A sermon on Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; & John 3:14-21 by the Revd Margie Dahl
An earthquake in Papua New Guinea. It is believed that around one hundred people were killed. Hundreds of people were injured. It was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake which is very powerful. The epicentre is in a remote and mountainous region of the country. In the days following, there were dozens of after shocks. Landslides swept away houses and the gardens of the subsistence farmers. Communications, such as they were, were destroyed as were landing strips for planes. So the only way that relief supplies could get there is by helicopter. Relief has been delayed by the rough terrain and bad weather, as well as damaged roads. The injured have not been able to get to hospital. Tens of thousands of people desperately need food, shelter and health services.
Why would God do that to the people of Papua New Guinea? Life was hard enough before this latest catastrophe. In 2016 there was the worst frost in forty years followed by a severe drought. Crops did not grow, people went hungry and children suffered from malnutrition.
Forty per cent of the population of Papua New Guinea were living in poverty. It’s one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Rape and sexual assault are commonplace. The maternal death rate is one of the highest in the world. So, given all of these issues, why would God send an earthquake? What had they ever done to deserve this?
As we gather here tonight, there are parents in oncology wards keeping a desperate watch over their seriously sick babies, hoping and praying that they will pull through. Is the life-threatening illness of their baby a punishment for some sin?
Cyclone Gita brought winds of 230 kms per hour to Tonga flattening 75% of houses in some communities. I wonder why God visited a whole nation with a disaster of that magnitude.
Today we had a reading from the book of Numbers. This book doesn’t appear very often in our lectionary. I read that it is an odd mixture of stories and laws and old poems, bits and bobs of ancient texts, including tales of talking donkeys, too many quail and the most famous priestly blessing of them all. But Jesus used today’s story when talking to Nicodemus, so that’s why we read it today.
I can’t help wondering what life in the wilderness was like for the Hebrew people. They’d been slaves in Egypt when this strange man burst onto the scene, challenging the might of the Pharaoh and proclaiming that God had sent him to set the people free. Who was this man? Did any of the Hebrew people recognise him? He looked like them, he had an Egyptian accent and he was dressed like a nomadic sheepherder. He had no self-confidence, he stammered and his younger brother often had to speak on his behalf. And yet, he exuded an air of authority that neither the Hebrews nor the Egyptians could ignore.
Slavery was hard. It was degrading. It made young men old before their time. But at least it was predictable. People knew what to expect. And then along came Moses and within weeks, their world had changed. Let my people go! Moses confronted the magicians of Pharaoh’s court and rained down plagues of frogs and locusts on the Egyptian people.
He turned the River Nile into blood. Pharaoh would not relent until that terrible night when the firstborn of every Egyptian household was killed. The people ate a hurried meal of lamb and unleavened bread and set off into the wilderness, following after Moses.
My hunch is that this would have been a terrifying time. There was little time to plan or prepare, what to take and what to leave, how to care for the elderly, the sick and the small children. Can you imagine what it would be like to see Pharaoh’s army chasing after them, horses and chariots, the sun glinting off armour and spears and swords. Then to walk dryshod through the sea, seeing walls of water on each side, wondering if the next step would be their last.
Then they arrived at the sacred mountain, a mountain so sacred that no animal or person could approach it on the pain of death. Fire and smoke spewed out of the top. Only Moses, a sacred person, could climb the mountain and there God gave him the law, the sacred law that begins with a reminder of who they are dealing with: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
I wonder if the people were exhilarated at being freed, or confused and distressed by what was happening to them. They were promised a land, but instead they had a series of terrifying experiences followed by what seemed like aimless wandering in the wilderness. The only thing that was predictable was the diet. Mum, what’s for lunch? Quail and manna. Dad, what are we having for dinner? Manna and quail.
Boiled quail, roasted quail, barbequed quail – there are only a certain number of recipes you can follow to make quail tasty day after day after day after day. And they were in constant fear of running out of water. I reckon it is no wonder that the people whinged. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt if we are just going to die out here in the desert? There is no food. There is no water. And we can’t stand this lousy stuff we’ve got to eat.”
Almost from the day they had crossed the Red Sea, the people had complained. They grumbled, they mumbled, they whined and they whinged, they carped and they moaned. They looked back on the good old days when they were slaves, when life was wonderful, when they had enough to eat.
