Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Ambush Theology"

Romans 8:18-19, 22-25

John 9:1-7

    Three-time Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actress and singer Ann Jillian was on top

of the world.  A few of us may remember her as Little Bo Peep in Disney’s 1960 version of Babes in

Toyland; then a few years later as a regular on a sitcom called Hazel.   In the early 1980’s, Jillian

was starring in the role of Cassie Cranston on another moderately successful television sitcom

called “It’s a Living,” which I believe remains in syndication on LaffTV.  Her obvious physical attri-

butes and three-octave voice were bringing multiple offers from Broadway.  Jillian’s one-woman

show was winning her rave reviews on the Strip at Las Vegas. She had everything to live for, and it

appeared there was nowhere to go but up.  Then came a fateful day in 1985 when she was

blindsided by a diagnosis of breast cancer.  She as only 34.  Treatment would require double

mastectomy followed by months of chemo.

      In her autobiography, Jillian recalls the numbness of those first days.  Then came anger; with

her doctors; with her family; with friends and colleagues.  But mostly, she relates, her anger was

toward God.  Just before surgery, she confided in a close friend that she suspected, sooner or

later, God was going to catch up with her.  Like any of us, she had made her share of mistakes. 

After over twenty years in the entertainment field, she admitted she had become overly enamored with herself. 

Having been raised in a devout, Lithuanian Catholic family, she was certain she was paying the price for her

self-centeredness and her sin.

      So many folks – both inside and outside the church – share Jillian’s pre-surgery belief that God

is somehow always out to catch up with us; to collect payment for our sin and self-centeredness. 

I’ve coined a name for this belief.  I call it “ambush theology.”  This theology, or understanding of

God, perceives God as an angry, vindictive, “big guy upstairs,” just waiting to snare us in our   

wrongdoing.  Some view God as a cosmic accountant keeping close record of our every mistake

and every sinful act.  When we reach some critical mass, down comes the hammer.  We’re then

required to pay our dues with an appropriate measure of suffering. 

      I think this ambush theology, and its perception of God as mean-spirited and spiteful, emerges

in part out of our tendency to, more often than we ought, focus on the dark side of things. 

Doesn’t it seem that this dark side is what sells?  We read the newspaper, watch the evening

news, stream social media, and what do we mostly get?  More darkness than light – violence; acts

of terror; political intrigue and drama; abuses; disasters, wars.  Sometimes we feel like yelling, and

maybe we do, “How about some POSITIVE news?!”  I guess the media ultimately reports what

most captures the public’s attention and interest.  The sad reality is that in most cases, dark stuff

captivates and dark stuff sells.

      So growing out of this inclination to focus on the dark side is this perception of the Almighty as

dark; menacing; vengeful; lurking in the shadows, waiting to spring and thump us for our trans-

gressions.  Put another way, we tend to view God through the lens of sin; shading God as One to

always be threatened by or afraid of. 

      There’s a story of a little boy who was shopping with his mother at the mall.  They passed a

Spencer’s [you talk about a darkly-themed gift store] where a poster of a shadowy figure of the

grim reaper hung in the window; face hidden inside a hood; scythe in hand.  The little boy piped

up: “Look mommy, this must be a religious store.  There’s a picture of God in the window!”

       I also think ambush theology is shaped by our tendency to doubt our own self-worth.  Too

many – again, both inside and outside the church – see themselves as deserving nothing but God’s

wrath and condemnation.  Many Christians have convinced themselves – or have been convinced

by some angry preachers – that they are miserable, worthless, wretched creatures born sinful;

meriting nothing but judgment and punishment at every turn.  It’s no wonder so many churches

are empty these days.  Too many Christians have been taught to think much too little of them-

selves, which can be just as spiritually-dangerous as thinking too much of ourselves.  If we view

God through a lens of our depraved unworthiness, we tend to view ourselves as little more than

scuzzy worms in God’s eyes.  God’s role is seen as the great exterminator, whose delight it is to

stamp us out, like some celestial Orkin man.   Even Jesus’ first disciples demonstrated that they

saw God in terms of ambush theology.  Their Jewish background, with its heavy concentration on

the Mosaic Law, appeasement of God, and the unworthiness of the human creature, darkly

colored their understanding of God as angry and quick to mete out punishment.

