Surely the day is coming when no one will ask “Who is God?” because we’ll all know – God’s ways are written inside of us. In our hearts. There’s no question. We just know.
Surely the day is coming when we will be in full understanding with God, and there won’t be need for teachers and pastors and theologians…
… But it sure doesn’t seem to be this moment. I testify this pastor struggles. We are here, in the final Sunday of Lent before Holy Week. Here- on this last Sunday of quiet reflection before we come to Jerusalem, and Jesus enters with the welcome of a King. Next week we’ll sing Hosannas. And we’ll consider during the week the cross.
That horrible thing.
The nearly unspeakable thing.
Sometimes, we rush from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss the heartache in between. Sometimes, we rush from Genesis and God calling us Very Good to the Gospels, where God So Loved the World.
And we miss the messy, messy reality in between.
The messy reality where murder happens, and senseless death. When armies rise up against armies. And homes are burned. And lives shattered. Children’s heads dashed on rocks and blood and guts and broken bones galore. We miss the slavery. The beatings. The rapes. The sin.
We miss the cross when we gloss over Holy Week, or gloss over the Bible.
Our stories, our scripture, our message of God is so relevant because it is asking, and reframing, and asking again: what does it mean to be human?
What does it mean to be God?
Why do good things happen?
Why do bad things happen?
And to be human, to be alive. is to know good and bad and everything in between.
“My soul is troubled,” said Jesus.
My soul is troubled today, I say. I look at this cross, and I wonder – how could it happen?
How could Peter turn and deny his savior, his master, his best friend?
How could all the disciples run away from Jesus’ last hours, dying there, a condemned criminal?
How could Mary abide seeing her son die?
How could God abide this wrong?
Or all the other wrongs in the world?
Who is God to permit such suffering?
Why do bad things happen?
Theodicy is a fancy term for this problem, for asking the theology of “why do bad things happen?”
The issue is set up like this: why does an all powerful, all knowing, all loving and good God permit bad things to happen?
Some have answered – there must be no god. My God, My God – why have you forsaken me? Because there is no god listening to your cries.
And some have answers – surely there is a god. We just have to tackle this theodicy problem.
These three descriptions of God set up a triangle. If we can resolve one of the angles of the triangle — all powerful, all knowing, or all good — the issue collapses upon itself and goes away. We have an answer for why bad things happen.
Let me give you an example… Maybe bad things happen because God is not all powerful. God loves us deeply and wholly. God knows bad things are going to occur. God works with us to try to stop these things. We pray and God works. We work and God gives the Spirit. But because we are sinful, or we have free-will, or because God chooses to limit God’s own power… bad things happen.
Maybe the world would fall into chaos if God meddled too much in it and did a lot of miracles.
Maybe God wills a perfect world, but chaos and sin is still too powerful.
Maybe God set up the world to reward the sinful with pain and the sinless with blessings, and to meddle in this would be to disturb the order of things.
For one reason or another, God’s not all powerful. But God is all knowing and all loving.
Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all knowing. God can and does do everything. And God is all love. But God doesn’t know the results and the future. Sometimes, chaos slips into God’s plans. Truly humans plan, and God plans better, but even the best of plans can go wrong. God doesn’t plan the bad. Sometimes, it just happens.
Think of the Garden of Eden – it seems God was surprised that humans chose to eat from the trees God banned. God sure acted angrier than someone who planned on this happening!
Or maybe it just appears God doesn’t know what God is doing at times because we have very limited minds and perspectives. There must be a master plan – we just don’t know it.
Or God is just making things up as God goes along.
Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. All things are ordered and what seems random is actually determined due to quantum physics… But what if God DOES play dice? What if change, chaos, random occurrences, happenstance really is a thing… and we and God just plan the best we can?
Or maybe bad things happen because God is not all good. God can and does do everything; and God knows all that will be and has been; but God is not all hearts and sunshine and love. Instead, God is vindictive. Or God is righteous. Or God is just.
If you read the Bible, there is fire and brimstone. Maybe that’s the only way some people learn their lessons. There is hell, and punishment for sins, and punishment just for touching the Ark of the Covenant without permission.
Maybe God is so just and righteous, that the impurities of us on God’s honor, and God’s righteousness, means God HAS to demand satisfaction – demand payment – for our wrongs. There is a universal debt we’re racked up, and someone has to pay.
Or maybe God just appears to be not loving, but in actuality, is loving us like a parent and knows to teach us with soft knocks and hard knocks how to be better people. Maybe God is letting bad things happen to test us, to burn away the chaff, per se.
Maybe God could have designed a way for us to learn how to be good people without heartache, but then God could have just programmed us to be robots and we never would be able to voluntarily love God back or be in a real relationship. Because real relationships require freedom to say no. Freedom to walk away.
Or maybe God is like us… and not wholly all good but has spurts of anger and emotional outbursts.
