Sermons That Work

Several Years Ago Now…, Epiphany 5 (A) – 1996

February 04, 1996


Several years ago now there was a book which remained many weeks on the various lists of best sellers. The book was “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I cannot confess to having read the book, and, therefore, do not presume to comment on its contents or conclusions. I do want to comment on two things: its title and its popularity.

The title, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” sums up succinctly one of the critical questions of Judeo- Christian theology, the problem of theodicy or the problem of understanding, explaining and justifying the actions and intentions of God. Simply put, the problem is this. Bad things happen to people in this world. Why? Why does an all-powerful God cause them or allow them to happen?

Secondly, the book’s popularity indicates that this is no idle question. People know that bad things happen. They happen to them. They happen to people they love and to people they know. They happen to people they read about in the papers or see on television news. Why?

That bad things happen in our lives is beyond question. We have gone through a series of natural catastrophes that have destroyed the lives of innocent people and destroyed property. A family is drowned when a flash flood washes away the road in Tompkins, NY. Scores of elderly die in a heat wave in Chicago. Thousands are left homeless in the Gulf states by hurricanes. Why? We have gone through a century of cruelty in which millions of people have been killed in warfare, by bombs falling on the cities in which they live or by bombs hidden in the buildings where they work. People have been massacred in deliberate acts of genocidal exterminations in the German Reich or in Rwanda or in India and Pakistan in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Why? We have gone through periods of economic upheaval and the downsizing of companies in which many have lost their means of livelihood and then their homes, plunging them into the darkness of despair because they cannot provide for those who depend on them. Why? A young athlete drops dead on the playing field. A vibrant and loving mother is reduced to childlike dependency by a stroke. The list goes on and on. And the question echoes again and again. Why? Why? Why?

Sometimes the question is a cry of despair. “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” Sometimes the question is an angry shout. “Why did God allow this to happen to her? What did she do?”

The question is a timeless one. How could a God whom we profess to be all-powerful and all loving do this, allow this? It has been asked by human beings since time out of mind.

Our faith history contains many examples of people who asked this question. The Book of Job displays the despair and anger of a man on whom disaster has fallen, the deaths of his family, the destruction of flocks and herds, the visitation of illness, the reduction to absolute poverty. Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, the passage from Habakkuk, is part of another book which deals with the problem of theodicy, the problem of bad things happening to good people. The author confronts the problem of why the God of justice is “silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they ” as he states in the opening chapter (1:14).

Habakkuk was writing when bad things were happening in the Kingdom of Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, just prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587. The once-powerful Assyrian Empire, which had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and reduced once independent Judah to the status of a vassal, was waning in power. But this was not a time of rejoicing, for Assyria was being replaced as the world’s superpower by an aggressive and implacably ruthless New Babylonian Empire. At the same time corruption, injustice, lawlessness and wickedness continued to reign in Judah under its King Jehoiakim. In the midst of looming disaster the prophet addresses the problem of understanding the ways of God. He asks why the righteous people must suffer at the hands of a corrupt king and from the rapacious armies of Babylon which would surely one day sweep Judah up in a deadly embrace.

The prophet cries out to God, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?” He protests the injustice brought on by internal and external foes. We do not deserve this he argues. God replies that “I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe.” God has roused the Babylonians, “that bitter and hasty nation,” and they will administer justice. The prophet goes to the heart of the matter and protests that it is not just to punish the innocent along with the wicked. He questions God’s intentions: “Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? (1:13)”

Habakkuk is trapped by the limitations of the so-called deuteronomic world view which sees all things as the result of cause and effect. In this view of human history, God responds to human actions appropriately. God is good and pours blessings on those who are good. And in turn God punishes those who are not good. If one is on the receiving end of what looks and feels like punishment, then one must reach one of three conclusions: First, the punishment is just and you must have done something to deserve it. Or second, if God is all powerful, then he must be capricious to be doing this when it is not justified. Or third, God is not in fact all powerful and this evil thing happening to an innocent person is the result of the operation of the Evil One whom God could not stop. In other words, that there is a struggle going on between good and evil, between God and the Evil One.

