“Acts of God?”
I am finding that it is an interesting process to focus my preaching this month on the Season of Creation while I continue to follow the Scripture readings for Sundays that are set in the Revised Common Lectionary. I want to acknowledge the Anglican Communion’s resource “Preaching for God’s World” which provided some helpful information and inspiration for today’s sermon, as well as the blessing of discussing the focus text from Exodus in our Bible study earlier this week.
If you’re a regular church-goer or you went to Sunday School years ago, you probably know the story recounted in Exodus 14 quite well. It may be images from that old movie, “The Ten Commandments” with Charleton Heston as Moses that come to mind when you think of it. You see him standing there with his arm raised high over the sea, and miraculously the waters begin to part, rising up into great walls of water on two sides.
It’s a spectacular demonstration of God’s power and love for the Hebrew People. As we have been remembering over the past couple of Sundays, God heard the cries of the Hebrews as they suffered under hard labour and slavery in Egypt. God spoke to Moses, called and equipped him to lead the people out, and did all that was necessary to secure their freedom. What an amazing act of God!
When I was younger, I don’t remember asking any complicated questions about this story. It just seemed like an amazing miracle to be celebrated. But as we discussed in Bible study this week, a little deeper reflection leads to more questions than answers.
Although this “act of God” leads to the salvation of the Hebrews, it also leads to the deaths of many Egyptians. Not only do the waters rush back in, but the story has God actively tossing the Egyptian soldiers into the sea. Would it not be enough for them to be stopped in their tracks long enough for the Hebrews to escape? Why would God want to completely destroy them like that?
We might imagine that God would be hard on the Pharaoh who caused such harm to the Hebrews, but think of all those regular people serving as soldiers in his army. Think of their hopes and dreams for their future. Think of their bereaved families. Did they really deserve to be killed?
One possible way of making sense of all this is to question whether the parting of the Red Sea was an act of God at all. It certainly sounds miraculous and supernatural that such a phenomenon could occur, but might it have been a rare, but natural occurrence?
Bob Kikuyu, the Global Theology Advisor at “Christian Aid” (a relief and development agency of 41 churches together in the UK and Ireland), offers another way of thinking about the parting of the Red Sea:
“A recent computer modelling study by researchers at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research shows how the movement of wind as described in Exodus could have parted the waters. There is a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon. A strong wind, blowing hard all night could have pushed water into the two waterways, opening up a land bridge on the bend, allowing people to walk across the mud flats to safety. As soon as the wind stopped blowing, the waters would have rushed back in.”
Of course, as a person of faith, I hesitate to explain away the miracles as recorded the Scriptures. I want to believe that God does act in the world, and that the amazing thing that happened in Israel’s history was a true demonstration of God’s love and grace for the suffering and struggling people.
But if I become too certain about what was happening there – that it was God’s action to interrupt the normal patterns of nature to save one People and wipe out another, then I may get myself into dangerous theological territory. I might be tempted to look around at the chaos happening in the environment today and to conclude that God is taking action once again, whether to save, or more often, to kill.
I expect that you have heard people interpret the fires and floods, hurricanes and typhoons in that way. They speculate about why God would punish or chasten a particular group of people, and even offer judgements on their sins. It’s the same problematic theology that had people explaining the AIDS Crisis in the 1980s by saying it must be God’s judgement on homosexuals. Like some of the friends in the story of Job’s tragic losses, there are people standing around suggesting that if something bad happened to you then you must have done something to deserve it. It is God acting against you, punishing you for your misdeeds.
But, as I said last week, and I’m happy to repeat again and again: That is not the God that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. Although as human beings, we make so many mistakes and do so many wrong things, God reaches out to us, God loves us, and God forgives us again and again.
Our Gospel reading today highlights Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness, inviting his followers to learn and to practice grace towards one another and their neighbours. “How many times should I forgive?” Peter asks his teacher, and Jesus says to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Some translations say “seven times seventy times” – so many times that we cannot keep track!)
When we’re dealing with difficult relationships and people, and when we’re struggling to forgive, this is a hard teaching. But the parable reminds us that it is God who forgives us first. It is God who shows us grace. It is God who frees us from the slavery of our debts so that we can do the same for others.
And Jesus’ ministry showed so clearly that God’s love and grace was not reserved for one People in one place, with one history, culture, or religion. Rather, God desires to draw all people to God-self.
With these foundational aspects of our faith in mind, we simply cannot observe the tragic environmental events happening in our world and conclude that they are acts of God. That may still be the language used in our insurance policies when storms, winds, or floods cause damage to our properties, but we must resist the temptation to accept the idea that God acts in such destructive ways against people.
Think of the thousands of people killed in the Marrakesh Earthquake in Morocco last week. Think of even more thousands of people killed in the terrible floods in Libya this week. And if those horrendous situations seem too far away and hard to comprehend, just think of our neighbours to the West whose homes were destroyed by wildfires this summer, or our neighbours to the East who are dealing with Hurricane Lee this weekend.
We cannot accept the idea that these are the acts of God. And yet, we have to believe that our God is still active in the world. If we only believe that God created the world and then stepped back to see what we would do with it, we are bound to give up in despair.
So I want to turn back to the Exodus story once again, because I still believe that God was acting in the salvation of the Hebrew People. One of the things I notice is that God acts for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. God hears the cries of those who are suffering and struggling, and is determined to respond to their needs.
Very much like the Hebrew People who once struggled under slavery and hard labour in Egypt, there are many people suffering in our world today. Some are dealing with poverty, hunger, and homelessness because of war and strife between peoples and nations. And many others are suffering because of floods, fires, earthquakes, droughts, and other tragic impacts of climate change.
These are not the acts of God, but the acts of human beings. Collectively, we are the cause of our own suffering. But unjustly, those of us in developed countries have caused so much more damage to the Earth, while others suffer disproportionately from the impacts of our way of life.
When the researchers at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research explored how the Red Sea could have been parted, it was while they were investigating how Pacific Ocean typhoons can drive storm surges with sudden increases in water levels causing severe destruction on land.
“Increasingly strong typhoons (known as hurricanes in other parts of the world) are a result of human caused climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures super charge typhoons. As the Earth’s atmosphere warms, so does the surface temperature of the ocean. When the ocean is warmer, it increases the rate of evaporation, leading to the formation of more water vapor in the atmosphere. This additional moisture acts as fuel for typhoons, contributing to their strength and the potential for heavy rainfall.”
Another thing that I notice in the Exodus story is that God acts through people. God didn’t just swoop down, pick up the people, and plop them down in a land of freedom, a place flowing with milk and honey. God called to Moses, convinced him to get involved, and equipped him to lead the people out.
It was Moses who stood at the edge of the sea with his arms in the air all night long. It was Moses who led them on that risky journey across the mud flats and out into the new challenges of the wilderness. It would take the rest of Moses’ life to do it, and he wouldn’t even make it to the new land himself, but God would act through him and the other leaders who came alongside to work with him.
As God listened to the cries of suffering people and acted through other people to bring them out into freedom and new life, God continues to listen and to act today.
God acts through people and organizations and churches that come to the aid of the communities devastated by climate change-related events. God acts through people and countries and corporations that acknowledge our complicity in the harm being done to the Earth and who work to change our practices and assist those most affected. God acts through people and movements of people who advocate for change, like the thousands of people across Canada who marched on Friday for climate action.
May we remember and trust that God does act in our world today, and may we hear God’s voice calling us, equipping us, and strengthening us to participate in that action for the good of the world God so loves.