Present Suffering, Future Glory

On New Year’s Day in the year 2000, if someone had told you that within the next five years you would witness the toppling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Islamic terrorists using hijacked commercial airplanes, the death of over a quarter of a million people by a tsunami, and the utter devastation of a US city by a hurricane, would you have believed them? Of course not. Any one of these, perhaps. Three are enough for a lifetime. Yet here we are, six days after Hurricane Katrina, and there is no end in sight to the devastation, disease, and destruction. Lord, have mercy!

We are stunned, shocked, speechless. Last Sunday we prayed and watched as Katrina loomed in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster in slow motion. Today as we speak, an entire US city is empty and much of it under water. And to add to the natural disaster there is manmade disaster of violence, civil unrest, looting, mayhem, rape, robbery, arson. Where do we even begin?

The text from Romans 8 is a good place to begin: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. The whole creation has been subject to futility and decay on account of our sin, and now it groans like a woman in labor pains until the birth of the new creation. That’s the very same image Jesus used when he called manmade and natural disasters – wars, famines, earthquakes – “the beginning of the birthpangs,” the contractions of the new creation.

The contractions seem to be getting rather close together, don’t they? Terrorism, tsunami, hurricane, not to mention fire and flood in our own neck of the woods. And you mothers know what it means when the contractions get closer together. Baby’s on the way!

The day of the Lord is just around the corner. How soon? No one knows. I certainly don’t. But you’d be a fool to ignore the signs and not get ready to greet your Savior. Every generation, including the apostle Paul’s, thought that Christ would appear in their lifetime. And in case the thought of that brings a case of end-times anxiety, remember that these are called “birth pangs” not “death throes.” The end of all things means the beginning of a new heavens and a new earth, a new creation, something for baptized believers to look forward to.

A hurricane sure has “day of the Lord” written all over it, doesn’t it? And if you think that was something, what until the Last Day when “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” Makes a category 4+ hurricane look like a stroll in the summer rain. Surely the appropriate response is as Jesus said, “Repent, lest something worse should happen to you.” Fear God – His wrath is far worse than any natural disaster. Trust Christ in whose death all things are reconciled to God.

We learned a few things this week. We learned that a first article God isn’t much of a Gospel God. If all we knew about God is that He made the sea and dry land, that He’s the Intelligent Designer behind this marvelous world of ours, we would still be in the dark about whether He’s on our side or not. Is God good? Is He gracious? Merciful? Forgiving? We can’t know it from the whirlwind.

We learned something about fallen human nature too. Take away government and police and things quickly slip into anarchy. Take the heavy hand of the law off the pressure cooker of human society and the lid blows off. It would happen here too. It happened after the Lakers won the championship, and the police were even on duty.

We heard about government in our reading from Romans 13 this morning. The government is God’s servant, His agent of left-handed law to reward the good and punish the wicked. Keeps a lid on the cultural cauldron. When that minister of God’s wrath checks out, better load your gun, because there won’t be much order. And remember, that same anarchist is at the heart of each of us. He’s called the old Adam.

We might be prone to ask “why”? Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t God stick out His Designer’s hand to shove the hurricane back out to sea? ob asked it, and his friends tried to answer. God finally appears to Job, in a whirlwind, no less, to say that even if He explained it to Job, Job wouldn’t understand. God is God, we are not God, and that’s good.

Jesus asked the “why” question from the cross in His suffering: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There are likely people in New Orleans asking the same thing. The answer Jesus received was deafening silence. The same silence looms the flooded streets of New Orleans. God isn’t answering the “why” question, and we dare not fill in the blanks.

But there will always be speculations, moralists of every stripe and shade. Political moralistis, eco-moralists, and the usual host of old fashioned moral moralists, all stepping up to the plate to take their swing. I’ve actually heard people suggest that the hurricane was God’s judgment on US foreign policy and our failure to support Israel. But hurricanes aren’t caused by foreign policy, they’re caused by air moving over water around a low pressure zone.

