We need to be very careful when we think about a great natural disaster like the tsunami in Asia that we don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Already you may have heard people claiming that this is a judgement on the Islamic extremists of Aceh, or that it’s the result of global warming or that the disaster wouldn’t have been nearly so bad if the mangrove swamps hadn’t been cleared around the resort areas. You see, the trouble is it’s all too easy to find a simplistic explanation that fits your particular hobby horse and claim that this disaster proves what you’ve been saying all along.
In fact if you look at the first reading we had today, from Amos 6, you could easily jump from the accusations there of those who are at ease in their luxurious houses, to a comment on the destruction that we’ve seen on those luxury resorts in Phuket and the Maldives. You might be excused for pointing the finger at those, like most of us, who live lives of comfort while others are struggling to survive on a subsistence income. You may have seen two separate reports in the paper last week about boats that needed repairs. One was about a fisherman’s boat in Sri Lanka that would cost $700 to repair, but there was no way he could raise that sort of capital. The other was of the racing yacht Skandia that needed $3.4 million worth of repairs but the owners didn’t think they could fix it for some time because they were fully committed building a new $5 million yacht.
It puts things in perspective when you see those sorts of comparisons doesn’t it?
But let me repeat, the words of Amos are not addressed to this particular situation in South Asia; not directly at least. Amos was concerned about the way God’s people were ignoring the ethics of the kingdom in the way they treated the poor and powerless. He was concerned for the way the powerful were taking for granted their status as God’s chosen people. He was concerned for the unspoken assumption that their wealth and power came about from God’s being pleased with them. That’s why he begins this chapter by pointing them to the surrounding countries that were equally prosperous, equally successful.
That’s why he warns them that it was no good ignoring the day of judgement while they sought to achieve their own ends through violence.
In fact he points out that while they lie back in the lap of luxury, eating their rich food, drinking wine by the bowl full and amusing themselves with musical ditties, the nation around them is falling apart. In previous chapters he points out the oppression and exploitation of the poor, the bribery and corruption, the sexual immorality and their shallow religiosity. Here is a society that’s forgotten it’s roots and is in danger of collapsing altogether. And those at the top don’t care. In fact they probably rejoice in it because it just makes them more powerful.
It’s actually a picture of society at various times in our history, when those wielding power have been unrestrained in their corruption and unconcerned about morality or ethics.
You may remember the story of Marie Antoinette responding to the complaint that the peasants had no bread with the famous phrase "If they have no bread then let them eat cake." Well that’s what’s been happening here. In their ivory towers all appears rosy. If someone comes with a complaint they’re sidestepped, given the run-around or just not believed. If their complaint is against one of the powerful class they’re ignored or worse still, bullied into withdrawing their complaint. We didn’t read the rest of the chapter but there we see one of the classic ploys of governments. In v13 he points out how the propaganda machine has been playing up a recent victory over 2 fairly minor cities, Lo Debar and Karnaim. The message being put out is that we’re a powerful player in the region. We’re secure because if there’s a problem with another nation we’ll just send our army out to make a pre-emptive strike against them.
Of course Amos can see the irony of it all. The name of the first city, Lo Debar, in Hebrew means, literally, ’Nothing’. And that’s about all this minor victory means.
You see these are God’s own people who are guilty of ignoring the plight of their fellow Israelites, of ignoring God’s law and of taking for granted what he’s done for them. And so he warns them that as his people they’re answerable to him. So a great disaster is coming on them; not a natural disaster, but one that will be brought about by the army of the Assyrians. The Assyrians are about to attack Samaria and take these so called powerful rulers into exile. And as he says, "that’ll wipe the smiles off their faces!"
But as I said, that disaster has nothing to do with the tsunami that wiped out so many lives and livelihoods 2 weeks ago.
