An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Back from Sheol

A sermon on Psalm 30 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 February 2009
reflecting on the horrific Black Saturday bushfire tragedy in Victoria that week
“Lord, how I begged you,
and you, God, saved me.
You pulled me from the pit,
brought me back from Sheol.”
Those words from the psalmist have an eerie ring this week
We’ve heard such things a few too many times

“I’ve seen the inside of hell,” they say
“The sky was black
and the air was full of burning embers and rocks.”
“The heat and the wind
and the ferocity of the fire were indescribable
Everything was just engulfed”
“We’ve been to hell, the pit of hell,
and some of us have come back”

Some came back, but a lot didn’t

“What good is my blood to you?
Why push me down the pit?
Can dead bones praise you,
recount your unbroken love?”

There are bodies in the burned out streets
In Marysville, many of the bodies have been so thoroughly incinerated
that the investigators can’t tell whether they are looking at one body or several
Why, Lord. What good is this?

“Can dead bones praise you,
recount your unbroken love?”

We are humbled to the point of despair by a disaster like this
Of course, we’ve see disasters on our TV news before
Often. More often than we care to remember
But usually we don’t relate
It’s a long way away
They don’t look like us
They didn’t have much and so they didn’t lose much
They die in their thousands and we move on
to the sport and the weather

But this is different
It’s not really, but it feels different
This time we notice, this time we relate
This time it is just up the road
This time they look like us, talk like us,
and some of them are even personally known to us
My God, they could just as easily be us

And we are brought to our knees with the psalmist,
humbled to the point of despair:

“When all was going well,
I thought I could never fall;
with God’s powerful blessing,
I would stand like a mountain!
Then you hid your face;
I shook with fear!”

Before the ferocious power of a fire storm
everyone is helpless
nobody can stand
normally we can easily divide ourselves up,
the strong and the weak,
the powerful and the powerless,
the good and the bad,
but when the firestorm comes down the street
we’re all the same
Then there is only the lucky and the unlucky
and even the lucky are scarred and traumatised
and often wracked with senseless guilt

A friend of mine whose been up there this week as a chaplain
spoke to a man who had been protecting his home from the fire
He’d seen two little girls running down the street terrified
so he grabbed them and sheltered them in his house
while he continued to fight off the fire
But eventually his house began to burn
and when he tried to find the girls he couldn’t
and despite his efforts, the fire drove him out
and the girls died as the house burnt around them
And as he sobbed he said over and over again,
“I murdered those little girls. I murdered those little girls…”

The man’s a hero
but when heroes can’t turn back the fire
even they feel like failures
like murderers even.

“What good is my blood to you?
Why push me down the pit?
Can dead bones praise you,
recount your unbroken love?”

In the face of unspeakable trauma and tragedy
this psalm, like many psalms,
is full of “Why, Lord, why?”
Cries for help
and anguished questions
and even some hope for the future:

“You pulled me from the pit,
brought me back from Sheol.
Laughter fills a day
after one brief night of tears.
You changed my anguish
into this joyful dance,
pulled off my sackcloth,
gave me bright new robes”

Clearly the psalm wasn’t written in one sitting
on the day of the tragedy
Those are the words of hindsight
when life has begun to rise again from the ashes
We are not going to hear those hope-filled words echoed too often
while they’re still trying to identify the bodies

But that’s one of the beauties of the psalms
They run the whole gamut of human emotions
Wherever we are at, it’s in there somewhere
out most gut-wrenching feelings
preserved in the form of a prayer
The Bible itself assuring us
that God is big enough to cope
no matter what has been stirred up inside of us
and that God has even sanctified our anguish
in the words of sacred scripture itself

“Why, God, why?” is not an expression of sinful doubt
In fact it is an act of faith,
an expression of trust
in the God who is big enough
to take whatever grief we hurl at him

But what the psalms almost never do
and in fact what the whole Bible very rarely does
is attempt to give a simple answer
to that “why, God, why” question
The question is allowed to hang in the air
and its power is honoured
by the inability to answer it

The Bible certainly knows of the temptation
to try to find quick and convenient answers
Job’s friends are rebuked
for their confident attempts to answer it
“Suffering only comes as punishment for sin” they said
“No” said God
“I am honoured by Job’s ‘why’
more than by your facile answers.”
Jesus too quickly dismissed the view
that a disaster was a proof of someone’s sin (Luke 13:1-5)
Why can’t we take heed?

