The following has been adapted from a sermon preached in Houston on September 3, 2017 after Hurricane Harvey.
There’s a recurring theme in our service today. We sang Psalm 46, which speaks of roaring waters and hills being thrown into the sea. Our reading from Jeremiah 15 spoke about deceitful brooks and waters that fail. And after the sermon we’ll sing Psalm 124, which speaks of tidal waves and surging floods.
You may think I chose these hymns and scriptures because of what we’ve been going through this past week. But actually, the scriptures are the lectionary readings for today, and the hymns were picked weeks ago – long before I knew anything about Hurricane Harvey.
How providential it is, that what was planned in advance for worship has relevance to our current events. That is the Spirit of God at work. So before you label me “cheesy” or “cliché,” know that it wasn’t my intention. It was someone else’s, and for good reason.
We should talk about our current events. We need to hear God’s word about these things. After all, it has consumed our thinking. It has greatly inconvenienced us in one way or another. Maybe it’s caused you fear, sadness, or anger. If not you, we know that’s been the case for others.
Tragically, members of our congregation suffered great loss due to flooding. We’re thankful they were not bodily harmed; we’re thankful they were rescued. But the destruction of property is itself traumatic – your home, your car, your furniture, your pictures, your memories. It’s devastating.
There were other members who did not suffer damage, but were at real risk. That alone is frightening and stressful. Of course, other parts of Houston are suffering much worse than we are. So what do we do with this? How do we interpret what’s going on around us and what’s happening to our neighbors, our city? Where is God in all of it?
When disasters like this occur, there are two common reactions. One reaction is to ask, “God, what have you done?” God’s supposed to be the ultimate weatherman, so he’s the most obvious scapegoat. “How could you let this happen? Were you not able to stop this? Just how powerful are you, anyway?”
We’re accustomed to hearing these questions from God’s critics, but Christians may find themselves with similar thoughts. Maybe you’ve asked the same questions from time to time. Perhaps you asked them during the hurricane and the flooding.
This reaction leads some people to abandon the faith altogether. Others eventually see clearly. We know that God controls all things and has a purpose for everything that comes to pass: “He works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). This includes disasters: “Does disaster come to a city, unless Yahweh has done it?” (Amos 3:6). If disaster in God’s world shakes your faith, imagine a world where disaster exists without him. That’s far more terrifying.
The second reaction is to ask, “God, what has Houston done?” Houston is home to over two-million sinners, you know. The hurricane must be Houston’s punishment. If you were a victim of flooding, you might have asked, “God, what have I done? Is this your way of judging some sin in my life?”
We know that God judges wickedness, even wicked cities and nations. In the Bible we see him using what we call “natural disasters” to bring about judgment. When tragedy strikes, then, the conclusion is that God’s wrath has come upon Houston. Or, “God’s wrath has come upon me.”
But this way of thinking is dangerous, for it presumes to know the intentions of God. It attempts to know God’s will when he has not revealed it. The scriptures describe God sending plague, drought, famine, and war upon the wicked, but those events are interpreted for us through divine revelation. Current events are not.
Besides, to say that God sends “plague, drought, famine, and war upon the wicked” is only half true. God sends plague, drought, famine, and war upon the righteous as well. Everyone knows the story of Job. He suffered great disaster. His friends thought God was punishing him, but they were wrong (Job 42:7-8). There are other examples. Did you know that the Israelites were included in the first 3 plagues of Egypt (Exodus 8:22-23)? God doesn’t separate Israel from the plagues at the start. They experience some of them, too. Likewise, everyone in Houston — whether wicked or righteous — was affected by Harvey.
Just as God sends disaster upon the righteous, so he sends prosperity upon the wicked. Authority, fame, wealth – these are things the wicked seem to acquire quite easily. But that doesn’t mean they are signs of God’s pleasure. In the same way, tragedy and disaster aren’t always signs of his displeasure.
Yes, God says, “If you serve me, I’ll bless you.” But he doesn’t say, “All blessings are therefore rewards for obedience.” He says, “If you disobey me, I’ll bring disaster.” But he doesn’t say, “All disasters are therefore punishment for disobedience.” Understanding that difference is crucial, and we must not presume to know God’s intentions.
Tragedy can strike at any time and to anyone. Jesus addresses this a couple of times. In Luke 13, he refers to a incident where a tower fell and killed 18 people. He says, “Do you think those 18 people were the worse sinners in all of Jerusalem? No!”
In John 9, the disciples ask Jesus about a man who was born blind. They say, “Who sinned, the man or his parents, that caused him to be punished with blindness?” Jesus says, “It was not because of anyone’s sin. It was so the work of God could be displayed in him.” God’s reasons for tragedy aren’t always what we assume.
Disasters never come at a convenient time, do they? We have other things going on, other troubles, and other inconveniences. Many of you have been going through tough times lately. Health concerns, the loss of loved ones, all kinds of distressing things. And then the hurricane. The floods. Being trapped in your home. Life as you know it being put on pause. When will it end? Do our troubles never cease? What’s going on, God? Is there a lesson here?
We don’t know all of God’s purposes in life, but here’s what we can say for sure: When tragedy strikes, no matter where or to whom, we should be driven to compassion, not to judgment and blame-shifting. That’s what the two reactions do! “God, what have you done?” and “God, what has Houston done?” sound like opposites on the surface, but they both attempt to find fault. Instead, we serve. We serve our families, our church, and our neighbors.
Yes, we ought to reflect on our lives. These events should draw us closer to God. Confess your sins and the sins of your city and rely on his mercy alone. But don’t do those things for your sake alone! Do it so you can run toward the tragedy and give yourself to others.
This is how God refines us. He puts us through trials so that we can be better people and better Christians. Even Jesus had to go through refining. In our Gospel reading today (Matthew 16:21-23), Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that he would be killed. “No, no, no! That’s not the way to victory. That’s not the way to glory and kingship.” And Jesus says, “Oh, yes it is.” The life of suffering, the life of trials and tests, is the life of God’s children.
Therefore, we need to not grow weary; to not let our troubles justify giving up. Rather, we remain faithful no matter the circumstance. This is accomplished, first of all, through prayer. Continually giving thanks to God (1 Thessalonians 5:18), acknowledging his mercy toward you. It will also require things we heard from our Epistle reading (Romans 12:10-18):
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit … Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation … Contribute to the needs of the saints; show hospitality … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.”
Dwelling on your misfortune will never give you peace. We must put off self-pity. But to do so effectively we must put something else on in its place. So we put on service. We get up and we do something. That will change you; that will give you purpose; that will bring you fulfillment. Serve God and serve others within your means, as he enables you.
There have been great efforts by this church and many of you individually to clean out damaged homes, deliver water, donate supplies, and distribute fans. That is fantastic, and there is more yet to do. We have been blessed to receive donations for flood relief from all over the country. We want to be good stewards of those funds and use them wisely.
And may we be good stewards of everything God gives us. Even the trials. To face them with endurance. To not grow weary. But to give thanks, and to give compassion.