February 22, 2015 Reflection

1st Sunday of Lent (February 22  2015)
GOD
S LOVE IS OUR PROTECTION

BIBLE READINGS
Genesis 7:1-18
1 Peter 3:13-18

Mark 1:9-15

REFLECTION

Some people have asked me this question: Why do good people suffer or die? Is God not supposed to protect them from danger? Indeed, friends, we are often captivated by the stories of Jesus protected by the angels in the wilderness and Noah being rescued from the flood in the ark that we hope that God too would protect us if we try to be like them.

But such approach renders Christian faith a kind of amulet. Christian faith never promises protection from evil and suffering. On the contrary, suffering has always been an integral part of the history of Christianity. Christianity is built upon the sacrifice of many of its martyrs throughout its history. Following Jesus means, for many people, following him on the road of suffering.

The writer of the letter, which traditionally attributed to Peter, knew about this very well. He lived during the time of the Roman Empire. And living as Christians in that time was not easy. Roman Empire was polytheistic. It worshipped and believed in many gods. Some say that the success of the Roman Empire was because its pious citizens worshipped all of the gods, excluding none.

Christians, however, refused to worship these gods. As the result, they become an unpopular religious minority in the Empire. Every time there was a disaster like an earthquake, a flood, a famine, or a plague, people would blame the Christians. They believed that the gods were punishing the population because Christians had neglected to worship them.[1]

But the writer of the letter of 1 Peter reminded his recipients to still live as good citizens even though they were maligned. He wanted them to show to the public that they were suffering as good people and not as bad people.

No, he was not naïve to think that the Christians who received his letter would never be in danger because of their faith. He knew all too well that even though they had done the right thing, they could still be harmed. But if they suffered, they would be like Christ who suffered as a righteous person.

Indeed, their persecutors could harm their bodies, but they should not kill their spirits too; just like those who crucified Jesus could kill his body on the cross, but they could not kill his Spirit. Their spirits must belong to God and God only.

True victory would happen when those Christians held on to their faith and hope and good conduct. True victory would happen when they didnt lose their integrity, even though their bodies were destroyed.

Indeed, friends, we are protected from evil not when we are not affected by it, but when our lives are not contaminated by it. We are protected from evil when we choose to repay evil not with evil, but with love and kindness and mercy; when we choose not to follow the evil path of the world, but the path of love; when we can still have our integrity when we come face to face with the power of evil in the world.

On the cross, Jesus too was faithful to the end. The power of evil could kill his body, but it was defeated by his integrity and faithfulness.

Kayla Mueller was a young American woman who became one of the latest victims of the violence in Syria. She was taken captive by ISIS after she left a hospital ran by the Doctors Without Border in Aleppo, Syria, in August 2013, days before her 25th birthday.

During her time in captivity, she somehow managed to send a letter to her family back in the US. In her letter, she said nothing negative about her captors. She told her family that she was unharmed, healthy (she had put on weight in fact), and had been treated with utmost respect and kindness.

And then she said that two things had kept her spirits up: her memory of her family and her faith in God. She wrote,

 I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you  really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no-one else. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one  can be free.[2]

Kayla Mueller was killed by a Jordanian airstrike while she was still in ISIS captivity in Syria. Her courage and faith have inspired many people around the world.

Indeed, friends, evil is not going to be defeated by bombs or bullets. Bombs and bullets can kill the people who perpetrate evil, but evil itself can only be defeated by the kind of sacrificial love and integrity shown by Jesus on the cross and Kayla Mueller in Syria.

Friends, I believe it was his integrity and righteousness, not necessarily the ark, that protected Noah and his family from destruction. Listening again to their story, we are often mesmerised only by the story of the destruction caused by the great flood. But the story of Noahs ark is not only a story about death and judgment and destruction; it was also a story about Gods protection of a particular family.

When the narrator introduces us to Noah, we are told that he was a righteous man, blameless; a man who walked with the Lord (Genesis 6:9). In other words, just like Jesus, he was a man that pleased God (Genesis 6:8).

In stark contrast, the narrator told us that the world where Noah lived was corrupt and full with violence (Genesis 6:11). In other words, just like the early Christian communities, Noah and his family lived under intense pressure from those whose lifestyle and values were different from them. But they found favour in Gods sight; and Gods favour was the real ark that protected them long before the physical ark was built.

So the story of Noahs ark can indeed be a metaphor of our own life. Those who walk with the Lord; those who follow the way of the Lord are indeed like those within the ark. A great flood may come and threaten their life, but the ark would simply rise with the water and float on the face of it.

Of course, it doesnt mean that if we follow God, than we will never die drowning. Trust me, even though you have been Christians for many years, you still need to learn how to swim (Im reminding myself here).

Following Gods way doesnt mean that we will never suffer. Yet those whose hope is in God will experience what Kayla Mueller described in her letter: they would be cradled in their free-fall. A great flood may be raging around them, but they would be safe within the ark of Gods love.

One evening, Nancy C. Todd and her husband were feeding her mother in law who was suffering from Alzheimers Disease, which had taken over her mind and body completely. For months, she couldnt speak words that they could understand and didnt know who they were.

That evening, however, as Nancy sat next to her, she sang softly to her ears, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Suddenly, her mother in laws face brightened as she nodded her head and said in a very clear voice, Yes, thats right.

The disease could ravage her body, but deep in her souls, Jesus love still sustained her.[3] Her disease could not destroy one spiritual truth: God loved her, not matter what. And she knew this.

Friends, listen again to Gods words during Jesus baptism in our reading in Marks Gospel:

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well    pleased (Mark 1:11     NRSV).

These words were addressed to Jesus personally and not to the crowd who were present there. These words were the assurance that Jesus needed as he began his ministry to confront the power of Evil in the world, manifested through the work of Satan in the desert. These words were the assurance that would later give him the strength to face the power of Evil on the cross. This assurance from God was Jesus true protection. The angels who served him in the desert were simply the manifestation of this assurance.

Friends, true protection from God comes not in the form of protection from physical danger. True protection from God is manifested in the assurance that no matter what happens, we are Gods children, Gods beloved, with whom God is well pleased. True protection comes when we can still proclaim this even in the face of evil and suffering in the world.

Amen.

[1] Avril Hannah-Jones, Christianity in the 21st Century, The Doctrine Working Group, National Assembly of UCA (2014), p. 20.

[2] Meghan Keneally, Kayla Mueller: American ISIS Captive Wrote Letter to Family before Her Death, on www.abcnews.go.com (February 10 2015, 10:56 AM ET).

[3] Nancy C. Todd, Jesus Loves Me, a devotion on The Upper Room, a ministry of GBOD (2015)