Scripture: II Corinthians 12:1-10
Sermon: “Why Does God Allow Suffering?” by Pastor Todd Buurstra
At the beginning of this series on criticisms of Christianity a few weeks ago, I introduced you to the chain-smoking, Johnny Walker guzzling, atheist provocateur who calls Mother Theresa a fundamentalist fanatic and fraud. Remember Christopher Hitchens? If you do remember the 60 Minutes episode of which I played about 60 seconds, you also remember that he describes his Stage 4 as an elite cancer. So today as we approach the cross on Palm/Passion Sunday, we answer the great objection to our faith, why does God allow suffering? As we do so, I want to refer to an NPR interview. Hitchens says in that interview, and I quote:
To the dumb question, why me? The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not.
I’m here as a product of a process of evolution, which doesn’t make very many exceptions. And which rates life relatively cheaply… So to be relatively healthy at 62 is to be dealt a pretty good hand by the cosmos, which doesn’t know I’m here—and won’t notice when I’m gone.
Well, I guess that’s one answer to suffering with all the comfort atheism can muster. We all ask those questions when we look in the drawn eyes of 18 month old Wyatt Fleming, as I did a couple of weeks ago in St. Peter’s. He’s the child of the Branchburg family who also had winter storm damage on their house, and for which between the Deacons’ Fund and Pioneers, we raised about $1K. Wyatt’s eyes looked blah as the nurses prepared him for the next round of chemo. Or it’s the question we ask in the face of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, for which we raised $4500. Or it’s the question that you face personally: why does God allow suffering?!
Atheism’s answer is meaninglessness. For every child that dies of hunger, and there will be 6 million this year, two during this sermon, there is no afterlife to rectify it. C. S. Lewis be-came an atheist because of life’s cruelties. And then he turned to Christ because he realized that Jesus provided a better answer to suffering than atheism, if atheism provides any answer at all.
But pantheism’s answer is even worse because if God is in all, then God is part of evil and suffering. Then it is literally a dog eat dog world, or to switch letters, a god eat dog world.
And lastly, when I think of my Buddhist priest brother-in-law’s faith, one that I greatly admire, I don’t find its answer very helpful either. The Buddha says, Detach. It’s your passions that make you suffer. Let go of your desire to be well, or sexy, or rich. While I’d like to have the Dali Lama’s blood pressure of a child, I can’t see myself walking around with a flat affect. Aum
So what is Jesus’ answer? The cross. For here God enters our suffering to redeem. Just think of his physical suffering. The Romans drove 6 inch nails through his wrist and a main nerve. They did the same through the feet, and a main nerve. The pain was so horrific they had to invent a new word to describe it, excruciating, literally from the cross. Then, his shoulders were spread 6 inches more by the nails which dislocated them. Lastly, to breathe, he had to push down on the nails in his feet to lift his chest up to exhale, meanwhile rubbing his bloodied back on the hard wood of the cross. People died because breathing became too painful. Suffering!
But that is nothing compared to the cosmic abandonment that Jesus felt when he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Remember that he had left the perfect harmony of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in heaven to enter our hell on earth. Paul writes, he who knew no sin, became sin for us. Jesus was abandoned by God, so that we need never be so.
But Jesus enters our suffering to redeem us. You see the God of the Bible is not a primi-tive deity that demands blood to appease his wrath, but a God who pays the price to forgive.
So even Christian martyrs have been able to find meaning in the suffering that redeems, even as they’re being burned at the stake for God. In 1555 as the flames engulfed two Protestants, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, in Oxford, Latimer calmly stated to the smell of his own burning flesh, We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out. You can only say that if you believe God’s suffering redeems.
So our suffering joins God’s greater redemptive suffering. In our text Paul asks God thrice to remove his thorn in the flesh. What was it? Some think it eyesight. Others epilepsy. And honestly, no one knows, but it was a form of suffering. It puts us in mind of Jesus’ words… So what did the Holy Spirit say to Paul about his cross to bear? My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Though you can’t see very well, Paul, that helps you depend more on me and others. Our suffering presses us close to Jesus’ suffering.
Have you ever noticed how the vines that grow up the side of oak trees can hang on through the fiercest storms? You know why? The wind presses those vines closer to the tree. And that’s what suffering does for us. It presses us closer to God, for strength, forgiveness, etc.
And so, as God’s suffering redeems, so our suffering presses us close to the cross. I want you to take a few moments of silent prayer and identify that difficulty in your life. After you’ve identified it, then ask God to let that suffering press you closer to Jesus’ cross.Amen.
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