LAS VEGAS, NV — When Vance Pitman stood before his congregation this morning, he looked over a group of people who had been forever changed in a matter of days.
If asked, some could remember where they were when John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. Others could tell you their feelings when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded before their eyes on television, 73 seconds into its flight. Some could recount when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over the deep blue Texas skies.
But for everyone in the service, they could tell you exactly where they were in the late evening hours of Sunday, Oct. 1. That’s when the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history unfolded just miles from where they were, just across town.
Fifty-nine dead, including the shooter. More than 500 wounded in a matter of minutes. At least 20,000 lives at the concert changed for the worse. Millions stunned.
That was the common thread running through the congregation at Hope Church when Vance Pitman rose to deliver his sermon titled “Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?” His subtitle fleshed out the time and place: “Weekend after Las Vegas Massacre 2017.”
Heartbroken, yet proud
In 2000 Pitman came with his and two other families to Las Vegas to plant a church. They were sent out by First Baptist Church of Woodstock, beginning with 18 adults meeting in his living room. He was also serving as a church planter through the North American Mission Board.
The past 17 years have been good with making new friends and establishing a fresh Christian presence in the community. The church has grown to nearly 3,100 in attendance in four services – the 8:15 a.m. meeting having just been added four weeks earlier.
Then the world changed forever when, exactly one week to the day on Oct. 1, bullets rained down from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino onto a country music concert across the street.
“Sunday night and Monday were the darkest days in our city’s history,” Pitman told The Index in an interview published yesterday. However, in the same breath he added, “… but I have never been prouder to call Las Vegas my home.”
But as heartbroken as most Las Vegans were, Pitman came bearing a message of hope and encouragement that God was not hiding following the tragedy. In fact, He was a refuge for those seeking peace and comfort out of the madness.
“If you could ask God one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?” he began as he looked over those seated before him.
Then after a pause to let it sink in, he replied, based on the findings from a Barna Research Group poll question: “The most common response is ‘Why is there pain and suffering in the world?’
“If we are going to be honest this weekend, there have been moments like this week when we’ve all wrestled with questions like that. One of the first people I talked to on Monday morning asked me this question: ‘Where is God in all this?’”
‘A rock for me’
Pitman acknowledged that even as a follower of Jesus since 1989 and a pastor for more than 27 years, he wrestled with that very question when he heard the news of the massacre.
“Anyone who didn’t simply isn’t human. It’s okay to ask God some hard questions … He can handle it,” he continued. Then he said that as he wrestled with many questions, God led him to Psalm 46.
“It’s been a rock for me this week.”
Contextually, Psalm 46 was written to the nation of Israel during a time of national tragedy, and in response to that tragedy we find the words of the Psalm.
In the midst of all the questions, “some of which we simply cannot answer, there are things that we do know,” he continued.
“The temptation of our humanness is to run from God in moments of tragedy, but the Psalmist reminds us that those are the moments we should run to God.”
He then detailed stories from the week that reminded him of the reality of God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.
In one story, two police officers remarked to him, “It’s nothing short of a miracle that more people were not killed. It’s almost like someone spread their wings over that crowd and protected them.”
Pitman then noted, “Where is God in the midst of tragedy? He’s right there in the midst of it with us.” He then noted three ways that God is present.
First, God is our refuge – a place of safety and protection, a place of security. In Psalm 62:8 we are instructed to “Trust Him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us.”
“Did you hear it?,” Pitman asked.
“Because God is my refuge I can be honest with Him about all things. C.H. Spurgeon once said, ‘Turn the vessel of your soul upside down in His secret presence and let your inmost thoughts, desires, sorrows, and sins be poured out like water. Hide nothing from Him, for you can hide nothing.’”
Pitman then challenged his listeners, saying “If you’re hurting, tell Him. If you’ve got questions, ask Him. If you’re angry or upset, cry to Him. He is your refuge.”
He then cited God as our strength.
“All week I’ve heard ‘I don’t think I can handle this!’ You are right … but He can because in 2 Cor. 12:9 we read ‘My grace is sufficient for you and my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Next, God is our help.
“When you and I do not have the strength, we can run to Him. He’s always abundantly available to meet whatever need we have.
“What do you need from Him today? He’s available!” he reminded the congregation.
“Why did God create evil? He didn’t,” Pitman explained. “The world we know is not the world He initially made. What, you may ask, do I mean?”
He then cited evangelist Greg Laurie, who observed that mankind was not created evil and that “in their original state, Adam and Eve were innocent, ageless, and immortal. But mankind was given the ability to choose between right or wrong. He made his choice and then the choice made him.
“Had man never sinned, there would have been no resulting curse, but now it’s too late.”
Pitman then stated that human beings, not God, are responsible for the introduction of evil into the world … yet in His grace He is still our refuge, strength, and help in the midst of tragedy.
“There are two things we know even when evil is on display: that God is present … our refuge, strength, and help; and God has a purpose as seen in Rom. 8:28.
“This is nowhere seen more clearly than looking at the cross. The cross of Jesus is the single greatest act of evil and injustice this world has ever seen, and yet God – in His sovereignty – has caused it to be now seen as the greatest demonstration of love and goodness the world has ever experienced.
God will one day bring evil to an end
Pitman then directed the congregation to Rev. 21 where, in verses 4-7, the Psalmist describes a city … “a city where God dwells … that can never be destroyed; that He is constantly protecting and where no evil dwells. And one glorious day that city will come down from Heaven and dwell here on earth,” as recorded in Rev. 21:1a, 2-4.
Pitman concluded the sermon by asking “Why doesn’t God just do it now?”
He then read from 2 Peter 3:9 where it states, “The Lord is not slow about His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
Turning from Scripture to the audience, he concluded with an observation from author Lee Strobel when he stated, “So, what’s holding God up? One answer is that He’s actually delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that more people will put their trust in Him and spend eternity in heaven. He’s delaying everything out of His love for humanity.”