Is it a coincidence that the Lectionary Gospel reading for today says in verse 11: Jesus said to them, there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven? (Luke 21:11)
Well … there is no doubt that we on the Mid North Coast of NSW, and more widely around our country, have just experienced a dreadful calamitous event in the bushfires that have destroyed so much over the past week! I have found people dazed and traumatised by the ferocity, the extreme heat and the terrible speed of the fires that have totally burnt out even grasslands, as well as so many homes, fences, sheds, machinery, paddocks, bushland – and not to forget the animals and insects that will have been destroyed. It has been beyond our experience and understanding.
Many of us may be asking, “How do we respond to such a disaster?” so it is this question upon which we shall reflect today.
The incident that led to Jesus’ predictions about war and disaster in the Gospel passage was quite different to our bush-fire situation; but Jesus’ response applies to disasters in general. Apparently, upon seeing the Jerusalem temple for the first time, the disciples were overcome with awe at its magnificence. But Jesus brought them back to earth with a prophecy and a prediction that before the end of the age there would be man-made disasters including wars, and natural disasters such as earthquakes, famine and plagues – and we can add to that, droughts, floods and bushfires.
So, in the face of this current unprecedented destruction of property and lives, both human and animal, and with Jesus’ prediction that disaster in various forms will continue until he returns, how are we to respond?
In times of past disasters, I have observed, among others, three particular ways that people, including Christians; tend to respond when disasters occur. The first is where people, particularly Christians, assume that God has intentionally caused the disaster and has done so for a particular purpose. The second is where people accept that there is a cause outside of God, but question why God allows such things to happen. The third is where people ask, “Where is God in this?” So, let’s consider these three ways of responding.
Response 1: ‘God has intentionally caused the disaster.”
The first response, i.e. that God has intentionally caused the disaster, usually leads to the suggestion that God has caused the disaster to punish people for sin – for turning away from him and rejecting Jesus and his church.
Such a view has probably originated in the Old Testament, where we do indeed see God enacting judgement upon those nations who came under his wrath and condemnation. Deuteronomy 7:10 even seems to support the view that God purposely brings disasters upon sinful people. Here we read, ‘But those who hate God, he will repay to their face by destruction ...’ However, we should not take this verse out of context to apply generally to disasters around the world today.
We must not do this because something has changed since the Old Testament times. The difference is that God entered into his created world in the form of Jesus Christ; an event that in 38 days we will celebrate as Christmas. Christmas culminates in Easter when Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
John the Baptist foretold the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection when, upon seeing Jesus approaching, he said to his students, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29) In those few immortal words, John summed up the whole gospel of salvation through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
Atonement refers to God’s act of dealing with human sin. In Old Testament times God did this through sacrifices made by a high priest upon the altar. The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that atonement is now achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus - the Hebrew system of sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people became redundant.
But note that Jesus did not die on the cross only for those who have accepted him, or for God’s people. As John said, Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ The forgiveness of sin that is available through the atoning death of Jesus Christ is held out to everyone - for all people. This is affirmed in 1 John 2:2 where we read that Jesus Christ is, ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.’
Now, this is not to say that God no longer punishes sin! Just as in the Old Testament times, God is still unable to condone sin of any form. But the difference between the time before Jesus’ death on the cross and after his death and resurrection is that the sin of the world will be dealt with at the final judgement (Acts 17:30-31). This will occur at the end of history when Jesus will return, the dead will be resurrected, and there will be the final judgement. And Matthew 25:32 indicates that the final judgment will include all people and nations from the beginning of the world to the end of history.
So, the New Testament indicates that disasters occurring today are not as a result of God punishing sinful people because the punishment of the world for sin will not occur until the end times when Jesus returns.
Response 2: “Why did God allow this to happen?”
The second response that we will consider is to ask the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” The implication behind this question is that God is not the cause of the disaster, and so the event is often referred to as a ‘natural disaster’. More recently, and particularly in the case of these bushfires, the cause is attributed by many to ‘climate change’, so the question of ‘why did God not intervene’ is perhaps not heard so much in the current debates.
Nevertheless, some Christians, upon hearing some tragic story, might still respond with this question because it is a question that has been asked throughout history when confronted generally by any form of suffering, whatever its cause. Sadly, it is a question that leads to some people turning away from God; while others use it as an excuse to continue to ignore God.
