The other day at work, one of my colleagues passed around a link to a stunning video of the power of quickly-rising floodwaters in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. The video showed a row of cars being first set afloat, then carried downstream, then being deposited in a jumbled heap as the flood passed on. A few days earlier, Marion and I were powerfully impacted by a news report showing a distraught woman whose house had been flooded.
We can all sympathize intuitively with the victims of disasters such as the recent widespread flooding in Australia, Hurricane Katrina in 2004, or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Such powerful events have the ability to rivet our attention. They threaten our sense of security. We are shocked and disturbed as we picture what it would be like for our own lives to be overturned by such unstoppable forces.
We ask ourselves why such things happen, and various explanations are offered, none of them totally satisfying. Some say “God is just, and such terrible events are His righteous judgments”. Others say “God is kind and compassionate, and such terrible events are contrary to His will”. Still others say “There is no God or else such things wouldn’t happen. Life makes no sense”.
Evidently people in Jesus’ day wrestled with these kinds of issues too. Luke records that on one occasion Jesus’ disciples came to him with what must have been a hot news story at the time. Pilate, the Roman governor, had killed some Galileans while they were at worship in the Temple, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. When they approached Jesus for a comment on this horrific act of cruelty, He linked it to another contemporary event – the death of eighteen people who were crushed when a tower collapsed on them. With surgical precision He sliced deftly through the arguments of all three viewpoints listed above.
To those who assumed that the victims must be especially terrible sinners, Jesus said “That’s not your call. Instead of judging them, judge yourself”. So if you want to claim that disasters are judgments sent by God on other people, you won’t find any support from Jesus. He never lets us off the hook, never lets us get away with focussing on someone else’s sins. He always turns the pointing finger back at the one doing the pointing, and says in effect “Instead of playing judge on someone else’s life, govern your own life”.
On the other hand, for those who assume that a loving God would never judge anyone, Jesus’ comments are equally disturbing. He deftly sidestepped the question that everybody wanted Him to answer (“Were these events direct judgments from God, or not?”). Instead, he pointed his listeners to a far more pressing issue, telling them : “The victims of these disasters were no better or worse than you – so wake up and smell the coffee! Unless you repent, you will perish too”. Sounds like a warning to me.
What? Jesus gave warnings of judgment? Didn’t he teach that God loved everyone? Absolutely – but He also very clearly and repeatedly spoke of a coming day of reckoning. He evidently thought his hearers needed to be warned – and if they needed a warning, don’t you think the same might apply to us? Although it may not be a popular view, the truth is that God has never suspended His right to judge. While it may not be what we want to hear, Jesus indisputably portrayed these terrible disasters as a wakeup call from God – a reminder that none of us knows when or how our life will end or when Christ will return, and that one day we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
But didn’t Jesus come to give His life so that we could be forgiven? Exactly! If there won’t be any judgment anyway, why bother? Jesus isn’t stupid – He didn’t come to sacrifice his life and die a horrible death for nothing. He gave His life because God is both just and kind. Because God is kind, He yearns for us as a loving father might agonize over a rebellious teenager, patiently waiting for us to come back to our senses and embrace His mercy. Yet, because He is just, God cannot allow the sin and evil of a rebellious race to continue forever. For those who insist on maintaining their independence, the day of reckoning must come.
Disturbing? Well, yes – but also comforting. If we are willing to stand in the light of His scrutiny, Jesus’ message is wonderfully good news. No event, no circumstance is meaningless. For those with eyes to see, every event points us to God’s coming Kingdom, which has already broken into history in the person of Jesus, and will be fully established when He returns to reign openly as King. The day of reckoning is not the end of the story. For those who throw themselves on His mercy – including all the innocent victims of all the injustices of history – Jesus holds out the sure hope of a restored earth and a resurrected, glorified body. But you can only get there by dealing honestly with the One who gave His life for you, and who knows you better than you know yourself – what you have been, what you are and what you can become.
Upheavals and troublesome events of all kinds are inevitable in a wondrous, beautiful, yet messed-up world. But the world won’t stay messed-up forever. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, life’s disasters serve a redemptive purpose, upsetting our neatly ordered lives so that we can see again our need to humble ourselves and turn to the One who made us, Who has given His life to save us, and Who is coming to rule.
Back in the sixties, the song Plastic Jesus took a tongue-in-cheek poke at popular religion :
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
As long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car
A plastic Jesus won’t save you when disaster comes. The real Jesus, however, most certainly will – that is, if you are willing to go through the fire and the water with him, for the sake of the glory that is to come.