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"Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and God!"

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MESSAGE FOR MARCH 20 2011 Text: Various

By this time, we’ve all doubtless heard about the series of disasters that have befallen the island of Japan.  A week ago Friday, a massive earthquake—with its epicenter just off the eastern coastline struck with massive destructive power.  This was followed by a giant tsunami that came ashore with such devastating force that entire towns and villages were completely swept away.  The death toll is somewhere today around 8000 with about 12,000 more missing.  Perhaps more alarming is the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plants and the possibility of long-term and widespread nuclear contamination from the crippled reactors.  There are many ways to process this kind of natural disaster and one you frequently hear on the streets is—“Why—if God is good and in charge of everything can he let this kind of thing happen?  That question may have run across our minds a few times this week as well.  Christ’s church can be a powerful light in darkness as we respond to these kinds of catastrophes—first, with our sacrificial generosity to the victims, but also in providing some of God’s perspective on these events in a world that is asking these questions.

From an ethical perspective, disasters like this are referred to as “natural evils”—evil things that happens in nature.  The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest intellectual problem confronting theism.  Nonetheless, we have a Bible that, although is not a comprehensive expression of God’s wisdom, it is an inerrant expression of his wisdom and it has much light to shed light on this problem.  So, with the goal of helping us to more fully understand and enabling us to speak more ably into a world searching for answers, let’s take a brief survey of the Biblical record on this topic. Our guiding question will be, “What are we to think about God’s relationship to natural disasters?” This is especially important in our day and age because blasphemous responses abound in the world and even among some who claim to be Christians. Some in the world shake their fist at God, blaming him for callous indifference, gross injustice and even cruelty.  Some Judeo Christian writers have made claims like, “God would stop disasters like this if he could but for one of several reasons, He isn’t able.”  Those responses are completely at odds with the Biblical teaching.

We want to divide this discussion into four sections.  The first section is to broadly lay out what the Bible says about God’s relationship to natural disasters.  In the second, we’ll briefly look at God’s purposes or intentions in these kinds of tragedies.  Third, we’ll examine what the Bible teaches the response of the church of Christ should be to these kinds of horrific events and finally, what the sinner’s response should be.  The first and foundational element is God’s basic relationship to nature and natural disasters.  There are two parts to this.  The first is:  Natural disasters occur due to the presence of sin in the world and were not part of God’s original creation before the fall.  That’s not an attempt to skirt the question of why an omnipotent and good God would allow natural disasters.  It’s simply a statement of truth and one that is frequently overlooked in the world today. The presence of evil in our world, as seen in tragedies like natural disasters, was not created by God, but was introduced through the sin of Adam.        

The Bible clearly teaches this.  In the narrative of the fall, we discover Adam’s sin brought a corruption to this world that spawns natural disasters.  God says to Adam in Genesis 3:17-18, “…Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.”  It would be naïve to assume that the ground, thorns and thistles were the only elements of nature corrupted by the fall. Paul is even more explicit in Romans 8:20-22.  He writes, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”            

This world is not what it was created to be.  It bears the marks of “futility” and “bondage to decay.”  We can’t know the precise extent of the falls’ corrupting influence on nature, but it surely includes earthquakes, tsunamis and the havoc they wreck on people.  The Bible says that one day God will redeem this world and the natural violence we’ve observed this past week will be a thing of the past.  The prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of this future, idyllic world and says about the redeemed creation, [11:6,9] “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them…. 9They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Again, that picture of an earth redeemed from the curse is light-years removed from the violence recently visited upon cities like Honshu and Fukushima.

In addition to the impact of the fall on nature, the Bible also teaches a fundamental truth about God’s character as it bears on his relationship to nature and natural disasters.  That is this—God is totally sovereign and in control of all nature and natural disasters.  There are those who believe the lie that God’s relationship to the world is much like a jeweler’s relationship to a watch.  That is—God created the world and “wound it up” (so to speak), but is now content to just let it run on its own without any of his personal involvement or intervention.  Others who claim to be evangelicals claim God cannot possibly be able to control these disasters because he has no foreknowledge of things like earthquakes—they take him by surprise and he does the best he can to redemptively respond to them.  Those are both lies.  The Bible teaches with crystal clarity that God is totally sovereign and in control of nature and natural disasters.

