MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 4, 2005

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MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 4, 2005

“A Biblical Lens on Disasters”

 

          We all know by now the tragic disaster of hurricane Katrina and its gruesome immediate aftermath that occurred this week and which has completely dominated the news.  I will not give another summary of the severity of this crisis.  Any here who have wanted to know that information have not been lacking for minute by minute news updates.  Many of those reports have included unusually unfiltered references to God—many in either bursts of praise to Him for deliverance or anguished prayers for relief.  Some of the references to God have been in the form of profanity spewed out by hurting and disgusted people.  Natural disasters like this one or the tsunami that months ago racked thousands of miles of Asian coastlines, as hideous as they are, nonetheless provide the church of Christ a unique opportunity to impact a hurting and confused world.  Our ability—in a God-honoring way to speak into a world filled with questions, is ultimately dependent upon our understanding of what the Bible says on this topic.  If you are like me, you tend to tense up a bit when you hear an on-the-street type news interview with someone who purports to be an evangelical and who has “God’s perspective” on the latest disaster. Too often those do not reflect God’s mind as it is expressed in the Bible.

          That is in some respects understandable given the nature of this topic.  This area is not an easy one to explore.  We would need far time than we have this morning and you would need a far more insightful theologian to give anything approximating a biblically comprehensive treatment of this topic.  That’s because this matter of natural disasters and God’s perspective on them fall under the vexing area of “the problem of evil.”  That is—“why is there evil in the world and how should we understand it?”  Those are exquisitely difficult questions.  Theologian Millard Erickson admits, “We should not set our expectations too high in our endeavor to deal with the problem of evil.  Something less than complete resolution will have to suffice for us.  It is important to recognize that this is a very severe problem, perhaps the most severe of all intellectual problems facing theism.  We are dealing here with a problem that has occupied the attention of some of the greatest minds of the Christian church, intellects such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. None of them were able to put the problem to rest finally and completely.”

          Having said that, we nonetheless have a Bible that, although it is not a comprehensive expression of God’s wisdom, it is an inerrant expression of his wisdom and it has much to say to shed light on this problem.  So, with the goal of helping us to more fully understand God and his relationship to natural disasters like Katrina and enabling us to speak more ably into a world searching for answers, we will take a survey look at the biblical record on this topic. Our guiding question will be, “How are we to understand God’s relationship to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina?”  This is especially important in our day and age because blasphemous responses abound in the world and even among some of those claiming to be Christians. Some in the world shake their fist at God, blaming him either for reckless indifference or gross injustice.  Some claiming to be Christians have made claims such as, “God would stop disasters like this if he could but he for such and such a reason He isn’t able.”  Neither of those answers represents biblical teaching.

          We want to divide this discussion into three sections.  The first section is to broadly lay out what the bible says about God’s relationship to natural disasters.  In the second section we will briefly look at God’s purposes or intentions in these kinds of tragedies and finally we will examine what the bible indicates the response of the church of Christ should be to these kinds of horrific events.  The first and foundational element is God’s basic relationship to nature and natural disasters.  We need to divide that into at least two declarative statements.  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.  This is in no way an attempt to “let God off the hook” for disasters. As we’ll see, God has no need of being let off any hooks!  It is simply a statement of truth and one that is all too easily overlooked in the world today. The presence of evil in our world as seen in things like natural disasters were not created by God but were introduced through the sin of Adam. 

We see this in several places.  In the narrative of the fall, we discover the sin of Adam not only impacted humanity but the broader created order as well. God tells 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 from that text to assume that the ground and thorns and thistles were the only elements of nature to be impacted by the fall. Paul is 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.”

          It’s clear this world is not what it was created to be but in facts bears the marks of “futility” and “bondage to decay.”  We cannot know all of what that precisely entails but its safe to say that it includes city-destroying, baby-killing natural disasters.  We know one day God will redeem this place we now live on and that existence will be absent the natural violence we have seen this past week.  The prophet Isaiah gives us a picture of this idyllic time 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 away from the violence we have seen this week visited upon cities like New Orleans and Biloxi.

          In addition to the Biblical truth about the impact of the fall on nature, the Bible also teaches a fundamental truth about God’s character as it relates to his relationship to nature and natural disasters.  That is this—God is totally sovereign and in control over nature and natural disasters.  There are those who hold to the heretical view 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 personal involvement or intervention.  Others claim God has no foreknowledge of evil things so he is unable to control them.  Neither of those views can be supported from Scripture.  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 trust that not one rain drop falls, one category five hurricane wind blows, one levee breaks, one power outage occurs, one roof collapses, one dysentery bacteria spreads, one oil refinery is flooded that is not comprehensively under the control of God’s ever-present, sovereign hand. We see this implied in texts like Romans 11:36.  Before that verse, Paul writes several inspiring statements on God’s matchless and unquestionable wisdom.  Then he 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, they in some way 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 bringing him praise and glory for his manifold wisdom.  God’s wisdom is expressed in ALL things.