      Case in point is this morning’s lead text.  In it, Jesus and His disciples passed a man who had

been blind from birth.  He had suffered terribly as only a blind person in 1st century Palestine could

fully appreciate.  There were no provisions for such a victim; no social safety net.  Usually, they

were just swept out of the way.  And of course the blind man’s parents suffered as only parents of

a blind child in 1st century Palestine could fully appreciate.  And the disciples’ first reaction:  God

surely brought this suffering upon the man and his family.  Tell us Lord, what was the sin?  What

did the man do wrong that God struck him blind in the womb?  Or what sin did the parents commit

that God visited the tragedy of a disabled child on them?  Why were they ambushed?   

      Jesus corrected His disciples on this very point when He replied: “Neither this man nor his

parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Religious

journalist and Franciscan priest Jack Wintz writes, “What God is all about is not inflicting blindness,

or cancer, or earthquakes upon people, but just the opposite: the removal of such scourges.  God’s

glory is revealed in redemption out of suffering.”  Jesus then goes on to do just that. He makes a

little mud pie with clay, rubs the clay over the blind man’s eyes, sends him off to wash in a pool

called “Siloam,” and the blind man returns seeing. Through this miracle, Jesus once again revealed

God’s glory, and brings light to God’s intent.  It is not to ambush people with pain and suffering,

but to relieve people of their pain and suffering when it comes, however it comes.  That relief can
be physical, spiritual, mental, emotion, or any combo thereof. 

      Notice that the passage gives us no clue as to why the man was born blind.  And isn’t that more

often than not the way it is?  We don’t know all the why’s behind cancers, or heart disease, or ill-

nesses which rob children of life, or earthquakes, or floods, or acts of terror.  Admittedly, some

things we bring upon ourselves and others through the agency of free will; through choices.  Yet

so many things, there are no plausible explanations for.  Nor do we understand why a sovereign

God permits suffering; why God seemingly allows bad things to happen to good people, while

allowing good things to happen to not so good people.  We do not even fully understand why God

allowed the only Son to plummet to the depths of unjust and undeserved punishment, even to

death.  Our doctrine and theology try to explain it.  But ultimately, it is a holy mystery. 

      What I think we can know for certain is that God is always standing with us in our suffering,

while waiting on the other side of suffering to receive, redeem, and restore us.  God is not the

cause.  But God is the remedy.  Jesus said before this miraculous sign, “As long as I am in the

world, I am the light of the world.”  This tells us that God through Christ is divine and healing

light, dissipating and driving away the darkness to which we are so often drawn.  All this boils

down to a theology quite the opposite of ambush theology.

      Rabbi Harold J. Kushner, author of the classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,”

writes this:  “God does not directly torment or impose evil on us.  God does not actively mete out

divorce, criminal assaults, AIDS, or heartaches.  Yet with God’s help, good can come out of our

trials.  Pain can purify and humanize the heart.  Even deep personal suffering, if we remain open to

God’s loving presence in our lives, can be redemptive and lead us to deeper understanding and

richer humanity.”

      Ann Jillian’s life exemplifies this.  Today, at age 68, Jillian is cancer-free, and deeply committed

in her Christian faith.  She’s an advocate for breast cancer awareness and women’s health issues,

and is an inspirational speaker to women, giving them hope in the midst of their despair.  You’ll

recall my mentioning Jillian’s pre-surgery belief earlier in this message.  In an interview a year after

her diagnosis, she stated:  “There’s a prayer which really helped.  Up to that point, I was extremely

angry; everything was turbulent.  But I looked at those words inscribed above the entrance outside

my church, and I saw the light.  My eyes seemed to be open anew, and I released everything into

God’s hands, and understood that He was not out to get me.  Of course, God wants to help me,

and take me in His arms, and take over what I’m feeling.”  I’ll close with the words of St. Francis

de Sales which were inscribed above that church door; words which were the basis of the prayer

that freed Ann Jillian from her affliction of….. ambush theology:  The same everlasting Father who

cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.  Either He will shield you from

suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace then, and put aside all

anxious thought and imaginations.”  Amen.