That's what you do in the Caribbean for about six months out of the year. You live with the prospect of violent winds and rains blowing over your family, home, and country. Though tracking models are helpful, they don't finally predict where the storms will go or what damage they may do.
This past weekend, Hurricane Paloma took a direct line for Grand Cayman. But on its approach, it tacked a bit east and instead rendered a direct hit to one of our sister islands, Cayman Brac. In God's matchless kindness, there was no loss of life. But about 90% of the buildings on the island were seriously damaged or destroyed. Most accounts suggest that this is the worst storm to hit the Brac since the 1932 storm which took life and property. Churches, government, and relief agencies are in high gear clearing the damage, evacuating victims, and restoring essential services. Pray for those in authority over us and those who serve in times of disaster and day-to-day.
How are Christians to think of such things? How are we to respond in the face of devastation? Those are the questions asked by many left dumbfounded by the storm and other major events in the life of the island. There was the recent scandal of a five-year-old girl sexually abused by two men. And there was the gruesome murder of a very popular women's rights advocate that shook everyone in the country. Over the past few weeks I've contemplated these things and the Lord keeps drawing me back to His words in Luke 13:1-9.
In verses 1 and 4 Jesus responds to two major disasters. The Galileans were slain by Pilate and had their blood mixed with sacrifices. The tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. In the former event, you have unspeakable moral evil perpetrated against others made in the image of God. In the latter, a seemingly random catastrophe not the moral fault of anyone in particular.
Jesus anticipates the question: Whose sin caused these things? And His response is direct and surprising. Of all the things the Son of God could have said:
1. A divine treatise on suffering;
2. A theological explanation of the Fall and its relation to natural catastrophe;
3. A treatise on how God appoints the times and seasons of men, giving and taking life according to His own inscrutable will...
He looks squarely at His audience and says "I tell you, No! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." Whether the evil is a gross moral sort, or whether the destruction seems to us random and unexplained, the message is the same: repent.
Why this one statement? Why repent or perish?
Well, I don't think Jesus means that the failure to repent is a sin that will cause in a one-to-one fashion a calamity to befall his audience. He's just finished saying that that is not the case with the slaughter of the Galileans or the tower in Siloam. So, he's not offering a cosmic retribution plan, or some kind of karma-repentance system.
And I don't think He is necessarily pointing to any individual sins in the life of the people before Him. Undoubtedly there are individual sins for them to turn from, but again there is not a 1-to-1 correlation here.
And I don't think He is saying that the exact same things will come upon His hearers, as though their failure to repent when they heard the news of the tower means they will one day find themselves in a tower that collapses and kills them. If that were the case, we'd expect that we all would have died a long time ago for our failure to repent when we learned of some gruesome event in the news or through friends.
Well, what does the Son of God our Savior mean?
What are we to learn and understand when calamity comes? How are we to interpret hurricanes, accidents on Russian nuclear submarines, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, persecution of Christians in Orissa and elsewhere, or the people of Cuba being struck by three sizable hurricanes in as many months?
First, our future may not be different from theirs. That is, suddenly, like a thief in the night, the unsuspecting and falsely assured may be overrun with the flooding judgment of God. We may be marrying and giving in marriage, we may be celebrating as though tomorrow is promised, we may be continuing in life thinking we have no need of God, when God shows up in a disaster.
Second, I think this repentance is a repentance from a general way of life, a routine-loving practical atheism. We journey through life making plans, making decisions, and taking actions as though the world will continue and God need not be consulted. We take for granted that catastrophes will not happen; we presume upon God their our lives will be "normal." And our "normal" lives are so often lived without a conscious and abiding awareness of God and our dependence upon Him. I think Jesus is calling the people to turn out of that old way of self-reliant idolatry into a life of faith. A life where in all our ways we trust and acknowledge Him, and He directs our paths. A life of walking by faith, not by sight. It's a complete and consuming turning.
Third, Jesus is calling us to a life of fruitfulness. That's the point of the parable in verses 6-9. See the landowner's patience and forbearance with the unfruitful tree as the farmer intercedes. So it is with all those on whom calamity has not yet fallen. God has been gracious and patient. Intercession on their behalf has been given, and the Father extends yet more time. Yet not without limit. Verse 9: "If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down." One day the Father's patience will have reached its full, and then comes His righteous judgment--suddenly, like a thief in the night. So, before the dawn of that day, all men everywhere are called to bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, to enter as branches into union with the Vine and bear fruit that remains. A life disconnected from the Source of all life, disconnected from Christ the King, is a fruitless life not worthy of the soil its planted in (v. 7). So, repent and enter into fruitful life with and in Christ.