Last week in my sermon I said that

“Religious lunatics with their pet hates
will always want us to see the fires
as Gods judgement on this or that.”

I’d have been a lot happier to have had that ‘prophesy’ left unfulfilled
But no
This week, a self-publicising preacher
who doesn’t deserve to be named
issued a press release
claiming that the Spirit of God had revealed to him
that God had stopped protecting Victoria from fire
because our government had decriminalised abortion

He doesn’t just publicise this as being his own opinion
He attributes it directly to God
This is precisely what the Bible names as the sin of blasphemy:
dragging the Lord’s name through the mud

He leaves himself some wriggle room
He doesn’t say God sent the fires;
he says that God stopped protecting us from the fires
I tried to explain this distinction to my ten year old daughter
She snorted and said, “Well, it’s the same thing really, isn’t it?”
I reckon she’s right

If my dog was trying to attack you and I was restraining it,
would “removing my conditional protection”
leave me any less culpable
than if I had attacked you myself?

If God was protecting the people of Kinglake and Marysville
and deliberately stopped doing so
because he didn’t like a decision made in Spring Street,
then God is culpable for the fires
And to use an indiscriminate attack on the innocent public
in order to cause mass terror
in the hope of getting your message through that way
is precisely the definition of terrorism

When people do that, we call them terrorists
Any god who would do that would be unworthy of our worship
And you can perhaps begin to see
why such teachings are not only mind-bogglingly insensitive
but downright dangerous
If we can imagine God seeing such terrorist tactics
as an appropriate response to the prevalence of abortion
then we are only a very short slide away
from seeing ourselves as serving God
by committing similar acts as part of the same protest
That is how violence always cloaks itself in sacred legitimacy

It is true, I know,
that this very psalm I am preaching from
could be bent to back up his view:

“I thought I could never fall;
with God’s powerful blessing,
I would stand like a mountain!
Then you hid your face;
I shook with fear!”

God hiding his face could be equated
with removing his conditional protection
But the psalms do that
They give voice to our feelings, our fears
They give us permission to ask that,
to point the finger at God and yell “Why?”
They don’t give us permission
to issue press releases
and proclaim it as God’s definitive word
for this week’s specific nightmare

At the risk of sounding as arrogant as him,
I am willing to say that this preacher
is guilty of blasphemy and false prophesy
And yes I would be willing to say it to his face
for it couldn’t cause half as much hurt as he has inflicted this week

Compare the content of his dream and his proclamation of it
to that of a true Christian prophet, Martin Luther King jnr
when he said “I have a dream”
Which of their dreams sounds more like something that would come
from the kind of God revealed in Jesus,
a loving and merciful God
who is willing to endure any amount of our violence
but is never willing to retaliate and perpetuate it

On the basis of the witness of the crucified Jesus himself
and in his authority
I can declare to you that there is no link
between the fires and an angry action of God

If it could be proved that God unleashed the fires
in anger over abortion or anything else,
then we would have to conclude that Jesus misled us
in his portrayal of God
And I would hand in my ordination tomorrow
and call on you to join me in renouncing our baptism
for we could not follow a God who would do that
even if he were the creator of everything
and held our eternal destiny in his hands

We will follow and serve a God of self-sacrificial love
but if God is evil and capricious
then we would be right to turn our backs on him
and refuse to spend eternity with him
no matter how attractive his accommodation is

The God of our Lord Jesus Christ
is with us in our anger and shock and confusion
God is with us to love and to comfort
and to grieve and weep in solidarity

Some people came back from Sheol this week
Others were lost in the flames
Maybe as many as three hundred of them
There is no sense, no rhyme or reason
There is no justice

But there is a God who can cope with our questions,
with our furious doubts, with our despairing anger
And if you could look into the eyes of God,
into the eyes of Jesus,
you would see there too
the horrified eyes
of one who has seen the inside of hell
You would see there too
the bloodshot eyes of one
who has fought on through the searing heat of hostility
and the choking smoke of human misery
in order to pull us from the pit
and bring us back from Sheol

He is there now
on the blackened streets
of Kinglake, Flowerdale, Marysville, and the rest

He is there where the survivors hug and weep
He is there where the grief knows no bounds
And he is there even in death,
grimacing against the searing pain of blasphemy
as he cradles the dead in his wounded arms
until the day of resurrection

He is there in unfailing solidarity
in mercy that lasts a lifetime
and in the bottomless cup of grief and love
that mingle forever
and are poured out for the life of the world

“Forever I will thank you, O Lord my God.”


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