The Reality of Suffering and the Promise of God’s Healing
Sunday, March 20, 2022
Pastor Arne Bergland
I know people who have stopped watching the news. Maybe you have stopped as well. For some there is too much suffering to bear these days. Why is there so much suffering in the world? I know that it is not a new question. Throughout the ages people have wondered why. No doubt it is a question you have pondered on more than one occasion. Are we responsible for our own suffering? If God is all powerful, does God cause suffering? If God is all loving, why is there suffering at all? Perhaps our suffering is a form of punishment for bad behavior. Is suffering God’s way of making us sit in the corner or go without supper? Do floods, hurricanes and wildfires happen because of something we did? Conversely, do good things happen as a reward for our good behavior?
Our Gospel lesson certainly addresses the issue of suffering that has been on our minds for a long time. We usually ask the question at a time of great personal or communal loss or tragedy. To ask the question here in worship gives us an occasion to reflect on the idea of suffering together.
Why is there suffering? There are people a whole lot smarter than me that have tried to find an answer. Let’s not be too bold to believe that we can come up with a good answer. Not that we don’t ever try. In the face of the complexity of suffering we sometimes resort to easy and often ill-thought answers. I remember when my college roommate, a man with two preschool children, was murdered in front of his wife. The preacher at his funeral suggested that those who attended the service wear white in celebration because God needed him more than his children did. Then there are those TV preachers who have said things like blaming 911 on Americans sin or HIV/Aids being the punishment for being gay. There is one of those guys now suggesting that Putin is doing God’s will.
Awful explanations abound. They sometimes are made in an innocent attempt to offer comfort and sometimes out of shear meanness and ignorance. When you read this lesson from Luke today, please let us not fall into such traps. As if we could ever come up with any sure and certain answer to the question of suffering.
We come to this passage from Luke. It is a passage that is easily figured out. I would suggest that we abandon the idea that building a theology from a single passage of scripture is poor theology. Rather than give into the temptation of easy answers one need to look to a broad understanding of God’s word.
Jesus says, “Do you really think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” God does not use suffering to punish sin. Jesus emphasizes this when speaking about the people killed when a tower fell on them. Jesus says, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem,” again answering definitively, “No.”
God does not use suffering as a punishment for sin. This is not to say that suffering and sin are disconnected. The world is watching the Russian army as it bombs maternity hospitals and attacks convoys of civilians attempting to make an escape from their attackers. There are consequences for sin. The more we can do to hold people accountable for that sin, the better the world will be. In a momentary lack of attention, I could run a stop sign and injure or God forbid, kill someone. There are consequences for my sin. We have laws designed to give shape our behavior that what we do does not harm others. The world is better place when people are held accountable for the sin that creates suffering.
Our lesson today should lead us to understand that God takes no delight in our suffering. Don’t read the parable of the fig tree thinking that God is the farmer eager to destroy that which does not produce. The Gospel of Luke never suggests such a thing. Rather than that, we see God portrayed, as we will next week in reading in worship, as the father of the prodigal son eagerly anticipating and hoping for the wayward to come home. Throughout the Gospel we find the message of Luke 15:7 “There is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”
Perhaps the landowner in the parable of the fig tree represents you and me more than God. The landowner has an idea of how things should work. Just like the landowner we want things to be done right, we want to be fair. We want rewards for doing the right thing and punishment for doing evil things. I once was on a citizen committee exploring the idea of building a new jail. We studied other jails and learned about what made for effective rehabilitation of criminals. People saw these efforts as coddling. They didn’t want rehabilitated offenders, they wanted punished crooks. Rewards for right, punishment for wrong, that’s the way it should be. Except when it is our wrong and then mercy and grace sound pretty good, don’t they?
In the parable of the fig, we are the landowner, demanding justice. God is the gardener whose answer to sin isn’t punishment – not even in the name of justice – but rather mercy, reconciliation, and new life. The gardener appeals to the landowner, let me try again before you make a final judgement.” Give it another chance.
How might we address the suffering in this world. How might we find words of comfort to those broken by tragedy?
I believe this lesson from Luke help us to see that God’s answer to sin isn’t punishment but rather it is love. That is, in Jesus God loves us enough to take on our lot and our lives fully, identifying with us completely. In the cross, then, we see just how far God is willing to go to be with us and for us, even to the point of suffering unjustly and dying the death of a criminal. And in the resurrection, we see that God’s solidarity and love is stronger than anything, even death.
So, what can we say in the face of suffering and loss? That God is with us. That God understands what our suffering is like. That God has promised to redeem all things, including even our suffering. That suffering and injustice do not have the last word in our lives and world. God will keep waiting for us and keep urging us to turn away from our self-destructive habits to be drawn again into the embrace of a loving God.
We can respond to the reality of suffering in our lives with the “and yet” of Gods love and grace. Through efforts like Minnesota Food share and Lutheran World relief we walk with Jesus with those who suffer. Through the God who seeks us, forgives us, and lets us start again. Rather than offering up easy answer we gain empathy to walk with one another through the reality of our lives empowered by God’s grace.
In the reality of the worlds suffering, we may choose to turn off the news, or shut the curtains or turn a blind eye. Suffering will not go away, neither will our inability to understand it. Instead, we can follow the one who turns toward our suffering bringing life and hope and grace.