This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark, on January 17 2010.
Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-22
Christians proclaim that God loves the world and its inhabitants, humans and everything else. We proclaim that Jesus came into the world as fulfillment and proof of God’s tremendous love. We proclaim that God loves us so much that Jesus died to redeem us to God so that we can be restored for life in divine purpose and fellowship now and always. And, we proclaim that God loves us collectively and individually—all of us and each of us. These are core Christian beliefs.
So how do these beliefs work when we are shaken by troubling situations? Consider the devastation suffered by the people of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere where a massive earthquake occurred on Tuesday of last week. Forecasters fear that the death toll may rise to as many as 50,000 people. As we worship today, other people are struggling to rescue victims who have been buried beneath building rubble for days without food and water. This disaster occurred less than two years after Haiti was struck by four hurricanes (in 2008).
Even as the rescue occurs in Haiti, scientists who study earthquakes are concerned about another fault system in the north of Haiti that extends into the Dominican Republic. That system is building up enough seismic pressure to produce another earthquake as strong as the one that happened last Tuesday. The scientists cannot predict when the earthquake will happen, only that it is likely to happen.
We have seen and heard news reports about the great suffering in Haiti. We have friends, co-workers, and neighbors from Haiti. We cannot hide from the pain, anguish, fear, frustration, and grief we feel about the suffering that has happened and that continues. We hope, pray for miracles, and anxiously wait.
During our time of prayer today we spoke with each other about being people of faith while living with pain, anguish, fear, frustration, and grief about the suffering of our sisters and brothers in Haiti. We needed to do this together in this place of prayer, praise, and proclamation about God’s love. We shared our pain and how we are coping with the news accounts. We spoke about how we might respond to the calls for help. We talked about how the situation in Haiti is affecting us emotionally, spiritually, morally, and physically. We did so because we are a spiritual community struggling to cope with our pain.
Some of the painful things we experience such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornados are natural events that we cannot prevent or control. Other painful situations such as double-digit unemployment, lack of healthcare for a society, the grief and suffering of people who are crime victims, the suffering caused by wars, murders, economic recessions, crash of the housing market, and greedy financial institutions result from human causes. Whether the causes of our pain are natural or human, we struggle to cope.
In the reading from Isaiah the prophet, speaking for God, calls to people struggling to cope with the pain of exile. They have been uprooted by war and conquest from their homeland, culture, traditional worship, and sense of national identity. They are like earthquake victims—traumatized and desolate. The prophet encourages them with these words:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. [Isaiah 43:1-3(a)]
We are not promised life without earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, murders, wars, greedy financial institutions, crooked politicians, treacherous friends and family members, disease, crime, and other sources of suffering, grief, and pain. These things occur in our world. They threaten to overwhelm us, consume us, and destroy us.
God’s promise, proclaimed by prophets of every age and place and revealed most fully and ultimately in Jesus Christ, is that He is with us when we pass through these experiences. Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name. The Hebrew prophets proclaimed this word to their people in exile. Yet, in Christ, we know that God’s promises have universal application even to our local situations. God’s love is both personal and universal.
In Biblical terms, people who are caught in some terrible situation are to be redeemed by their kinfolk. Redemption is a rescue by someone on behalf of another relative who has been caught in a bad situation. Redemption is a family affair! When the prophet, speaking for God, says to an exiled people “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name,”that is a reminder about the family connection between God and struggling people.
What are you saying, Preacher? Talk plainly. I am saying that God takes our struggles personally. God is personally invested with us and involved with us in our painful situations. God is in the fire with us. God walks through the waters with us. We matter to God.
Our suffering matters. Our grief matters. Our prayers matter. Our frustration matters. Our anxiety matters. The stuff people do to us matter. The stuff we do to ourselves matters. The stuff we cannot prevent matters. The stuff we cannot escape matters. We matter personally, individually, and constantly. God knows us by name. God knows our limitations and our situations. And based on the life of Jesus Christ, I am saying that God has not abandoned us. In Christ, God redeems us.
We are God’s kinfolk! When we are caught in bad situations, we are God’s kinfolk. When earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and floods strike, we are God’s kinfolk. When wars, crooks, and treacherous people afflict us, we are God’s kinfolk. When sickness and the infirmities of our years burden us, we are God’s kinfolk. God will not forget us. God will not forsake us. In Christ, God has promised that our troubles will not overwhelm us. We will be rescued.
Hold on, dear ones. As we struggle with grief and watch the tragic scenes from Haiti, hold on to the truth that we are God’s kinfolk, even when earthquakes strike. As we try to make sense of life when painful things happen to us, hold on to the truth that we are God’s kinfolk. God has called us by name. We are not strangers or stragglers. We are God’s kinfolk when we cry, God’s kinfolk when we scream, God’s kinfolk when we hurt, and God’s kinfolk when we die.
The people of Haiti are, like people who pass through tragic experiences everywhere, passing through the waters and walking through the fire. We are taking that journey with them, because we are their kinfolk. In the name of God, let us do what God strengthens us to do to rescue them. They are our kinfolk.
And while we walk through our own fires and pass through our own floods, let us be comforted by a kindred knowledge. We are kinfolk to God through Jesus Christ. God knows us by name. The floods and fires of life cannot change that. Somehow, God will redeem us, rescue us, and deliver us. Amen.
Wendell Griffen is pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a circuit court judge in Arkansas. He served previously on the Baptist Center for Ethics / EthicsDaily.com board of directors.