Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8
Last Sunday my wife Ruth shared about the death of Anuraj Jha in a tragic car accident in Sudan where he was working with the UN as a child protection specialist. His wife Jill Landis and their two young daughters, who were in the car with him, survived the accident. Anuraj was from Nepal and had begun working with the UN following the peace accord and power-sharing agreement in his country in 2006 that ended a Maoist insurgency. His UN office oversaw returning 2,000 Maoist child soldiers to civilian life. Now he was now doing similar child protection work in Sudan.
Oh God, it’s so hard when the best among us die such an untimely death. Anuraj still had so much to contribute to his family, his friends, and the important work he was doing in the chaos of war and violence. He was such a loving and dedicated husband and father. Our prayers go out to his family, and the many who knew and loved him. As we mourn his death, we also celebrate his life.
Ruth and I learned to know Anuraj when he was a graduate student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. He was brilliant but also gentle and gracious. That’s where he met Jill. Ruth and I later connected with them in Kathmandu, Nepal when we were responsible for Mennonite Central Committee programs in India and Nepal. They invited us to their home where we met Anuraj’s parents. They were good friends with the other young MCC couples in the country. I was impressed with how they figured out how to make their cross-cultural and interfaith marriage work.
Talking about the peacebuilding work he does, Anuraj said, “There is no action that does not have unintended consequences, no matter what you do and how well intentioned you are. The UN’s efforts to free and rehabilitate child soldiers in Nepal were perceived as coercive by many of the soldiers – causing them to feel unsettled and full of anxiety.” They wanted to stay in the security of their military camps and resisted being trained for other civilian jobs with few guarantees.
Burdened by this memory, Anuraj added, “It’s a struggle to put theories into practice. You try to make the best choice at that time, at that moment. The peace process will never be perfect.”
He says that the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding taught him “to be self-reflective and to recognize that it’s never one person who has transformed something – hundreds of people contribute. And the more you acknowledge that and expand the circle, the better the outcome will be. In the Mennonite tradition,” he added, “the emphasis is on enabling others, empowering others, encouraging others. One of the most important lessons I learned is the need to be humble.”
Anuraj had the rare gift of accepting each one of us for who we are and drawing the best out of us. He was not condescending or judgmental. He also had the capacity to work with hope in some of the most difficult situations. In these ways, he has shown me how to be a better pastor.
This leaves us with the question of how to make sense of such tragedy in life. As one of Anuraj’s friends posted on Facebook, “Why do the good have to die young?” For me, his untimely death comes on top of another courageous young peacemaker, my former student Michael Shape, who was recently killed in the Congo. Even more difficult is knowing how to make sense of the massive human suffering caused by war, violence, and natural catastrophes.
Last Sunday I said that Mark’s Gospel was written during a time of unimaginable death and destruction when Roman armies completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., killing or exiling all the Jews who lived there. Likewise, the prophet Isaiah was writing to Jewish exiles in Babylon after the Babylonians had devastated their homeland and led them away as captives. They had been so sure that God would miraculously intervene and not allow their homeland and their Temple be destroyed. Now they were exiles who had experienced the loss of nearly all the structures and institutions that given them their identity as a people.
It raises the common human conundrum about the nature of God and where God is in such troubled places. We instinctively think that bad things should not happen to good people. I think of Jill and her two daughters flying back to Nepal for Anuraj’s funeral. It must feel like their whole world has ended. It’s so unfair!
A common perception is that bad things happen as God’s punishment for our sins. Some preachers are especially quick to make that claim following a major tragedy. Yet that can’t begin to explain the inexplicable horror that the Jewish exiles in Babylon had experienced. What sin could they have committed that could merit such suffering. A God who inflicts that kind of punishment could not be good.
What the exiles in Babylon suffered was completely out of proportion to anything they might have done to deserve it. Isaiah’s words of comfort are familiar to us in the strains of Handel’s Messiah that we sing at Christmas time:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,” saith your God.
“Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
As we can see in various places in the Bible, many Jewish people believed that their suffering was God’s punishment for their sins. That’s true in the sense that our sins have bad consequences, but we take that way too far when we think our human suffering has to be caused by our sins. That was the accusation falsely thrown at Job by his erstwhile friends.
Our God is not an all-powerful divine king, ruling from his throne in heaven where he controls the affairs of our world, blessing those who serve him and punishing his enemies. The reason this myth remains so popular is because it supports the forces of domination and war in our world. Even innocent children who get in the way are seen as little more than unfortunate but somehow necessary collateral damage.
Oh no! We’re not buying that. Jesus turns such notions of who God is on their head when he tells us to love our enemies because that’s what God does. God gives the sun to warm and sends the rain to nourish—to everyone regardless of who we are: the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty (Mat. 5: 45).
The Christmas story is about hearing God’s voice in the wilderness—we find God in troubled places hanging out with the poor and the dispossessed on the margins. Jesus was born in a cattle barn, not in a royal palace or in a penthouse in Manhattan. John the Baptist was out in the wilderness calling people to prepare for the new thing God’s about to do—and to put it mildly, King Herod was not pleased.
John calls us to get ready for the coming rein of God that Jesus is bringing. He tells us that this will be on a whole new level of significance. John is only the stagehand assembling the props. Joseph Donders comments:
As long as we think about John like that—preaching in his own country two thousand years ago—his preaching remains distant and very far away. Let us try to get that wilderness and also John’s word nearer home, so that it can cut us to the bone. Let us speak about the wilderness in which we live. And let us think not only of sin but of the world we are accustomed to.
Some of us recently had an ecumenical conversation with pastors from Table Covenant Church and Hill City Church. Part of our conversation was identifying the wilderness in our world and allowing it to cut us to our bone. How do we bear witness to Jesus in our political climate and how can we collaborate and support each other in being the church in our place?
What’s happening in our country and our American churches is a disaster, yet this is where God is creating new possibilities. It’s the same wilderness that Isaiah and John responded to in their times. God is here bringing transformation out of chaos. That’s the message of Advent and the Christmas season.