The lists and ideas go on and on and on. All of these justifications of God have been argued. And will be argued. And are currently being argued.
And not just in academic books or in seminaries.
I hear phrases like, “That’s karma,” and it means “what goes around, comes around.” If you do good deeds, good things come back to you. If you do bad deeds, bad things happen to you. This is theodicy. Trying to explain our God and why bad things happen.
I hear things like, “God knew what God was doing,” or “It was just her time.” There is a master plan and God is following it. We’re just along for the ride. More theodicy. More explaining why bad things happen.
And I hear things like, “God must have needed another angel,” or “That’s the punishment of God.” Again… more theodicy. More trying to explain our world and our God.
After Jesus died, people struggled greatly to explain how God could let Jesus die. Some concluded Jesus must never had been the Chosen One, the Christ. Maybe he was a great prophet, but not the Christ.
Others concluded Jesus must have known this was going to happen all along. And they remembered things he said that seemed to foreshadow his death.
Still others decided the cross must actually be an act of God’s love, and Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that takes away sins… just like the lamb’s blood in Passover — the time when he was killed.
These are all theodicy answers.
All the gospel writers and early Christians and ancient Jews and ancient Greeks and Romans trying to understand what just happened and who God is.
None of them are right.
But none of them are wrong.
Theodicy is like balancing on a ball. You can do it, but you constantly have to make adjustments. And as soon as you have your balance, as soon as you have an answer, the ball and problem has moved again.
I think of it like a puzzle. I worry it for awhile, come to a conclusion that lasts a month – a year – maybe more — and then I have to come back to it again and think some more.
And people did this long before Jesus’ time, too.
The entire book of Job is a work of theodicy. Why do bad things happen? Each one of Job’s friends offers a different solution. And Job demands an answer from God God’s self — and God doesn’t give a satisfactory one. Or doesn’t answer. It’s hard to tell.
It’s like the author of Job knew we won’t have a satisfactory answer to why bad things happen until we can ask God ourselves face-to-face. Until then, we’re screaming at the sky.
Why bad things happen to people — good people and bad people — seems to never have a perfectly neat answer that works 100% of the time all the time for everyone.
So when you hear John’s answer today for why the cross happened, and why bad things happen, know it is John’s answer. Each Gospel answers it a bit differently. Each theologian answers it differently.
Each person answers it differently.
We all come to the cross as individuals, again and again and again, and each time, we see Jesus, we see God, we see why bad things happen, in a different light. Even if it is just slightly different than last time.
John’s theodicy answer is the cross had to happen. Jesus is like a single grain of wheat. And Jesus will fall, and the seed die, per se, and stop being a wheat seed. But it will then grow up and produce many, many wheat seeds. Much fruit.
And that we are to follow this – to reject the way of the world, and to accept the way of Christ. To stop trying to save our lives and start living for Christ.
John’s answer is that God spreads God’s salvation through what appears to be bad things, but is actually good. The cross looks like humiliation. It is degradation. It is shame. But it actually is glory, and honor, and is a way of lifting Jesus up for all people to see.
The seed appears to die, and all hope to be lost – but it is simply giving up itself in order to reproduce a hundred fold.
Jesus will appear to die, and all hope to be lost – but he is simply giving up himself in order to bring all people to him.
Sometimes I agree with John. Sometimes I do not. That’s the thing about theodicy… its a problem we never solve permanently. We just reach temporary solutions.
One temporarily solution for myself is to think of all of us, and God included, as wounded healers.
Bad things happen. God doesn’t will them, I think (for right now. My answer of course will change. All theodicy answers change.) But God wills good to come out of bad situations.
So God didn’t plan to put Jesus on the cross, but God planned to bring good out of what happened. And God did.
God doesn’t intend for us to have cancer, to lose loved ones, to suffer – but God does intend to help us bring good out of these situations.
God intends to help us become wounded healers.
Wounded healers are people who know what heartache is, who know what loss is, and through their own wounds, are able to heal others.
Because I’ve been in those shoes, I know how to help. Because you’ve been in my situation, you know what I need most. No two people have the same exact experience… but every heart is carrying a wound.
And that wound, that hurt, is a soft spot that God can help us use to connect with one another.
It’s not the Law of God written on our hearts… maybe. But maybe it is: maybe the new covenant is a covenant of love that connects in these wounds, and unites us through the common experience of being human.
The common experience of knowing heartache. And joy. And suffering. And elation. And pain. And death.
That’s the thing about theodicy – about understanding God and why bad things happen – our hearts and minds change as we experience more.
As we transition this week into Holy Week, and into Palm Sunday, I invite you to reflect on the cross – what does it mean? Why did it happen?
Agree with John. Disagree with John. Agree with Mark or Matthew or Luke or Paul or disagree with all of them.
What is the cross to you?
Who is God to you?
Who is Christ?
And why do bad things happen?