A few weeks ago, when we looked at the book of Job and read a few more passages on the reality and consequences of sin, I remarked in one of my sermons that you and I need to be equipped to answer the question of evil in light of a righteous, holy, and just God. I shared with a couple groups that Mr. Gallup had spent some time reminding us that that particular question was the one asked by most people, but especially non Christians. I had no idea, of course, that we would be dealing with a regional and national tragedy so quickly, but I remarked that it was only a matter of time before we dealt with tragedies in our lives in in the lives of those whom we love. No doubt each of us have been asked to reconcile our faith with the events in Cedar Rapids and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. I know a few of you have struggled, and that is ok. Those of us who accept, a priori, the fact that the human condition is entirely marred by sin and that we need a Savior can have a difficult time explaining to people who believe that humanity is caught in that upward spiral of improving understanding and abilities and morality that their assertions are wrong. So many things seem so much better that when they are confronted by tragic actions such as this week, they are often shaken to their core. To be sure, not all seek us seeking understanding. Some of those questions have been thrown at us with accompanying sneers. And others have equated God’s seeming unwillingness to save everyone as an indictment of His character. But, by and large, I think many people are trying to come to grips with what has happened. They have been shaken to their core. And they are seeking answers.
No doubt some of you are, too. And that is ok. We have had a lot thrown at us these past couple of weeks. Although much of our focus as a region and a country will be focused upon these two big events, there is a slow death in our midst in the form of a drought. As a farming community, we are particularly attuned to the weather. But, truthfully, we would have to be blind and have no sense of feeling to miss what is going on around us. And the effects of the drought are not yet fully known. I have been asked more than once what I thought this would do to food prices. In a country where unemployment is high, questions of food are important to the neediest among us. Truthfully, I don’t know what the full effects of this drought will be. I have heard that every 50 cents that corn goes up, foods downstream go up 10%. Is that accurate? I’m not sure. I am afraid we will find out later this year. Add to the increases to those of us not directly in the agriculture business the fears of the farmers around us. If corn spikes too high, farmers may have to slaughter animals. Too many cattle get killed and guess what happens to milk or beef? And, oh, by the way, when they are slaughtering in the beginning, supply far outweighs demand. What happens to those prices? And then, many of us work for companies dependent upon the farming community. If farmers cannot afford tractors and other machinery, John Deere, Sears Manufacturing, and others suffer. What happens when they suffer?
Fast forward to earlier this week and the disappearance of the two girls. When their bodies were not quickly discovered, I thought back to a number of Angel Food conversations I had had with families over the last five years. Several times I have been thanked by men and women for teaching them that their moms were not crazy. Those of you who heard the stories know the relief that they felt. Those of you who didn’t might be surprised to know that there were whispers and “stories” that children playing in the front yards of farm houses would disappear, never to be heard of again. Probably 10-12 adults have thanked me for our work in Human Trafficking because it explained what was going on in their parents’ heads. Their parents were crazy; they were trying to keep the kids (these adults) safe. As soon as the story broke, I thought of those. When the press showed a map showing it was a straight shot from the place where their bikes were found to I - 380, and I assumed this was a case of Human Trafficking. Although it was buried in the coverage of the events in Colorado, the fact that one of the men has a strong tie to the drug culture, does nothing to remove from play the idea that the girls have been abducted or sold to cover a debt.
But where was God, if He truly cares about little ones if they were being killed or abducted? If you serve a God who frees people, why does He let little girls be captured by such bad guys? Or, if children really are a gift from God, why would He ever give a child to someone who would choose to murder their own child? Difficult questions to ponder, to be sure.
And what happened in Colorado is simply unspeakable. I know tragedies happen everywhere all the time, but has not Colorado had enough for this generation with Columbine? The press did little to help the pain and suffering with their efforts to assign blame on Friday morning. Before 10am, I heard that the Tea Party was to blame, Republican supporters like Rush Limbaugh for their insistence on gun access, that the President was to blame, that the “dark aspect” of this retelling was to blame, that the accused personal or academic failures were to blame. We were not sure how many people had been killed or wounded, what families had been devastated earlier that morning, and pundits were trying to “score points” and promote their pet views. If that wasn’t a sign of how fallen were are as humanity, the details of the massacre certainly were.
Although, as I write this, much of the details have not been released (not even the victims’ names), it seems clear that the accused suited up in body armor like a villain character, tossed a couple of smoke or tear gas canisters to sow confusion, and then he stalked the packed theater shooting as many as 7 or 8 dozen people with as many as four weapons. And, as sick icing on this sick cake, the accused booby-trapped his apartment, hoping, I guess, to kill the police or detectives sent to gather evidence about him. Place yourself in the mind of someone directly impacted by this event. Maybe you are the husband or wife of a first responder. What if you are the relative of one of those who went to see the movie? What if you are the director or one of the actors in the movie and have heard, thanks to pundits, that your film is to blame? Where do you think God was during this incomprehensible act of violence? What if you were one of the victims? A survivor? Where do you think you would say God was during those events?
