Questions and doubts…the world and our lives are full of them. In the sermon at Sunday’s service the senior pastor at the church where I work spoke about questions he had heard throughout his career, questions usually asked while sitting by the side of someone who had just experienced a great loss. People who answered him when he told them that Jesus is with them that they “didn’t want Jesus!” They wanted their loved one.
Here is where I have to stop and admit that I am terrible in church. Going to seminary basically ruined my ability to sit through a service without making some kind of comment. I am incredibly lucky to have found the church I am at because it is the first time in a long time that I have been able to sit through a service without wanting to get up and leave due to a bad sermon. Trust me, in my time I have heard some interesting ones that had little, if anything to do with God.
Anyway, the first thought that passed through my mind when he said that Jesus was with the person he was trying to comfort was, “Jesus is always the answer.” This is the smart ass comment my friends and I came up with in seminary. When you didn’t know the right answer to a question in class the safe bet was to simply go with Jesus. The thing is…there is some validity behind that answer.
For those following along in the online reading of the Bible in a year that I am doing we have made it all the way to Genesis 39. This is fitting because on this same Sunday one of the members of my youth group came up to ask me a question. She had been asked by one of her Sunday school students about Adam and Eve. Basically the question ran that if Adam and Eve were the first humans then did their children have children together? I knew at some point I was going to get one of these questions. These are the questions that young people struggle with. When you are still trying to figure out how the world works throwing the Bible into the mix is…well…confusing at best.
I started to think earlier this week about that question and about Sunday’s sermon. Along with the stories of loss, the senior pastor also shared some of the questions asked by the 8th and 9th grade confirmation students. They asked questions like, “Was Jesus really human?” and “Why does suffering happen?” Not an easy one in the bunch. In fact, some of the most difficult questions of humankind. The kind of questions that theologians have been struggling with for centuries. It does no good to answer these questions with platitudes or vague statements of “everything has its season” or “difficult times just make us stronger.” When you have lost someone important or you are struggling with whether or not God is really there vagueness is not enough.
Reading Genesis, in particular, we see that we all live under the burden of sin. The lack of trust that Adam and Eve showed in the garden and their striving to be like God has left us all sinful people in a sinful world. The Bible does not answer the question, at least not in a satisfying way for most 5th graders, where the people of the world came from, but then again, it isn’t meant to. What it does show us is that we are all sinful and we are all broken. Not even Abraham, who is the father of our faith, who had his faith reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6) trusted fully in the Lord. Abraham lied about his relationship to his wife Sarah in order to protect himself from Pharaoh when they were living in Egypt (Genesis 12:12-13). He did not trust God to protect him. No, even the greatest of the ancestors wasn’t perfect. He was broken and sinful.
Though we say it in a somewhat sarcastic tone the statement, “that’s why Jesus had to come” is true. Our sin and brokenness have created a rift with God. We live in a world that is full of sin and suffering, suffering that we created. We live in what Luther called “the already but the not yet.” We live in the old sinful world that is filled with pain and suffering. But, God still shows us mercy. Countless times in our Genesis reading we have seen that God has granted mercy to those who do not deserve it. He made Abraham the father of nations despite his lack of trust. He saved Lot from the destruction of Sodom despite his lolly-gagging (yes, I just used that in a sentence). He sent his Son to live among us, to be both fully man and fully God, and to die on the cross and rise again for the sake of a sinful world.
Suffering continues because we live in a world that has already seen and experienced the saving work of Jesus Christ, but this sinful world has not yet been put to an end. We all have, what my teacher (and Luther) call, an old adam/eve. It is this old adam/eve that is constantly being put to death in our everyday lives. It is through Christ that we become a new creation, but we will not be a completely new creation until our earthly life has ended. And so, we suffer and our mortal lives end.
But here is the important thing: God comes to us in our suffering. Often times, it is in our suffering that is the only time we can actually hear the word of God. It is often the only time we do not trust our own power to save or protect us. Despite our sin, despite our lack of trust, Christ has come. He has come to heal our brokenness.
So what do we tell those who suffer? What do we tell those who have lost someone? We tell them God hears them. God is with them. That God is always merciful, has always been merciful. As Paul says in Romans 8, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” In our suffering we cry out to God because nothing, not even our sin, can separate us from the love of God. God loves us for who we are, the sinful, broken people we are. And nothing, nothing can keep us from the love of God. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). And his love is like nothing we have ever experienced.