The Bible repeatedly asserts that we can know with certainty that even the slightest seismic shift, the smallest ripple (much less a wave) in the ocean—even one subatomic particle in a nuclear fuel rod are all comprehensively under the control of God’s ever-present, sovereign hand. We see this in texts like Romans 11:36.  Paul writes several inspiring statements on God’s matchless and unquestionable wisdom.  He then erupts in a Holy Spirit-inspired doxology—“Oh, the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.  Then he justifies his praise to God for his transcendent wisdom by saying, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”  The crucial word there is ALL—all things are FROM him—that is, in some way they originate with him—they are THROUGH him—that is, they are filtered and measured and limited by His sovereign hand and they are TO him.  That is, they occur and they return back to him and, in ways we often do not understand, bring him praise and glory for his manifold wisdom.  God’s wisdom is expressed in ALL things.

Jesus is more specific as he speaks of God’s total control over his created order.  He says in Matthew 10:29,Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.”  If God’s sovereign control is so intense to include each one of the millions of sparrows on earth as they fall to the ground—it surely includes the control of major seismic upheavals and the catastrophe they bring.  There are also Biblical texts speaking directly to God’s control over earthquakes.  David says to God in Psalm 60:2, “2 You have made the land to quake; you have torn it open; repair its breaches, for it totters.  The prophet Haggai says in 2:6, “6 For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.  When those tectonic plates shift and the earth quakes, God is not detached from that.  If the disaster in Japan was not in some way the will of God (in ways we cannot fully understand fully), you can be assured it would not have occurred--because everything that occurs on this planet is under His control.

Scientists tell us that the quake left a gigantic rupture in the sea floor off Japan, 217-miles long and 50 miles wide. It also shifted Japan's coastline by at least eight feet in some sections.  The land just dropped into the ocean.  Do you know that God controls those coastlines?  God himself testifies to Job in 38:8-11, “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, 9 when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10and prescribed limits for it [the sea] and set bars and doors, 11and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed'?   The coast lines of eastern Japan have been redrawn this past week.  Know this—those lines were ultimately re-drawn by God—because he alone does that

In The gospels we read many accounts of God exhibiting his control over nature when He came to earth in the incarnation of Christ.  Mark gives a well-known account as we find Jesus asleep in a storm-battered boat with a number of frantic disciples.  Mark 4:39-41 says of Jesus, “And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  40He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?"  41And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"  Make no mistake; had God wanted to stop the tsunami from making land fall, he could done so with a simple command. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a storm on the Sea of Galilee or a 30 ft. wave travelling 400 miles an hour, when God says, “Stop,” it stops!

If that weren’t enough, the Bible also speaks explicitly to God’s relationship to disasters—natural and otherwise.  In Isaiah 45:7 God says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”  God does calamity, or as it is often translated, “disaster” according to Isaiah.  The author of Lamentations says in 3:38, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”  Finally, and perhaps most directly applicable to this disaster is Amos 3:6.  God’s word says, “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”  Now we must be very careful about how we apply these kinds of texts!  First, we must know they do not teach that God sins or engages in evil.  They simply teach that his sovereign control extends, not only over the good things that happen, but also over the wretchedly bad things and that frees us to trust God in the midst of catastrophe. Second, we must always remember that The Holy Spirit inspired those truths in Scripture for specific purposes and we must stay within those purposes when we apply them. They are revealed in Scripture primarily to cause us to worship as we reflect on the absolute sovereign reign of God over nature and the expressions of His Almighty power in nature.  Isn’t it a good thing that our good God is sovereign over nature?  Second, they’re also in Scripture to bring us comfort and strengthen our faith. 