In addition, this response is often used by non-believers as an effort to discredit God. It is a challenge to Christians that arises because Christianity says that God is both good and all-powerful. Those wishing to discredit God would argue this way: “If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, he would be able to do what he wished - but those suffering are not happy; therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
There are various ways that we might respond to this challenge and many excellent books written on the problem of suffering. Time precludes me from addressing all possible ways today; but, one way is to remember that suffering is not part of God’s original created order. Genesis Chapters 1 & 2 indicate that suffering only entered the world after humanity rebelled against God. So, it is not God’s intention that people, and his creation, should suffer through disasters such as these bushfires; rather the suffering is an outcome of people’s sin, either directly or indirectly.
And why did God allow this sin to enter the world? – well, he did so because he loves us and wanted to give us free will. Love is not love if it is forced; it can only be love if there is a real choice.
We know that humankind’s free choice led to a rejection of God, a desire to be masters of our own life, and hence self-centred attitudes that introduced selfishness, greed and a desire for power. These attitudes have in turn resulted in spoiling, pollution and destruction of God’s creation, which generally (not always) either directly or indirectly lies behind the disaster events that occur in this fallen world.
Nevertheless, we know that God is still working in the world, and often we see that whilst God did not cause a disaster in the first place, he is certainly able to, and often does, bring good things out of the suffering caused by disasters. As Paul says in Rom 8:28, ‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ He may use it to draw people to Jesus Christ, and he also may use the suffering to bring Christians to maturity – to build our character, to refine us, and to make our lives more fruitful. That God might bring some good out of disasters and suffering is a good prayer for us to pray when such disasters occur.
It is important to remember that God will eventually correct the situation created by humankind. Revelation 21 tells us that there will be no suffering when God creates ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ when Jesus returns. But his does not release us from our God given responsibility to care for his creation as indicated in Genesis 2:15.
Meanwhile, we must continue to know that God is both good and all-powerful. And when challenged by questions like ‘Why did God not intervene’, we might also point people to the fact that God has intervened in our planet by sending Jesus Christ. There we see the love of God most clearly. It was Martin Luther who said, “When you look around and wonder whether God cares, you must always hurry to the cross and you must see Him there.”
Response 3: Where is God in this?
The third response, often asked when we see tragedy, a very natural question to ask is “Where is God in this?”
This question may be taken in a negative or positive sense. In the negative it is just another way of expressing the first two questions that we have already considered – it is a challenge! In the positive sense it is asked as a way of seeking to find hope and comfort in the midst of disaster.
I suggest that we can find God in the faces and virtuous acts of others as they respond to disaster. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is because humankind has been created in the image of God. This means that people have been created with the same love, compassion and mercy that God has. And it is during the generous giving of donations, time, energy and effort to fight the fires – to help others and to protect their homes – such as we have seen over the last week that we see these characteristics of God expressed through his created people.
As we observe the outpouring of compassion and love, we see God’s love, because 1 John 4:19 says, ‘We love because God first loved us’ It is God’s love that we see being expressed through people. And 1 John 4:12 tells us that, if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Over the last week, people have made sacrifices to help others and, especially the firefighters, have put their own lives at risk. Others have been so generous in their donations that we have had to ask them to stop donating because we have run out of storage. Granted, we have seen some evil in a very small number of people who have taken advantage of the misfortune of others for their own gain and greed. But in the majority of the responses of our fellow men and women, we see people behaving towards one another with the love, concern, and compassion that Jesus encouraged and displayed. In such displays of the example that Jesus set, we can find God.
Responding to disaster, such as the bushfires, can challenge us and lead to many ways to respond. We are encouraged to stand firm in our faith in God and continue to worship him and to point people to Jesus Christ, the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29).
We should remember that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) We must understand that God’s judgement of the sin of the world will occur at the end of time when Jesus comes again. But we must also learn any lessons to be learned about caring for God’s creation, particularly lessons to do with our own actions that may have contributed to the disaster. Finally, we are encouraged to see God and the face of Jesus in the selfless, compassionate acts of others.
None of what I have said is to say that we will always have or find answers to the questions that arise in the midst of disaster, tragedy and suffering. Sometimes, there is no answer to be found – and the only way to respond is as Job, who lost everything, did when he concluded, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job shows us it is possible to worship God even without explanations, even when we don’t know all the reasons; and that those who stand firm in our faith and continue to worship God and testify about Jesus regardless of the circumstances are especially blessed. So, let us pray that God will brings some good out of the bushfire disaster, and continue to pray as we prayed in the Collect for today, that while we await Jesus’ return, we might long for his kingdom, remain steady in times of trial, and have patient endurance.