What Natural Disasters Preach

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My second Sunday as a full-time pastor came five days after the worst tornado outbreak in American history afflicted our city and its surrounding region. I preached from Job 1–2, and we put the sermon title on our marquee: “Where Was God?” Attendance that Sunday doubled and a couple of media members, intrigued by the existential question on our sign, interviewed me.

Natural disasters and tragedies, particularly those that fall on us like a lightning bolt, provoke thoughts in all kinds of people—both the religious and the irreligious—of death, eternal realities, and deity.

Many of us remember the aftermath of 9/11. There was a large ecumenical prayer service held at Yankee Stadium a few days in its wake as a shadow of fear blanketed our country. Similarly, the assassination of national leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy spawned myriad solemn gatherings for prayer and reflection on ultimate realities.

In Luke 13:1–7, Jesus faced a crowd of people who sought the meaning of two tragic events—one an atrocity that brings to mind some of the unspeakably evil activities of Nazi Germany, another that summons the gut-wrenching images of crumbling towers that September morning in 2001.

In the first event, Pilate displayed his brutality by murdering Galileans in the midst of worship and then mingling their blood with the sacrifices—a cruel, blasphemous act. The crowd’s tacit question for Jesus was: What did they do to deserve such a fate? Jesus knew as much, asking them: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered in this way?”

In the second event, a tower in Siloam—an area in south Jerusalem near the pool of Siloam—toppled to the ground, killing 18, likely injuring more. The tacit question was the same: Did those victims somehow deserve their fate? Were they especially heinous sinners? As Jesus put it: “Do you think they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?”

Repent or Perish

Jesus responded to both situations with the same pointed, sobering answer: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In other words, the Galileans were murdered at the altar, in what they no doubt viewed as a holy place, but they had no time to repent. Similarly, those on whom the tower fell were taken out of this world in the blink of an eye without warning, with no time to repent.

Jesus’s warning may come off as terse, even slightly harsh, but it is a word of grace: Turn to the Lord while there is still time. The point is simple, but we miss it to our peril.

Here are four additional applications we can draw from Christ’s brief encounter with this crowd.

1. ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ is not the right question.

“Why do good things happen to bad people?” is perhaps the better question. Jesus didn’t deny the connection between catastrophic events and human wickedness, and it’s true that such events occur because of humanity’s fall into sin. Nevertheless, Jesus was clear: “Unless you repent, you shall surely die.”

Every human born in Adam’s wake, except Jesus, is a rebel against his or her Maker. That God heaps mercy on undeserving sinners like us, then, should mystify us every bit as much—if not more—than why bad things happen to “good” people. We are all heinous sinners. We all need grace.

2. Today is the day for repentance.

We never know what a given day will bring. No one’s guaranteed time to prepare for death. Those on whom the tower of Siloam fell were presumably going about their business when tragedy suddenly struck. Workers in the Twin Towers of Manhattan, as well as the fire and rescue workers, expected a normal day at the office. But the Preacher of Ecclesiastes puts it like this:

Time and chance happen to them all. Man knows not his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Eccles. 9:11–12)

On the highway of life, death lurks like an evil shadow around the next bend, hidden from view. It’s true for the Christian as well as the atheist. Is today your day?

3. We must speak only where God has spoken.

Attempting to read providence is unwise and dangerous. As we tend to do, the crowd Jesus addressed apparently made a judgment as to why Pilate committed his atrocities and why the tower fell. In the aftermath of 9/11, some presumed to speak on God’s behalf, assuring listeners the terrorist attacks were divine retribution for national sins including abortion and homosexuality. Might that have been true? That’s up to God. We simply don’t know, for God never told us. And what would be our condition if each of us got what our sins deserved? Had Christ not shouldered my debt, I would be in hell.

In his provocative book God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, Steven J. Keillor argues that temporal events may indeed be acts of divine judgment for public sin. God hasn’t been pleased to tell us, however, the particular tragedies that result from particular national transgressions. Christians usually wind up looking foolish when they predict specific dates for Jesus’s return, as well as when they try to read providence. Jesus’s words in Luke 13 demonstrate the folly of the latter.

4. Natural disasters are powerful preachers.

On August 31, 1886, the most powerful earthquake to ever hit the East Coast pummeled Charleston, South Carolina, killing 150 and reducing to rubble nearly 90 percent of the historic city’s masonry buildings. More than two-thirds of the city’s 40,000 inhabitants were homeless. Baptist pastor-journalist H. H. Tucker told readers of the Christian Index newspaper that the earthquake was a preacher sent by God to, consistent with Jesus’s words here in Luke 13, rouse a spiritually drowsy culture. He said the awful event preached several doctrines, including the sovereignty of God, the moral responsibility and guilt of man, the uncertainty of life, the value of prayer, and the necessity of repentance. Tucker wrote:

When the continent trembled, millions of people thought of God. A large proportion of these were of that class in all whose thoughts, from day to day, God is not. Millions of people were impressed with a sense of human helplessness and insignificance. . . . In the heyday of prosperity, men invent arguments to disprove [the existence of God], but when appalling danger comes suddenly upon them they forget the arguments and remember [God], showing that deep in the human heart there is an intuition which acknowledges God, and recognizes our proper relations to him.

Jesus took the opportunity to use a human atrocity and a natural disaster to preach both the danger of life in a fallen world and also the need to repent. We should soberly and humbly look for opportunities to do the same. God does not owe us tomorrow.

Time Is Short

Above all, Jesus’s brief warning in Luke 13 ought to remind us that we bear a message the entire world desperately needs. Until Jesus returns in glory, natural disasters will occur. There will be a tornado outbreak worse than the one I lived through. There will be atrocities, because there will always be despotic leaders. Towers will crumble at the hands of terrorists.

And because man knows not his time, it is fitting in every season and on every occasion for Christians to gently lead unbelievers from “Why me?” to “Why not me?”—and to lovingly channel Jesus’s words: “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”

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