Is God in Charge?

We find ourselves in the eighth chapter of Acts, verses two through four. These few verses are challenging for anyone who assumes God will eliminate life’s hardship. It does not matter how you turn this story; you find pain and suffering. Listen to what I am about to say. It makes the story harder to accept. The people who are experiencing the pain and the suffering did nothing wrong. Stephen did nothing wrong. He was doing what he was told. He was telling the world about Jesus and for his evangelistic efforts he was killed.  The members of the early church did nothing wrong yet verse three tells us they were imprisoned for their faith. Pain and suffering have been part of the church from the very beginning. There is no shortage of pain and suffering in our world today. And with the pain and the suffering comes the question, is God in charge? In this blog, I want to unpack that loaded question.

When I was in seminary a professor challenged us to develop a theology of suffering. On that day, I did not know the importance of that assignment. It was just one more requirement. However, I learned about the importance of that assignment in my forty years in the ministry. Through the decades, I sat with countless people, who withstood great suffering and hardship. They were good people who did nothing wrong. No one expected me to solve their problems, but everyone expected be to care. In every case, I would explain my theology of suffering. It is two-fold.

First, the origin of life’s hardships is Satan, not God. I believe you should learn something new every day. Do you know what I learned the other day? I learned that the Vikings did not wear horns on their helmets. That is a misconception. The origin of that misconception comes from the ancient Christians in southern Europe who feared the northern Europeans. The southern Europeans portrayed the northern Europeans in art with horns on their helmets to alien them with Satan, who is symbolized by a horned goat. Like, Jesus is symbolized by a lamb. That means the helmets of the Minnesota Vikings wrong. Many have accepted that misconception about Vikings wearing horns in their helmets. I did!

That is not the only misconception in history. Maybe you have accepted one of these?

  1. Ben Franklin did not discover electricity. (He was simply trying to prove the electric nature of lightning)
  2. The Great Wall of China cannot be seen from the moon.
  3. Marie Antoinette did not say, “Let them eat cake.”
  4. Witches were not burned at the Salem Witch Trials. (However, 20 women were hanged.)
  5. Nero did not fiddle while Rome burned. (He was 30 miles away when the fire broke out.)
  6. Lady Godiva never rode her horse in the nude.

How many of those misconceptions have you accepted? Our world is filled with misconceptions. This is one more.

Do you know of anyone who has accepted the misconception God creates hardship and suffering to draw us near to him. That simply is not the case. God uses hardships but God does not create the suffering. The true origin of all pain and suffering in our world is Satan. God may have created the world, but it is Satan who brings hardship and suffering to the world. That is why Job’s story still speaks to our world. Everyday Satan did horrible things to him, so Job would denounce his faith. Every day Satan does horrible things to us, so we will denounce our faith. However, we won’t do it because the foundation of our lives is God! Yet, it is painfully clear. We are living in Satan’s playground and with every horrible story there is another Satan sighting. With every story we shake our heads and wonder why? It is vital to your faith that you reject the misconception that God creates hardship and suffering. The origin of all suffering and hardship is Satan. We must confess our ignorance when it comes to the origin of hardship and suffering. The origin of life’s hardships is Satan.

Second, our emotions blind us to divine outcome. In 2013, the Colonial Hills Baptist Church of Indianapolis suffered a great tragedy. They had sent their youth to a church camp in northern Michigan. It was a successful time away and everyone was excited about returning home. Everyone must have been thrilled the 365-mile trip home was nearly complete. Then, tragedy struck. One mile from the church the bus’s brakes failed. The bus slammed into a wall and overturned. There were 37 people on the bus. Dozens were injured. Three were killed, including the youth pastor, his pregnant wife, and a chaperone. The youth minister was the senior pastor’s son. The parents who had assembled at the church to pick up their children were shocked. Their happy reunion was replaced with sadness. Does that story make you wonder? That story makes me wonder.

We must confess our emotions blind us to the divine outcome. That story has stuck with me through the years. It fills me with questions. How do you worship after such a horrible accident? How do you sing songs of praise after such a horrible accident? How does the minister stand up and preach after such a horrible accident? He did not just lose a member of his staff. He lost his son. He lost a daughter-in-law. He lost an unknown yet loved grandchild. How does a mother move forward after losing a child? Just like in the scripture lesson, they were doing nothing wrong, yet they were suffering.

Emotions are funny things. They can propel us to the mountaintop, and they can drag us down to deepest valley. They can sharpen our insights and blind us to the most obvious. Have you ever wished you were more emotional? Have you ever wished you will less emotional? Have you ever hidden your true emotions? Have you ever had to work your way through some emotional experience to experience something new?

The scripture lesson ends with a word of good news. The church is moving outward. This did not happen because the governing body passed a new rule. There was no capital funds drive for new church starts. The grant application was not accepted for some new ministry. The church was moving outward because it was forced to move outward. Because of the persecution, it wasn’t safe to stay in Jerusalem, so they moved to other places taking the Gospel message with them. There is no reason to believe they would have moved without the persecution. Have you ever noticed how God can use Satan’s bad things and produce something good? It happens all the time.

