We could start this sermon virtually anywhere. We could begin with the wailing women in Pharaoh’s Egypt, lamenting their massacred Hebrew babies, even as little Moses floats serenely in his boat of bulrushes. We could begin in New York City on the eleventh day of September, 2001, with jets crashing into skyscrapers, and office workers leaping to their deaths, with crumbling towers snuffing thousands of lives, including those who had rushed into the buildings to save lives. Or we could begin in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus’ birth, with parents lamenting the small scale holocaust wrought by Herod’s henchmen upon their little ones, even as baby Jesus, his parents, and the wise men slipped silently to safe havens. We could even start in the mists before time when God pronounced benediction upon creation and called it very good, even as God defined the divine self as allowing volatility in the entire created order and allowing humanity the freedom to rebel against God’s will and create horrendous bad within the framework of that good creation. Wherever we start, we must face a stark juxtaposition that runs throughout the history of God’s activity in creation: God seems to work in creation to save and redeem and rescue and deliver some people. Yet God also seems to ignore and abandon and turn a blind eye to others overwhelmed by destructive forces. Some people seem to hear clearly God’s trumpet of deliverance, while some people hear that trumpet as a muffled call that eventually beckons them to safety — and some people never hear the trumpet of deliverance at all. We must ask the question: why does the trumpet of deliverance sound for some and not for others? What do we think of God when the trumpet of deliverance doesn’t sound?
A word of explanation is in order. This summer I preached a sermon entitled, “Lost and Found,” in which I told the story of losing my way in the wilderness of the Talladega National Forest. I not only lost the right trail, I actually lost the ten kids I was supposed to be leading on a wilderness adventure — one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I finally managed to find my kids; but I never managed to find the right trail, and as dusk descended on a long, miserable fruitless day, an unwanted light drizzle began to anoint us, and I was preparing to bed the kids down in pine straw. As a final, quiet, desperate measure, I led the kids in a prayer that God would somehow show us the way home. I had hardly finished the Amen when we heard the sound of a trumpet. We instantly recognized it as the trumpet that called the main camp to supper, and we leaped up to run in the direction of the sound. We hadn’t run more than a hundred yards before seeing a street light that marked the outskirts of the main camp. Somehow, we had wandered the wrong way around the mountain and arrived within shouting distance of home. But after we had done all that we could, after our strength had failed us, we had asked God for deliverance — and a trumpet and a light brought us home.
Contrast that story with another camping trip, this one a river rafting trip with my Charlotte church at the Apple Tree Group Camp. After we had enjoyed a great day on the river and a wonderful meal at our campsite, one couple mentioned they were going to take a little walk and burn a few calories. They were healthy, intelligent folks, and most of us took no notice of their departure. But about 10 p.m. one of my youth sidled up to me and said, “Dr. Kremer, I don’t think the Hicks have returned from their walk.” Shortly thereafter we sent search teams in five different directions, two to a team, no team to go more than 45 minutes out, lest we lose more people in the darkness. Periodically, we would stop and scream, “Scott!!! Kimberly!!!” We heard nothing but dead silence. It was a sad and somber group who gathered back around the campfire at midnight. We gathered to pray that God might deliver Scott and Kimberly back to us soon. Meanwhile, a hopelessly disoriented Scott and Kimberly stopped their desperate search for the right path, quieted themselves and prayed for deliverance, too. But no trumpet sounded. No immediate deliverance was forthcoming. Everyone lay down with heavy and anxious hearts, most of us in the comfort of our tents, while Scott and Kimberly slept fitfully among rocks and weeds, thinking of snakes and bears.
As I lay in the tent that night, I couldn’t help but compare the two situations. Weren’t the prayers we had offered around that campfire and the prayers uttered by Scott and Kimberly as sincere and heartfelt as the prayers offered by those children and me amidst the pine straw? Yet deliverance for those children and me had come instantly through the sound of the trumpet. Scott and Kimberly remained undelivered in the dark. Yes, deliverance came for them the next morning in the form of our camp host, who happened to find Scott and Kimberly walking along the highway in the wrong direction and brought them back to us safe and sound. But there are many people for whom God’s deliverance does not seem to come at all.
The late Dr. Frank Tupper, professor of systematic theology at Wake Forest Divinity, was my great friend and mentor, and I watched him lose his young wife Betty at age 40 to an extended battle with breast cancer, leaving behind two young children. Dr. Tupper spent his professional career pondering the question of how God provides for the human community – all of the human community. Not long after his wife’s death, Frank was called by a former student who told him that he was dying of cancer, too. The student asked a vital and terrible question, “Dr. Tupper, I need to know, is God arbitrary? Is God truly consistent in God’s dealings with all people? Does God love some people more than others? Does God love the people who experience healing more than those of us who are going to succumb to our disease? Does God not care enough for me to make me well?” Dr. Tupper’s answer came out of the depths of his own anguished heart: “No, my friend. God loves us all. God is not arbitrary with us. God is actively engaged in all of our lives. Indeed, God does the most that God can for us in every situation to bring us to a positive end. Sometimes that means that we are healed. Sometimes it doesn’t.” In Betty’s case, God did all God could and Betty died. So, too, did this man.
