Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Our Hope and Our Help

Our Hope and our Help
Psalm 146[1]
Last week we discussed the fact that the Psalmist calls us all to find joy in the promise that the God who reigns over all things will one day right every wrong, heal all that is broken, and wipe away every tear. It is the very foundation of the hope that we cherish: the promise that God will be faithful to us no matter what. But, unfortunately, when you look at the way life actually works, it can sometimes be hard to believe that our hope does us any good. Those who have no lack of faith in God often suffer in ways that seem incredibly unfair. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to wonder about the promise that God will set things right.
I think that may be one of the great challenges to our faith. When the suffering of this world seems so unjust, the question whether our hope in God does us any good has to come up, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  For many of us, “natural” tragedies like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods provoke us to ask this question.  There’s a separate subject in the study of religion for it: it’s called “Theodicy,” which means “justifying God.”  The basic problem it tries to explain is this: if God is both loving and all-powerful, then the massive suffering we see in our world should never happen.[2]  So some conclude that God must be all-powerful but not loving.[3]  Others conclude that God must be loving but not all-powerful.[4] Either way, God may be our hope, but he’s not much help.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today addresses this question by insisting that God is indeed both all-powerful and loving. The psalmist begins by affirming that God is all-powerful. And his evidence for this is the world around us. God is the one who “made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Ps. 146:6).[5] Already in that day, there was a sense that the created order is amazingly vast. And yet in our day we know so much more about how vast creation is. A cubic foot of soil can be a vast microcosm of life, from microscopic organisms to insects to plants. The ecosystem that supports our world is incredible complex. And beyond that, there are countless galaxies of stars that are only visible to extended exposure photography from the Hubble telescope. The Psalmist insists with the rest of Scripture that the one who created all of this is indeed all-powerful.
But at the same time the Psalmist insists that this all-powerful God is not just “a God who doesn’t care, who lives away out there.” Rather, this all-powerful God is also the God whose very character is defined by love. God is not only the one who created all things, he is also the one who “keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:6). God is the one who remains faithful, and this means that he is actively involved in relationship with us all. If you want to know what that looks like in specific terms, the Psalmist spells it out.  It means that God feeds the hungry, he sets the prisoners free, he restores sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, he watches over the “strangers” or resident immigrants, and he upholds the widows and orphans (Ps. 146:7-9).[6] God is both all-powerful and completely loving, and he demonstrates his love in the very real circumstances of our lives.
This affirmation is the foundation of our faith: that God is not only our hope but also God acts in specific ways to help us with the burdens of life. And yet, I would think we can all call to mind instances where the hungry didn’t get fed, those who were bowed down were crushed by their hardships, and those who were suffering found no relief, no matter how hard they prayed or how fervently they believed. It is a fact of life that calls into question the faith that our Scripture lesson affirms. And the question we face in those situations is whether we can continue to believe in a God who is not only our hope but also our help.
It may come as a surprise to you, but this question is one that the Scriptures ask repeatedly. The Psalmists ask God if he has forgotten to be loving (Ps. 77:8-9) and if he has fallen asleep instead of coming to help his people in their time of need (Ps. 44:23). When we do all that we can to stay on the right path, and we muster all the faith we can manage, and still our lives fall apart, it can seem like God has abandoned us. That’s when the burden of suffering can make it seem impossible to trust the promise that God loves us enough to actually do something about what we’re going through.  It can be enough to shake our faith so intensely that we may feel like the ground has given way beneath us. It would seem that the facts of our lives simply cannot be reconciled with the assurances of Scripture.
Our confession of faith today affirms that there is nothing that can happen to us that “God does not bend finally to the good.”[7] I would imagine that plenty of us have been through experiences that make that hard to swallow, let alone believe. When that happens, I think we need more than just “God knows what’s best for us.”[8]  If God truly is the one who “keeps faith forever,” then we need something to reassure us those words mean something real when it feels like he’s broken his promise. In my mind, that’s where the cross comes in. I believe that one of the most important reasons for the cross was to demonstrate once and for all that God doesn’t abandon us.[9] God didn’t abandon Jesus on the cross, and God will never abandon you or me or anyone in this world, especially in the midst of suffering. I believe that the cross stands as a reminder that God is not only our hope, but also, even when it seems all but impossible to believe, he is our help.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/5/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] The seriousness of this question is pointedly expressed in connection with the Holocaust by Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?” Cf. similarly, Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 182, where he says that the level of suffering in our world can make us wonder whether “all talk about a loving and just God” is just empty talk “by people who are not courageous enough to face up to the fact that we live in a godless and godforsaken world.”
[3] One contemporary example of this point of view is Sam Harris. In a post on Twitter dated Aug. 5, 2015, he said, “God visits suffering on innocent people on a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath.”
[4] A contemporary example of this point of view would be Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner concludes that God is loving, but is incapable of doing anything about our suffering.
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Hope attached to [God’s] reign is founded on a reality that does not pass away. The God of Israel is king of the universe; ‘maker of heaven and earth’ is a title of the God who rules all.” Cf. also ibid., 391, where he says that the formula “maker of heaven and earth” occurs in the Psalms either to reinforce God’s help or God’s blessing: “It identifies the LORD as the one whose power in help and in blessing is unlimited by anything that is.”
[6] Cf. J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264. He says that these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”  He adds that they constitute “a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”  Cf. similarly H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 553: God’s faithfulness “consists of the fact that he sets up the justice of the Creator among all the oppressed and poor.”
[7] The Study Catechism, question 22: “God not only preserves the world, but also continually attends to it, ruling and sustaining it with wise and benevolent care. … God provides for the world by bringing good out of evil, so that nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good.” Cf. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 171, where he says that what we can do in the face of suffering is “remind ourselves and others of the light that shines in the darkness: the light of a loving God who understands and shares the depths of our suffering and dying; the light of a powerful God whose will for our good will not be defeated, who is stronger than death itself, who makes the dead live again.”
[8] Cf. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 171, where he insists that we simply cannot explain why some things happen: “in the last analysis we just do not know, should not pretend that we do, and do not have to feel guilty because we don’t. We can do what we can to relieve our own and others’ suffering. We can stand by one another to share one another’s suffering and grief to make it a little easier. But the one thing we cannot do and should not try to do is explain why—especially with glib talk about the ‘will of God’ or speculation about what people do or do not deserve.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 95: “There is no remoteness from God which the Son in his forsakenness did not suffer, or into which his self-giving did not reach.” Cf. further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 245-48. While he speaks of Jesus taking on the “God-forsakenness” of human experience, he also makes it clear that act was an action of God himself, suffering with Jesus on the cross, taking all human suffering into God’s very own self in order to convey to us all his life. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 173, where he says that, far from abandoning his Son, “in the surrender of the Son the Father surrenders himself too.” Cf. also cf. René Girard, “Job and the God of Victims,” in L. G. Perdue and W. C. Gilpin, ed., The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, 226: “The Jesus of the Gospels becomes, for the Christian tradition, the decisive event revealing the reality and meaning of the God of victims, of the God, …, by which the world is created and constituted and who takes the side of the poor, the needy, the oppressed.

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