As I write this, the horrific tornadoes that destroyed so much of Joplin, Missouri, are just four days ago and last night was the night of those incredible storms in Oklahoma. The videos are still fresh in my mind. I remember looking at the scene of an intersection in Joplin and knowing that even a life-long native of the area could not have identified the intersection from the picture. The landmarks were all gone! The trees were gone. The traffic signs were gone. The buildings were gone. It looked as if someone had taken a large spatula and scraped the landscape. There was some assorted trash, clutter and bits of buildings, and a car twisted up and lying on its side, but nothing to give a hint of where the scene was or what had been there before. At this moment the official death toll is at 124 and there are approximately 1,500 people unaccounted for as yet. I called the one person I knew had grown up in Joplin, Pastor Whittle, and learned that his family were fine, and their home was relatively undamaged, although they lost some out-buildings.
Oklahoma is just as horrifying in its own way. There were significantly fewer people killed, but the pictures of the path of the tornado, where it had torn out the grass and left a brown trail fifty feet or more wide for miles was stunning. The video of the house that was gone, the family was standing on the flooring, the gas tank stood next to the foundation, but the house was gone, and there wasn't even a great deal of wreckage near the foundation to tell you what had been there, took my breath away. Minneapolis had suffered a tornado strike, one man dead and a dozen or more injured, but houses destroyed and cars wrecked. And a couple of weeks ago tornadoes destroyed towns in North Carolina, and Georgia, and Alabama. And all of this was just a change in the news from the devastating flooding along the Mississippi. All of this brought a Bible passage to mind. It is Luke 13:1-5:
Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And He answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
When tremendously powerful things happen, particularly when they are unpleasant and undesired things, people begin to speculate as to why, or what is the meaning of such things? We will undoubtedly be treated to a chorus of "global warming" or "climate change" by some, along with the obligatory admonitions about how we must change our use of this planet and its resources or suffer more and greater future disasters. The false teaching preachers will crawl out of the woodwork and present their judgment about how these events are the judgment of God against some sin, or against our nations's apostasy and unrighteousness. The Television preachers will probably use the miseries of the victims of these natural disasters as fodder for their fund-raising. And some will undoubtedly conclude that there is no meaning, that there is no providence guiding events, and that life itself is meaningless, and we just need to make the most of the moments we have because it is all too soon over, and we will blow away with the sands of time.
Jesus indicated that the difficult events of His day did not carry the meaning that most people were assigning to them. The events of our past few weeks also do not tell us much about the specific people involved, whether they lived or died, were injured or just ended up standing near-by and witnessing the horror of it all. God undoubtedly was guiding the storm to the extent that He preserved the lives of many of His people, and to the extent that He used these natural events to summon many out of this life to Himself and to His judgment. You can see His hand in how the storm took out a row of homes, then jumped over a single dwelling, and dropped down again to take more buildings. I have seen that happen in storms in my home neighborhood when I was younger. I could not tell you why God did it, but when the house on either side of yours in damaged or destroyed, and your house is untouched, you know God is watching out for you. I just don't believe in luck.
Yes, God was actively involved in the storm. Some people get very uncomfortable with the idea that God caused the storm. The Bible speaks of God using storms, and calming storms, and creating and utilizing the elements of storms. But when awful things happen, some people just cannot conceive of God having a hand in such events. That is because they cannot think like God, and so they cannot fathom what God is doing, or how what they witness being done is good or a blessing. I cannot think like God either, but I can read the Word of God and find what God has said Himself about such things.
Jesus used the tragedies of His day to teach repentance. The violence of the storms, the destruction of our things by wind or water, is a lesson about life and death and the nature of things in this world. Jesus said, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." Nothing in this life is permanent. Floods and twisters demonstrate that. We can try to hold onto things, and we may be successful for a time, but nothing is permanent. The people who have suffered most in these weather events are not worse than those who did not. They did not deserve what they got more than others. They simply were the ones who were effected. We all could be, and we all deserve to be just as much or just as little (depending on how you want to look at it). Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. We cannot read the sort or meanings into these occurrences that we are tempted to read.
Are these events random and meaningless? No. We simply cannot reliably determine what meaning they have or why this one was killed and not that one, or this one lost their home and possessions, but not that one. We can only be reminded that we are sinners, and that we deserve nothing else than what we saw happen to them, and repent, and call on God for rescue and blessings. God has His purposes. We just do not see them or understand them at the moment because we are not capable of thinking like God.
That such horrible things happen at all also serves us as a sign of the end of the world approaching. It doesn't mean that we can take Harold Camping seriously (for example) and look for the Rapture and the end of the age on October 21st (the new date predicted, now that May 21 was a bust). It just means that we are reminded again that this entire world is temporary, and that the end is coming - at the time of the Lord's choosing. We should, therefore, be prepared, and be living as those who know that nothing around us is 'real' in the sense of being absolutely permanent, and that we have a better world and an eternal life to look forward to in Jesus Christ. We are to live responsibly in this world, because that is the will of God for us, but we will live as those who know that however permanent things may seem, the tornadoes of the last few weeks are just a minor demonstration of just how fleeting and impermanent this world truly is. And so we repent, and place our hope in Jesus Christ, and not in 'things'.
