Sunday, September 19, 2010

The God of Good and Evil

Things happen. You go out to your car and find that it has a flat tire. You show up at work and your boss tells you that you’ve gotten a raise. And one of the kids is sick with whatever is going around. Things happen. And they happen just because things happen. Or do they? Nothing just happens. Things happen because Jesus makes them happen. And seeing that can be so very helpful. Understanding your life in this way is a tremendous protection against things like pride and its twin, despair. Things happen the way that they do because Jesus makes them happen that way. So, a good question to ask from time to time is, ‘Why did Jesus make that happen in that way?’ And being able to get at least the beginnings of an answer to that question changes how you deal with the things that happen.

To get an answer to our question, ‘Why?’, you will also need to answer the question, ‘Who?’ Who is this God whom we worship? Who is this God who makes things happen the way that they do? The better you know your God the more likely you’ll be able to get a good answer to that ‘Why?’ question, and that will lead to a life that is lived better. Our chapter in Isaiah helps in this. Here, Jesus describes Himself, especially in contrast to those idols. Now, let me warn you. The first part of the sermon will be dark. But that’s only a set up for the brilliant light at the end. My goal is to give you hope and to encourage you.

Please listen as I read Isaiah 45.

The focus of today’s sermon will be just a handful of verses from this chapter. ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.’ Here, Jesus is emphasizing that He is the only God. There is no other. These idols are all fakes. And since He is the only God, He tells us that He is the one who causes all that happens. And that ‘all’ really does include all. So, to be sure that this is clear, let me use the old King James translation of the last part of this which makes the point utterly clear. ‘I make peace, and create evil’. ‘All’ means all. The word translated ‘peace’ covers all the good stuff. The word translated ‘evil’ – well, I think that you know what that covers. Do you see how Jesus describes Himself? ‘I’m the one who causes all the good stuff as well as all the bad stuff.’ It’s this that I want to focus on.

Let’s start by looking at Jesus’ statement, ‘I create evil’. That’s not a common thought these days among those given to modern spirituality. The idolatrous gods of our day are supposed to be nice and only do good things. And that’s one reason why they fail, especially when the chips are down. But not Jesus. So, let me point out some examples where Jesus has created evil. Think about Paul’s suffering with what he called ‘a thorn in the flesh’. We don’t know exactly what it was, but whatever it was Paul didn’t like it. It hurt. It was some evil he had to endure. He knew that Jesus had sent it. So, he prayed that Jesus would take it away. And Jesus’ reply to that was clear. ‘No’. He wanted Paul to have it. He wanted Paul to deal with it. So, when it comes to this evil, this thorn in the flesh, Jesus is clear. ‘I did that.’ Another good example is Job. His wealth is stolen. His kids are all killed. His health is completely broken. And then add to that his friend become his accusers. Job suffered great evil. Where did it come from? At the end of the book describes what happened as ‘all the evil that the LORD brought upon [Job]’. So, again, if asked about what happened to Job, Jesus would say, ‘I did that.’

Let’s consider some evil that is closer to home. Consider the World Trade Center on 9/11. Something like three thousand people were killed. Or consider a baby who is eagerly awaited by parents, a baby who, it turns out, is born with some terrible deformity. Consider the horrors of war. Think about the multitude of ways that people, through no fault of their own, are physically injured, emotionally damaged or killed. To all of that Jesus says, ‘I did that.’ So, when someone is confronted by some evil and cries out, ‘Where is God now? Where is God when evil like this happens?’, the answer is clear. ‘I am right here. I did that.’ ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.’

There is a good and right way to respond to this, and there is a way that isn’t. Isaiah cautions us about the bad response. “Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” Or to translate: ‘Hey, God, You goofed. There aren’t any handles on this pot. Are You sure that You know what You’re doing?’ There is a right way to ask God about what He is doing. This isn’t it. Isaiah’s counsel to anyone who might be tempted to speak this way is clear. ‘Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots!’ You don’t want to be critiquing Jesus. He knows what He is doing. And what are you, after all? You’re a mere creature, a clay pot. Remember that. Do you really think that you know enough to critique your Creator? Humility is in order not a critique, even when – or maybe I should say especially when – evil things happen.

