News of a Tragedy

Luke 13:1-9, Revelation 6:12-17

20 March 2011

Woodley Baptist Church

Morning Reflective Service


Where do we start with a subject like this? An earthquake so immense that it shifted the whole main island of Japan eastwards by about twelve feet. A Tsunami so powerful that it swept away whole towns. Eight thousand people confirmed dead; a further twelve thousand missing; four hundred thousand living in shelters. I imagine we've all seen the pictures; I don't need to go into graphic detail.

Some have been quick to leap in with their views. The Governor of Tokyo last week had to apologise after saying that "the earthquake and tsunami represented 'divine punishment' of the Japanese people who have been tainted with egoism" .

Others are full of questions: where was God when it happened? Why didn't God stop it? Is it a sign that the End is near? There is a place for discussing such issues, but I don't think we should start with them.

What the Bible would have us do is start by listening. Before we leap in with our views, before we demand that God answer our questions, God demands that first we listen: listen to his questions.

We see this towards the end of the book of Job. It's a story of great personal tragedy for Job. For 35 chapters the debate around his suffering has gone round-and-round in circles until finally God interrupts.

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.ref

God then spends four chapters asking Job questions, over 80 of them by my count, and Job is silenced. Finally, Job repents of his presumption in seeking to question God before he had listened to God.

So, rather than starting with our opinions and our questions, I want to start with the Bible this morning. In the face of this immense catastrophe, I want us first to hear from God.

So let's look at the reading we had from Luke. Luke 13, verses 1 to 9. Of course, this short passage by no means says everything that could be said about tragedy and calamity, but it does give a vital perspective from Jesus himself. It will be helpful if you can have it available to refer to.

God intends calamity to be a warning for us

The first thing we hear is that God intends calamity to be a warning for us.

Some in the crowd brought Jesus news. Apparently, cruel and brutal Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Jews as they made their sacrifices at the temple.

What would the Great Teacher say about this outrage? If the police stormed into our church during Holy Communion and cut some of our throats and then poured the blood into the communion cup—what questions would you be asking? Perhaps they expected Jesus to condemn Pilate. Perhaps they expected him to condemn the victims, explaining that they must have deserved what they got for some sin they had committed. Perhaps they were simply perplexed: how could God let this happen? How would you explain it?

Well, like his Father, Jesus begins with questions.

Do you think, he asks, do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!ref

Then Jesus himself brings up another tragedy, presumably current news at the time. Verse 4, or what about those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!ref

And then he turns it round. Verse 3, But unless you repent, you too will all perishref. Verse 5, But unless you repent, you too will all perishref.

Jesus turns it around. The question he wants to deal with is not, Why them?, but, Why not you? These people who died tragically were not extraordinary sinners. They were completely ordinary sinners. Just like you and me.

We should not be surprised, Jesus is saying, that terrible things befall other people. They are sinners who have rebelled against God. What should utterly surprise us is that we do not suffer the same fate, we who are equally rebellious sinners against God.

The extraordinary thing is not that God allowed an enormous earthquake and tsunami to strike Japan. The extraordinary thing is that he has not yet done it to us. Have you ever thought about it like that?

"You are in danger!" , he says. People who have rebelled against God face his judgement. Turn around! Repent before it's too late! Or you too will face his judgement like this. Do something about it while you still can.

I understand—not from personal experience—that if the police believe you have been driving "without due care and attention" they can sometimes offer you a Driver Improvement Course as an alternative to prosecution. I'm told that part of this course involves looking at scenes of horrible car crashes and discussing the causes and consequences of them. No graphic detail is spared. It is designed to shock.

The point is clear: unless you change your behaviour, there is a good chance you will also end up like this.

Jesus uses these tragedies in a similar way. When you see a disaster, understand it as a warning: unless you change, unless you repent, you too will perish.

"What about that earthquake in Japan?" , he asks us. "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" .

God is mercifully holding back the greatest calamity of all

So, if the people of Woodley are every bit as sinful as the people of Japan, then why are we daily spared this kind of tragedy? Why did we wake up yesterday to a gorgeous, peaceful spring day, and not a scene from the apocalypse?

