Perhaps the two images most of us will carry away from the last twelve months are those of the devastation caused by the tsunami just after last Christmas and by the hurricanes that devastated the southern states of America in the autumn. The natural world became a place of terror and disaster.
The question never quite goes away of why God made a world in which such tragedy is possible. But Christmas reminds us of the one thing we know for sure - and that is God’s way of responding to suffering. He doesn’t wave a magic wand, or descend briefly from the sky to clean things up. He arrives on earth as a human being who will change things simply by the completeness of his love. Jesus is dedicated to the will of the one he calls Father, the divine source of his own divine life. Never for a moment does he put any obstacle in the way of that ultimate, total outpouring of love that is the wellspring of his own life. He gives himself to this transforming purpose in every moment, whatever it costs. And the world changes - even the physical world: death is overcome and the material world reveals God’s glory in its depths. So we are changed. New things become possible for us, new levels of loving response and involvement. As has often been said, the Christian answer to the problem of suffering is not a theory but the story of a life and a death, Jesus’ life and death. And for that answer to be credible now, that story has to be visible in our story. We must give an answer to suffering and tragedy in what we do - because the one thing we know is that this is what God does. Faith is restored and strengthened not by talking but by witness in action. And one of the moving things that this year has brought for me is the awareness of how generously so many have responded to the desperate needs of the tsunami victims and those who suffered in New Orleans.
I have had moving letters describing the sacrificial work of Anglicans in the Province of South-East Asia, and in the diocese of Kurunagula in Sri Lanka, to name only two instances, clearly witnessing to the willingness to respond first and ask theoretical questions afterwards. And only a few days ago, I listened to a woman from Texas speaking of her work day and night over many weeks in Houston with those who had been made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Here are stories of people who know how to answer the challenges of terrible suffering in God’s way - by obedience and service and love.
There is something about Christianity that always pulls us back from imagining that everything will be all right if we can find the right things to say - because for God, the right thing to say at Christmas was the crying of a small child, beginning a life of risk and suffering. God shows us how, by his grace and in his Spirit, we can respond to the tormenting riddles of the world. And, as we agonise over the future of our beloved church, with all its debates and bitter struggles at the moment, it does us no harm to remember that God will not solve our Anglican problems by a plan or a formula, but only by the miracle of his love in Jesus. If we want to be part of the solution, we must first be wholly and unconditionally pledged to that love, with all its costs. May God who works in the weakness and smallness of the Christmas child work in our weakness and smallness; may he bless and strengthen you all at this season.