Last year, when the storms ripped through Joplin, I felt helpless to do anything, so I prayed and wrote. This year, when the storms came a little closer, our church was able to help and will continue to help our neighbors. Today, in the face of destruction, it was a great sight to see many local churches, Southern Seminary students, and others pitching in to help.
Keep Henryville, Indiana in prayer. Pray for Toby Jenkins and his church (First Baptist Henryville), for their ministry to the community, for the gospel to go forward, and for many whose lives have been broken to be put back together by the only power that gives life–the resurrecting message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In light of the storms that passed through Henryville, Indiana yesterday — a town located just thirty miles south of Seymour — I thought a re-post of my article reflecting on the tornadoes in Joplin last year would be appropriate: “The Words of Christ and Midwest Storms.”
The Words of Christ and Midwest Storms
When the winds raged and the waves threatened, the disciples awoke Jesus with fear in their hearts. Jesus arose, stood on the storm-tossed boat and spoke three simple words, “Peace! Be still!” The winds ceased and the storm ended faster than it came (Mark 4:39).
In that moment, the terrified fishermen were more frightened by the man in their presence with the power to subdue nature than they were of drowning under the heavy waves. God’s Son in human form had just displayed his divine power, and that with a word. On that lakeside journey, Jesus stopped the storm with a sentence. On May 22, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri and again on March 2, 2012 in Henryville, Indiana, he didn’t.
For the disciples, Jesus stopped the storm and it led to a question of his identity: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). For the survivors in Joplin, the question is different. For them and for anyone staggering from a recent world-halting tragedy, the question is closer to that of the Psalmist, “How long oh Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps 13:1). Because Jesus word did not stop the storm before it hit last week, there is now the need for Jesus word to come speak “Peace. Be Still.”
With such a need in mind, let me suggest four words from God’s Word that I pray may bring a biblical perspective to those bruised and broken by the storm, and to those ministering to them.
An Unspoken, Tear-Filled Word
In the face of raw tragedy, we have at least one example where words were not spoken. When Jesus came to Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus, he came to some of his closest friends. Jesus loved Lazarus, and yet the Bible actually suggests that when Jesus learned of his illness, he intentionally waited so that Lazarus might die (John 11:5-6). When Jesus arrived, Martha came to meet him, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21)—surely a similar sentiment arises from Joplin.
Yet, Jesus response to Martha and Mary did not express detached stoicism or impatience with broken people. To the contrary, he grieved with these sisters, with perfect understanding. When Jesus encountered the death of Lazarus, he wept (John 11:35). While he knew that his own death and resurrection would one day restore this man to eternal life, tears were the most appropriate response. For those left speechless by the horrorific damage—personal and material—Jesus sees. Jesus knows. Jesus understands.
A Word of Resurrection Life
Jesus weeping is not hopeless, but hopeful. In the face of death, Jesus does not chain himself to the grave. He, instead, points people to the resurrection. John 11:23-26 records the dialogue that Jesus had with Martha, where he spoke of Lazarus’ impending resurrection: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Staring into the eyes of someone whose heart was overwhelmed with unspeakable loss, Jesus spoke the only words that can defeat the sting of death. He promised life from the grave. In fact, Jesus intention of permitting Lazarus death was to show the world that he had the power to raise the dead. While calming the storm with a word demonstrated great power; reconstituting life and raising the dead revealed more.
So it will be at the end of the age. All those who have died in Christ will be raised in Christ (Rom 6:3-4). Jesus’ own resurrection confirms that he is the first-fruit of those who will be raised to life. While this does not immediately remove the pain and anguish of death, it does not allow death to have the last word. Instead, Jesus can say: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55).
A Word of Sadness and Sober Judgment
Of course, there were other victims of the storm who did not know the Lord. For them and for those who knew them, Jesus words to Martha will not comfort. Instead for them, and this word is perhaps the most bitter of all, the Lord’s judgment is swift. While trusting in themselves and in their future plans, their life was immediately extinguished (Luke 12:20). Jonathan Edwards’s captured this dreadful reality in his sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” when he expounded Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’
For some in the storm who had rejected the gospel, this was their appointed day of judgment. While this does not necessarily bring sentimental comfort, it brings repose in the fact that the “stormy winds fulfill[ed] his word” (Ps 148:8). Thus, in the particular providence of God, the same wind that brought some into eternal rest brought others into eternal torment. Indeed, all things work according to his sovereign will.
At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the death of the unconverted simultaneously grieves God, just as it does man. Ezekiel 18 records that the Lord “[has] no pleasure in the death of anyone” even the wicked (v. 23, 31). In this complex but complementary way, the God who delights in the judgment of evil-doers is yet grieved by their deaths.
A Word of Repentance to the Rest
This leads to the most pressing word that Jesus has for us who read this today. In Luke 13, when some of Jesus followers bring up the subject of human tragedy, Jesus response is surprisingly harsh. Responding to the slaughter of some from Galilee, Jesus brings up the death of eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them. He says, “Do you think that [these dead] were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (v. 4-5).
Jesus rebukes anyone who says that the tragedy in Jerusalem or Joplin happened because they deserved it more than me. Jesus tells us who live to see these deaths as a divine lesson: Death is the judgment of God that is coming upon all men. It is appointed for all men to die because all men have sinned against God. While some die “peacefully” in their sleep, others die under twisted rubble. The typological lesson from Joplin and every other cataclysmic tragedy is that there is coming a day when all men will be caught up in the whirlwind, and unless they have turned from sin and to Christ, they will face a greater danger than an F-5 tornado.
Knowing When to Speak and When Not To
Today, Jesus of Nazareth cannot be found walking the shores of Galilee. He is enthroned in heaven, where he governs his church and intercedes for his saints. Consequently, it is not Jesus who speaks an audible word today; it is his church. You and I who comprise the body of Christ are his hands, his feet, and his mouthpieces. Thus, it is not enough to speculate what Jesus would say. By the leading of his Spirit, we must speak.
In our immediate context, one week removed from the tragedy in Joplin, Jesus’ words in Luke 13, do not yet seem appropriate. In cases of tragedy, timing matters. Jesus knew this. When he arrived at Lazarus’ grave, he wept and then offered gospel hope. Yet, when he was confronted with a wrongful understanding of theodicy, he proffered a more robust theological answer. In the first case he knew to stress mercy; in the second to teach about God’s judgment.
Pastors and parishioners need to understand both of these responses and when to employ them. As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for everything—a time to cry and a time to catechize; a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking.
Indeed, for those facing this tragedy firsthand, sorrow and prayers of silence are appropriate. Words get in the way of feelings that are best expressed with groans and cries. Yet, there will come a day when words need to fill the gap, and when they do, the only comforting Word will come from the one who said, “Peace. Be still.”
Until that Resurrection Day, we all groan and wait with anguish. Tragedies like the one in Joplin serve to remind us that the world still quakes under the curse of God. It awakens us from our comfortable slumber. And it calls each of us to repent of our sluggishness and sin and to prepare to meet our God, because none of us know when the master will return or when the whirlwind will strike.
May God be pleased to comfort the people of Joplin in the wake of this tragedy, and may those who know the Lord know how and when to speak words of comfort and hope into the lives of those suffering in the storm.