There’s this ugly—sometimes coarse, sometimes fine—thread that runs throughout all of history. It reaches as far back as people have been asking the age-old question: “Why do bad things happens—not just to good people, BUT AT ALL?” This thread—a strand by which some hang their hopes for clarity and meaning, and for countless others a cord that binds them in its burdensome conjecture—is woven in the belief that when some atrocity takes place, no matter what or how, it is God’s doing: a divine response to an evil humanity. Various tribes and peoples in early history looked upon natural disasters that took place as being the result of an angry god or gods. Martin Luther, himself, interpreted particular threats, wars, and diseases as being means by which God was punishing unfaithful or rebellious people. Even today, we hear those on the television and online who use tragedy as a lens by which to suggest that God is punishing a certain group through the disaster befallen upon them.
When I was in my first year of seminary, in January of 2010, three seniors were in Haiti during the earthquake that killed one of them whom I knew personally alongside a hundred thousand other locals. In the days that followed, I remember hearing online the fanatical Pat Robertson boldly explain that the disaster was none other than God’s punishment on the people there for being devil worshippers. Robertson had not only walked near blasphemy, but held it high over his head as he trod on the graves of the victims of the earthquake—disgracing both their memory and mourning families. Again this past week, on his show “The 700 Club” Pat Robertson tried to justify the atrocity that took place last Sunday night in Las Vegas as a gunman reigned down terror upon a crowd at a country music concert—killing 59 people and wounding hundreds others. Instead of speaking honestly about what happened, Robertson blamed it not on the individual or even gun legislation but rather on our nation’s collective disrespect towards President Trump, the American flag, and God. Grasping for straws in the most heinous of ways, this televangelist pointed at the most preposterous reasons to try and legitimize something that has no answer. Time and time again, false prophets, such as Pat Robertson, will try to reason away why something horrible has happened, saying God did it or allowed it to happen because…[and insert absurd unChristian remark]. The Israelites were no strangers to this way of thinking about God and tragedies. The difference in their context, however, was that it was done out of religious fear and awe instead of condemnation and self-righteousness. For them, if and when something bad took place on a major scale—whether it was a famine or invasion by a foreign enemy—it was always seen as being connected with the people’s unfaithfulness to God or disregard of those among them who were in need.
It is out of this very context that we hear the prophet Isaiah’s song today—a song that is neither joyous nor celebratory. It speaks of a relationship between God and Israel. The people of Israel are likened to a vineyard planted on choice ground. God the vintner, whom the prophet refers to as his beloved, has gone to great work in planting and tending to the vineyard—doing everything in his power to nurture it so as to produce good grapes. Yet, in spite of all God has done, the vineyard has yielded wild grapes—grapes that are not only distasteful, but also poisonous. These wild grapes are that of the people’s injustice and unrighteousness. Instead of living in right relationship with God and one another, Israel is corrupt and selfish in its doings. So God decides that if the vineyard, which is his holy people, will not live as they should and produce good fruit, than he will pull away all that he has done for them and let Israel fall to its own desires and devices—being devoured and trampled upon. Whatever comes to follow will be seen and understood by the people as none other than a consequence of their turning away from God and neighbor. Because of what they have done and how they have lived—disregarding God and despising neighbor—God’s promises of care and sustenance are being withdrawn and, even if for just a moment, the people will experience life without the Lord’s provision and protection.
To look at life, and tragedies in particular, through the lens of it being done or allowed by God as punishment for unfaithfulness is a tough, unforgiving way to live. Trusting in God—the act of faith—becomes a truly difficult and trying task when it contains within it a fearfulness that God will drop or leave us completely vulnerable if and when we fail to be faithful. I, in good faith, cannot believe God is ever ready to damn us—and I don’t believe this is what the prophet is saying either. Bad, horrible, and sometimes atrocious things happen—as we witnessed last week in Las Vegas, as we have seen countless times in other places—and these are not God’s doing. In these instances of senselessness, there is no answer for what has taken place—no reasoning that can undo what has happened, no explanation that will take away or ease the immense pain and suffering that flow from these wounds in our world. In line with what Isaiah is saying, however, there are consequences to what we do and how we live. Nevertheless, God did not allow the deaths of 59 people to happen at a country music concert because some people don’t like President Trump, others kneeled during a football game, or even because God is not always the first thing on our minds. We are not pawns in some divine game of life and death. God’s love for you and I is far greater than smiting someone simply because someone else is protesting. To believe God is responsible for such a heinous crime is not only blasphemous, but completely ignores the beauty of grace we encounter and receive in the Risen Christ Jesus.
God loves us—he loves us in spite of the many times dumb, careless, and even harmful things we do in life. Our sins break the heart of God; but they do not lead God to vengeance and wrath. The Lord is bigger than anything we can do—bigger even than the largest mass murder in modern American history. God’s grace and love and forgiveness for us are so abundant that God chooses to come into our midst in the person of Jesus Christ, and to ultimately give himself into death showing us that endless grace, love, and forgiveness. The proclamation of faith that “Christ died for you” which we hear echoed in the Confession and Forgiveness, in the cleansing waters of baptism, and in the life-giving bread and wine of holy communion is a constant reminder that we need not be afraid of God, but rather live our lives in joy and gladness, love and service, trusting that God is always seeking to care for, provide, and protect us. God is not some petty deity demanding full respect and perfection, or else. The God we trust and worship is One who showers us with blessings daily, and calls us to take what we have been given—our selves, our time, and our possessions—and share them with the world around us in spreading the gospel of Christ for all to see and hear. Live in this truth. Let it flow in and throughout your whole being. May it bind you to God and your neighbor. We need to cut and completely dismantle this twisted idea that God is punishing us or anyone else. We are loved, forgiven, and deeply cherished by the One who creates, saves, and sustains us now and always. This is the thread that deserves being strung throughout time—a thread that should bind us altogether. Amen.