No doubt, as witnesses share their stories, there will tales of heroism. I fully expect that we will hear stories of how some people helped others out, how some people distracted the gunman to save the lives of others, how some other victims helped to calm the terrors of those in the midst of these events. Who knows, we may even hear a story of how one or two people displayed that ultimate love of others, in imitation of our Lord, and sacrificed themselves to save others! There may even be tales that seem inexplainable. Why was that person targeted and not that one? How did a cushion or arm rest or something else deflect a bullet? How did a bullet not severely injure or kill the intended victim? Yes, there will be tales of miracles in this story.
Eventually, the pundits will figure out that their causes pale by comparison to the loss of human life and they will quiet down. The secular world will offer all kinds of coping suggestions like “spend time with your loved ones to make your body remember things are normal and lessen the effects of any PTSD you might be suffering,” but the press will bore quickly and move on. No doubt politicians will decide that they have earned enough votes by expressing public statements of sympathy and the need to protect us, the voters, and they will move on to the next big event. But the bigger questions will remain. And who is truly equipped to answer them? The truth of the matter is that you and I, and all His children, are equipped to answer those questions. You and I speak from experience. Not the kind of experience that we have read about, though there will be some who have experienced those kinds of tragedies and will all the more prepared to handle the questions winsomely and empathetically and with the hope that others need to hear. No, the job will fall to normal people like ourselves, wanderers on this earth whose citizenship is of the kingdom to come to explain why things like these happen.
The narrative of our faith, brothers and sisters, is one of deep and abiding grief but even more powerful and more determined love. Our Father in heaven gave us a choice. He wanted nothing more than for us to choose to love and follow Him, but He would not force us. Love, true love, can never be forced. It can only be given, surrendered. He gave each one of us incredible freedom, and that freedom can cause nearly immeasurable pain. That man in Colorado chose to inflict pain and suffering on others. We don’t know why. Similarly, someone chose to harm those two little girls and inflict incredible guilt in the lives of their family. But, although none of us here gathered have ever inflicted pain on that scale, we have on many levels. Each one of us had an awareness of sin, an awareness of how we had chose to hurt others and ignore the calls of God on our lives. Maybe we treated another individual poorly? Maybe we used another person as a means to our ends? Each of us knows how easy it was for us to rationalize our behavior, but each one of us heard the whisper of our Father and knows, knows the incredible harm we inflicted. Better still, each one of us knows the freedom, the release of knowing that our Lord die to atone for those actions. Such was His love for us that He bore the consequences of our sins on that cross two thousand years ago and bridged the chasm that existed between God and us. While we were yet sinners and enemies of Him, He came down and died to save us. And to remind us that He has the power to redeem all things, He raised our Lord that Easter morning so long ago. And ever since that day, it has been our job to go and proclaim to world His death and Resurrection and our freedom.
Brothers and sisters, our Lord intended no evil. He did not sit up in heaven and say to Himself, “Today, I will cause an idiot to kill or kidnap little girls in Iowa.” He did not say, “Today, I will cause an idiot to fire 8-10 dozen bullets into a crowded theater and see what kind of havoc he can cause.” There will be people claiming to be representatives of our faith who will stand in front of microphones and tell all who will hear that this was part of God’s plan. They will speak how God intended this to glorify Himself. Nothing can be further from the truth, and it may fall to your or to me to remind those in our midst, our families, our coworkers, our friends, our neighbors, that God does not intend evil--He redeems it. These acts of violence are the evil choices of those who made them. They, like us, had the freedom to choose the path of love or a path that rejected love. They chose poorly.
Fortunately for us, brothers and sisters, our Lord is more powerful than their evil, His ability to overcome death gives us all an opportunity to sing our Alleluias even as we mourn with those who have suffered. But His story is not yet over! He has not finished. And it may be that the conversations you and I will have about these tragedies with others in our lives will be part of that redemptive plan. He did not intend it, but He can certainly overcome it! Who knows, perhaps you or me may answer the questions of others in a way that finally illumines His love in their hearts. Just as God used the death of Wanda in our midst to reach into the lives of our neighborhood for the benefit of all those ladies and children in our midst suffering at the hand of a batterer, God may well use our trust in Him and our faithful witness to all that He is doing to draw one or more people to Himself. Did He intend it? No. But He will redeem it! The empty cross testifies to that, as does the life of each one of us who believes!