But the Lord God answers him, and by answering him answers us, in a way which illustrates the shortcomings of the deuteronomic view, that its simplistic cause-and-effect explanation is too limited to encompass the will of God. God’s answer is that even though the prophet may not yet see it, “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay (2:3).” God’s justice will come in God’s own time. God is still the Lord of Creation, and God will deal with the wicked but in God’s own time and manner. In the meanwhile “the righteous live by their faith (2:4)” while trusting in the promise that “the arrogant do not endure (2:5).” In short God says that asking “Why?” is a dead end which leads only to despair and confusion.

Today’s passage is a portion of the “Prayer of Habakkuk,” a psalm meant to be sung with the accompaniment of stringed instruments (v.19b) as is directed at the end of the reading. The psalm is a hymn praising the God who will one day march forth in victory as God did in the days of the Exodus. In the meantime, even though the land does not give forth abundant life–“the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls (3:17)”– even in the midst of all deprivation, the prophet stops asking, “Why?” Rather, he will rejoice in the God of his salvation who is his strength (3:18). This is the climactic conclusion of the book (and echoes that of the Book of Job) that, even in the midst of danger and depravity and deprivation and confusion, one knows that God will triumph in God’s own time, a knowledge which comes only by faith. And knowing this, one can rejoice and skip lightly like the deer bounding over the mountaintop.

Bounding over the mountaintops like a deer. That’s a beautiful image of the joy of hope, but how did Habakkuk get there from the depths of anger and despair?

The text does not give us a step-by-step guide to move from despair to a hymn of praise. All we have is Habakkuk’s testimony that he got there. He got there by looking not at the despair but by catching a glimpse of God whom he calls his salvation and his strength. He trusts that God is God, that God loves him, that God wants the best for him.

I once knew an old priest. He was Brother Paul of the Society of Saint Francis. He was a good man and a very bad thing was happening to him. He was dying a painful death from bone cancer. He knew in every nerve ending of his body the pain of the disaster which was upon him. He did not deny it. The pain was too persistent and insistent to be denied. Wrapped in disaster as he was, however, he taught me the three questions which for him replaced the question, “Why?” Through these three questions, Brother Paul got to sing his hymn of praise bounding like a deer over the mountaintops.

The questions are these: Is God God, or not? Does God love me, or not? Does God want the best for me, or not? He asked himself those questions time and again, whenever the pain or the despair that it bred began to raise their heads. And each time he asked, he answered, “Yes.” Yes, God is God and is in control. Yes, God loves me for he made me his own in baptism. Yes, God wants the best for me and has promised me abundant life. It is that promise of abundant life which St. Paul describes as “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, not the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” For Brother Paul this gift of faith galvanized him to action. Even as he was dying in great pain, he shared what he had come to know with others. He became that light in the lampstand giving light to the whole house. And through the grace of God, some of that light shone on me. Paul’s three questions have changed forever the way I look at the world.

You see, Brother Paul and St. Paul the Apostle, know something that Habakkuk did not know. Yes, Habakkuk had a vision of the God of strength and salvation. But Brother Paul and St. Paul know Jesus the Christ and him crucified. They know the God who chooses to share our disaster. Surely, Jesus Christ is the good person to which bad things happened. He is the sinless one put to a painful, disastrous death by a sinful world. And in that death he knows the despair of utter loss, and cries out not “What have I done to deserve this?” but “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Bad things do happen in this world. The blameless are killed and the wicked flourish just as they did in Habakkuk’s day. Why? We do not and can not know or understand. But we can face the disasters of this world and of our lives and live through them. How? Because we know that God is God, that God loves us, that God wants the best for us. We know these facts because God in Jesus Christ knows our anguish, feels our despair, suffers all our disasters. He knows them and feels them and suffers them because he died in anguish and despair in that disaster on Golgotha.

And this same Jesus who was crucified was raised to new life with God the Father to be with us always and in all things as he promised. Surely, that is our strength and salvation and the light in our lampstands giving light to all the world.

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