First Sunday in Lent, Year A
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Note: this sermon is a development of an earlier post in the light of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami. It draws on material originally written on the occasion of the Asian tsunami in December 2004, for which I have no record of original sources. Apologies if I have quoted material without attribution.
Lead us heavenly Father, lead us
O’er the world’s tempestuous sea.
I had originally chosen this hymn for its reference to Jesus’ forty day sojourn in the wilderness “tempted, taunted yet undaunted.” [Note: this is the 5th line of verse 2 in the amended version of the hymn in Hymns and Psalms.] But with the horrifying news from Japan of earthquake and tsunami, it is these opening lines which draw our attention. For in the past two days we have been amply reminded of the brute power of the ‘tempestuous sea’.
This is how Robert Booth described the catastrophe in the Guardian newspaper:
It was 2.46pm when the chandeliers began swinging wildly in Tokyo’s parliament chamber. Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, stared in growing panic as the tremors intensified. Outside, buildings swayed like giant metronomes, roads cracked apart and people screamed and ran for shelter. The biggest earthquake in the country’s history had struck.
In the minutes that followed, a series of 10-metre high tsunami waves peeled 80 miles across a calm Pacific ocean from the quake’s epicentre to Japan’s north east coast. Their symmetry belied a raging power that left behind a boiling back wash. Hundreds were last night confirmed dead and tens of thousands missing after the huge surges crashed ashore, rocking Japan as ships and trains went missing, cities and industrial plants blazed and a dam burst sweeping away homes…
The foaming white tsunami turned black on landfall as it bought death and destruction and crushed everything in its path. It churned up the earth, shredded buildings, trees and crops and tossed boats and cars around like corks. The sludge surged inland surrounding homes where survivors waved white sheets from top floor windows, desperate for help. The tide erased carefully tended fields and mowed down rows of poly-tunnel greenhouses…
In one town, ships, buildings and cars were tossed around together in an incongruous mix.
The scale of the devastation and loss is barely conceivable. The only consolation is that it could have been a lot worse, if it were not for the preparedness of the Japanese people and the advanced construction of many Japanese buildings. And although the power of the tsunami was such that it travelled the width of the Pacific Ocean, damage caused elsewhere was less than had been feared.
But what happened in Japan was enough.
As we receive news of this disaster we begin the season of Lent. Lent is forty days long, in imitation of the forty days and forty nights Jesus spent in the wilderness.
Traditionally, Lent is a time of fasting, prayer and penitence, although the severity of this has been reduced in modern times. Even in the Catholic Church only two fast days remain – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It is fairly recently that Methodism has come to appreciate the value of Lent although for most of us attendance at a Lent course or study group is about as far as we go. However, in this circuit a number of us gathered this past Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, to receive ashes and to share bread and wine. I would certainly encourage you to keep the forty days of Lent as a time for reflection, prayer, Bible study and self-denial.
Last Sunday I observed a very different forty days. I had been asked to lead prayers at the home of my wife Mary Ann’s cousin. Forty days previously their baby daughter had, tragically, been stillborn. As is the tradition in the Philippines, the fortieth day after a death was to be a day of prayer.
En route to the home in west London I asked Mary Ann the significance of the forty day prayers. She didn’t know – and neither did another cousin who was with us. It’s just an old tradition, which is also found in other cultures and religions.
In the absence of any guidance, I led a very simple time of prayer. We lit the candle that had stood on the communion table in the funeral service. We continued with silence, the reading of Psalm 139, extempore prayer and a blessing. But I felt that something more had to be said, so I spoke of the significance of forty days.
Whatever the origin of the custom of prayers forty days after a death, what is clear is that in the Bible the number forty represents a significant period. It occurs time and time again: Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai, where in God’s presence, he received the tablets of the law; Elijah took a forty day journey to a cave in the same mountain where he heard the still, small voice of God. The Israelites spent forty years wandering the wilderness en route to the promised land, and as we have already heard, forty days and nights was the length of Jesus’ own sojourn in the wilderness.
Forty days represents a time – or perhaps better, a journey – of struggle, growth and self-discovery. A journey ‘back to basics’ in which we become aware of our limitations, our mortality and our dependence on God. A journey that shapes who we are and what we’re about.
And whatever the origin of the forty day prayers for the dead, that had surely been the experience of this family coming to terms with the loss of a long-awaited child. Those forty days had been a time of raw emotions and heartfelt questions, a time for learning and receiving the love and hugs and tears of friends and for discovering what it means to lean on the everlasting arms of God. In fact, for those who were gathered together to mark those forty days this was our Lent, as we drew close to the cross and the mystery of death and life.
And it is through such Lent-shaped lenses that we view the events in Japan.
How on earth does one make sense of a tragedy on this scale? For Christians this is a particularly acute question, because of our belief in a God who loves us and cares for us and has a purpose for us.
