Where Is God In All Of This?
As I have watched this brutal war against the Ukrainian people over the past three weeks, I have felt sadness, shock and anger and helplessness. When I saw that woman who was within hours of delivering her baby being carried out of a bombed out maternity hospital (she and her baby later died); when I saw that elderly woman, barely able to put one foot in front of another, being helped through the rubble of what used to be her home, by a compassionate soldier; when I saw that little 5-year-old boy crying his heart out as he plodded along behind his mother who was carrying his little sister, I could not help but cry along with him.
And I suspect that you too have been heart-broken over Russia’s cruel, criminal invasion of Ukraine and the indescribable suffering it has caused. And we ask ourselves, how can human beings, created in the image of God, do such inhuman acts against their human brothers and sisters?
Last Sunday, a woman told me, “I feel helpless. What can we Christians do? Where is God in all of this?”
And that question is one we followers of Jesus need to look at. What does the Bible have to say about situations like this?
Let’s look at a scene from a time long, long ago and a place far, far away. It is a scene that could take place today in Ukraine. A man comes out of his little mud house and starts to climb the steep hill that overlooks a city in ruins. Thunder rumbles overhead, (or today could it be bombs?) Lightning flashes around him, (or could it be missiles?) Rain pelts his face and soaks his thin garment, (or could it be shrapnel and blood?) Oblivious to the elements, he climbs until he can climb no more. He looks defiantly up into the heavens, shakes his fist and utters a terrible cry:
“Where are you, God?
Why don’t you rip open the heavens and come down?
We rotted in that God-forsaken Babylon for decades.
We’ve come back here to desolation and destruction.
Our land is overrun by rabble.
Your house is a pile of rubble.
We are surrounded by enemies on every side.
Why don’t you come? You used to come!
You saved us when we were hemmed in on every side.
You came …you came, and you did awesome deeds!
But where are you now?
Why won’t you rip open the heavens and come down?”
Friends, over the past three weeks you and I have heard such lament from the people of Ukraine. On TV, we have seen Ukrainians on their knees in subway tunnels, in bomb shelters and in churches, crying out to God to come down and bring this unspeakable suffering and violence and destruction to an end.
Theirs is a cry of lament that you and I could be shouting to the heavens today. Surely God calls us to join the Ukrainian people in that lament; to share in their suffering and their anger.
Lament is a cry from the heart, a cry that arises out of a deep sense of being abandoned by God, a gut-wrenching conviction that the way things ARE is not the way things OUGHT TO BE.
But after lament, then what?
That woman last Sunday said, “I can’t do anything but pray.” She seemed to be saying that prayer is not going to make any difference. I agree that prayer is not enough, but let’s not underestimate the power of prayer. It can, and it does, make a difference. The Bible is full of stories about the difference prayer makes. Jesus prayed much and often, and he tells us to pray. Paul instructs us to pray constantly, because it does make a difference.
We can pray for Ukraine, but the tough question for me is, “How can I pray for Putin?” Well, I pray that somehow God will work in that man’s heart and mind and turn him towards peace and cooperation with his neighbours.
But there is a biblical word here that he needs to hear and we should not ignore.
Come with me once again to that far-away place on a different day.
We are at the city gate of the ancient city of Jerusalem. This is a very busy place, a place where big business deals are made, the place where the king issues new decrees, where judges hold court, where traders negotiate prices for their goods.
Today is a normal day. Some people are shopping, some arguing over politics, some drinking tea, some complaining about quack prophets getting in the way of profits, some crying over the injustices loaded on to the poor, and some homeless folk asking for a handout. A normal day.
But we are hoping to see some excitement at the city gate today. And we are not disappointed. Suddenly, a man in the rough clothes of a farmer jumps up on a box and calls out in a loud voice, “The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem!”
At first, people pay little attention to this uncultured quack from the sticks. But they perk up their ears when he starts calling down judgment on Israel’s neighbours. He goes into a list of condemnations and coming punishments.
“For 3 transgressions of Damascus and for 4, I will not revoke the punishment; for they have pounded Gilead with sledges of iron, (or could it be with bombs raining down from the sky?)
For 3 transgressions of Gaza and for 4, I will not revoke the punishment; for they have carried entire communities into exile in Edom (or could it be millions of refugees into Poland?)
For 3 transgressions of Tyre and for 4, I will not revoke the punishment; for they have broken the covenant of kinship (or could it be the international treaties and conventions that Russia has broken?)
For 3 transgressions of Edom, and for 4, I will not revoke the punishment, for he has pursued his brother with the sword (or could it be that he has pursued his brother with convoys of tanks?)
For 3 transgressions of the Ammonites and for 4, I will not revoke the punishment, for they have ripped open pregnant women in Gilead in order to enlarge their territory (or could it be that they have killed pregnant women in maternity hospitals and chased millions out of their homes in order to enlarge their territory?)
This list of the transgressions of neighbours against their neighbours in ancient Palestine bears a frightening similarity to the transgressions of Russia against its neighbour today. And what we must note is that each one of these transgressions and their punishment begins with these alarming words, “Thus says the Lord God”.
In other words, God notices what is going on. God is aware of these atrocities committed by neighbour against neighbour in those long-ago times. And today too, God sees, and God cares, and there are consequences. Russia is already suffering many of the consequences of its invasion, and there are more to come.
Is that what we pray then for Russia? More punishment? I don’t think so, because it is the innocent people of Russia who will suffer most of the consequences. Over 15,000 of them have already been arrested because they dared to stand against Putin’s war. What we can pray for is that Putin and his accomplices will be stopped and brought to justice. We can pray that Russian government leaders and military commanders will stand up and say, “Enough! President Putin is leading our country into isolation and disaster, and we must stop him!”
But what else can we do?
We can give. People are starving for lack of food; people are dying for lack of medical supplies; people are freezing for lack of clothing and blankets. We can give to meet those needs. There are trustworthy organizations that are asking for funds, and one of them is our own Presbyterian World Service which is receiving funds to provide emergency assistance to the people of Ukraine through the alliance called Action by Churches Together, and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. So let us open our chequebooks and give to ease the suffering of God’s children.
I certainly don’t have all the answers to the question of where God is in all of this but this I can say with conviction.
God has not abandoned her children.
God sees the brutal treatment of innocent people, and God will ease their pain.
God sees the tears of mothers clinging to their babies as their husbands go back to fight for their land, and God shares those tears.
God sees the incredible courage and loyalty of the Ukrainian people, and God will strengthen their hands.
God sees the love, compassion and generosity of those who welcome refugees into their land and their homes, and God will support them.
Let us remember this. There was a day, indeed many days, when God did rip open the heavens and come down to rescue his people.
A night came when God opened the heavens and a great chorus sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to those of good will.”
And the day came when death did its damnedest, but God ripped the curtain of the temple from top to bottom and the wall between God and humanity came tumbling down.
And the morning came when God rolled away the stone and ripped asunder the bonds of death.
So, my friends, don’t hesitate to join that man on the hilltop in his cry of lament. “O Lord, why don’t you rip open the heavens and come down and save your children? Let us too cry out on behalf of our suffering, sobbing, battling, hoping and praying brothers and sisters in Ukraine.
I ask you now to listen to a song that was written for such a time as this. It is called “The prayer of the children.” It is sung here by a children’s choir in Australia. In order that you will be able to understand the words clearly, they are printed on an insert in your bulletin. Please hear and pray along with the children.
And God might well answer our lament by putting us to work in answering that prayer. Amen