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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

11th March 2007

Fr David Shepherd

Lent III

‘Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?’ Luke. 13.4

In Wilmslow Parish Church, where I served my title twenty years ago, there was a framed Victorian mourning card to the men killed in the Wilmslow Gas Works explosion, sometime in the 19th century. With typical Victorian melodrama and lack of modern sensibilities it quoted that verse from today’s gospel. Presumably ‘Wilmslow’ was meant to be substituted for ‘Jerusalem’?

Then, as in biblical times and as now there were plenty of examples of human suffering. The reference to Pilate mingling the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices has many an echo in the acts of cruelty and terror in our own time. The building failure at Siloam is mirrored in many a technical failure that results in loss of life. Elsewhere in the Gospels there are references to deaths caused by natural disasters.

Jesus was concerned with the interpretation of and reaction to such events. In his day prevalent opinion though that bad things happened to people who were especially bad – evil sinners deserved to be punished. If you scratch beneath the service you can still find the traces of such a view today – ‘what must I have done to deserve that?’ people ask. Jesus’ point is that such a view is wrong. Rather such reminders of the fragility of life should lead us to take stock of our own lives, repenting of our own sinful rejection of God and turning once again to him. Like the fig tree in the parable, God always gives us one more chance to bear fruit. There is always a second chance, the possibility of a new start.

That said deeper questions of causation remain. Why do bad things happen to good people, or any people, including those who are bad for that matter? This is the problem of evil and suffering. Classically it has been put like this –why does a loving and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering? If he were all-powerful then he could stop it; if he were all loving then he would want to stop it. Therefore he is either weak or unloving or even both of those things. Many solutions have been put forward none of them entirely satisfactory, most of them linked to the nature of creation as fallen, flawed through the sin of Adam, to the fall and also to the redemption that comes through the death of Jesus Christ.

In Lent we are meant to follow Jesus to his passion and death on the cross. Why we might ask does God allow his own Son to suffer in such a terrible way? Jesus we are told acted of his own free will, he chose to go the way of the cross. But that we can ask the question takes us to the very heart and nature of God.

We find it expressed in today’s lovely collect- ‘Almighty God whose most dear son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified…’ Joy and pain, glory and crucifixion are linked together in paradox. The problem of evil can be an interesting philosophical and theological question in the abstract. But when it affects us personally it becomes hard. In the end we have to move beyond our questions and enter into the way of the cross in faith, in the hope that it will be for us the way to life and peace in our risen Lord.

It can sound like a cop out – letting God off the hook, but it gives us hope when the alternative seems very bleak indeed. In the end it comes down to faith and the experience and testimony of those Christians who came before us and who found their faith sustained them in the most terrible of circumstances. They found that God was with them in their suffering. Where was God in the concentration camps, people asked? Either in the noose or nowhere, is one answer that has been given.

It is up to us to choose and to act upon our choice, to fall into the despair of nihilism or to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, our crucified, risen Lord.


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