Some have raised the question: “Is this the judgement of God?” Others have invoked the Bible “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places” (Mark 13:8), strongly hinting that this is just the fulfilment of prophecy.
But the question remains: why would God allow this to happen?
Today, modern science can give us some answers about the cause of earthquakes and tsunamis, what effects they may have and how they can be detected before they fully develop. This knowledge already puts the ‘why’ question into perspective. For better or for worse, this is how the world is. Our planet’s climatic and geological processes can be explained by naturalistic forces, which with advances in scientific research, we can increasingly predict. Despite this it can be remarkably hard for us to shake off the old picture of God sitting up there in heaven controlling the weather, earthquakes and volcanoes; as if he were a director in a television studio, zapping people he doesn’t like with natural disasters. We may raise questions about why the earth was created the way it is. But we cannot simplistically blame God for natural disasters, illness, and death as if we were absolved from all responsibility.
The bible, too, acknowledges the existence of such disasters and speaks about earthquakes, deadly floods and pestilence. And like us, the biblical writers wrestle with the question of why the earth is as it is. They recognise a tension; affirming that God is creator and all-powerful; and yet at the same time recognising that the world is not as God wants it to be. This is the message of that ancient story we call ‘the Fall’. As our first reading (Genesis 3:1-7) relates, the world is ‘fallen’ and in our second reading (Romans 5:12-19) Paul suggests that this symptoms of this fallenness include sin and death. On the other hand, when in Mark 13 Jesus speaks of coming earthquakes and famine, he calls them ‘birthpangs of the new age’. Could it be that the very process of creativity involves risk, loss and pain? Or to put it another way, is plate tectonics a necessary evil for a ‘living planet’? Perhaps we have to recognise, with Job, that nature, like God, remains profoundly mysterious. We can understand more and more about it, but we can never fully comprehend it.
As Debra Dean Murphy wrote, following the earthquake in Haiti a year ago:
…being the chatterers most of us are, we rush to fill the silence, to explain the unexplainable, often with well-worn pieties (“God has a purpose in all of this”) that are as cruel as the destruction they mean to rationalize.
The biblical tradition asks us to wrestle our whole lives with this paradox: The world God created, loves, and is working to redeem and restore is a place of beauty and fecundity and of arbitrary brutality and terror… This is not a puzzle to solve… but a mystery of human existence to abide, inhabit. Some days go better than others as we try to do that…
The creation that God has set into motion means that there will be inexplicable suffering. Our task is not to moralize… Our task is to be present with those who suffer.
For the people of Japan, for the family grieving their stillborn child, for Jesus tempted in the wilderness, this is only the beginning of a long journey that will pass through difficult places, including the dark shadow of death. But we believe that God is not absent from these places or remote from people in their suffering and despair. Somehow God is already present, in the mess, in the wrecked homes and shattered lives. As the psalmist sings:
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam…
the Lord of hosts is with us. (Ps 46:2,7 NRSV)
As for us, we can pray and we can offer help, in whatever way we can. (The British Disasters Emergency Committee is asking that any donations be made through the Red Cross to the Japanese Red Cross). Prayer and charitable giving are ancient practices which lie at the very heart of Lenten devotion, although they certainly should not be limited to Lent.
It seems to me that to get on with the daily task of faithful living and praying, despite our questions and uncertainties, is a profoundly Biblical approach. We find it in the psalms and in Job and in the prophets, who in the face of national or personal calamity certainly have concerns and questions to bring before God. But who can also affirm ‘and yet… I will trust in you.’
Inspired by this tradition Angela Shier-Jones offers a prayer entitled ‘A Psalm of earthquakes and tsunamis’, and with her words I will close. If, like me, you find yourself today facing a troubled and suffering world with many questions, I invite you to make this your prayer.
O Lord, hear the cry of your people
as creation trembles and we are made small
The mountains are laid low and the seas rise
The planet shrugs its shoulders
The restless dirt groans and moans
under the weight of our living.
Crops and land are lost to the salt of the world’s tears
Wave upon wave cascades over the face of your earth
Their weeping carries away
The witness of our living.
In one convulsive heave
pride and possessions, people and places
are shaken down by the land, thrown up by the sea
to be caught by the air:
tossed and turned, and returned
to the wave of anxiety
that crashes onward
An unstoppable force of creation and destruction.
Though you called upon us to name the beasts of the field
And the birds of the air
Still the sea is yours
You made it – and its raging fury
The land is yours
You formed it – and its restless heavings
And we, moulded by your hands to hold your breath
are bound to this world by your will and your Word
So I will praise you God in the midst of the fury
From the depths of my grief, for the land and the sea and the lives that are lost
For the nurture and nature that shapes us and feeds us
Though its power astounds, and its might dismays us
Still your Word brings order out of chaos
And your mercies comfort and sustain us
Reminding us, even as we weep
of green pastures, beside still waters