These truths comfort and strengthen our faith because they assure us that an infinitely wise, loving and good God is over these events.  They are not simply the result of “chance” or arbitrary seismic shifts.  Although the secondary cause of an earthquake is the shifting of subterranean tectonic plates, the ultimate cause is God. There are divine purposes behind these events that are often hidden to us, but they give these disasters a cosmic purpose and meaning.  In light of those purposes, when we apply these truths to contexts like Japan, we must do so with the goals of 1.stimulating increased worship of God, or 2.encouraging deeper comfort or trust in God.  If we don’t use much discernment in applying these truths toward those limited ends, we will end up bludgeoning confused people with cold theological facts and that is unconscionable for a believer to do.  On the other extreme, we MUST NOT do as some  evangelicals have done in recent years and run from these truths with the ill-conceived, arrogant purpose of trying to defend God.  God needs no one to defend Him!  As we sang a few weeks ago in Cowper’s great hymn, “God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain” in His time.  Until then, we trust him.

That leads us to the second major section and that deals with God’s purposes and intentions in these kinds of natural disasters.  Again, we must be very careful here.  Ultimately, the Bible does not give us all of God’s purposes in these contexts.  We must at some point clothe ourselves in the truth of Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”  God has simply not revealed all his purposes to us—some are kept secret from us.  We must also be very careful about smugly proclaiming that (for instance) this disaster is a judgment of God on Japan.  It would be easy to presume that--because Japan is the largest single people group in the world that has not responded to Jesus, God has judged them for their stiff-necked resistance to the gospel.  Jesus has something to say about those kinds of assumptions in Luke 13. Pontius Pilate’s men had recently butchered some Galileans as they were slaying their sacrificial animals in the temple.  Also, a large structure known as the Tower of Siloam had recently fallen and killed 18 people. As religious people often do, the Jews had been speculating about the purposes of God in these two events and they clearly saw God’s judgment on the victims.

Jesus’ response to those speculations is stark.  He says in 13:2 “…Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.  4Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?  5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."  These shallow onlookers of tragedy were looking at the hapless victims and had smugly assumed THEY deserved God’s judgment.  Jesus tells that them they should focus NOT on the sin of the victims, but on their own judgment-inducing sins.  The remarkable fact about these events according to Jesus was NOT that the sinful victims had been killed, but rather that in the mercy of God, the sinful onlookers had been spared.  The often overlooked truth in these discussions is that before a Holy God who demands perfection from humanity--ALL the people who have died or suffered in Japan deserved much worse and WE deserve much worse.  We’ll never begin to think rightly about tragedies until we absolutely own that crucial truth.

R.C. Sproul says, “…the mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is NOT that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist.”  We are so inundated with the day-to-day mercies of God, we grow to think we DESERVE life and health and homes and comfort—we have all those things coming to us.  We do not!  God owes us nothing.  Those are expressions of God’s underserved grace.  In Luke 13 Jesus is saying that one of God’s purposes in these disasters is to call all of us to repent.

In response to the 2005 Indonesian tsunami that killed over 230,000 people, John Piper wrote, “The point of every deadly calamity is this:  Repent.  Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us.  Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure.  Lament that he makes headlines only when man mocks his power, but no headlines for ten thousand days of wrath withheld. Let us rend our hearts that we love life more than we love Jesus Christ.  Let us cast ourselves on the mercy of our Maker.  He offers it through the death and resurrection of His Son.  This is the point of all pleasure and all pain.  Pleasure says: “God is like this, only better; don’t make an idol out of me.  I only point.  Pain says, “What sin deserves is like me, only worse; don’t take offence at me. I am a merciful warning.”  When we look at the grievous, inexpressible pain on the faces of the victims in Japan and the devastation that has been wrecked upon their lives, we should take time to reflect on their pain and say to ourselves, “That is what MY sin deserves. I deserve that…and worse.” Rather than point fingers at the Japanese for their rejection of Christ, we should instead interpret the events of the past week as a “merciful warning” for us to repent.  Japan rejects a Savior they do not know—we frequently refuse a Savior who we do know and who died for us.  Which is worse?  All that brings us to our third section and that is—God’s desire for the church in this context. 