          Jesus is more concrete in his expression 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 the falling to the ground of each one of the millions of sparrows on earth—it surely includes the oversight of major weather systems and all they entail.  Beyond that, there are several biblical texts speaking directly to God’s sovereign control over nature and the weather.  The Psalmist says in 135:6-7, “6Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. 7He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,

who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.” The Psalmist says that whatever happens on earth, the heavens, the seas and the deeps occurs at the pleasure of God—whatever HE PLEASES—in the clouds, lightning, rain and wind.  If hurricane Katrina was not in some way (that we will not understand fully) His will, you can be assured it would not have occurred because what takes place in the sea and the deeps is under His control.

          Another text in this vein is Job 37:6.  It says of God, “For to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth,' likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.”  The mighty downpours fall at God’s command.  Likewise in Job 37:10-12, the writer says, “By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast.  11He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning.  12They [the clouds] turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.”  When clouds circle around and around as they do in hurricanes and tornadoes, they do so under the direct guidance of God “to accomplish all that he commands them.”  Especially pertinent to the flooding of the Gulf Coast is God’s own testimony about his oversight over the coast lines. He 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 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 along the Gulf of Mexico, which—if you have seen from satellite photos have changed a bit in the past week—those lines are ultimately drawn by God. 

Given those texts about God’s control over nature, it should come as little surprise for us to read 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 hurricane Katrina from making land fall, he could have with one simple command.

          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 Katrina 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 does evil, but He is completely sovereign over disaster as He is sovereign over everything else.  Second, we must always remember that those truths are in Scripture for specific purposes and we must stay within those limits when we apply them. They are revealed in Scripture primarily to bring us to worship as we reflect on the absolute sovereign reign of God over nature and the expressions of His Almighty power in nature.  They are also there to bring us comfort. 

These truths comfort us because they assure us that an infinitely wise, loving and good God is over these events.  They are not the simply result of “chance” or arbitrary weather patterns.  There are divine purposes behind these events that are often hidden to us but they give these disasters a larger purpose and a meaning.  When we apply these truths in contexts like the one we are now in, we must do so with the goal being--either to stimulate increased worship of God or to encourage deeper comfort or trust in God.  If we don’t use discernment by applying these truths toward those limited ends, we will end up bludgeoning people with hard theological facts and that is unconscionable for a believer to do.  We MUST NOT do as some in evangelicalism have done in recent years and run from these truths with the ill-conceived and arrogant purpose of defending God.  God needs no one to defend Him!  As we sang last week, “God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain” in His time.

That leads us to our second major point 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 the purposes of God 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.  What we must be very careful about doing is proclaiming with a note of smugness that (for instance) this hurricane is “nothing more than the much-deserved judgment of God on that raunchy, vile city of New Orleans which of course it richly deserved.”  Jesus had something to say about those kinds of assessments in Luke 13. Pontius Pilate’s men had recently butchered some Galileans while they were slaying their sacrificial animals in the temple.  Also, a large structure known as the Tower of Siloam had fallen and killed 18 people. People had evidently been speculating about the purposes of God in the two events and seeing divine judgment in them.

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 smugly assumed THEY deserved God’s judgment.  Jesus instead tells them they should focus NOT on the victims but on themselves.  The remarkable fact about these events according to Jesus was NOT that the victims had been killed, but rather that in the mercy of God, the 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 along the Gulf Coast deserved much worse and WE deserve much worse.  We will never begin to make sense of tragedies until we own that crucial truth.

          R.C. Sproul is right when he says, “We are all sitting on death row awaiting execution.  The greatest mass killer of all time was not Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin.  The greatest mass killer of all is Mother Nature.  Everyone falls to her.  Mother Nature does not act independently from God.  She is merely the avenger of a holy God…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 do not—those are expressions of God’s underserved grace.  Jesus’ point in Luke 13 is to say that one purpose of these disasters is to call all of us to repent.

          In response to the December Tsunami John Piper has written, “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 of Katrina and the devastation that has been wrecked upon their lives, we should be take time to reflect on their pain and say to ourselves, “That is what MY sin deserves. I deserve that…only worse.” Rather than point fingers at the sin of New Orleans we should instead interpret the events of the past week as a “merciful warning” to us to repent and 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 it is to first, take the pain and anguish and suffering we see on the television and receive that as a warning to us to repent of making this world and its treasures our focus.  The pain 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 the path of Katrina.  Jesus did not say natural disasters are not judgments from God.  He said our attention in these times should not be on the possible judgment given to others, but on the one that we deserve. 

       Beyond that—we 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 God—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 compassion for those people whose lives have been ravaged.  Matthew 25 tells us when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned we are doing it for JESUS 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, to repent of our own sin of treasuring the things of this world, which can be destroyed by moths and rust and hurricanes or stolen by thieves and broken levees.  Then we are to live out of the mercy we have received from God by reaching out to others with the love of Jesus.  The Great Commission is still our purpose and these contexts provide us with an enhanced opportunity to do that because we can speak the truth into people who are confused and questioning and whose lives and theological boxes have been blown up. We have provided a list of resources through which you can give donations to those whose lives have been decimated by this disaster.  If you have not done so already, please give generously in whatever way you can and in so doing fulfill the law of God for the glory of God.  May God grant that we would see natural disasters and all of life through a biblical lens so that we can meaningfully comfort others and worship our heavenly Father more fully for the holy and merciful God He is.

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