So, it appears, God decided to punish the people for their sin of ingratitude and sent a nest of poisonous snakes into their midst. Slithering, gliding, toxic, lethal snakes. Even the most dedicated herpetologist would be freaked out by this experience. A toddler exploring the campsite, an old person resting in the shade, a woman gathering food – the snakes were not fussy. Dying people screaming in agony, their family and friends wailing in grief. Was a devious snake lurking under that blanket, behind that tent, around the next bush?
From the day Moses appeared in Egypt to take on Pharaoh, there had been nothing but terror and disruption for the people. What sort of God would behave like this? And what sort of God would send snakes to punish people?
There is a powerful idea that there is a relationship between sin on one hand and suffering, affliction and sickness on the other. Just look at today’s psalm.
Some of us had wrecked our health in destructive living;
involvement in evil left us sick and injured.
We were off our food, weak and broken;
a painful death was knocking at the door.
In sheer despair, we cried out to you, Lord,
and in a flash, you came to our rescue.
Your words healed us; got us back on our feet;
pulled us free of the jaws of death.
There you have it. The people sinned, God zapped them, and almost magically, everything was OK again. How wonderful!
A powerful God who rewards the good and who brings down retribution on the evil has something to commend it. If we live a good life, we will escape calamity, we will not get sick and we will prosper. But our life experience tells us different. I have seen good and righteous people suffer through no fault of their own. I’ve seen a woman who has committed her life to Christ and worked tirelessly for the church living with chronic pain. I have seen good people living with mental illness that is poorly controlled despite our modern knowledge of psychiatry. I have seen faithful Christian parents whose lives, by necessity, are devoted to enhancing the life of their disabled child.
I have seen a man whose life shone for Jesus dying of lung cancer despite never having smoked.
I have also seen crooked businessmen raking in the dough they have made by exploiting the poor. I have seen mean and selfish people live long and healthy lives. I have seen people get rich by investing in alcohol, tobacco and armaments. It is simply not true that cheats never prosper. Sometimes they prosper very well, thank you.
Without doubt, there are difficulties experienced by individuals, groups or people or nations that are clearly the result of their own behaviour or sin. The heavy smoker who gets emphysema deserves our compassion and our care, but their sickness is the direct consequence of their behaviour. A reckless young driver who becomes a paraplegic needs to have his physical, emotional and spiritual needs taken seriously, but it was he himself who caused the accident.
Then there are people whose situation is the result of structural sin. We might think of the plight of refugees on Manus Island or of families of construction workers killed at work. We might think of indigenous families still suffering from the consequences of the stolen generation and ongoing prejudice and lack of opportunity. We might think of young people bullied at work, women who have been sexually harassed.
Sometimes suffering is just random. Hilda was at the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights to change. Her friend Joan stepped back to look in a shop window. A driver lost control of her car and Hilda was killed. Joan was only two metres away and was physically unharmed. Karen lives with a personality disorder that diminishes her own life and that of her parents. She has three sisters, none of whom have a similar disorder.
One refugee made it to Australia before the cruel and arbitrary ban on the entry of refugees coming by boat. His brother who came just a short time later has lived in detention for years. Jeannie lived a rich and full life. She ate well and exercised regularly. But at the age of 50 she had a debilitating stroke and needs the constant care of a nursing home.
What do we make of this? It is the perennial problem. Why does a good God allow evil? Why do the innocent suffer? Why did an earthquake occur in New Guinea where life is hard enough for people? The technical theological term for this dilemma is theodicy.
Nathan’s translation of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus might be instructive. All those who put their trust in Jesus can have boundless life. So often we think of this boundless life, eternal life, as being something that we begin to live in heaven after we have died. But I want to suggest that this boundless life is something that we live now. This boundless life does not save us from suffering, our problems will not magically disappear. Our bodies, minds and spirits will be assailed with all the challenges of human life. But we will find meaning in our suffering by remembering the suffering of Jesus. Everyone who looks up to him in trust and hope will receive life without limit. Our sufferings will bring us closer to Jesus.
Some people become bitter and angry by suffering. Their relationships break down and fracture. Life is a misery for them and for their family and friends. By living the boundless life that Jesus offers, we can find endurance and courage in our own sufferings and more compassionate to others. We know that suffering is not the end – the end is resurrection.
Our Lenten discipline is designed for just this purpose, to make that relationship stronger – to come to the one who has endured torture, isolation, death and who can be with us in any tragic circumstance.