After learning of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday, more than one person asked, “Where is God in this?” People in Portland, Oregon asked that question earlier this week, people in the Middle East have been asking about it in light of the events in Syria, Palestine/Israel and Egypt, and people asked it when Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast and boroughs of New York City.
The season of Advent says, “Where is God? We don’t see her anywhere, and we really need her to show up! NOW!” John the Baptizer’s message stirs the hearts of those in Judea with the news that, in fact, God’s Messiah is on the way. And he says, “Get ready.” He invites people to be baptized as evidence of their repentance–their turning around and pursuing the things of God again. And he preaches a message of eschatalogical judgment, warning of the impending wrath of God that would come on the wicked with the advent of Messiah. In verse 10 of today’s passage, the people respond by saying, “What then should we do?”
Let’s be clear about God’s relationship to yesterday’s events: he didn’t do anything to stop them. God didn’t intervene. The tragedy happenened. The suffering continues. This is where many choose to say, “There is no God.” And more than any other reason, tragedies and suffering like this gives evidence to support that position. Others still doggedly believe, hoping that there will be one day when Messiah will come to earth again and right all wrongs and rid the world of all its pain and suffering once and for all. I still hope in that day.
But today, right now, while we wait for Messiah, the question is: “What then should we do?” And this question is true for the theist, the agnostic and the athiest. What should we do?
John’s advice to the crowds before Jesus arrived on the scene centered around themes of compassion, ethics, justice and mercy. Give your extra stuff to those who have none. Don’t use your position to take advantage of others. Don’t be greedy.
What would his message be to us today? I think it would be on similar themes. Maybe he would say, “It’s time we start taking mental illness seriously and recognize that we have a ton of work to help parents recognize signs in their kids.” “We have to rid our society of the stigma associated with psycho-therapy and prescription medicines once and for all.”
Maybe he would say, “We have to say and live out the principle that violence is NEVER an option for solving anything. He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” “We have to rid our minds from the idea that sometime the end justifies the means of force. We must take violence off the table as an option for solving problems.”
Maybe John would say that we should stop justifying our inaction and finally act to take pre-emptive measures to eliminate the conditions that give rise to anger, hostility and violence. Maybe we could finally work on systemic poverty, and the education, community health and opportunity inequity that goes along with it.
According to a number of friends on Facebook who shared this (I’m taking their word that the source is correct), Mister Rogers said, “When I was a boy and saw scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers–so many caring people in this world.”
I have also heard it said that the hurricane, the forest fire, the earthquake, or other disaster or tragedy are not “acts of God;” but rather, the people who respond with compassion to care for the suffering are the “Act of God.”
May we be the act of God. Whether we continue to hope in a coming God or not, may we be the act of God.