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Living with a Gracious God in a Random World
Dr. Rev. Warner Bailey
April 19, 2020

Ecclesiastes 9:7-12, 17-18  Matthew 16:1-4   1 Peter 1:3-9

April 19, 2020

We are all looking for a sign of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, a glimmer of something to hang on to.  We are all looking for a sign that we’re going to be safe, that a vaccine will be found so that graduating college seniors can pick up the pieces of their shattered futures and start again, that we can return to work safely.  We are all desperately seeking a sign from heaven. 

Where is that something to staunch the flow of strength draining out from us as we are tossed about by a current of dread running rampant?  Something that is clear, simple, direct, and not confusing.  Something that puts a stop to the chaotic random world in which we are caged. 

As a teacher of the Bible who is also a pastor, I am very sorry to disappoint you.  The Bible assumes the fact of a random world.  How clearer could the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes be? “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

Jesus himself recognizes the randomness built into our world in several instances – his comment on how a man’s blindness cannot be traced to either his sin or his parents (John 9:1-3), for example, or how those who perished in the fall of tower of Siloam were no more nor less sinful than anyone else (Luke 13:4).  God’s sun shines on the just and the unjust; God’s rain does not pick and choose where to fall (Matthew 5:45). 

Jesus refuses to grant a sign from heaven.  We will have no sign from heaven from him that we can use to outwit the way our lives are encompassed by random uncertainty, no sign to give us inside knowledge.  I know this seems cruel to hear, but Jesus is simply acknowledging the fact that he is not going to change the world God created out of a soup of chaos; that world has hard-wired into it chance and uncertainty.  It is this very world, which has wild cards of randomness baked into it, this very world that God pronounced as very good. 

A moment’s reflection would tell you that the coronavirus—for all of the monstrous devastation it is causing—is part of that good creation.  The virus has been here all along “biding its time” until this current eruption has brought it to prominence.  It is simply “doing its thing.”

It is true that we have some measure of control over this earth, yet, we are inextricably part of the entire web of creation and are affected by the natural randomness of all its parts.

I want us to sit with this reality for a moment.  I want us to let it sink in, because quite a number of folk hold to a different view of chance and uncertainty.  They believe that the realm of sin and evil are responsible for the chance and uncertainty that catches us off-guard.  This includes the virus which causes us so much pain. In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on March 26, 2020, Michael Quinn Sullivan, leader of the influential and conservative Empower Texans organization tweeted this: “We live in a fallen, sinful world. One result of which is we get sick and die. It’s either going to be from some crazy virus, or a distracted bus driver when I am crossing the street. Either way, are we so scared of dying we are willing to give up living?”  He is making this statement in reference to his displeasure over the state’s closure of businesses.

Here he claims that random and arbitrary sickness and death do come from living in a fallen and sinful world, and we cannot do anything to change it.  Yet, all is not lost, he says.  Because our fate is so inevitable and because we cannot do anything about it, Sullivan says we should stop wasting our time trying to prevent it.  Instead embrace your helplessness, and in an act of defiance, do whatever you want to do.  He reports that a lot of people agree with his position of let us be free to live like we want to until we get caught by chance or bad luck.

Sullivan’s position is at odds with what I have shared with you out of the theology that informs the Presbyterian Church.  Our church does not subscribe to a never-ending battle between good and evil in which we are caught up as fish in a net.  Our church does not subscribe to the view that this virus is evil and can be exorcised out of our lives.  Our church does not advocate a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to being a neighbor or a citizen.  Our church looks to Jesus for how a gracious God lives in a random world.  And Jesus gives us a clue on how God does that in our gospel lesson for today.  “I give you,” he says, “the sign of Jonah.”

Jonah, it may be remembered, was the prophet who didn’t want to fulfill his mission to warn the citizens of Nineveh of God’s wrath to come if they did not repent.  Jonah balked at his commission because he thought God ought to destroy Nineveh for the way it oppressed his own country of Israel.  He fled from going to Nineveh by boarding a ship to take him in the opposite direction.  But a storm came up, and in order to save the ship, Jonah was thrown overboard.  He was swallowed by a giant fish and after three days vomited out alive on the shore of Nineveh!

Properly chastened, he went on to fulfill his mandate of warning Nineveh, and he was thoroughly chagrined by instant and unanimous repentance.  This caused him to “pitch a fit”, to become petulant and argumentative with God, and he spat back in God’s face how disappointed he was in God. (Jonah 4:2-4)

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, [would happen]? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

By calling up the sign of Jonah, I do not think that Jesus is referring to Jonah’s three-day captivity in the belly of the great fish and subsequent depositing on dry land.  Jesus is not giving us a tip-off of his coming death, descent into Hell, and subsequent resurrection.  Rather, Jesus gives us the sign of Jonah as a pointer to who he is as God who comes to live with us in this world shot through with chance and uncertainty. Look at what I am showing you of our powerful God! Jesus is saying.  Look at how I am gracious, compassionate, abounding in forbearance and love.  The sign of Jonah is God who in Jesus Christ wants to free-up all who are lost.  God penetrated the hearts of the most hateful of persons in Nineveh, as well goaded the innards of a giant fish, as well as got to what was eating at the heart of his prophet. This God softens the hearts of the most hateful as well as sickens the stomach of a giant fish as well as gently remakes the spirit of Jonah by asking, “Why are you so angry?” 

The randomness of life and the powerful graciousness of God are the two poles Jesus lived between, and we live between all the time.  In the midst of a world whose DNA contains randomness and uncertainty, Jesus enacts the sign of Jonah.  Jonah points to him as God on earth who puts power into practice by being gracious in the midst of uncertainty.   The sign of Jonah reveals Jesus Christ, the God who is full of grace and power to save from the abyss, to offer another chance, and to remake us, starting with that which is the hardest to reach, our anger.

Oriented by this sign, we launch out as Presbyterian Christians in full trust in God whose graciousness, compassion, forbearance and abounding love knows no limits.  Trusting in that God, we do what nature always does in order to survive, that is, to practice adaptation.

Adaptation is fundamental to survival.  To be sure, adaptation means the search for a vaccine in order to counter the harmful aspects of the virus.  Fortunately, a world-wide web of research is vigorously engaged in that search.  However, we do not know when that tool will become available.  But before that day comes, other challenging adaptations will be required of us.  Here are some examples:

As a mark of our trust in a gracious God, we will have to change our ways and become a nation much more tightly bound together by practicing social behaviors that are caring for the common good.  That means social distancing, not hoarding, and insisting that there be a safety net for everybody whom this monstrous disease has harmed.

We will have to set aside, at least temporarily, the way we think long-term about our careers and focus instead on what we are situated to do at this moment in order to help.

We will have to re-apply ourselves to naming and engaging fundamental moral questions within our lives.  Trusting in God, can you say you are content with the life you have lived thus far if this virus kills you?  Does your trust in God give you spiritual and relational resources to get you through the traumas of this virus?  If not, what steps will you take to shore up your trust in God’s graciousness, compassion, forbearance and abounding love that knows no limits.?

Holding on to Jesus, we embrace living in new ways in these times of testing.  We are connecting with great creativity across distancing with song and dance.  Our relationships are being forged tighter under the twin pressures of mutual dread and mutual help.  Can you imagine emerging with a stronger self out of the death throes of the anxiety and trauma of these days?  How deep does your anchor go into the deep structures of life which provide you stamina like you have never used before?  Can you see with searing clarity how everyone is at risk if everyone does not have access to health care?  What can you do to keep the blue sky over our heads?  When we come out of this, it is possible that by taming this invisible monster of coronavirus we are giving birth to a better world.