Well, the second part of our reading explores this question. And the heading is God is mercifully holding back the greatest calamity of all.

In verses six to nine, we are given an insight into the inner dialogue of the Godhead. It's as if we were listening in to God talking to himself.

Then [Jesus] told this parable: A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'ref

'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'ref

This is a story of judgement postponed, judgement delayed, judgement held back. It's a story of being given a second chance.

There's a real tension: should this useless, fruitless tree be chopped down, or should it be given just a bit longer?

So it is in the world. This rebellious, evil world deserves God's immediate judgement, yet God mercifully holds back just a little longer, just a little longer. We live in a world under condemnation, but the judge has not yet executed the sentence.

But, one day, he will. And it will be very severe, as our reading from Revelation graphically described. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black... The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.... They called to the mountains and the rocks, Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?ref

But, for now, God is holding back this judgement. As Peter says in his second letter, [God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.ref

So we live in a time of judgement postponed, judgement delayed.

The problem is that we become complacent, don't we? We start to take God's mercy for granted. We start to presume that somehow we deserve to enjoy God's blessings: food, and clothing and comfort, and entertainment, and sunshine and beauty, and friendships and joy. After a while we treat all of that as normal. Our newspapers do not report, "Isn't it unbelievable how well things are going considering how wicked we have been?"

What any natural disaster ought to do is to remind us of how temporary all this is. We live in an age not of "judgement gone away", only of judgement held back. Natural disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, fires, floods—these all in some way foreshadow the final judgement to come. They ought to shock us out of our complacency. A world under blessing is not at all what we deserve; it will not last for ever.

So God intends calamity to be a warning for us to repent, because God is holding back the greatest calamity of all. We should understand any natural disaster as both a warning and a reminder.

Now, obviously, all this is not by any means the last word on natural disasters and human suffering. But we should take note that Jesus starts here when he deals with the topic. It's good to start by listening to him; his perspective is so different from ours.

How should we respond?

To finish, I want to look how we ought to respond.

An event like this often raises a lot of questions. Where was God? Is it a sign of the end times? Is it God's judgement on Japan? And so on.

Frankly, these are not questions I personally find very interesting. If you will take the time to develop a Biblical world-view you won't have much difficulty in answering them. Having said that, if you are genuinely struggling with questions like these, then I would be very glad to talk to you later.

However, at this point, I think Jesus would have us answer a much more interesting question: How will you respond? An enormous catastrophe has occurred on the other side of the world. How will you respond?

If you are a believer—if you are someone who has already turned around, repented from sin and turned to Jesus—then there is only one appropriate response: great generosity. Generosity in giving and generosity in prayer.

As many of you know, I work for a Japanese company. The last week has been rather strange, as you might imagine.

Two things stand out in particular.

On, I think, Tuesday morning, one of my Japanese colleagues seemed particularly upset. He sits at the desk next to me. When I asked him, he told me that he'd been listening to a radio phone-in on the way to work. And he was shocked and upset by the attitude of some of the callers: one said we shouldn't give to Japan because it is a rich country; another, shamefully, said that we shouldn't help Japan because it's not a Christian country; and on it went.

Well, brothers and sisters, all I can say is that Jesus' followers do not make these calculations. In the face of tragedy we are generous to a fault.

And we are generous in prayer. I've made a point of telling countless colleagues both here and in Japan this week that we are praying for them. As a church we are praying for them, as a family we are praying for them, as an individual I am praying for them.

On Thursday I had a great privilege. About twenty-five of us had got together for a long-planned event. As we began, I was taken by surprise by our Japanese head of department who asked me to lead a moment's silence and then in prayer for the people of Japan. Brothers and sisters, opportunities like this do not come along often: please be generous in prayer, and be generous in giving. Not only to Japan, but to every tragedy-afflicted corner of the world.

Finally, how should you respond if you are not a believer?

Simply put, this disaster is a warning to you.

Jesus could not be more blunt: unless you repent, you also will perish.ref This man who does not waste words says it twice. Repent! Turn away from yourself, and turn to God. That's simply what it means. Come to Jesus and say, I no longer want to live my life my own way, without you. Be my Lord. I will follow you.

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.ref

Will you believe in him?