Now, here’s a question that some of you might be thinking. And it goes back to that pivotal chapter, Isaiah 6. Do you remember what were those angels shouting? ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts…’ So, how can a holy Jesus create evil and stay holy? And it gets more astounding when you consider that this holy, evil creating Jesus holds us responsible for being the means by which this evil comes into play, and He does that while He remains innocent. So, what if those men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center were to say to Jesus, ‘Well, You created that evil. You can’t condemn us for it’? Do you think that will work? No, they are guilty, but He remains holy. But how can He do that? I have thought about that and here is the conclusion that I have arrived at. I have absolutely no clue how that works. But I know that it is true because that’s what the Bible says. Jesus creates evil. People become the means for this evil by the choices that they freely make. They are held accountable and yet Jesus remains holy and pure. I do not understand that. But it’s good for me – and you – to encounter things like this, things we don’t understand, things we can’t understand, about our God. It reminds us that He isn’t like us. We are finite creatures, and He is the infinite God. There are things going on in Him that are just beyond us. And that’s just the way it is. But out of that comes a sense of mystery and of awe. He really isn’t like us. And when faced with such things the only reasonable response is fearful worship and quiet submission. ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.’

The first half of my thought for this morning is simply this. Things happen. Evil things happen. And those evil things happen because Jesus makes them happen. Jesus creates evil.

The first half of the sermon is actually only a setup for the second half. It’s at this point that I want to talk about the other part of the verse, the part that says, ‘I make well-being’. Jesus also makes the good things happen. But be careful. It would be a mistake to think that sometimes Jesus causes what is evil and other times He causes what is good. No, rather the two, evil and good, are related. Jesus causes evil in order to do good. The two are tied together. When someone comes to understand this, it changes how he will respond to evil. And this is why I want you to understand what Isaiah has written. Jesus creates evil so that He can bring about well-being, so that He can bring about good – for you.

Consider Joseph. His brothers hated him. They hatched a plot against him, intending to kill him. Their greed provided a reprieve. So, he was sold into slavery and taken far from home. The next thirteen years were hell on earth for Joseph. It was evil. Jesus did that. But He brought good out of it. Remember how Joseph explained it all to his brothers? ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’ What happened to Joseph was evil. It was something that Jesus did, and He used the brothers as a means to bring it about. But while his brothers intended evil as the result, Jesus’ goal was very different. Jesus created evil here, but His goal was to bring about well being. His goal was bring about something that was very good. So, just to give one more example, if you read the end of Job you will see the same theme being expressed. Jesus caused evil in Job’s life, but the end result was so very good. In Jesus’ hands, evil and good are tied together.

Earlier in the sermon I told you that nothing just happens. Things happen because Jesus makes them happen. And you need to be thinking in those terms. Don’t adopt the way of the world that chalks up the good times to luck, or some other nonsense, and then complains when things are bad. From time to time, you will need to ask yourself, ‘What is Jesus doing in this situation?’ There will be lots of times when you won’t be able to get an answer. But just asking the question is helpful. It gives you a different perspective on the events of your life. Everyone out there in the world sees themselves in one way or other in a battle against fate or chance or whatever name they want to give it. Some have given up the battle and let themselves be carried along, trapped in various degrees of hopelessness. Some continue to fight, assuming that they can beat those unseen forces, whatever they are. But that is not your situation. When things happen they aren’t just happening. Jesus is doing something. He is doing something good for you. Jesus is at work molding you into something more beautiful than what you can imagine.

And asking that question – ‘What is Jesus doing in this situation?’ – is especially important when what you are encountering is some evil. You still might not be able to get a very specific answer, but at the least you can tell yourself, ‘This is not some odd accident. This didn’t just drop out of the blue. Jesus, my faithful Savior, has created this evil. And He is doing that to bring about some good. He is at work doing me good.’

Thinking about life in this way helps. But it’s not enough, and it’s not intended to be enough. When you are confronted by evil, particularly certain kinds of evil, dealing with it is hard. Telling yourself that your God is doing something good cannot deal with all the pain and struggle that evil brings with it. So, along with remembering that there is a good goal in all of this, you also need to remember that you do not face the evil alone. Remember that theme of Isaiah: Immanuel, God with us. Jesus doesn’t lob some evil your way while He watches from afar. He brings it to you and stands right there with you as you face it. And He is eminently qualified to stand with you. Remember that He has experienced evil also, terrible evil. Remember the Cross. Jesus knows all about dealing with evil. He understands what you are dealing with. He will guide you through the evil until you come to enjoy the good He intends. With tenderness and compassion He will get you through it. All you need to do is trust Him. Let me remind you of the question from Jesus I’ve posed before. ‘Do you trust Me now?’ Even a feeble, ‘Yes, Lord’, is good enough.

So, as you face evil, whether big or small, there are two things to hold to so that you might deal with it well. First, understand who your God really is. Jesus creates evil. He uses lots of tools to make it happen, but ultimately, He is the one doing it. The second thing to hold onto is that He is doing that evil in order to bring about some good in your life. He promises good at the end of your experience of evil. All you need do is trust Him.

No comments: