This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Oct. 22, 2017, two weeks after the Tubbs Fire. The scripture texts for the day were Exodus 33:12-23, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, and Matthew 22:15-22.
It has been a long couple of weeks. Hasn’t it? It’s hard to believe that it was only two weeks ago that fire swept through our town, causing many of us to evacuate and changing many people’s lives forever.
There’s a video online - circulating on facebook - of the wind whipping up the fire - of how fast it was moving - some winds going as fast as 60 miles an hour - carrying the fire up and over the hills.
Now, families whose homes have burned are getting back into their neighborhoods to see if they can find anything in the ashes. The images of burned out chimneys and piles of rubble are haunting.
Right now, I’m definitely alternating between in that place of trying to keep a stiff upper lip, and just do the next right thing in front of me, and feeling all locked up...and in that other place where emotions are really close to the surface and everything makes you want to cry or laugh or really angry.
It’s hard. Devastation has hit us close to home. The solid foundations of home and community have been shaken, and shaken, we wonder where to turn for comfort and security.
As people of faith, one question we probably have is: where is God in times of trouble?
Where is God in times of trouble?
One place to turn to for the answer to that question is the Bible. For today, we had 3 scripture readings. They’re essentially random, meaning I didn’t choose them for today, for a sermon on the question “Where is God in times of trouble?” They are the scheduled readings for worship today on the calendar.
Yet, since the Bible is the story of God’s constant presence from creation to the cross to the end of time, even the three random scriptures give us an insight into the answer to the question.
First, let’s look at the book of Exodus. Remember, Exodus tells the story of a group of refugees fleeing from slavery in Egypt and living in the desert for forty years. So, I think it’s safe to say these people had seen their share of troubled times. In fact, in the sections before the one we read for today, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai getting the 10 commandments. This takes a long time - and while he’s up there, all the people lose faith in the Lord - and take their jewelry off and melt it down to make a golden calf to worship. When Moses comes back down and finds this mess, the Lord is very angry with all the people.
In the section for today, Moses is having a conversation with God. Moses knows God is very angry. God has told Moses that it’s time for them to move again, to continue towards the promised land. Moses is wondering who will go with them on the rest of the journey, since the Lord is so mad at them.
Moses says to the Lord, “See you have said to me, “Bring up this people, but you have not let me know whom you will send with me…”
And God says, “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”
The answer to Moses’ question, God where will you be as I lead these people through the wilderness is “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”
So that gives us one answer to the question, “Where is God in times of trouble?” God is present with the people.
Will we find the same answer in the other scripture readings?
Matthew is one of the 4 gospels that tells us about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. in the Scripture for today, we find Jesus in a very familiar passage that ends with the famous quotation, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Also known as “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
Let’s look at life during the time when Jesus spoke these famous words. Remember, that Jesus lived during a time when the people were again oppressed, this time in their own country by the Roman Empire. They were paying very heavy taxes to the emperor who was occupying them. Life under occupation was very hard for the Jewish people, the Roman ruling class was often quite cruel, and many of the Jewish people were struggling to get by on very little. Jesus came and lived among these people, healing them and talking to them about God.
Some of the religious leaders who felt threatened by Jesus set out to trap him with the question whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. If he says “no”, he’s in trouble with the Roman government, if he says “yes” he’s taken the side of oppressors. But he answers, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that phrase, but instead of focusing on the phrase, I want to focus on the situation. The people are poor - and getting poorer because of the unfair taxes - and they’re living under the occupation of the Roman Empire. They’re living in troubled times.
Where is God in their time of trouble?
Right smack in the middle of them. Talking to them, walking with them, eating with them, healing them. Answering their trick questions. In the form of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God was with them.
So that gives us the same answer to the question, “Where is God in times of trouble?” God is present with the people.
The last scripture we read for today was from 1 Thessalonians. Thessalonians is a letter written from the Apostle Paul, who worked as a missionary, planting churches in the early days after Christ’s resurrection.
Paul would go to a place and start a church, stay with them a while, and then travel on. He would keep in touch with them through letters. That is what “Thessalonians” is - a letter to the church in Thessalonica, a Macedonian port city under Roman rule. Paul, and his ministry associates Silvanus and Timothy, had founded a church there. Now, they are writing to the church to boost their spirits because the church has many worries - some of them are dying and the whole church is being persecuted.
The people of the church in Thessalonica are upset because they believed the Jesus Christ would come back to them during their lifetimes, and some of their church people are dying. They want to know what will happen to those people if Jesus hasn’t come back yet - and whether it’s worth staying true to their beliefs if they are getting persecuted for them.
The question is, if Jesus isn’t with them yet, Where is God in their times of trouble?
So, Paul writes to them to share good news to boost their spirits. In his letter, Paul gives thanks to the people of the church and assures them that they serve a true and living God, who is with them in the message of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul says to them: “For we know, brothers and sisters[a] beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known.”
Paul knows that God is with the people because the message of the gospel is taking hold in them in a way that shows that God is with them through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the gospel spreads all around them in a way that can only through the power of God.
Paul’s answer to their question, “Where is God in their times of trouble?” is that God is present among them, and working through them by the power of the Holy Spirit through their faith in the good news of the gospel. God is present to the people through the gospel.
We have our own times of trouble. And we have the same question, “Where is God in our time of trouble?”
When we ask that question, we feel alone like Moses, wondering who walk with with us. We feel hopeless, like the disciples, wondering who will save us. We feel helpless, like the church in Thessalonica, wondering if we have been abandoned in our faith.
The good news for us is that we can trust in the promise God made to Moses, that God will be present.
We can trust in the promise made in Jesus, that in Christ, God is with us.
Like the church in Thessalonica, we can trust that God is present among us, working through us because of our faith in the gospel message.
Believe the good news, today brothers and sisters, that you are beloved by God.
Believe the good news: the gospel message is true: God is present to us here in this church and this community today, especially as we struggle.
The gospel call remains as true today as always. In this time when we feel hurt in lives and our town, we are called by the Holy Spirit to trust in the gospel message.
As we rebuild, it is important that we share the message with other people to remind them that God loves them and is present with them in their troubles.
Each of us is different and has a special gift for sharing that message. Listen this week to where you are being called.
I’m called tomorrow to serve as spiritual support for people entering their burned neighborhoods as the evacuations are lifted, and to work with other faith leaders to plan a community wide healing service.
That’s me. Where are you called to be present and walk with God? To be present for your family. For your neighbors. For your church. You each have a special calling, and a unique gift for sharing God’s love.
We are called together to walk with God in times of trouble, trusting in the promise that God’s presence will go with us. May it be so. Amen.