Recent disasters have led to widespread destruction of people’s homes, property and livelihood, and to loss of life. At the time of writing, the coronavirus is the one that is uppermost in people’s minds, but we do not have to think very hard to bring other recent epidemics to mind. Think of:
I am thinking also of other disasters, both natural and manmade. For example
- On Boxing Day 2004 a tsunami happened which killed some 228,000 people in fourteen countries.
- On 11th September 2001 four airliners were hijacked by terrorists who managed to slay some 3000 victims – and we have seen further terrorist murders in Britain, especially Manchester and London.
- In the winter of 2015-6 Britain suffered floods which The Guardian described as “the most extreme on record”, and in February 2020 wind and flooding caused an estimated £425,000,000 of damage, again according to The Guardian, with loss of life, property, and livelihood.
- And what of the recent widespread wildfires in California and Australia?
- And meanwhile countless men, women and children have been driven from their homes and their lives ruined by war in the Middle East, many of them living in poverty and near hopelessness in refugee camps.
- A quick Internet search will produce a list of recent earthquakes, showing magnitude, location, and death toll.
- Meanwhile Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria suffer famine, and Oxfam states that “Today, the world stands on the brink of unprecedented famines.”
At such times people naturally ask, Where is God? What is he doing? What is he like? Is there a god at all?
– Is God asleep? Well, no, for the Bible tells us in Psalm 121 that he “will neither slumber nor sleep”.
– Is he unaware of our problems? No again, for Psalm 14 says that “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men.” And Jesus said in Luke 21:9-11, 25-6:
And when you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be terrified … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding at what is coming on the world.
– Well is he there at all? Yes he is, and the same Psalm tells us that only “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no god.’”
– In that case must we think he is powerless? Well, that doesn’t fit with Jesus’s words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” nor with John’s description of him in Revelation, “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
– So finally are we driven to the conclusion that an all-powerful, all-known God who allows epidemics, tsunamis, terrorism, floods, destructive winds, wildfires and wars must be at best unconcerned and at worst cruel? As Asaph asks in Psalm 77:
I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. I am so troubled that I cannot speak. “Has his steadfast love for ever ceased? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
Once more, those questions get answer in Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”
– So why does a kind all-powerful God allow these things to happen? What is going on? Is it God’s judgement or punishment on people?
People were asking the same questions in Jesus’s day, and he faced questions about two kinds of disaster in Luke 13:1-5. Here he was engaged in conversation about manmade disaster – like terrorism and war – and natural disaster – like floods, famines, and the rest.
Let’s look at the manmade one first. Pontius Pilate had murdered Galileans while they were worshipping. We do not know why. Jesus answered his questioners, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?” He went on to answer that question: “I tell you, no.” What he did not do was tell them why God hadn’t intervened (as he surely could have) and prevent Pilate from committing the murders in the first place.
Then there was the natural disaster. A tower in Siloam, Jerusalem, had collapsed and killed eighteen people. Jesus again asked his questioners, “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” And again, he answers his own question with, “I tell you, no.” But again he does not tell them why God did not ensure that, when the tower fell, the people were not nearby – as he surely could have done.
In short, Jesus offered no answer here to the mystery of why God allows manmade and natural disasters to ruin or end people’s lives. However, he does tell his hearers one thing: they need to take heed and give serious thought to their relationship with God. If that generation did not respond to God’s message through Christ, but rejected him and his words, “you will all likewise perish,” he says – not, I think, speaking of perishing eternally in hell, but of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD and the end of their national life as it was then known. And the sad thing is that they crucified the Saviour; the city was destroyed; national life did end; the Jews were scattered throughout the world.
If they were urged to take warning from natural and manmade disasters, so should we all today. We should take the warnings they point to, make us aware of our insecurity and mortality, examine our relation with God, and make sure we are in a right relationship with him.
A few paragraphs earlier I quoted Jesus from Luke 21. But that is not all he said in that speech. There is much more:
– In verses 18-19 he assures Christians that they will not ultimately perish: “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Let us keep our faith till the end, and we know we hold the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through him.
– Such events should also make us think, not only of our danger and mortality, but of our eternal promises and destiny. “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” The Bible sometimes uses the word ‘redemption’ to describe that event when Christians will hear the sound of the Last Trumpet and be called forth from their graves to resurrection and God’s eternal kingdom. Therefore, verse 36, “watch at all times,” and be preared “to stand before the Son of man” (who is Jesus) when he appears in glory.
– The future God has planned, to include all his people, is secure and cannot be undone: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (verse 33). Our future is secure.
– Meanwhile, as Hebrews Chapter 13 says, we have a God, Father, Saviour and indwelling Holy Spirit, who has said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” We do not have all the answers to our own or other people’s questions; God has simply not given them; but we do have the presence and comfort of God always, whatever times of distress we may be called to pass through. Even if some of us die of these disasters, we will find that his rod and his staff comfort us as we walk through the valley of the shadow. Our eternal destiny is secure.
Hebrews 12:28 exhorts Christians thus: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.”
But what about if you are not a Christian? Well, you are not excluded from all these matters, for the same Letter to the Hebrews has a call for you also:
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. … for our God is a consuming fire.”
So for believers and unbelievers who may be reading these words of mine, I shall close with the illustration that men who manage moorland burn off the heather across swathes of the moors, to remove what would hinder good growth in the next season, as in my picture.
As we find our liberty, security, health and life threatened and maybe burnt away from us altogether, let those of us survive – and I hope it is all of us – move towards and then into the period after the epidemic with our lives cleared of the presence and activity of unhelpful features, and with new or renewed growth of kindness towards our fellows and faith, devotion and service towards God.