Taryn Davis said she felt lost and isolated after she buried her husband, Michael. He was serving our country in Iraq when he died at the age of 22. Due to her young age, 22, everyone tried to dismiss her grief by saying, “You are young. You can remarry.” People did not know how to treat her, so they left her alone. In her isolation, Taryn did something that brought her both great pain and relief. She contracted the widow of another soldier who was killed with Michael. Their meeting had no real agenda. They simply got together and shared. Then they decided to contact other young military widows and in time they founded the American Widow Project. It is open to any age, but the average age is 25. It has been years since Michael died. She still misses him, but she has found a new family. She has found her purpose. Have you ever noticed how God can use Satan’s bad things and produce something good? How often do our emotions blind us to the final outcome? Helen Keller (1880-1968) once said, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.”

One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from the ninth chapter of Mark. Peter has just identified Jesus as the Christ. It was one of those pivotal moments in the Bible. Things would never be the same again. To underscore the importance of that insight, Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain. It is at this moment the story grows strange. Without any warning, Jesus’ appearance suddenly changes. The Bible says he was transfigured. We would describe him as glowing. Suddenly, with this transfigured Jesus and the disciples were with Moses and Elisha. I don’t know how they identified them. (Maybe they were wearing name tags?) Why Moses and Elisha? Through the eyes of the disciples, they were the greatest characters in the Old Testament. Moses was the great law giver. Elisha was the greatest of the prophets. Both were endorsing Jesus. It was one of the greatest moments in the life of the disciples and they don’t want t to end. Peter offers to put up tents for their honored guests. However, the best is yet to come. Suddenly, they are engulfed by a bright cloud and God, himself, begins to speak to them. God says it clearly, “This is my son, whom I love; with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The disciples are overwhelmed by the experience, but it is suddenly over. Do you remember what happens next?

On their way down from the mountaintop they are confronted by a man whose son is demon possessed. The contrast between the two stories is shocking. Isn’t that life? On the mountaintop everything is perfect. There is Moses and Elisha. There is God. In the valley there is imperfection, hardships, and suffering. There is the demon possessed boy. How much imperfection have you witnessed in your life? We may visit the mountaintop occasionally, but we live in the valley. This is the question.

Is God in change? The answer is YES! However, you are never going to see it until you understand two things. First, the origin of suffering is Satan. God created the world, but we live in Satan’s playground. Second, you must confess your own emotions have blinded you to the divine outcome. Mother Teresa (1910-1997) once said, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”

The Ghost of Christmas Past

You know the story. Everybody knows the story.Miserable old businessman Ebenezer Scrooge lived for nothing but money. The problem was, his money was not making him happy, it was making him miserable. Everyone in his life knew it. His office clerk, Bob Cratchit knew it. His nephew, Fred knew it. The two nameless chaps collecting for the poor knew it. His deceased business partner, Jacob Marley knew it. However, Marley also knew change was still possible, so he came to visit Scrooge. He told him that three more ghosts would come to visit him. The first would be the Ghost of Christmas Past. The second would be the Ghost of Christmas Present. The third would be the ghost of Christmases yet to come, or the Ghost of Christmas Future. They were coming for one reason, transformation!

When we last left Scrooge, he was waiting. When the clock struck one, the waiting ended. The Ghost of Christmas Past came in the form of a young woman. Her presence is so bright that he can hardly see her. In accordance with her name, she shows him his past Christmases. His memories are a mixed bag. Some of his Christmas memories were wonderful memories. There was the Christmas that he partied with old Fezziwig. There was the Christmas his sister Fanny escorted him home. Some of his Christmas memories were not so great. There was the Christmas he spent in school alone. How many wonderful Christmas memories do you have? How many Christmases do you wish you could forget? In many ways, we are no different than Scrooge. You know the truth.

Everyone is expected to be merry at Christmas. Does anyone here have a problem with that last statement? For many, Christmas is not merry. For some, Christmas is not merry because of the death of a loved one. It may be a spouse. It may be a parent. It may be the death of a good friend or the death of a child. For some, Christmas is not merry because there is a lack of money. They are unemployed or underemployed. They have mismanaged their money in the past, and that has tainted their present. For some, Christmas is not merry because of reality. In their youth they had such dreams. They were going to see the world and make a million along the way. They have seen nothing but their leaky wet basement in their rented home. For others, Christmas is not merry because of failing health. Does anyone here feel like they have let the youngest generation down? Do I have to go on, or do you get the picture? Christmas has a way of magnifying our disappointments. Christmas is not always merry.

