I will never forget my experience with a tornado while doing my clinical Pastoral Education in Williamsport, PA. It was evening and the sun had set. I was at the mall watching a movie. Somewhere toward the end of the film I could hear the massive pounding of rain on the roof of the cinema. When the movie was over, I left the theater but stopped dead in my tracks as I looked out the exit doors of the mall.
The rain was literally going sideways, and eventually began to flow through the doors of the mall. The wind sounded like a freight train. The sky was was lit up like a deranged Christmas tree with lightning bolts flashing everywhere. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what was happening. But I did know I was NOT going out those doors, getting in my car, and driving home! So I stood there, a little bit scared and completely awestruck by the power of nature.
Later, when the weather subsided, I drove to the hospital and discovered that a tornado had touched down about a mile from where I was standing. I remember thinking to myself, if that’s what it’s like to be a mile away from a tornado, I most definitely did not want to be in its path.
These past two weeks, we’ve talked about nature as something that is beautiful and majestic. It inspires a sense of awe and wonder in us, as we marvel at all that God has made. Nature is also a sign of God’s providence, which means God cares for us in ways we don’t always see nor appreciate. Yet, all we have to do is look at how God cares for the ravens and the lilies, and we are reminded that God will take care of us, too.
Today, we explore the more destructive side of nature; the forces that produce tornados and hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires, tsunamis and snowstorms, and the like. These powerful displays of nature cause us to be fearful. They quickly remind us how fragile and vulnerable we really are. They can destroy our homes, and harm those whom we love. They can level cities and decimate economies.
As we experience these destructive forces, they make us question where God is in the midst of natural disasters. Does God cause them? And if God causes them, what does this say about those who are spared as well as those who are not? Is God choosing favorites and punishing the wicked? I don’t think so, but some people do. Do storms, fires and earthquakes mean that God is trying to get our attention? If this is the case, perhaps we can convince God that a still, small voice will suffice! Where is God in the midst of the storm?
During the time the Old Testament was written it was believed that a god or a demon was the entity who brought storms. In fact, in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites, each one had their own specific deity who was the storm bringer. The Romans had Neptune. The Greeks has Zeus. The Canaanites and Phoenicians had Ba’al, who was also a fertility god. The Assyrians and Babylonians had Adad. The Egyptians had Set.
Not surprisingly, the notion of God as the storm-bringer made its way into Hebrew theology as well. In Genesis, we have the story of Noah where God causes a massive flood to cover the earth. In Jonah, God sends a storm that threatens to destroy a ship. The crew throws Jonah overboard in order to calm the storm. It is then that Jonah is swallowed up by a whale. The prophets are full of warnings about what God will do to Israel’s enemies through floods, fires and earthquakes. Several psalms speak of God being in control of storms, including today’s psalm. The NRSV version of it goes “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.”
Scripture passages such as these are the ones that are used by religious leaders who see storms and other natural disasters as signs of God’s displeasure with us. Let me give you a few examples: Pat Robertson blamed the devastating earthquake in Haiti on a pact between the devil and the Haitians who rebelled against French in the 18th century. Robertson and John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ debauchery and immorality. Even some in our own denomination said the tornado that touched down in Minneapolis during the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, was a sign of God’s displeasure with the direction our denomination was headed.
The interesting thing to note is that when the recent floods in Louisiana surrounded the home of Tony Perkins, the leader of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council, Perkins was at a loss for words. Apparently storms are only signs from God if they harm people we dislike. Jesus had a word for that: hypocrite!
So I ask the question again, where is God in the midst of the storm? Like I said earlier, I don’t believe God causes storms to get our attention or to punish specific groups of people. I am a man of science, as well as a man of faith. I take the word of meteorologists regarding how storms are formed. They are natural phenomena that have occurred in our world since time began. Most of them actually serve a purpose in our ecosystem. Therefore, God is not the driving force behind natural disasters. However, this means we STILL haven’t answer the question of where is God in the midst of the storm.
Thankfully, we begin to find an answer in our Gospel Lesson which is the familiar story of Jesus’ calming the storm. I’ve preached on this text many times. I’ve explored it literally and metaphorically. Today I’d like to focus on one specific detail of the story. This is the simple observation that Jesus is in the boat before, during and after the storm. I think this speaks volumes regarding where God is in the midst of the storm.
When the disciples are calm and happy, sailing merrily across Lake Galilee, Jesus is with them. When the disciples are frightened and panicked by the wind and waves, Jesus is with them. When they wonder if Jesus is indifferent to their suffering, Jesus is with them, speaking words of peace not only to the storm, but also to his frightened disciples. Jesus is with them before, during and after the storm. All we can say to this is “Thanks be to God!”
This is the good news we need to hear. Jesus is with us before, during and after the storms we face, be they literal or metaphorical. We don’t have to even have the faith to believe that this is true. Jesus is there regardless of what we believe at any given moment.
Going back to my story regarding ny experience with the tornado in Williamsport, I’d like to give you a visual for how this theology happens in real life. The next morning, after the storm had torn through the town, I was part of the volunteer crew from the hospital who worked with the National Guard to provide relief. My job was to help sort through the debris of a house that had been completely leveled. It was the home of one of the nurses who worked at our hospital. Needless to say, it was an emotional experience but it was a hopeful experience as well. Throughout the day, I saw people being Jesus in the aftermath of the storm.
Mennonite men were roaming the neighborhood with more chainsaws than I have ever seen before in my life. They went from street to street clearing fallen trees and limbs. A group of ladies came by handing out sandwiches and fruit. The Red Cross was distributing bottles of water. Those I worked with helped people salvage what they could from their damaged homes. The National Guard provided security to prevent looting. Hugs and tears were shared between victims and helpers. People of different socio-economic statuses, races and creeds came together, and worked together, perhaps for the first time in their lives. If that’s not seeing Jesus, I don’t know what is!
So, if you ask me where God is in the midst of the storm, I will NOT tell you it’s punishment for sins committed, nor God’s way of trying to get our attention. To paraphrase Jesus, “God made the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and storms happen to the righteous as well as the unrighteous.” [Mt 5:45] Storms and other natural disasters are a part of living life here on planet Earth. No matter how hard we try, we cannot always protect ourselves from their fury.
If we are wondering where God is in the midst of the storm, I will take my cues from Jesus who was in the boat with his disciples when the storm occurred. God is with the weather forecasters who try to keep us out of harm’s way. God is with the victims of storms and other natural disasters, bringing hope and healing to those whose lives are torn apart. God is always, always, always, working tirelessly to bring new life from death, and new beginnings from dead ends. THIS, this is where God is in the midst of the storm! Where God is, there we must be also.
Friends in Christ, storms and natural disasters will happen in our world no matter how hard we pray for them to go away. Therefore, let us face storms unafraid, remembering that Jesus is with us before, during and after the storm. Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck