Texts Exodus 14.15-21, Mark 4.35-41
Greetings from the beautiful town of Aldridge. As the number of infections and deaths from coronavirus grows in this country and around the world, seemingly indiscriminately, the question arises, if there is a God, does God care? Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper says that although Covid19 is no respecter of persons – after all the heir to the throne Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson got it – yet Covid19 hits the poorest twice as hard. And because Black and Minority Ethnic people in the UK are over-represented among the poorest, we are twice, sometimes three times more likely to die from Covid19.
If we are honest, we must admit that in-spite of concerted prayers, fasting and well-wishing, Covid19 seems to show no regard for the righteous or the unrighteous. When anyone recovers, believers tend to praise God, but most of us haven’t yet arrived at the place Job got to when after hearing of disaster after disaster, he ‘got up and tore his robe and shaved his head, fell to the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Job was gracious in that moment, in chapter 1; but by chapter 3 as his troubles piled up, he cursed the day he was born. Most of us are right there with Job, full of mixed emotions. But the sceptics, the unbeliever, even some believers ask, does God not care that we are perishing?
In history, that question has been asked over and over again. During three hundred years of terror and murder in the Transatlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery on plantations in which millions died cruelly; in the holocaust when millions of Jews were gassed; in two World Wars when millions died; today after acts of terrorism, when we see children dying from malnutrition, dirty water, natural disasters; last year alone in England and Wales 205,000 abortions were carried out; we should not be surprised that many are asking, does God not care that people perish?
Many have concluded that God is really only a figment of the imagination of the delusional; that religion is the opiate of the poor in mind and body. For the most part the church, especially the Pentecostal church, instead of wrestling with these big issues that people, including believers, struggle with. We generally bury our heads in the sand, turn up the volume, as we sing, pray, preach, observe our rituals and rites, hoping the questions go away. Well, the questions are not going away. What is happening instead, is that the world, Europe in particular, including many of our children, have decided that the church has little or nothing to say to them about the reality of the pain, danger, and sorrow they face.
A definitive answer to whether God cares or not can be found in the words of Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, God told him, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you…’ And I want to suggest that we might use this Covid19 lock down to ponder this question: Does God care that people perish? If so, how? Look with me at scripture.
According to Mark 4, before the storm began to blow and threaten the boat Jesus and his disciples were in, Jesus taught them and a crowd in parables about the Kingdom of God. The people of Jesus’ day loved to hear his parables, probably because they related to true life situations, such as, they could see farmers sowing seeds on the hillsides. Yet the disciples nearly always failed to understand the theological meanings contained in those parables. Jesus never tried to blind with science, or theology, he wanted to raise their gaze to understand the truths of God.
In three of these parables we see that the kingdom of God is a partnership between heaven and earth, between the farmer who plants and God who makes things grow. Unless the farmer sowed the seed there was nothing for God to germanite and grow. In the parable of the growing seed Jesus taught that after the sower sowed, God made the seed grow; then when its kernel was ripe the farmer put in the sickle and harvested the grains. In the parable of the mustard seed Jesus taught that, though it was the smallest of all seeds, yet when it was planted it grew to be the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade. The lesson was clear: unless the planter plants none of these things happened.
Later, at Jesus’ suggestion they got into a boat to cross to the other side of the lake. Suddenly the ship came into a furious storm that almost swamped their boat…it was about to sink, with Jesus fast asleep in the stern. The disciples having not understood the parables, woke Jesus and asked him, ‘don’t you care that we drown? Jesus said, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” What were they most afraid of? Death. You know the saying, everybody wants to go to heaven but no body wants to die. Jesus wanted the disciples to increase their faith in order to lose their fear. They, like us today, needed to have faith in God that in the partnership between they and Jesus, if they did their part – keep the boat sailing as best they can, even in a storm, God would be faithful to them in life or death. God wants to help us lose our fear of death…that’s the message of the resurrection. Jesus however, showed his mastery over nature by speaking to the storm, peace be still, the storm stopped and everybody in their boat and all the other boats threatened by it were safe. Lose your fear of death and death cannot terrorise you, do all you can in all circumstances, and leave the rest to God. That’s the partnership deal.
In the Exodus text, the children of Israel after years of slavery and oppression, God finally rose up a leader to confront Pharaoh and lead his people towards liberty. Moses did not just pray to God about Pharaoh, he confronted him with ‘God says to tell you, let my people go’. Pharaoh sad go, then he said no, he changed his mind repeatedly. Finally, they got away, but then looked up and saw Pharaoh and his 600 chariots and thousands strong army bearing down on them. The only way was forward, but that was the sea. The people turned on Moses, as they usually did, ‘very wrong, but very human’, says one commentator; ‘were there no graves in Egypt why you brought us into the desert to die?’ The people were terrified. Moses summoned up all the courage he could muster to say, ‘The Lord will fight for you?’ I can hear Moses asking God, don’t you care that we are perishing?
God said to him, why are you crying to me? Stretch out your hand with the rod over the sea to divide the water, and tell the people to go forward. As Moses did his part, bible says, ‘the angel of God, a ‘divine Messenger’ who had been travelling in front of them, went behind them. The pillar of cloud moved from in front to behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.’ The God who provided guidance, now provided protection’. Moses did his part and God did God’s part, and the people walked on dry land. When they had crossed, Moses stretched out his hand with the rod and the waters went back to its normal place swallowing the enemy forces. The lesson is clear, Moses used the rod in his hand and the people walked and God divided the water. That’s God in partnership with us.
One writer says, ‘irrelevance is the gap between how quickly things change and how quickly you change.’ As we prepare to for the gradual return to some kind of normality, post Covid19, with all the tragedies that will have occurred, and people asking Does God not care that we are perishing, we cannot just return to where and what we were, because the world around us will have been changed. Peter puts it like this, ‘always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have’ (1 Peter 3.15).
Of course God cares, he cares but he cares mainly through you and me. We need to take our partnering with God more seriously, more consciously, more intentionally. We need to reflect that partnership when we sing, pray, preach that it is not all about God, it’s about God and you, God and me, God and us in partnership. I want to ask us to consider whether we have been lulled into a modern form of Christianity that says, ‘it’s all about you Lord’. There are two things I want us to remember. To be the partners with God we are called to be we need to lose our fear of death and replace it with faith and trust in God in life and in death. Second, we need to use the ‘rod’ God has put in our hands. God showed Moses that as he worked, God worked. God showed the disciples that when they reach the end of their tether, according to the divine will, God steps in.
So, practically what might this mean for Covid19? We know that social and economic deprivation, and what goes with that, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, leading to multiple underlying health issues, has made many susceptible to the virus. As a church, how seriously do we take the deprived conditions and lowly place of black people in UK society? It is good that we pray for healing, but are we willing to act to promote good health and well-being? Prevention is better than cure. I was so pleased to watch the zoom seminar on diet put on by Bev Cunningham Friday night. That and similar issues in other areas of social, economic and political realities need to become part and parcel of how we live, worship and pray going forward.
My hope and prayer is that we will discover the partnership into which God has called us with father, Son and Holy Spirit. Who today are frightened by storms that are overwhelming them? Who are in a place of danger with Pharaoh’s army behind them and an ocean before them? God is saying to you and me it’s not just about God, its about us and God working together to bring hope and resolution to an unbelieving world. May all we think, do and say reflect this new reality that we are partners with God. By this we will demonstrate to the world the accompanying, caring presence of God who has conquered death and has empowered us in all circumstances. God cares through us. Amen.