Then we are to see in these difficult things the call of God to live out what we confess that we believe. We trust God. He is, after all, God, and we are not. The world is His. He has the authority and the right to rearrange elements of this world as He sees fit. It is tempting to our flesh, ever since Adam and Eve, to try to place God in the box and judge Him and His ways and works. If we rely on our human standards, we would judge that the Incarnation to be impossible, the atonement to be cruel and unjust. I don't say that because I think someone might judge that way, I say it because history is filled with people actually making those judgments. The death of Jesus Christ looked like the end, but it was the beginning. It looked like defeat, but it was the very victory!
I don't know what all God was working in Joplin, or Minnesota, or Oklahoma, or any of the places He has visited with such painful and difficult visitations of His will. I simply trust Him. I am confident that God knows precisely what He is doing, and has a good reason - a plan - behind everything He has done. Clearly, He has chosen to end the lives of many people. From our vantage point, that is a difficult thing to behold. But we should remember that God is involved in the death of every single human being, man, woman, or child, that dies. In America alone, He superintends more than six thousand deaths a day (on average).
No one dies without God's permission, and when they die, the Bible tells us that their souls go to Him, to be sent to heaven or hell according to His judgment. We like to think of God as the Giver of life, but He is also the One who decides when and how we die. Death was not part of the original plan, but once man chose sin and, with it, death, God took charge and administers the eventualities of life and death. We all know stories of some miraculous escape from death, someone who survives, sometimes uninjured, when it appears that they should have died. Those are situations where God has stepped in and said, "I don't care what things look like, you are not going to die today." Sometimes people die for no obvious reason. Perhaps it is too soon, or they are perfectly healthy (or so it seems), or whatever kills them seems like too small an event. Those occasions are that other judgment of God in the decisions of life and death.
The point I hope I am making is that the deaths we observe in these tragedies are exceptional in our eyes, but not in the eyes of the Lord. Each of them is happening when they should, and how they should, that is, according to plan. We cannot outrun the will of God for us, so we have no reason to fear. In the light of the Gospel, in fact, we have every reason for confidence. We know the love of God for us, and that His will toward us is blessing and good, especially in connection with Jesus Christ — and we are always in connection with Jesus Christ as Christians. We have nothing to fear from God, and so the difficult situations of life can be met as what they must be for us, opportunities and blessings.
That is not to say that they are all pleasant. The things that God wants to work in our lives, or cause us to work in the lives of others, may require difficult circumstances and pain and trouble in our daily lives for a time. Only God knows what He is doing in us and through us, and what His good and gracious will for us contains, so only God can set us in the right place and under the right circumstances to accomplish it (or them). The saints in Joplin, for example, are facing major difficulties in many cases. Their homes are gone, or severely damaged. Their neighbors are distressed by a variety of physical and emotional challenges. God undoubtedly wants to bless them with compassion, with growth in understanding the human condition, and with a new start in life in many cases. He will use some of them to comfort and aid those who have suffered losses. He will use others to show the world how one walks in faith in the midst of hardship. He will call some of their neighbors to faith by their confession of Christ and their faithfully walking in the light of what they believe. He will give His people the opportunity to walk in faith, clearly confessing by both word and deed, who they believe in and what they trust in Hm for, and how reliable God really is.
Their troubles and hardship are also opportunities for us. This is the opportunity to think about what we trust in God about. Is it just about this life and having it good? Or do we trust in God in hardship too? Can God be inviting us to confess Him, and our hope in Him, and His love for us by living it out, and sharing our abundance with those saints that face hardship? Is it possible that their discomfiture is for our sakes, so that we might grow up to the full stature of Christ, and have a Christ-like compassion for them, and give, do, and share for their sakes? We can see in these events a call to serious and heartfelt prayer. We have been called to love one another as Christ has loved us. Prayer, and compassion in words and deeds is the part of the people of God, not because we must, but because we can, and because we know the love of God, and trust Him to be all that we need, and provide for us even as we give, and do, and share.
Finally, as we look at the great challenges of our days found in these natural events, we have the opportunity to learn and practice the lesson of finding the meaning of these events in our trust in God rather than our understanding of what is happening or why. Christians walk by faith, not by sight. We deal with these events by faith in Him who loves us - not by our understanding of what all is going on and why because, frankly, we do not understand. God's will is just too big and too complex for us to understand. If He explained it, we probably would get lost in the explanation. So, He doesn't. He tells us about His love, and tells us that He is in control, and then challenges us to believe Him and take Him at His Word and trust in Him. And so, we place our hope and confidence in Him in the midst of all of the storms of life.
Yours in the Lord,
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