Tim Mora is the Vicar of Cobden-Runanga, which has always been the epicentre of West Coast mining. In his sermon last Sunday, he explored why God didn't seem to answer prayers for the miners' rescue.
Some of you are probably asking: why did those miners have to die?
Why were they taken? It just doesn’t seem fair.
But you know the truth of the matter?
They weren’t taken.
Not by God, not by fate nor by anything else.
Their deaths were, quite simply, the result of an accident.
A terrible, tragic accident. But an accident, nevertheless.
There was no divine fate at work to snatch the miners’ lives away.
It wasn’t ‘their time’, or anything like that.
The fact is, we live in a physical world, a world governed by natural laws, laws that are consistent and predictable.
That’s what makes the universe functional and able to be lived in.
But when those same laws are pushed to the edge, things can be incredibly dangerous.
That’s where coal mining is. It exists right at the edge, a dangerous edge of volatile gases, tunnels and heavy machinery.
And while we do all we can to make mining safe, we can't predict all the risks or dangers.
Sometimes, things just happen. You hit an unknown pocket of gas, monitoring equipment breaks down, an unmapped inclusion creates a spark.
You simply cannot control or predict everything, and when those unforeseen things happen, events can quickly spiral out of control.
That's what happened last week. Something went wrong, an explosion occurred, gas levels rose, there was a second explosion, and people died.
Let me say it again: the deaths of those miners and contractors was simply the result of an accident.
But it’s what happened between those two explosions that raises some questions for us as a community.
If the miners had all died instantly in the first blast, and we knew that, and had been able to retrieve the bodies – that would have been seen as a terrible accident.
However, because we didn’t immediately know the miners’ fate, we had hope that there might be survivors.
Because we were unable to enter the mine safely, there was also a sense of helplessness,
And that led people to begin praying.
So why were we praying?
Well, it depends on who you are.
For some, their prayers were simply a way to express or vocalise their emotions and hopes. To name it and put it out there.
For those folk, just being able to express what was in their hearts through prayer, or the prayers of others, was a helpful thing.
Others were driven to prayer by their sense of helplessness, and powerlessness.
They needed to feel like they were doing something, anything, that could somehow make a difference. Prayer was that something.
For others who felt powerless there was also the sense that they were invoking the involvement of something beyond. Something bigger than themselves – who could, maybe, do something.
Finally, there would have been those for whom there is a profound belief that there is a God who hears our prayers and who is capable of acting in our world.
So what were those of us who believe that actually praying for?
Well, for quite a number of things.
- For the families of those underground;
- For the rescue teams;
- For those underground;
- For the church;
- For the media, pastors, support workers, workmates, those struggling emotionally
- For a reduction in gas levels;
- And we were praying for a miracle. We were praying for the guys to be rescued.
In my opinion, God answered many of those prayers.
The mines rescue teams acted wisely and safely and no further lives were lost – despite the real longing and temptation to enter the mine.
The church has handled itself well, too. It’s been there at the forefront, and behind the scenes.
Our prayers for those affected to be sustained by God has, I believe, been answered, although we may never know the full extent of those answers.
For example: One woman told me of finding a sense of peace when she entered our church for the first time. And I know that I have felt strengthened, sustained and equipped for each task that has come along.
So: God has been answering prayer.
But there were three prayers that appeared to go unanswered.
- The guys were not rescued;
- There was no reduction in gas levels;
- There was no miracle.
So the question we now face is: what do we do with that?
In reality, there are a number of questions here.
1. Does God have to answer every prayer in the affirmative? Does he always have to say ‘yes’?
2. What is the purpose of miracles?
3. How does our situation fit into God’s bigger plan?
In the Lord’s prayer we pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’
So this begs the question: what would it mean for God’s kingdom to be present on earth as it is in heaven?
What would the earth look like if it was a place that was submitted to the will of God?
Well, it certainly wouldn’t look like it does now.
The Kingdom of God is where God is sovereign.
Where God's rule is manifest or present.
Where people live lives that reflect the character of God and where God’s rule is acknowledged.
The only place the Kingdom has ever been fully present was in the person of Jesus himself.
The Son of God who was and is fully submitted and in communion with his Father, God the creator.
From the moment of the resurrection the kingdom expanded to include all who put their faith in Christ and became his disciples.
We now call that group of people the church.
We are the ones who, in theory, live in full submission to our creator, seeking to serve him and him alone.
And so when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and for his will to be done, that is what we should be praying for.
For people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and saviour.
For people to submit to God’s rule, and for the church to ever better reflect the character and heart of God as a witness to the world.