Some suggest that the Bush administration is to blame for global warming and not signing the Kyoto agreement. But the lack of a signature on a dubious document doesn’t cause hurricanes. Air moving over water does. Some are saying that the hurricane is God’s judgment against all the hedonism and immorality in New Orleans- Mardi Gras, and “girls gone wild” and the “Southern Decadence” festival that was schedule for New Orleans this week. Interestingly, Bourbon Street was in pretty good shape. What does this mean? Hurricanes are caused by air moving over water, not bad morals.

If you want to go deeper than a meteorological explanation, you have to consider that this is a fallen cosmos, thrown into disharmony by man’s original and our actual sins. Even though this universe, and our own Earth, was intricately and intelligently designed to support life, it’s a dangerous place to live. Downright deadly at times. That “futility” and “groaning” Paul talks about in Romans 8 are real, as real as 20 feet of water and 150 mph winds.

Why didn’t God do something? Why didn’t He intervene? Stick His almighty hand out, steer it back out to sea?

You wouldn’t want to live in a world managed by the Divine Micromanager of All Things. In the movie “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce gets to be God, while God takes a vacation. Bruce discovers that it isn’t easy being God. He draws the moon in a little closer for a romantic dinner with his girlfriend, and causes tidal waves and flooding on the other side of the world. He tries to answer everyone’s e-mailed prayers with a “yes,” but that doesn’t work. A bride prays for sunshine for her outdoor wedding; the farmer begs for rain for his crops. What’s a God to do?

Why didn’t God do anything? In fact, He already did. He dropped dead. He embraced it once and for all in the dark death of Jesus on the cross. “It is finished.” Everything that needed to be done has already been done. In Jesus’ dark death, all the devastations, the deaths, the destructions have been answered for and atoned. The suffering Son suffers along with His creation. He asks the “why” question for us all. He absorbs the silence. He dives headlong into its death and brings up from the depths a new creation. He baptizes into this Death that brings Life. He gives His Body given into death for all to eat. He gives His Blood, His life, for all to drink. And if that’s all He did, that alone would be enough.

Where was God when the winds blew and water rose? Right there in the midst of all of it. The One who “fills all in all” never abandons His creatures or His creation, even when it does some terribly devastating things. He is the Word who made all things and in whom all things hold together. He is with us always, until the end of our days and the end of all the days. He is committed to His creation, and in Him all things are already made new, even as we struggle to clean up the mess of the old.

He works all things together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. “All things” means the good, the bad, the ugly. Faith clings to that Promise that God is actually reconciled to this world in the death of Jesus and does not count men’s sins against them, that in Christ He works life in the midst of death. The world doesn’t need to be micromanaged by some Divine Meddler; it simply needs to be held in the cross-scarred hands of the creative Word Incarnate whose Death swallows up all death once and for all.

Even though salvation has all been done to death in Jesus, there’s much for us to do. It’s called “clean up.” Jesus is there in the Word and Sacrament to forgive and to save. He is there where two or three are congregated, working forgiveness and reconciliation. And He is there in our neighbor in need for us to serve. He’s the broken man in the ditch and the one whose life has been swept away by the hurricane. Every cup of water to the thirsty, clothing to naked, food to the hungry, a visit to the sick and imprisoned, is an act of service to Jesus. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” The least, the lost, the broken – your neighbor in need – that’s Jesus in disguise for you to serve.

There is hope even in the eye of the storm. The sufferings of this present time don’t compare with the coming glory that will be revealed. Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing always comes in the morning of the new creation. For now we groan. And the whole creation groans with us. A city groans, flooded, forsaken. Her citizens displaced, homeless, some with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

But there is a city set high on a hill, a city built by God on firm foundations, a city that cannot be destroyed by fire or water or wind. It’s the city of the Lamb who was slain but lives. It’s our city, our home, with baptismal Spirited-water running down the middle like a river, and the tree of life there to heal the nations. And the light of Christ shining in endless Sabbath Day. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And He who sat upon the throne, the Lamb who died and rose that you might live forever in Him, says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Present suffering, future glory, resurrection, new creation. Can’t wait for the birthday. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen

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