As you will know, we finished the Alpha course last week. It did not surprise me, but one of the greatest issues that those attending the course have with believing in God, is the existence of suffering in the world. How can a good all-powerful God permit suffering? It’s a difficult question to answer and theologians have been struggling with it for centuries.
Certainly the world is not as it should be. Nor is the world as God wants it to be. Part of the answer to the question of suffering is that much of our suffering is caused by the falleness of our world and the sin of our own and previous generations, all the way back to the beginning, all the way back to Eden and even before[i]. God has allowed humanity free will and so much of the suffering in the world comes from the decisions that we humans have taken over the centuries.
This absolutely does not mean that when we suffer we are being punished by God for our own sin. After all, Jesus did not sin at all and yet he suffered. The child maimed in the Middle East is absolutely not suffering the consequences of his own actions; when we are laid low by cancer or some other horror it is absolutely not because of our own individual sin. Rather the whole of creation suffers because of its falleness, because of the sin of this and previous generations. Suffering is not something from which we can escape if we are to live in the world. The maimed child suffers the consequences of others’ decisions and of course in turn these are motivated by events which have happened in the past. And so it goes on. We must wonder if it will ever stop.
But there is good news.
Isaiah chapter 40 was probably written by him just before he died around 700BC. The kingdom of Judah was sent into exile to Babylon over a hundred years later. The exile was a period of great suffering for the Jewish people. But 100 years before it actually happened, Isaiah had predicted the exile (chapter 39) and also prophesied the return of the Jews from exile to Jerusalem after over 50 years including naming (in chapter 47) the Persian emperor who, having defeated Babylon, would permit the Jews to return to Jerusalem – Emperor Cyrus.
The text of Isaiah was well established by the time of Jesus’ birth and the Jews knew Isaiah’s prophesy of exile and, most importantly, the return from exile had happened just as he had prophesied it, over 500 years before.
And first century Jews too were suffering. They were subject to Roman occupation. Mark’s opening chapter quoting the well known words from Isaiah: ‘comfort, comfort my people says your God’ would have been very familiar to them. When he identified John the Baptist as the voice, in verse 3, of the one prophesied by Isaiah crying in the wilderness ‘preparing the way of the Lord’ this must have been because that’s what John the Baptist’s contemporaries thought he was. It would have been incredibly thrilling for them to think that another aspect of Isaiah’s prophesy was coming true in their life time. And with it the possibility that their suffering might finally be over as, verse 2, ‘[Jerusalem] has served her term, that her penalty is paid’, and that justice would prevail, as, verse 4, the mountains (perhaps symbolising those in control) would be made low and the valleys (the oppressed Jews) would be made high.
But the question for them would have been how could they be part of this new work of God in their own time? They might have been thinking of sharpening their swords for insurrection against the Romans as they also expected the prophesied arrival of the promised one – the messiah, as a great military leader. But John the Baptist gave a different answer, as he called for them to repent of the sin by which they were contaminated and which is inextricably linked to the suffering of the world. And he called for them to be baptised to demonstrate their decision to repent.
It is no surprise that the Jews lined up in their hundreds in the wilderness to do just that – to be part of God’s solution to the world’s problems rather than be part of the problem.
So, as the Jews saw in Isaiah’s 8th century BC prophesy a word for their times which predicted the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, so we can see in it also words speaking to us of the end times in which Jesus will return in glory and all will be put right in the world.
It is a time for which we need to get ready now. As we start Advent, let’s not just be thinking about preparations for Christmas and the secular feast that we have made it. But for the final return of King Jesus who may come at any moment! A return which will put an end to humanity’s sin and the suffering of the world and when justice will prevail. A time when no more children will be maimed by bomb blasts in the Middle East. A time when no more families will be torn apart by death or divorce. A time when starvation and disease will be ended for ever.
Are we ready to repent of our contamination by the sin of the world, so that we too can become part of God’s solution to the world’s problems, rather than remain part of the problem?
[i] See Mike Lloyd Fall in Café Theology