American pastor whose son died in 1988 on a mountaineering trip and he published his diary for the year after the death of his son. Wolterstorf writes:
The second story is much older, it is from the Jewish tradition in Eastern Europe.
A child died and the mother went crying to the rabbi’s house. There she met the rabbi’s wife and told her about this tragic event. The rabbi’s wife listened and said: ‘sometimes terrible things happen, we need to learn to accept these things.’ Then the rabbi came out and opposed this sentence strongly by saying: ‘We must never do this. We must not learn to accept these things. Do not keep quiet; fight with the Lord, accuse him, shout to him and protest. But don’t accept it.’
It is not our job to defend the Lord if we suffer, particularly if we suffer something unjust. It is our job to accuse him, to wrestle with him and to hold our pain before him. When I finally come to meet him I have some questions left.
(C) The Revd Canon Johannes Arens