After typhoon Haiyan: standing firm, seeing big
November 17, 2013
Eleven million affected. Six hundred thousand displaced. Ten thousand dead – though we can’t yet be sure of that. The typhoon in the Philippines has brought shocking and heart-rending images into our homes this week. We’ve seen people who have lost everything bravely trying to bury their dead and rebuild their homes. We’ve seen hungry and thirsty people standing in puddles, huddling under umbrellas, losing patience and turning to looting. We’ve seen the grief of ordinary Filipino people, people like us, people loved by God, who have lost parents, brothers, children.
And of course we want to respond, to pray, to give, and our service this morning gives us an opportunity to do both those things. At times of natural disaster it’s possible to feel overwhelmed by the scale of loss of life and the human suffering involved. And so at those times it’s more than ever important to bring all this into our relationship with God – to offer up our incomprehension, our frustration, our sense of powerlessness. We need to be real before God and not say everything’s fine when it isn’t.
I’m glad that in the 21st century we no longer understand natural disasters as the actions of a vengeful God. The God who sends lightning bolts is the Jove of Roman mythology, not the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. And in any case, if God were to micro-manage the universe by intervening to switch on a hurricane here and turn off an earthquake there, the world would be a chaotic place, impossible for us to make sense of. The beauty of God’s creation is manifest in the ways that physical laws apply universally, and this is what gives life its consistency and predictability. Indeed there is evidence to suggest that, far from being an “Act of God”, an extreme weather event such as Typhoon Haiyan, may be a symptom of man-made climate change. More of that later.
Our gospel reading for today was first heard by people who, like the survivors of the typhoon, had experienced loss and trauma on a huge scale. In this passage we heard Jesus predicting the coming fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple that would leave not one stone standing upon another. Jesus warns his disciples of difficult times to come: the big picture of war, persecution and natural disaster, and says: through all of this, you need to let go of fear, and stand firm. That’s the nub of Jesus’s message. Don’t be overwhelmed by fear. Stand firm.
Yet by the time Luke wrote his gospel, the fall of Jerusalem, it’s destruction by Rome had already happened, it was recent history. Christian persecution was the present experience of the first generation of Christian believers. So if we put ourselves into the shoes of the first hearers of Luke’s Gospel, they would, I think, find this a very meaningful word of comfort, one which spoke into the reality of their lives.
Reading this passage from our context here in Crosspool, it can easily seem a difficult and depressing read. I wonder if a disaster survivor in the Phillipines reading this passage may not feel encouraged by Jesus’s honest naming of the tribulations of life. Yes, this is what you may experience, says Jesus, and in all of this, don’t be afraid. Stand firm. There is no extreme of experience that can put us beyond the reach of God’s love, not even a storm with windspeeds of 140 miles per hour.
Our first reading was from Pauls second letter to the church in Thessalonia. The members of this church had become convinced that Jesus’s return was imminent, so they were basically sitting around doing nothing on the basis that the second coming was around the corner! Paul tells them to stop being so lazy and to get on and work. It’s easy to misinterpret this passage, and to hear it the context of current political rhetoric directed against so called “benefit scroungers”. If we understand the passage in its context we will realise this is far from Paul’s intention. “Brothers and sisters, do not weary in doing what is right” says Paul. He is shaking them out of their complacent inactivity.
And it’s good, isn’t it, every now and again to have our complacency shaken. I had a bit of a shaking over the summer when I went to an excellent conference on a Christian response to climate change.
At this conference we heard that the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change is made up of world leading scientists from over 120 nations. Among these scientists there is a very high level of consensus that CO2 emissions from the burning of fossils fuels is cauing the melting of the ice caps, the rising of sea levels and the warming of the oceans. One of the features of global warming is the increasing in both number and intensity of storms such as typhoon Haiyan.
Climate scientists agree that for life on earth to be sustainable, the rise in global temperature needs to be contained to 2 degrees over the next century. To achieve this, fossil fuel emissions need to be reduced by 80% by the year 2050.
These facts are not controversial. They are accepted throughout the world, by scientists and by policy-makers alike. And yet we do nothing about it. Why? Because politicians don’t like policies that will mean living more simply and consuming less. The drive to be re-elected means politicians do not espouse policies they think will be unpopular.
And politicians judge that we are don’t really care about climate change. Our concerns are more immediate: jobs, schools, hospitals. Thinking about climate change is big picture stuff. It means thinking about the best interests of the earth’s 7 billion inhabitants. It means thinking ahead to 2050 and beyond, to the lifetimes of our grandchildren.
At the conference in the summer I heard a speaker called Alex Evans, a climate policy expert with the UN who had acted as report writer for the heads of government panel on global sustainability. Working at global level led him to conclude that politicians will never deliver on climate change policy. They are too driven by short term interests, and national self interest. Alex’s view was that if we are to find a new vision for human progress and a sustainable future for the planet, it’s up to the church, up to religious leaders and people of faith to create and articulate that new vision for our world.
As we approach the season of Advent, this is the time in the church’s year when we’re invited to do big- picture thinking and big-picture praying about God’s purposes for his world. We worship God as Creator and that means that all life finds its beginning and its ending in God. He is alpha and omega, both a and z. Because of God’s redeeming work in Christ we can our future with faith and hope. In the back of our minds we know that one day we will die. In the back of our minds we know that one day the human race and life on this planet will come to an end. The perspective of faith tells us that God’s creative purposes are much bigger than your or my individual lives. They’re bigger than planet earth. The divine love and life and hope that we see embodied in Jesus Christ are infinitely great. The big picture is very big indeed.
Last week we went to see the film “Gravity” in which all the action takes place in space. It’s a great story, with fantastic CGI footage of the earth from space. Watching it gives you a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the earth. And it’s a film which offers a changed perspective. Seen from space, the world looks different.
And following Jesus gives us a different perspective. We are no longer the centre of our universe – God is. Looked at that way, the horizons of our life become re-drawn. There is a bigger context for the events of life, even for an event as huge and devastating and typhoon Haiyan. We don’t have to be paralysed by fear or overwhelmed by the knowledge of our own mortality. We place our trust in Christ, and his resurrection. That’s the big picture, that’s the lens through which we can make sense of life, even when – and especially when – it doesn’t go to plan.
When Jesus spoke to his friends about the coming destruction of Jerusalem his word to them was “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm.” When we hear about the potential havoc that climate change can bring to life on this planet, we can hear Jesus say the same to us. Don’t be afraid. Stand firm. Faith in Jesus Christ and his coming Kingdom resources us to look at the big picture, to contemplate a new future. We are freed from the fear that thinking about climate change can stir in us, that can drive us to denial, or to preoccupation with narrow short term interests. What would it look like for us to reduce our carbon emissions by 80%? Let’s start thinking about that, thinking and praying and asking questions. And let’s hear the words of Paul the Apostle to the complacent Christians in Thessalonia as though they are for us :
“Brothers and sisters do not weary in doing right.”
Frances Eccleston, November 2013