Our scripture lesson for today comes from the first chapter of Luke, verses 26-45. You know the scripture. Perhaps, we have grown too comfortable with it. It is not really our fault. It has been told and retold over the past 2,000 years. It has been promoted by both the secular and the sacred worlds. Countless sermons have been written about it. Some of the greatest pieces of music have been inspired by it, and the masters of the art world have tried to capture it. In every home a Nativity set sits proudly on display to remind us of the story of the birth of Jesus. Do you know of anyone who does not know the story of the birth of Jesus? This morning I challenge you to look at this story from a different perspective. In your mind’s eye, strip away the traditions. I just want you to listen to the words. What does the Bible say? The Bible says it all began with an unwanted pregnancy. That unwanted pregnancy placed a young woman in a difficult situation. Once you walk in Mary’s shoes, the scripture suddenly comes to life.

Mary models for us how to survive in our world. She illustrates three things about life. They are the outline for my message today. First, she illustrates for us that life is hard. There is nothing easy about life. Second, she illustrates for us that sometimes we need others. She went to her cousin, Elizabeth. Third and finally, she illustrates for us that we always need God. I promise I will be brief.

First, Mary illustrates for us: life is hard. Life has always been hard. If you do not believe me, then look at the Nativity itself. Do not glamorize the story. Do not get sucked into the tradition; just read the words. Every person in the story was in a difficult situation. Mary was in a difficult situation. In a time that valued morals, Mary was an unwed pregnant woman. Joseph was in a difficult situation. There was no right answer. On the one hand, he has every right to divorce Mary and walk away. The problem is, Mary would have been found guilty of adultery. That means she could be stoned to death. How could he live with her death on his hands? On the other hand, if he takes Mary as his own, then he brings shame on himself. He is saying he has broken the abstinence law during the engagement. Zachariah and Elizabeth were in a difficult situation. They have no children and their society demanded children. If you turn to the second chapter of Matthew, then you find the story of the Magi. All they wanted to do was worship the new-born king. Do you remember what happened? Their sincere actions led to the death of two-year-old baby boys and younger. Do I have to go on? Each one of the characters reminds us that life is hard. Do you know of anyone who has a hard life? Could it be that you have a hard life? Do you know of anyone who has ever said, “Life is much easier than I ever expected!” No! Life is hard! If you agree that life is hard, say, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had a hard life!

Second, Mary illustrates for us: sometimes we need others. Look at the story one more time with me. Mary was from the town of Nazareth. In her time, Nazareth had a population of between 100 and 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town?

Have you ever worshipped in a small membership church? Everyone knows everyone else. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Mary is single and pregnant in a small town. Everyone in her life is talking about her pregnancy. She is the hot topic at the well. The story says she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. Biblical scholars believe she went for two reasons. First, she goes to Elizabeth to escape the people in her life. Second, she goes to Elizabeth to receive some unconditional love. Has there ever been a time in your life when you needed the counsel of someone else? Have you ever been the counsel for someone else?

Sometimes we need people. Mary went to Elizabeth. Where do you go? Have you ever gone to visit a relative? Have you ever gone to visit a friend? Have you ever traveled to a counselor or a support group? Don’t feel guilty! Sometimes we need people. And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Scrooge was rich, but he had no unconditional love.

Third and finally, Mary illustrates for us: we always need God. Beyond our reading for today comes one of the great pieces of scripture in the Bible. It is called the Magnificat; it means “glorifies”. In that song, Mary completely surrenders to God’s will. Just think about that for a moment. She sacrificed her dreams and desires for her life for God’s will. Generations later, she reminds us that we always need God.

One of the things that makes Christmas so difficult is all the images of the season. Christmas is the most visual holiday of the year. The season is filled with Christmas trees and Christmas lights. It is filled with Christmas cards and Christmas gifts. It is filled with Santa Claus and the Nativity. There are Christmas movies and Christmas cookies. There is both sacred and secular Christmas music. No matter where you turn, you are reminded of Christmas. You are expected to be merry. What happens when Christmas isn’t merry? For many, those images are painful. Do you know anyone who can’t wait to get Christmas over? Maybe we need a new image?

Years ago, Kathryn and I had the great fortune to travel to Israel. It was a great trip and we saw amazing things. The highlight for me was traveling to Bethlehem. It is not far from Jerusalem, about 5.5 miles. You can feel the spiritual tension. It is a sacred spot for three major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and the Muslim faith. Every Christmas Eve I think about being in the Church of the Nativity. It is the spot where they say Jesus was born. The exact spot is under the center altar. We stood in line to get to that spot. The spot is marked by a brass star on the floor. To feel the spot where Christ was born, you had to get on your knees. I did it and I felt a spiritual rush. All the problems of this world seemed to disappear, and I viewed the world with eyes fixed on eternity. I was not the only one. Others felt that spiritual rush. There was a woman on the other side of the center altar who was overwhelmed with emotion. She was crying because she touched the spot where Jesus was born. I will never forget that experience. It was like touching the fingertips of God. How would your life change if you could touch the fingertips of God?

You know it is true. There is nothing easy about life. It is so hard that sometimes we reach out to others. It may be in the form of a support group or a professional counselor. That supporting person may be a relative or a friend. Sometimes we need others. However, we always need God. David Jeremiah once said, All the Christmas presents in the world are worth nothing without the presence of Christ.”