From Luke 13 we see that we must first, take the pain and anguish and suffering we see on television and receive that as a warning for us to repent of making this world and its treasures supreme.  Even if the entire nation of Japan were to completely melt down in a nuclear catastrophe, those who died in that inferno and then went to hell, would yearn to come back and live in the midst of the fiery meltdown!  The anguish of judgment in hell inflicted on idolaters--who count this life and the things in it more important than God--is infinitely worse than anything suffered by those in Japan this past week or in the weeks to come.  Jesus did NOT say natural disasters are not judgments from God.  He said our attention in these times should NOT be on others who deserve it, but on the judgment we deserve. 

Beyond that—we as the church have a job to do. We are called to show to others the mercy we daily receive from God.  Jesus says in Luke 6:35, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  36Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” We are called to act like our Father—to be merciful, doing good, lending without expecting anything in return.  Paul tells us in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  We must show genuine empathy and sacrificial generosity to those people whose lives have been destroyed.  Matthew 25 tells us that when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned , JESUS is the ultimate recipient and the reward is by God’s grace, eternal life.  James 1:27 tells us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

That’s how we are to respond—first, repent of our own sin of treasuring the things of this world, which as we have been reminded this week, can be instantly destroyed by earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear meltdowns, not to mention a crash in the stock market or catastrophic illness.  Second, we must live out of the mercy we have received from God and reach out to others with the love of Jesus.  The Great Commission is still our purpose and these kinds of tragedies provide us with an enhanced opportunity to obey because we can speak the truth into people who are confused and questioning and whose lives and theological boxes have been blown up. We will be taking an offering in a few moments to give whatever aid we as a church can give this morning.  A final truth we are to bring from these kinds of calamities is—be reminded of our mortality and of the possibility of our instant, unexpected death.  We can be alive one moment and dead the next.

Let’s apply that truth to the lost.  What is God’s intention in these disasters for those who do not at this moment know Christ.   If this is an average group of church people, there are doubtless several here who live with this attitude. “Yeah, I’m not serious now about God and his plan for my life, but before I die, I will take care of it—and I’ll go to heaven when I die.”  These calamities surely are sent as God’s agents of mercy to dispel that lie and show us that we can be alive and well one moment and at the next, discover to our horror just how intensely fragile our life is as it is snuffed out before we could get serious about God.  Jonathan Edwards speaks of these procrastinators of which there are so many.  When they are in hell, he says, “If we could speak with them, and inquire of them, one by one, whether they expected, when alive, and when they used to hear about hell, ever to be the subjects of misery: we doubtless, should hear one and another reply, "No, I never intended to come here:…I thought my scheme good… but it came upon me unexpected; I did not look for it at that time, and in that manner; it came as a thief -- Death outwitted me: God's wrath was too quick for me. Oh, my cursed foolishness! I was flattering myself, and pleasing myself with vain dreams of what I would do hereafter; and when I was saying, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction came upon me."[1]

 

I guarantee you that those people who were alive and well in Japan last Friday morning before the quake had no intention, nor gave any thought to the possibility that they would be dead in two hours—but death came upon them as a thief and at this moment most of them are in eternal torment.  What about you?  Are you one of those people who think it wise to put off getting serious about God by repenting of your sin and crying out to him for forgiveness and mercy from eternal judgment?  Come to Christ today—Today is the day of salvation.  I have done many funerals where the person was in church on one Sunday and six feet under the ground the next—with no warning. Now, God’s window of mercy is open to you—come through it by God’s grace and confess your sins, repent of them and place your trust in Christ alone who died to pay your penalty—to take the judgment that you deserve.  If you haven’t done this—don’t wait.  The disaster in Japan is God’s alarm sounding to you to get right with him now because in a moment, it can be too late—and there are no appeals…no second chances.  For the church, these disasters are also God’s alarm—to remind us to stop living for this world because its’ treasures will mean nothing to us when our tsunami or earthquake or cancer or heart attack visits us.  May God give all of us the grace to process these increasingly frequent natural disasters in a way that honors Christ.

 

Prayer—come forward

Special offering—Samaritan’s Purse for aid to Japan


[1] http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/library/edwards_sinners.htm

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