based on Exodus 3:1-15
We have come here today to celebrate the Eucharist, a service in which we offer God our thanks and praise. Perhaps you have come to church this morning full of gratitude. You may have good reason to celebrate and to give thanks. Life has been good to you and to your family. You have been blessed with more-than-adequate food and shelter, with access to good health care, with financial stability. You enjoy meaningful work and excellent health. There are many things for which you can give God thanks and praise.
But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps you find yourself today in a place of real suffering. It may be that someone close to you has died or is seriously ill. Or perhaps you yourself have fallen on hard times – having lost a job, or suffered a divorce, or been diagnosed with a fatal illness. Some of you may be wondering how you can pay the rent or how you will ever get out from under a crushing burden of debt. You may be asking yourself when (if ever) you’ll find meaningful and satisfying work, or whether your family will survive the crisis it is currently facing. Suffering is woven into the fabric of human existence. No one escapes it. Today you may be suffering.
The causes of suffering are many and varied. Sometimes suffering is the result of natural disasters, as we have witnessed this week as Hurricane Harvey has been wreaking massive amounts of destruction through Texas and Louisiana. Sometimes it’s the by-product of human greed or violence. We recognize, for example, the devastating consequences of civil war or the horrors of human trafficking. Sometimes we suffer because of bad decisions or poor choices, as when world leaders threaten one another with nuclear weapons, or when our affluent lifestyles spoil and pollute the planet and drive hundreds of plant and animal species into extinction.
Sometimes we suffer simply because we see others suffering and we feel a sense of solidarity with them. How difficult it is to watch the people of Houston wading through toxic, polluted waters to return to the places they once called home. How painful to see the sins of racism and anti-Semitism so blatantly on display in our national life; and to hurt with those who are the objects of such hatred. How demoralizing to witness millions of people facing famine in Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, and to feel so helpless to affect real change. Sometimes we suffer because others are suffering, and we feel ourselves drawn into their pain.
It is not uncommon during these times when we experience suffering – our own or another’s – to find ourselves asking, “Where is God in this? Does God hear the cries of those who are suffering? Does God care? Why doesn’t God take action?”
We are touching on mysteries that have eluded human understanding from the beginning of time. There are no easy answers; only the hope that comes through faith.
On what, then, does our faith rest?
The Scriptures reveal a God who listens, who hears, and who cares. In our first lesson today, God addresses Moses, saying “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…(v.7, 8a).”
Yes, we say, but it isn’t always that straightforward. When we cry, God doesn’t always seem to answer. Sometimes God seems distant; sometimes it seems as if God hasn’t seen or heard us. At times we cannot perceive how God might be at work. The Israelites were in bondage for 450 years (!) before God acted through Moses to deliver them. Many died in slavery, never having experienced deliverance or entered the Promised Land. Where was God over the course of these 450 years? Why didn’t God act sooner?
These are honest questions with which all of us wrestle. Who can know the mind of God? Why did God choose to act at this moment in Israel’s history through this particular man? Why not sooner? Why not in a different way? The truth is, we will never know. None of us fully comprehends the mind of God; nor can we speak with certainty of God’s ways.
When God does decide to respond, notice the form God’s response takes: God uses a human agent to bring about change. “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me,” God says, “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send YOU to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (v 9, 10).
When God sees and hears the cries of the distressed, God often decides to act through us!
Consider the unlikely heroes of Scripture:
– fearful and reticent Moses, sent to stand before the most powerful ruler of the world and demand the release of God’s captive people.
– the inexperienced boy shepherd David, too small to fit into a soldier’s armor, sent with only a slingshot to confront the giant warrior who was threatening the people of Israel.
– the youth Jeremiah, who had no idea what he might say to convince God’s people to turn from their evil ways, and yet was called to be God’s prophet.
– the coward Jonah, who took off in the opposite direction when given his marching orders by God, but was nevertheless used by God to convert a vast city.
– the tender virgin Mary, a poor girl from the insignificant village of Nazareth, who had no husband when she was called to be the mother of God’s only Son.
People like this – people like us – are the ones God chooses and sends into places of suffering, to do God’s work of healing, liberating and restoring – and our weakness is no excuse. When we protest the call, citing our own inadequacies, God says to us what he said to Moses, “I will be with you!” (v.12) We need not be afraid. It is always God’s work, not ours.
The implication that we are to be part of the solution may not seem like good news to many of us. Couldn’t God just step in and take care of these problems? Why doesn’t God just use God’s power to put a stop to evil, to rescue us from danger, and to set right all that is wrong in our world? If God is compassionate, if God sees and hears our cries of distress, then why doesn’t God simply intervene and release us from our suffering?
But this isn’t how God chooses to act, is it? When God chooses to enter the world to take on human suffering, God doesn’t come at all in the way we would expect. God comes to us not as a powerful ruler, but as a tiny babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. God comes to us as a Galilean carpenter, a man born into a modest peasant family, who chooses a life of voluntary poverty, who has nowhere even to lay his head. God descends into our human condition, coming alongside us in our suffering, identifying with our need, offering up his own body to be broken for our sake.
Does God hear the cries of the helpless? Does God care? We Christians look into the face of Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God, the “image of the invisible God” (as St Paul calls him), and see there the face of Divine Compassion. We watch with wonder as he befriends sinners and tax collectors, as he touches lepers and heals those possessed by demons, as he moves among society’s outcasts, as he restores the blind and the lame, as he lifts up those bowed down with grief and shame – and we see how much God cares. We see him noticing those who have been shunned by society, speaking openly with women and foreigners, reaching across every barrier that human beings erect to separate themselves from those they fear or despise – and we see how much God cares. We look upon his broken body, whipped and spat upon, thirsting on the Cross, and we see how much God cares.
If ever we find ourselves wondering if God really cares, we have only to look upon the strong but gentle face of Jesus to see the Love of God written for all to see. “No one has ever seen God,” the gospel writer reminds us, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
The words of a popular Christian song remind us that “because he lives, we can face tomorrow.” Because we have seen and known God’s compassion and care at work in and through the Incarnate Son, because we have experienced this same compassion and care in our own lives, because we have learned in everything to put our trust in him, we are able not only to face our own suffering, but also to offer ourselves to be used of God for the relief of the world’s suffering.
“We love, because he first loved us” (I John 4:19).
Even if you are suffering today, you can still come to offer your sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the One who knows you better than you know yourself, and who cares for you in ways you can scarcely imagine. Let God take your hand today. Let God console and comfort you in your distress. Let God lead you and guide you through this perilous time. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7).
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