Except that there are a couple of parallels, aren’t there? I think I’ve already pointed out the similarities in the way we in the west enjoy our prosperity as though it were a right. And it’s significant that it takes a disaster like this to wake us up to how well off we are. It’s very encouraging to see the way Australians in particular have responded to the various appeals of the last 2 weeks. To be able to raise millions of dollars in a matter of hours is a great credit to us as a nation isn’t it? To see our government respond with such a huge pledge of aid to Indonesia is very encouraging. But still I wonder why it takes such a great disaster to wake us up from our apathy when natural as well as human generated disasters have been going on every year for the past few millennia. Well, let’s pray that this outpouring of generosity to the poorer nations might continue for years to come.
But there’s another parallel here. Look at v3: "O you that put far away the evil day." One of the most common ploys of governments and those in authority is to assure the population that all is well. Everything is going along fine. The threatened disaster won’t happen. And so forth. I was looking up a travel Website last week to see what they had to say about the effect of the tsunami on resorts in Malaysia and I came across someone’s personal Website that described how one of the resorts had been damaged, the restaurant destroyed, and the air conditioning plant knocked out, with the result that occupancy rates had dropped from 100% to 26%. I thought I’d look up the resort web site to see what they had to report. Well, they said the resort had sustained minimal impact and was operating normally. Now you can see how they’d want to be positive about it when their whole livelihood relies on the tourist trade can’t you? But that’s typical of the way people try to mould the truth to their own ends.
And it isn’t just governments and big business who do this. Most people do the same thing when it comes to thinking about their future destiny. Most people simply ignore the question of what happens when we die. They say, "She’ll be right mate." They either pretend that there’s no problem or they try to convince themselves that their life has been good enough to get them through the door. They even make jokes about what they’ll say to St Peter when they get to the pearly gates don’t they?
Well, one of the things that a natural disaster like this does for us is that it wakes us up to the reality of our own mortality. It shakes us out of our complacency, out of the imaginary world we build up around ourselves where we think we’re invincible.
In Rev 9 we get a picture of God’s judgement being meted out on the earth. Not the final judgement but a precursor, a warning of what’s to come. A third of humanity is destroyed by the plagues unleashed on the earth, but how do you think the other two thirds responds? (Rev 9:20-21 NRSV) "The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts." No, their response was to ignore the warning and carry on as they always had, as though nothing untoward had happened; to pretend that the last day, the day of judgement, was just a myth, a bedtime story made up to scare little children.
Well let’s make sure that we don’t make that mistake. Yes, this was a natural disaster that happened simply because the world we live in is a broken world. There is no sense in which this was a judgement on those people who died or whose livelihood has been affected.
But nevertheless it’s a warning to us that our world is under the judgement of God. It’s a sign that the whole creation is groaning in travail as it awaits the revealing of the children of God. It’s a warning to us that we need to be prepared for the final judgement on this world and on us, its inhabitants.
And that brings us to today’s gospel reading. John declared to his disciples that Jesus was the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Jesus is the one who can save us from the wrath to come. You see it’s no good seeing a disaster like this tsunami and thinking we’re in real trouble aren’t we? We need to know where to go for help with living in a world that’s as insecure as ours is. So where do we go? We go to the one who came to take away our sin.
We can’t do anything about our physical and material security. That’s one lesson we can learn from what happened 2 weeks ago. A tectonic plate shifting hundreds of miles away can mean the end of thousands of lives a few hours later. It’s just 20 years almost to the day since we discovered the same thing when cyclone Tracey hit Darwin and wiped out 70% of the city. How many people in the last year have died from heart attacks or brain tumors or cancer or strokes or car accidents? And mostly without any warning. If you find that hard to deal with, it’s time you did, because that’s the world we live in. But there is something in our future that we can do something about. That’s our future with God. And Jesus has come to make that sure, to give us a certain hope of eternal life, by dealing with the source of our problem, with our sinfulness. Jesus is the one upon whom all of our sins have been placed. They’ve been taken away by his death on the cross, leaving us pure and clean, ready to stand before God without fear, acceptable to him again.
So here’s one way we can respond to this disaster, apart from the obvious response of generosity to those in need: we can call again on Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, thanking him for his sacrifice that makes it possible for us to face an uncertain future with the sure hope of life after death. And if we’ve never done it before we can ask him to take away our sins and make us ready to meet God when that day comes.
For more sermons from this source go to home.vicnet.net.au/~sttheos/