Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Unanswered Why"

Text: Lamentations 5:1-22

Revelation 21:1-7

             Why does God allow it? Massacres in public schools. Wars which wipe out populations of innocent people. Weather events which wipe out communities. Diseases which rob life. A few weeks ago, the story came out of Germantown, Maryland where a mother stabbed her four young children, two of them fatally.

She believed the devil was in them. As I read the chilling story – a tragedy beyond my imagination -- my thoughts were “Lord, why would you allow such  a thing?” Yet these sorts of things happen every day. And even as a pastor and theologian, I have no better explanation, no better answer to the question “Why?” than anyone else in this room.


            Tragic suffering -- that great enigma and paradox of the Christian faith; always has been, and I suspect always will be until the return of Christ and the full revelation and establishment of the Kingdom of God. Until then, we’re left to ponder that great unanswered Why. Why would a God who loves us so much permit so much suffering, so much catastrophe, so much pain, so much evil? That haunting question has been raised upon the hearts and cries of God’s people throughout history.


            David in the midst of his pain -- that agony of knowing that King Saul whom he genuinely loved and to whom he was deeply devoted wanted to murder him – cries out for an answer. Reading from his Psalm we’ve numbered 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” Who of us in the midst of our distress have not brought such a prayer to the feet of the Almighty? In another Psalm, David cries out the words Jesus would later cry out from the agony of the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”


            Also found in the Psalms are national lamentations expressing emotions such as our nation’s grief following every tragic milestone, from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to the Oklahoma City bombing and the unspeakable horror of 9/11, to the weather calamities of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and begging the great why? We read in Psalm 60: “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; you have been angry; now restore us! You have caused the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair the cracks in it, for it is tottering. You have made your people suffer hard things; you have given us wine to drink that made us reel.” Who of us in the midst of our distress have not brought such primitive prayer, wondering if God’s anger is poured out upon us, fearing God has rejected or forgotten us?


            I believe the fullest expression of outcry for some explanation is given voice by an unknown author [some scholars believe it was the prophet Jeremiah] who wrote the book of the Bible called “The Lamentations.” To lament is to mourn aloud, to wail, to give pain and suffering a song…… a heart-wrenching song. The context of the passage we’re going to hear is Judah’s slavery under the Babylonians, one of the most ruthless empires in the ancient world. God’s people were driven from the land God had given them. The cities and temple had been destroyed. The women were raped and killed. The children were abused and slaughtered. The men were tortured. The people’s very identity had been ripped away from them. So we turn to this lamentation, and it’s underlying question: “Why?”


            (Read Lamentations 5:1-22)


            I’d like us to start by considering the very last verse of this lamentation – two statements which suggest possible reasons for the suffering, the tragedy, the pain of it all: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” The remainder of this sermon will be a response to those statements. I am convinced -- in spite of my own questions, quandaries, whys -- that the response to those statements is a resounding NO! I don’t believe God utterly rejects us. On the contrary, I believe God utterly wants us back. And I don’t believe God is angry with us beyond measure, for if God were, we would be beyond forgiveness. And if we learn nothing else from God’s Word, we learn that we’re never beyond God’s forgiveness. So I don’t believe that the tragic suffering we experience is because God utterly rejects us or is angry at us beyond the point of no return. The fact is, we too often project upon God our own anger and rejection, and call it God’s.


            I base my belief on what I see as God’s three responses to suffering, all expressed in and through God’s human incarnation, Jesus of Nazareth. First, the Bible teaches that Jesus suffers with us. One of the greatest expressions of this truth is Jesus’ response to the death of His dear friend Lazarus. John’s Gospel tells us that although Jesus had in His power and intent to bring Lazarus back from death, Jesus nevertheless “began to weep,” and was later “greatly disturbed” or as some have translated the Greek, “deeply moved.” Jesus grieved with individuals and with the community. We learn in such accounts that through Jesus, God does not stand at a distance coolly observing our tragedy and suffering as those of a Deist perspective might have us believe. When we weep, in some cosmic way God weeps. When thousands mourned at the Oklahoma Fairground Arena after the bombing of the Murrah Building in 1995, or as hundreds poured out their lamentations at Barberton High School after the murders of three members of the Carpenter family just last month, God was surely right there with them, and surely God’s heart was breaking. I am convinced that our suffering, our tragedy, our pain becomes our Lord’s suffering, tragedy, and pain.


            Secondly, Jesus not only suffers with us. Jesus suffers for us. For proof of this, we need only look ahead to the days when we’ll again remember Jesus’ betrayal, agony, and crucifixion. Jesus was a just person, a righteous person, a compassionate person. He took nothing, wronged no one, loved everyone – especially His enemies. In the words of an old Billy Joel song, Jesus was “an innocent man.” Yet in the course of twenty-four hours, He was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, abandoned by most of the rest. He was rejected by those He was sent to help. He was stripped, beaten, mocked, spat upon, and finally nailed to a criminal’s cross in place of one who deserved to die. Jesus has taken the place of all of us, carrying upon Himself the weight of our sins, in order that we would not have to live or die under that burden. In this regard, Jesus suffered on our behalf; suffered for us. However one may interpret the events of Holy Week, we can all agree it was tragic, unjust, cruel even, and certainly begs the ageless question: Why?


            God through Jesus suffers with us. God through Jesus suffers for us. These are God’s present and past responses to human suffering. The third response is, for us Christians, what keeps us keeping on. It’s the response which alone makes it possible to carry on in the face of what makes absolutely no earthly sense. That future response of God through Jesus to tragic suffering is the utter overthrow of tragic suffering; a trampling underfoot of all sorrow and pain. It is a future event when God through Christ will finally make sense of it all; will finally set everything right; will at last answer our every lamentation, and we will know why. There is no better articulation of this than the revelatory vision of John read earlier: “God…..will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” A guy whose name used to be Cat Stevens com- posed and performed a beautiful song called “Peace Train” in which he articulated his own vision of this glorious promised future: “Get your bags together, come bring your good friends too; Be- cause it’s getting nearer, soon it will be with you. Come and join the living, it’s not so far from you, and it’s getting nearer, soon it will be true……… Come on the peace train.”

            As followers of Christ, we share and are often pained by the enigma and paradox of our faith. We lament what is, and ask “Why must it be?” We can’t answer the why’s. But we can be reminded of this: when we suffer – personally or in community – we don’t have to face it alone, for our Lord who so loves us suffers with us. When we witness and experience suffering, through our tears, our lamentations, our unanswered why’s, we can set our sights on the cross where Jesus took human tragedy upon Himself, suffering for us. When we wonder when it’s all going to stop, we can be encouraged that while suffering has its day, its days are numbered. And the same Jesus Christ – God in human vestige – who suffers with us and for us, will not only be at the end of human suffering, calling us to board that peace train. He will be the end of human suffering. In fact, He already is. When we lament and cry out “Why?” and no answer comes to satisfy, let’s just remember the revelation – our future, our destiny: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with (us); (we) will be his peoples, and God himself will be with (us). In fact, God already is.