Those astrologers we call the wise man saw a celestial sign announcing that God’s Anointed One had been sent to earth as a divine gift. They came to Jerusalem expecting to find general excitement over the great event, only to discover that only they had recognized this heavenly herald of God’s activity. Unfortunately, they then consulted the vicious and paranoid King Herod, a foolish thing to do, thereby unwittingly introducing an element of tragedy into this story. If God was going to warn the magi about Herod, why didn’t God do it before they reached Jerusalem? Maybe God did; maybe they missed the guidance of the Spirit. Maybe God’s Spirit was working in the life of Herod to try to move him to worship the Christ rather than suppress him. But Herod was free to resist the Spirit’s encouragement and free to unleash violence upon the children of Bethlehem. Yes, the story of the wise men is wonderful in one sense; it is a story of courageous faith, joy, worship and epiphany. But the magi’s engagement of Herod’s interest also introduced a horrific element into this event, a violence that the wise men did not have to suffer. The magi and Mary and Joseph slipped out of town safely. But God allowed Herod’s henchmen to initiate a slaughter. Did God love baby Jesus more than he loved the other baby boys of Bethlehem? No. I think Dr. Tupper’s insight is true: God was actively involved in those babies’ lives, too, but God’s loving initiative in this instance was countered and frustrated by the paranoia and hatred and insecurity of the despotic Herod. In this horrible story we see the tragic interplay of divine redemptive activity and human viciousness.
There are some who hold to the notion that God has absolute power, that God can do whatever God wants, whenever God wants. But this conception of God does not come from the Scripture. Where is the truest disclosure of God’s nature revealed? On the cross at Golgotha. Jesus’ critics, arrayed around the cross as he suffers, say to him. ‘Show us your God of power. If your so-called heavenly Father is powerful enough to take you off the cross, then we will believe in your God.’ But instead God gives us a Savior who hangs on the cross in excruciating suffering, in creative, redemptive, vulnerable love. That is the God revealed to us through the Scriptures. On the cross God renounced the image of God as a God of absolute power. On the cross God disclosed God’s nature as creative and redemptive and suffering love, working through human events, working through those open to God’s will and those opposed to it, working even through moments of violence, hatred and destruction, to turn all of history toward an ultimate redemptive purpose.
If there was some formula we could recite, some doctrinal prescription we could follow that would guarantee our enjoying God’s protection, such security would be wonderful on one level – but our faith would not be faith. If there was some ritual we could perform to guarantee God’s automatic deliverance of us from all harm, that would be wonderful in one sense, but it would mean our faith would not be a true trust in the Divine. Sometimes God so works in human history that we hear the trumpet sound of deliverance clearly. Sometimes God so works that we hear the trumpet sound in muffled fashion, but are thereby led to safety. Sometimes deliverance doesn’t come to us at all, yet God is always working in our lives to assure us that we are never separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Some years ago, a PBS special about the tragic day of 9/11/01 featured a man who asserted that his faith had been shattered because he was convinced that God should have reached down and diverted those planes away from the World Trade Center towers. God should have blinded those terrorists. God should have upheld those towers until the rescue workers led everyone to safety. Because God could have done these things and did not, God, in his opinion, was no longer worthy of worship. Note how this man’s concept of God is a concept far removed from the concept of God revealed in Christ. Far more accurate was the artist who expressed his understanding of where God was on 9/11/01 by using mangled metal extracted from the carnage to create a crucifix, symbolic of God’s Presence even amidst great heartbreak.
That same PBS special featured a man who knew he had experienced the deliverance of God. He talked of seeing one of those great jets come crashing into the floor of his workplace, and the very wing of the craft came within twenty feet of him. He felt the transcendent power of God give him the power to break through a wall and flee to safety. And though he knew that God had given him a great gift of life, though he knew that God had granted him the very power of deliverance, this man remained angry at God. He remained angry at God about all those who didn’t make it out to safety. He had a right to be angry. Those mothers in Egypt lamenting the loss of their children had a right to be angry. The parents of those slain babies in Bethlehem had a right to be angry. Yet it is also essential to remember that God grieves with those mothers in Egypt and those parents in Bethlehem, and those who lost loved ones on 9/11 – and God grieves with all of us in our sorrow and anguish and distress. God always does what God can to move our lives and all of creation in a positive direction. Yes, God has created a world where tyrants can rise to power, and evil can reign for a season, and the energy of injustice and destruction can appear to be supreme – but those are never God’s final answers. God will always move to bring light out of darkness and good out of evil and a positive purpose even out of the most horrendous of circumstances. God does what God can to move all of our lives and all of creation forward.
Everyone has certain stories upon which their faith is founded. This is one of mine. Dr. Tupper’s wife Betty was a practical, matter-of-fact person. As she neared death, she did not pray to God for healing, but she begged God for deliverance from her anger and her fear. She was angry that far too early in life she had to take leave of her husband and her children. She was afraid of death, afraid of feeling as if she had wasted her existence. She had asked God not for healing, but to take away her fear of dying. One morning, as she sat at her desk in prayer, to her utter surprise and amazement, she felt herself enveloped by and uplifted by the Spirit of God. In the bliss of that moment, she knew herself to be in the Presence of God. Suddenly, she heard a strange and unexpected sound. She heard the sound of children laughing. It was a usual weekday morning, the neighborhood kids were in school, but she rose and went to the window to confirm that the streets were empty. Then she realized, she was hearing the sound of children laughing ‘on the other side.’ She was hearing the sound of children laughing on the other side of death, laughing in the portals of heaven. A great and indescribable peace swept over her. She told her husband that afternoon, “Frank, whether I leave you now or later, it will be okay. I will never be fearful of dying again. For I have now heard children laughing on the other side of death.”
God did not deliver Betty from death by cancer. But God did deliver her from a sense of meaninglessness and fear. God delivered to her a sense of peace and granted her the assurance that she would enjoy the laughter of children amidst the heavenly host.
Sometimes, my friends, God so works that we hear the trumpet sound of deliverance clearly. Sometimes we hear the muffled sound of the trumpet that grants us enough direction to make our way to safety. And sometimes we don’t hear the trumpet of deliverance at all. But we can live with this assurance: God is actively at work in our lives, whether we know it or not, whether we can sense it or not, to bring us ultimately toward God’s ultimate Presence of joy.