“When Disaster Hits” - August 18, 2019

II Kings 17:5-8, 18-20


            The writer of II Kings was very matter-of-fact when he reported the destruction of the kingdom of Israel.

“Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.  In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria.  He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”  [II Kings 17:5-6]

He also gives a very simplistic explanation for how Israel had gone from one great kingdom under David and Solomon, breaking apart into two kingdoms after Solomon’s death in 922 B.C., and then being swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire two centuries later.

“This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.”  [II Kings 17:7-8]

That left, he said, only the kingdom of Judah, the land around Jerusalem.  That southern kingdom, however, was on the same track and would fall in 150 years to the Babylonians who had taken over the Assyrian Empire by then.

            The people who lived through all of this were not as calm about it nor did they see the reasons as being so cut-and-dry.  We don’t know that directly from the people who were enslaved when Samaria fell, because they were intentionally scattered around the lands to the east.  They disappeared into time.  We refer to them, if at all, as the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Their homeland was resettled by strangers who knew nothing of them nor of the God they worshiped.

            From the people of the southern kingdom, though, we know a great deal.  Some of the northerners had fled south, and had taken with them the record of warnings that had been given to them by prophets like Hosea and Amos, warnings that had been mostly ignored.  To these the southerners had added the words of their own prophets, especially a man named Jeremiah, who was there at the end, when Jerusalem fell the way that Samaria had done.  He had survived because he was carried away by a group of refugees who ran from Jerusalem at the last possible moment, like the von Trappes escaped Austria or Einstein was rescued from Switzerland.

            Jeremiah survived to write a book we now call Lamentations.  It is a brutal description of what happened to Jerusalem and its people, and it puts into words the thoughts and emotions of anyone who has struggled with the disappointment that comes from suffering and who is angry with God.  Hear what he had to say (and this is only part of it):

“We have transgressed and rebelled,

and you have not forgiven. 

You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,

killing without pity; 

you have wrapped yourself with a cloud

so that no prayer can pass through.

You have made us filth and rubbish

among the peoples. 

All our enemies

have opened their mouths against us; 

panic and pitfall have come upon us,

devastation and destruction. 

My eyes flow with rivers of tears

because of the destruction of my people. 

My eyes will flow without ceasing,

without respite, 

until the Lord from heaven

looks down and sees. 

My eyes cause me grief

at the fate of all the young women in my city. 

Those who were my enemies without cause

have hunted me like a bird; 

they flung me alive into a pit

and hurled stones on me; 

water closed over my head;

I said, ‘I am lost.’”  [Lamentations 3:42-54]

 Bitter?  You bet, and with good reason.

            So why keep his words?  Why preserve the thoughts of someone who one minute pays lip-service to the standard explanation for disaster – that somehow the people deserved it – but who really doesn’t accept that and the next moment is accusing God himself of betrayal?  I’ll suggest two reasons.

            First: because it’s honest.  People really feel this way.  If you have never been there, you are truly blessed or truly oblivious.  We all start out with the notion that good actions lead to good results.  Virtue is rewarded and vice is punished.  (With the accompanying belief that says if you are rewarded, you must be on God’s side and if you are not, then you must have done something wrong.)  As you mature, though, you should begin to question that.  Guilty people go free and innocent people do jail time.  There are fights between thugs and bystanders get killed.  Bombs drop on civilians.  People get sick for no reason.  On and on. 

            The second reason is more important.  If you are screaming at God about the unfairness of life and the injustice of the world and the pain people go through, then you are still in relationship with God.  You may be raging, but deep down you have not given up on God and deep down you believe that God has not given up on you.  You believe that there has got to be a reason or an explanation why a God you know is merciful and kind either causes or allows any of this.  It’s in that struggle that the strongest faith is born, because it is the opposite of indifference.  I’m not saying that God intentionally does this to teach us painful lessons – don’t get me wrong.  I’m saying that God can and does bring good things out of the worst, and that he does that just because, when all is said and done, he is God and we are not.

            The one thing I am not saying is that there is one, simple, clear answer.  God is complicated and the world is complicated and we are complicated.  If I cannot understand myself, how can I understand God?  This is not a cop-out.  This is a recognition of reality, which includes human limitation and helplessness.  When tragedy strikes, personal or national or worldwide, that limitation not only becomes obvious, it becomes painful.

            Healing comes with holding on.  The northern kingdom gave up, and was no more.  The southern kingdom held on, and lamented and cried and questioned, and was restored.  It took a generation or more, and the restoration brought a changed and chastened people with lasting scars on their souls, yet they eventually rebuilt their city and their land and found a richer relationship to the God whom they came to know as a Suffering Servant and a Savior as well as a mighty warrior king.

            It works that way across human experience.  William Sloane Coffin, for many years a chaplain at Yale and later the senior pastor of Riverside Church in New York, had a son named Alex who got drunk one night and ended up driving his car off the road into Boston Harbor, where he drowned.  Coffin was desolate.  He wrote,

“The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank…”[1]

He writes, though, of another reality that stands next to that one.

“‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yes, but at least, ‘My God, my God”; and the psalm doesn’t end that way.  As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the ‘right’ [and he puts that in quotation marks] biblical passages are beginning to take hold: ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall strengthen thee’; ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning’; ‘Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong’; for thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling’; ‘In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’; ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’”[2]

[1] William Sloane Coffin, “Epilogue: Alex’s Death” in The Courage to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 95.

[2] Ibid., 97-98.