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Summary: Many today carelessly go around unaware of the imminent danger of dying unsaved and spending an eternity in Hell. They’re not seeking deliverance as they’re unaware they’re lost. Before one can be delivered they first must see they are lost.

Lost and Found

Matthew 18:10-14

Introduction: The famous “Johnstown Flood” of May 31, 1889 was likely the single most newsworthy item in American history between the assassination of Lincoln and World War I. At 3:10 p.m. on May 31, 1889, following a full-day of unprecedented heavy rains, a 450-acre man-made lake, detained by a fifty-year-old earthen dam and owned by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club (the exclusive reserve of a select group of Pittsburgh’s crustiest upper-crust), ruptured its barrier and its liberated waters raced down the South Fork Creek, into the Little Conemaugh River, on its way to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, some 15 miles downstream. It took about 40 minutes for the lake to empty completely, but it did so with the force of the Niagara River at its famous falls. The estimated 20 million tons of water roared through the narrow confines of the mountain valleys at speeds sometimes in excess of 40 miles an hour and with a roiling wall of water and debris at times more than 70 feet high. The water scoured the valleys and hillsides to the bare bedrock, uprooting massive trees, shattering and pushing along all man-made structures: houses, stores, railroad beds and equipment, telegraph and telephone poles, stone and wooden bridges, plus uncountable tons of soil, loose rocks and huge boulders, and livestock and people and whatever else was in the path of its irresistible plunge downward as it descended some 500 feet in the 15-mile race to Johnstown. Before the flood, Johnstown was scarcely known outside of Western Pennsylvania. Some 50 miles east of Pittsburgh at the junction of the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers in a wide mountain valley, it had grown in its century of existence to about 10,000 souls (the nearby valley communities pushed the area’s population to about 23,000 or perhaps a bit more). The biggest employer, and indeed the town’s economic anchor, was a large steel mill which had been the largest in the entire country in terms of production in the 1870s and early 1880s. The lower parts of town had been subject to flooding by the converging rivers with some frequency in the past, but the water at its deepest rarely rose to more than six feet. The houses in the “better” and higher parts of town never had flooded, beyond having occasional standing water in the streets. At 4:07 p.m., the juggernaut of water and wreckage crashed into Johnstown (already experiencing serious flooding in the lower parts of town due the heavy rains), and swept unstoppably over the whole town and over its several sister towns. Whole houses and businesses, and whole blocks of houses and businesses were torn loose and shattered by the impact. The wave collided with the hillside at the far side of town and returned as a massive wave of backwash surging through the ruins in the opposite direction; leveling most of what little had survived the first impact. From start to finish, the devastation took a mere ten minutes. After dumping some of its load of mud and rock and wreckage on Johnstown and collecting a new load from the town itself, the water resumed its downhill course, slamming with incredible impact into a stone railroad bridge close to the ironworks. Huge quantities of debris were jammed next to and into the bridge, mounding as much as 80 feet high and all but entirely blocking the escape path of the flood waters (and incidentally trapping in the tangled mess some 80 living human beings). This left the town underwater until the flood eroded a new path around one end of the bridge, and began once again sweeping onward, this time with the floating ruins of Johnstown, including people clinging to rooftops and planks and whatever else they could hold on to, who were hoping against hope to find rescue somehow further downstream. In the rushing waters were the corpses of hundreds of Johnstown’s citizens. Towns and villages all the way to Pittsburgh recovered bodies, and in many fewer cases, rescued victims. The immediate outpouring of aid was heartening. At a public meeting in Pittsburgh the day after the flood, $48,000 in relief funds were collected in 50 minutes. Ultimately, over $3,000,000 were collected across the country and even in foreign countries. Material aid in the form of food, clothes, medicine, tents, tools, building materials came in by the hundreds of train carloads. Thousands of workers came to help clean up the disaster. Clara Baron and her Red Cross organization stayed for five months. The official death toll ultimately was fixed at 2,209. One third of the corpses were never identified and hundreds of missing were never recovered. Human remains from the flood were found as late as 1906. Ninety-nine whole families perished; 396 children age 10 or less died; 98 children lost both parents; 124 women were left widows; 198 men were made widowers. It took five years to rebuild the town. In the three hours before the dam gave way, three urgent warnings were telegraphed from the town near the lake down river to Johnstown and points in between, and indeed all the way to Pittsburgh. And all three warnings were callously disregarded by those who were responsible to inform others. Had the warnings been taken seriously and the word spread abroad--and had the hearers heeded the warning--, the loss of life would have been a mere fraction of its actual toll, though the material loss would have been virtually the same. This calamity drew vast armies of news reporters and photographers. Newspapers across the nation issued special edition after special edition as the news came in in bits and pieces. Magazine articles by the score were written and sermons by the thousands were preached. There’s nothing like a good disaster to spark human interest. As Gibbon remarked, “History is indeed little more than a record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” At least those are the things that get the most attention. And this was a combination of crime, folly and misfortune in vast dimensions. “When they say peace and safety, sudden destruction comes upon them.” Though there was some small concern that day about flooding in the lower parts of town due to the heavy rains, yet nearly the whole of Johnstown was content to watch the rains, go about their business, do their shopping, converse with their neighbors as on any other ordinary day. “Until the flood came and took them all away,” to cite another text from Scripture. Being unaware of imminent danger does not negate the reality of that danger, nor slow its approach. David G. McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968; 302 pp.) Like the people of Johnstown many todaycarelessly go around unaware of the imminent danger of dying unsaved and spending an eternity in Hell. They are not seeking deliverance because they are unaware they are lost. Before one can be delivered they first must see they are in peril of being lost for eternity.

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