I seem to have spent last week turning off the radio because I just can’t bear to hear any more about it all.
Now you might think I’m talking about Boris, Jeremy and the elections – but I’m not. I’ve been reaching out for the off switch because of the endless news about the Rohingya massacres in Myanmar. And when I say that I can’t bear to hear any more about it, I mean exactly that. I’ve listened to some of the terrible stories about the rape and brutal murder of women and children and I just can’t bear to hear any more – the stories are too vivid, too terrible, too upsetting, too evil, even to hear.
And I guess like many other listeners I wonder where God is, in all this terrible evil? Why does God do nothing to step in and save the orphan and the widow? Why does God no longer frustrate the plans of the wicked but rather seems to let them have free reign to torture, murder and destroy the innocent. Has God not read the psalms? Does God not know what he has promised?
Way back in the 13th Century there was a famous argument in Barcelona between a Christian scholar Pablo Christiani and an eminent Jewish scholar, Nachmanides. The Christian scholar tried to convince Nachmanides that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah he had been longing and waiting for, but that the Jewish people had failed to recognise.
In many ways it was Nachmanides – not the Christian – who won the argument. When the Messiah shall come – he said – the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. – There shall be peace and justice over all the earth and God will raise up the weak hands and the feeble knees and the fearful hearts.
And … went on Nachmanides – I look around at this terrible world and I do not see any evidence of this happening. The blind are abused and neglected, the deaf are ignored, the lame beg for bread, and there is violence and suffering and evil over all this world and it goes unstopped. No – said Nachmanides – the reign of the Messiah has clearly not yet come.
Ah – said the Christian Scholar quoting today’s Gospel reading from St Matthew chapter 11 – but when Jesus was here he cured the blind and the deaf, the lame stood up an walked and he proclaimed a kingdom of Justice and peace and joy.
And in an ironic twist of accusations Nachmonides – the pharisee – accused Christiani – the Dominican – of legalism and casuistry – of course what he says is technically correct– these things may well have happened in Jesus’s time. – once. There may even be odd cases of miraculous cures today… But they are of little use to the millions of blind, deaf, starving children today who are not cured who are not helped and who die in poverty on the streets. And of course – such technical arguments are still of no use to raped, tortured, and murdered women and small children in Myanmar. There was no evidence of the glorious reign of the Prince of Peace in the killing fields of the Rohingya.
So where the Hell is God – where is our Messiah – when we need him most?
As you know this summer I visited Auschwitz with a mixed group of Jewish and Christian leaders. Not a pilgrimage to a holy place but what Archbishop Rowan Williams called a journey to a place of utter profanity. a place where the elderly and the infirm, the young, babies and small children, women were brutally and mechanically destroyed – sometimes at a rate of 15,000 human beings a day. As he writes : For many the name of God has become something that cannot be uttered or taken seriously because of what was done here.
And Auschwitz-Birkenhau perhaps more than any other place on earth raises that cry first raised in psalm 35 over 2500 years ago .. O God, you have seen; do not be silent; O God, do not stand far off!
Yet Rowan Williams writes that even here God was found – in acts of love, faces marked by human warmth and care for fellow-sufferers – the daily unrecorded sacrifices like the sacrifice of St Maximilian Kolbe who gave his life in exchange for another. And in the voices of faithful jews who did not give in, but who heroically continued to celebrate shabbat and Passover even from the depth of suffering and inhumanity – and who sang, against all odds ‘next year in Jerusalem’.
As Rowan writes ‘if there were people who spoke and lived for God here, this too is something we and our world need to hear and to learn.’
As Christmas approaches we will be seduced by holly and mistletoe, by sentimental images of a beautiful virgin in lush velvet and an adorable rosy child in a manger. But that idealised image of Christmas has nothing to say – nothing – to the the suffering women and children in death camps around the world. It is in many ways a travesty.
Only a battered virgin mother, giving birth with pain and blood amongst the faeces and urine of the animals – a woman and child who no-body but the very poor shepherds and the mystical astrologers wanted, – only a Prince of Peace who has nothing and who is nothing according to worldly standards – only this Messiah who dies in blood and agony on the cross, – as many human beings have dones since – deserted by friends and powers and institutions and governments – and by the religious – only this Christ who goes down into the very depths of Hell itself, can truly call himself ‘Emmanuel’ – which means God is with us. And only this God can save us.
Jesus says : See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
As we stand at this mid point of Advent we still hear the messenger’s voice ‘prepare the Way of the Lord’ but what we long for – what all creation is longing for and groaning and suffering as we wait .. is for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And then – and only then, the lamb will lie down with the wolf …. the blind shall see, the deaf shall hear and the lame shall leap like wild animals. Justice and peace shall embrace …. and every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
and then, I pray, together with Christiani and Nachmonides, we will rejoice and sing Glory, glory, hallelujah!