The calamities we see around us are inbreaking calls to repentance and a life lived more fully aware of God and His mercy. Luther pointed out that the Christian life is a life of continuing repentance, continuing turning to God. And one means God uses to issue that call is calamity. And if we heed such troublesome events, then we'll find daily reminders to turn afresh to God with a full heart.
Some thoughts on how to turn calamity into a more consciously-dependent and joyful walk with God.
1. Let the news of terrible events cause you to stop. I'm really troubled with my hard heart in the face of such news. If you're like me, you may say, "Oh, that's a shame," or "Oh, my Lord" when you hear of disastrous news. But then you may move on with your life moments after uttering such words. There may be little feeling, or fleeting feeling, attached to your recognition of the disaster. I need to stop and meditate upon the pain, loss, suffering, and agony of a husband who just learned his wife is the brutally murdered and charred remains found by the police. I need to stop and try to feel and understand what it must be like to have winds rip the roof off your house, rains pour in from above, and five feet of sea water rust through below. What must it feel like to come out into the sunshine the morning after the hurricane and see your entire country tossed like so much litter all around you? For calamity to work repentance and fruit in our lives, we have to first feel them. So, we have to stop and ponder.
Obviously, we can't stop at every event, else we be emotionally paralyzed. But there are enough around us each day to consider and benefit from spiritually. So we really stop at any of them?
2. Let the disaster humble us. It's a cliche but it's true: "There but for the grace of God go you or I." There's nothing like a threatening hurricane to prove the truth of this. Often we pray the Lord would turn the storm. And often He does. And when the storm passes we're then aware that it turned toward another country, another people. Our sense of relief is mixed with pity and sorrow for others. There but for the grace of God. But if we're to benefit, we have to move beyond the cliche and humble ourselves before the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. We must search ourselves for self-reliance, willful pride, practical atheism. We must commit to God our lives and plans afresh. We must banish the thought of entering into the day or living throughout the day without the Lord's leading, ruling, guiding, providing, protecting, securing, blessing, strength, and joy. If we stop long enough, calamities may break the back of our pride and send us afresh to God in joyful dependence.
3. Let the disaster point us to Christ Jesus, His work and grace. There is no suffering that Christ has not tasted. He is not an unsympathetic High Priest. Rather, He is the Great High Priest who has entered into our flesh, taken up our lives, been tempted in every way as we have yet without sin, and tasted death for every man. Have we been touched by murder? So has the Father as He watched His Son--yes, gave His Son!--to be murdered by sinful men. Have we been touched by homelessness? Christ Jesus, the one who upholds all creation by the power of His word, entered His creation with no place to lay His head, even though foxes and birds did. He lived a vagabond life, His family on the run from a king who would kill babies, and He dodging the murderous plots of religious men until His time had come. And what abandonment and suffering as He bore the Father's wrath in the place of sinners on Calvary's cross. Can there be a greater disaster than the Son of God's execution? But then He rose! He defeated death and the grave, the Father accepted His sacrifice on our behalf, and we through faith have been united with Him in death and in resurrected life. The disaster was the signal event pointing to His triumph! When Jesus say "repent" to questioners inquiring about indescribable disaster, He is preparing them and us to see God's redemptive triumph in the "disaster" of the cross. He's preparing us to recognize in His sacrifice our need to turn from the old life of sin and enter into eternal life of love with Him.
4. Let the disaster cause you to tell others the Good News. The gospel isn't' meant to be bottled in our hearts and minds and placed in a wine cellar for select use on special occasions. The gospel is meant to be poured in earthen jars and offered to all the thirsty. What will we do when we stop long enough to feel the pain of tragedy around us? What will we do when that tragedy humbles us and brings us to God in repentant dependence? What shall we do when we look upon our Savior the resurrected Lamb and His work for us? God be merciful to us if we don't explode in gospel love onto those around us! This good news of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised to life should cause an explosion that leaves gospel debris all over our neighborhoods, workplaces, family and friends. We are to go serve as ambassadors and relief workers--not for the Red Cross or Samaritan's Purse, as wonderful as those groups are. We're to go serve as ambassadors for Christ, bringing relief from the King of kings and announcing a kingdom whose foundations cannot be shaken, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail, and into which the repentant and believing may have abundant entrance.
For several weeks, it's been all presidential politics, community organization to fight violence against women, and a host of other earthbound things. And though we haven't known it and wouldn't have asked for it, we've needed a reminder to turn to God. May the Lord help us to repent at calamity, appropriate the good news with a fresh soft heart, and give to everyone we meet.
4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening - The Gospel Coalition kindly posted my article, “4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening.”
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