When Disaster Strikes
Text: John 9: 1-7
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The text I read a couple of minutes ago is interesting on several levels, but what I want to focus on today is what this text reveals to us about first century thinking and what that means for us today. If you are like me, over the last few months you might have started to wonder what is happening to our planet. There have been hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires and all sorts of natural disasters that have left millions of people impacted by the devastation. In Puerto Rico alone, there are still millions that are without power and struggling to find food and fresh water on a daily basis.
These are the kinds of events that we find attributed to God in the Old Testament. If we were living 3,000 years ago, the hurricane that battered Puerto Rico would almost certainly have a story tied to it before very long. It might be a story about how the people had strayed from God, or why God was angry with them. There might be a prophet worked into the story who warned the people to repent or the disaster would descend upon them. Of course the people did not listen or heed the advice of the prophet and so the hurricane arrived with all its fury, and the devastation followed.
Insurance companies still call events like these we have experienced over the past few months “acts of God” as if God had anything to do with it. But that is the language, still after all this time, they are still called “acts of God.”
Maybe you have been wondering about the responsible theological position to take when we consider the disasters of the world and the suffering of the persons involved. Maybe you have been wondering “where is God” in the midst of a hurricane or wild fires that destroy homes and families. Maybe you have been wondering how God could allow such things to happen or take place. Maybe these disasters have actually challenged your faith, because in some way, you thought God was in control. If God is in control, then God allowed these events to take place.
You see, we paint ourselves into a corner rather quickly when we begin to make God responsible for everything that takes place. We end up with severe doubt in our faith, or we end up with a blind and mindless allegiance to a faith we cannot understand. Let me show you how this works.
You have seen decision charts in the past where you follow a certain path based on your answers, I’m sure. In this case we could begin with the question “Is God in control of everything?” If the answer is “yes”, then that leads to the conclusion that God allowed the disaster to take place-and that is a not very comfortable position. If the answer is “no”, then that leads us down the path of questioning is God really God. How can a God have limited power and authority? So the bottom line becomes that either God chooses natural disasters, or God is unable to stop natural disasters. Those seem to be the options and neither position is particularly appealing. That is why it is easier for us to blame the victims of a disaster than it is for us to wrestle with the theological implications of a disaster. It is easier for us to say the people of Puerto Rico were obviously sinful and God was angry, than it is for us to actually deal with the question.
But this isn’t 3,000 years ago and we are supposed to have become a little more astute over the years. We are supposed to have learned something. But that doesn’t make the theological wrestling match any less difficult. We still have to engage our minds and our imaginations and begin to think about God perhaps in new ways.
In the text I read a few minutes ago, Jesus is trying to point us in a new direction. Jesus is trying to tell us that our thinking is a little out of date. The disciples that were with Jesus that day were still stuck in the blame the victim and God controls everything mode. When they came across this blind man who had been blind since birth, the natural assumption was there had to be a reason for the blindness; either the man himself had sinned and was being punished, our perhaps his parents had sinned and he was being punished. It seemed obvious to the disciples that it had to be one or the other, but they were not sure which, so they asked Jesus; “Who sinned that this man was born blind?”
I think we need to pay close attention to how Jesus responded to this question. Jesus tells the disciples that no one sinned. That is lesson one. God is not punishing anyone. There is no judgement, there is no reciprocity here, the blind man did nothing nor did his parents. If the story had allowed for Jesus to elaborate a bit more, I could see Jesus telling the disciples that this man’s blindness simply is; it is not punishment and further it is neither good nor bad. It simply is the way things are.
Then Jesus goes on. He says the man was born blind that the works of God might be revealed in him. This sounds like God caused the blindness for another reason. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is trying to say. I think Jesus is pointing out that in all situations we have the opportunity to bring the presence of God into the life of people we encounter. All people, whether they are blind or otherwise. Our experience here on earth is to bring about the works of God through our interaction with other people. What happens here is a shift of responsibility.
The disciples want to make God responsible for the blindness; they assume it is a punishment of some sort. Jesus says no, it is not a punishment and God is not responsible. The responsibility actually lies with you, the disciples, because you are to bring out the works of God and let them be revealed to all the world. Then Jesus says, let me show you what I mean, and he heals the man of his blindness.
So let’s fast forward a few thousand years. We have hurricanes, we have earthquakes, we have wild fires; who sinned that these disasters are crashing in on certain parts of our planet? No one sinned and no one is being punished. These situations simply are. God is neutral in the disaster; God neither causes nor prevents the disasters, they simply are. But with the presence of the disaster comes the opportunity and the responsibility to reveal the presence of God in the midst of the disaster. And haven’t we all scene this revelation? Haven’t we all seen neighbor helping neighbor and stranger helping stranger? Hasn’t the world responded and groups like the Red Cross or our own UMCOR come to the aid of those impacted? Yes, they have, and we have seen the examples of the works of God being revealed in numerous ways.
Does that mean God caused the disasters so that others could help? Not a chance. There is something else here we need to recognize and try to begin to understand. The gospel writers have tried to give us a glimpse of this theological truth, but it is all too easy to not fully comprehend. What I’m talking about is a shift of understanding about the nature of God. This shift of understanding began with Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus, but I think many of us are still stuck in the old way of thinking about God. We are still stuck back with the disciples asking Jesus who sinned.
What began with Jesus is a shift from God as a being that had human-like qualities to a God that was a spirit and flowed in and around all things. Our Christian doctrine of the Trinity with the Holy Spirit is an attempt to understand this image of God, but we continue to hang onto the human-like qualities of God as father and son even as we acknowledge the Holy Spirit.
In all three of the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, the passion narrative about the execution and death of Jesus all include a reference to something that I consider to be very symbolic. All three narratives include the tearing of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom. This is an important element for us to understand.
In the temple in Jerusalem there was a specific area that was considered to be the dwelling place of God. This area was called the Holy of Holies and was separated from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain. This curtain was probably 60 feet tall according to historians and was 4-6 inches thick. It was woven with a variety of material designed to make it strong and sturdy.
The idea behind this curtain was that the dwelling place of God could not be looked upon by any human being. If you did, you would die. Only the chief priest, or the high priest, could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then the chief priest could only enter the area once a year on the Day of Atonement. On that day, the chief priest would enter the Holy of Holies and place the purified sacrifice of the temple on the altar. This was to appease the God that dwelled in the area. If God was not pleased, it was believed that the chief priest would be struck dead as he entered the space or as he offered the sacrifice. The curtain in the temple kept everyone else safe from this experience. The curtain was a symbol of separation of God from the people.
With Jesus, all three gospels include a reference to this curtain, this separation being torn in two, from top to bottom. This is very symbolic of a shift in understanding about the nature of God. God is no longer a being that hangs out in a particular place in the temple. Rather, God is a spirit that envelopes all places and all things – there is no curtain of separation; God is among us and God is with us.
The reason I think this is so significant is that this shift of understanding should also shift our realization regarding the influence of God when it comes to natural disasters. You see when God is no longer apart and separate from humanity like God was in the temple, but rather God is now in us and among us and integral to each of us, to believe that God causes disaster is to believe that God inflicts the disaster upon God’s self. A natural disaster would be a self-inflicted wound.
This is the shift in understanding that Jesus was telling the disciples that day and it is the shift in understanding that is represented by the curtain in the temple being torn in two from top to bottom. God is no longer a separate being. God is here, God is now and God is present with us. In the midst of disaster we might have a greater opportunity to experience that presence more than any other time.
And that is food for thought. Amen.