For those miners to have a God encounter in the midst of the darkness and so be saved for eternity. For God’s acknowledged goal for this world is, according to Ephesians 1:10, ‘to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’
So how do miracles fit into this?
Well, listen to Acts 2:22 and 23:
22 Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.
23 This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
Miracles, it seems, were to endorse who Jesus is, as God’s son.
See also, Acts 14, when Paul and Barnabas were at Iconium.
Here again, miracles were a validation and proof of the truthfulness and power of the gospel being shared there.
And do you remember the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?
The bad guys had come in and told King Nebuchadnezzer that there were three Jews — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — who refused to worship the gold statue Nebuchadnezzer had set up.
Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage.
He ordered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to be brought before him. He gave them one final chance: When they heard the sound of the musical instruments, they were to bow down and worship the statue.
If they refused, they would immediately be thrown into the blazing furnace.
We pick up the story in the Book of Daniel, chapter 3:
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you.
17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty.
18 But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up.”
What was the attitude of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego?
It was not that God had to perform a miracle.
He could, of course, if he chose, do so.
But whether he did, or didn’t, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego weren’t going to stop believing in him.
They recognised what we should: that this world is only temporal.
It’s short term.
We don’t live forever, and what counts most is not the preservation of life on earth. What counts most is that people discover the reality of God, enter into relationship with him as a disciple of Jesus and therefore, are saved for eternity.
So miracles, it seems, are more about reinforcing, backing up and validating the gospel message.
The point of a miracle is to point people towards God, and it usually comes in the context of a sharing of the gospel.
It is not about having a fallback position to get us out of a fix.
Miracles are also very rare. If God was to intervene in the world every time a life was threatened by natural laws... then the world would become unworkable, and our lives unmanageable.
So how does this relate to Pike River?
Well, it means that God was under no obligation to grant a miracle there.
While that did not stop me praying for one, with the desire that it would bring glory to God, it was more important and in line with the will of God to be praying that any survivors underground would have been having a God encounter.
And I am certainly not going to throw my toys out of the cot just because God didn’t answer my prayers for a miracle.
Tens of thousands of people die every day around the world. Many of those die from lingering illnesses, and we watch news clips of people dying in their thousands overseas in floods and earthquakes.
But I don’t see us as either spending intense time in prayer for most of these people, nor questioning prayer’s utility.
Our perception is changed because it’s our community which is suffering, it’s people we know and love who are hurting. Because we’re emotionally involved, our perspective and expectations are changed.
But even if the answer as to why God didn’t perform a miracle is logical, people don’t want to hear that.
What they want is their loved ones back.
They don’t want to hear a theological rationale as to why God didn’t answer their prayer. They just wanted their husband, their brother, their father home.
So what's the solution? What can God do?
Well, I believe he has, and is, doing something about it.
Let me ask you a question: When you're suffering, who is it that can bring the most comfort?
More often than not, it's a person who has actually gone through a similar experience themselves. It’s the person who has actually suffered like you. Isn't that so?
So you know what God chose to do?
God chose, in the form of his son Jesus, to give up his divinity, to give up his power, to give up everything, to take on the form of a human being and to come down to this earth, to live as one of us.
Jesus knows what loneliness is. He knows what it means to weep at the grave of his close friend Lazarus.
He knows what betrayal feels like.
He knows what it means to experience pain, to be tired, hungry, angry and sad.
He even knows what it means to face death and to die.
In every possible way, Jesus knows what it means to suffer as a human.
Because he too was one of us.
Now God's not going to take away our free will.
But through what Jesus chose to do, and chose to do on the cross, I believe he can identify with our suffering.
He knows what it feels like to go through pain.
So when you are going through deep hurt and pain, and you talk to God, you know you are talking to a God who knows what it means to suffer.
You are talking to a God who can relate to you in your pain and hurt.
But Jesus didn’t go through the cross just so that he could identify with us in our pain and suffering.
His suffering and dying on the cross was also part of God's bigger plan, a plan that God set in motion from the beginning of time.
His plan was to bring a complete end to evil, suffering and pain.
The Bible teaches that God is moving behind the scenes in history, not to take away our free will, but to move history towards an expected end.
And just as the cause of our problem is our turning away from God, so the cross provides a way for us to return to God.
And for those who choose to return to God, there is the hope that there will come a time in history when God will bring all suffering to an end and that upon our death we will be resurrected to a life without pain.
As it says in Revelations; ‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
“There will be no more death, no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
For Christians who go through times of suffering, that gives us great hope.
For we know that although we may suffer now for a short while, we know that there is something better to look forward to.
Let's close in prayer.
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