Two weeks ago, as we worshipped together at Causeway Coast Vineyard, a horrible tragedy was unfolding over 4500 miles away in a little church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in the USA. 26 lives were taken away by another man with a gun... and our world and our lives were filled with grief, sorrow, and shock yet again.
Sadly, we’re growing used to this horror, as our screens are filled with the stories of so much tragic loss. Whether it’s the desperate images of human suffering caused by hurricanes, the horrific shootings in Texas and Las Vegas, or the alarming talk of escalating tensions internationally, we’re all numbly becoming aware of the fact that we can’t simply escape tragedy crashing into our lives.
This isn’t new for followers of Jesus.
In the book of Acts, the early followers of Jesus faced the terrible loss of Stephen, one of their most gifted young leaders, when he was murdered for his faith. He was stoned to death by a mob after a kangaroo court condemned him on false charges of blasphemy.
As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, “Master Jesus, take my life.” Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, “Master, don’t blame them for this sin”—his last words. Then he died. Acts 7:59-60 The Message
When we face tragedy in our world or in our own lives, we often find ourselves asking “Why did this happen?” as we try to find some meaning in horrible events beyond just grief and loss. But what we see in Stephen’s death is how God’s goodness makes His favour available to us in new ways when tragedy strikes.
God’s goodness and great love means that we can ask “What is now available to us from God?” when we face horrific events in our lives or in our world.
Tragedy always transforms us.
Usually, our response to tragedy is to make our lives smaller and safer, pulling back from others in fear and minimising our risk to more heartache as we lick our wounds and we try to rebuild our lives.
But the Good News is that God is so good that He opens the door for us to be transformed into people who live bigger lives of love and grace if we let Him into our tragedies. Jesus can take the things the enemy intended for evil in our lives and then transform our tragedy into opportunities for His love, grace, and power to be shown in our lives and to others around us.
For those early followers of Jesus, the martyrdom of Stephen was a terrible event. Beyond the shock of his death, Stephen’s murder also began a dreadful persecution of the early church which meant they were separated from the apostles and then scattered across Judea and Samaria as they fled for their lives.
That set off a terrific persecution of the church in Jerusalem. The believers were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Acts 8:1 The Message
An event like that would destroy many communities: the loss of a beloved young gifted leader and the persecution following that sent them from their homes, their trusted leaders and all they knew into a fearful future.
Remarkably, something else altogether happened.
As those believers were scattered across Judea and Samaria, they begin to spread the Good News of Jesus everywhere... in fact, they began to fulfil the promise given to them by Jesus in the first chapter of Acts: And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world. Acts 1:8 The Message
Rather than destroying the early believer’s movement, God made available to them the opportunity to transform tragedy into a new story of His love, grace, purpose and destiny. The murder of Stephen was meant to stamp out the story of Jesus and stop the early followers of Jesus. Instead, that tragic event sent those brave women and men into their future because they allowed God to take their tragedy and transform it into something beautiful that blessed the world.
When we allow God into our tragedies, we open the door for Him to transform our sorrow into joy as He rewrites our stories with Hope where there was once only loss.
That doesn’t mean we don’t grieve.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t experience terrible loss.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t taste the full pain of sorrow.
But it does mean that those sorrows can count for something and make our lives more beautiful even as we carry the scars of our loss.
Jesus can make those scars beautiful as He rewrites Hope over our lives marked by loss.
Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. Acts 8:2 NIV
As we see here, grief is a part of our story and it is a righteous response to tragedy. It is part of our process... but thanks to Jesus, it isn’t our posture.
We will grieve at times, but we can go on to live as people of Hope and Joy when we allow the goodness of God into the horror of our tragedies.
Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning. Psalms 30:5b NKJV
Because of Jesus, we are a people of hope, a people of joy. We may walk through the valley of sadness, we may make our way through a night of tears, but we are reaching for the dawn and we are headed for the morning where joy rises with the sun.
Frank Pomeroy, the pastor of the small church where so many lost their lives on Sunday, spoke to the press after the event. Still grieving the loss of his daughter, who was one of the victims, he was asked how he made sense of the tragedy.
He answered simply, “I don’t understand, but I know my God does.” He went on to say “Whatever life brings to you, lean on the Lord rather than your own understanding.”
It’s a profound response that captures the reality that we may never understand the tragedies that hit our world, but we can lean into a God who cares for us and wants to meet us in our pain and loss and lead us back towards healing and joy.
When evil comes, when tragedy strikes, when loss and pain seem overwhelming, we can lift our eyes to Jesus who weeps with us in our sorrow, and then welcomes us on a journey with Him, where our tragedies can become transformed into doorways of inexplicable hope.