From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

Japan and Jesus

The disaster(s) in Japan have been on my mind a lot. I keep checking the news for bits of information (hard to come by, at least factual information), wondering how far it will go, what it’s like, how people are surviving. FWIW I’m putting here what I wrote for our church newsletter – to wit:

Japan has been on my mind since the earthquake and tsunami in March. As I write, we don’t yet know the levels of radiation released from the damaged nuclear reactors, or the levels of damage that will ensue. Obviously the damage will be huge. But I think one reason I keep thinking of Japan is not so much the size of the disaster as the overwhelming power and suddenness of it. I keep seeing in my mind the video of the black wall of water pushing cars around like toys, crushing boats, overrunning the land and literally washing entire towns away. One day some Japanese folks like you and me, in a town like ours, were doing the things they usually do: having lunch, taking the kids to school, running errands, hard at work. The next day it was all washed away. How fragile our life is! And not just our individual lives, but the very structures of our lives on which we depend are just as fragile as a Toyota in a tsunami.

Of course it’s not the first such disaster, overwhelming as it may seem to us. Some people in Jesus’ day had experienced stunning disasters: Pilate’s slaughter of worshippers in the Temple, the fall of a water tower which killed 18 people. While the size of those disasters are small compared to Japan’s, the stunningness of these signs of the temporariness of human life and human society is the same. The quantity may be different, but the quality is the same. And what did Jesus say about that?

1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans,  because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and  killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

It seems like a pretty cold thing to say, doesn’t it? Jesus expresses no sympathy, offers no explanations. Just a question – “do you think the victims were worse sinners than others?” – and a warning – “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In my translation: “do you think you’re different from the victims? Unless you repent, you’re as dead as they are.” Wow. Why does Jesus respond this way? What is he getting at? I think there are two things here to pay attention to.

1 – the idea that victims of disaster somehow deserve it, while we don’t, is flatly denied by Jesus, twice. He’s saying that all of us are headed for disaster unless we repent. What society or century we live in doesn’t matter. What church we go to or how good we are doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters, when it comes to perishing, is repentance.

2 – but what does repenting mean? I’ve asked a few people about that. I asked them about what are we to repent of Usually they told me we were to repent of our sins. Well, yes, that makes sense, though it ignores what Tim Keller and other teachers of the faith have said about our needing to repent not just of our badness but also of our goodness. It’s our goodness that leads us to think others have somehow deserved disaster while we don’t. It’s our goodness that keeps us from seeing our need. It’s our goodness that leads us to think we deserve heaven (NOT a good thing in Jesus’ eyes!).

As I see it, Jesus is not referring here just to our need to repent of the bad things we’ve done. He’s referring to our need to repent of all those things that lead us to think we’re invulnerable and not subject to disaster; to repent of hanging our lives on structures that are temporary; to repent of trusting in our own technology, or our government, or our morality, or our goodness, or our religion, or our wealth – instead of Him. All these things are as subject to sudden disaster as Saito. And so are we when we value them more than we value Christ.

Jesus’ answer may seem cold, but He warns us because He loves us. He would wake us up to the truth about our lives, and the truth about Him.

So if this were your last day (and it may be!) and you knew it, would you live any differently than you are now? Would you stop “sweating the small stuff”? Would you stop and “smell the roses”? Would you pay more attention to those you love, and who love you? Would you get as upset about the economy or politics? Would you think again about what’s really important? Would you fritter away your last 24 hours with trivia and games and Facebook and entertainment? Would you work on that brick wall you’ve been building? Would you get mad when your kids come home with bad grades? What’s the last thing you would want them to hear from you?

And would you see yourself any differently? Would you see yourself as invulnerable, or as someone dependent and in need? As someone who can no more preserve their life than they can stand up to a tsunami? Would you get angry or depressed? Or would you see that a great gift has been given you?

Would you see whose love endures forever? Would you repent?

Pastor Earl



3 responses

  1. Teresa

    Pastor Earl,

    Thanks for writing this. I have talked with several people recently who are struggling with the “why me?” of tragedy and sadness. And does God cause these catastrophies or allow them?

    I thank God every day that he has allowed His grace to protect me from unbearable tragedy and sadness. However, I know that I deserve unbearable tragedy and sadness every day. I believe that God today is the same God of the Old Testament. “You don’t obey me, listen to me, and love me, I’m gonna wipe you out.” It does sound very cruel and selfish, but God is a jealous God. He wants you all to Himself. As you said in your sermon Wednesday night – I don’t do this for 20 seconds, let alone a day, a week, etc. So do I deserve punishment? Heck, yes! Am I better than the people that are punished? Absolutely not! “I” have nothing to do with this. Not my goodness or my badness, just God’s grace.

    I so firmly believe that everything happens for a reason and that good will come of everything. We may not know the reason in this lifetime, but we will, eventually, know. It is difficult to share this with others, especially when they do not want to hear it. I have seen people turn to God because of a tragedy and people turn away. I don’t know what I will do if/when a trajedy does strike close to home, but I hope that I will turn to God for comfort,understanding,guidance and more grace.

    March 18, 2011 at 9:55 am

  2. Tami Hughes


    I’m struggling with your comment that “everything happens for a reason.” I’m not sure what I believe except for I know and understand jack squat compared to what God knows and understands. I guess this is a pretty wimpy belief to have since it doesn’t require me to really take a stand on what I believe. So, I’m always curious about people who are more firm in their faith than I am. Do you believe that God makes “everything” happen for a reason? Or that there is a reason why everything happens and only God knows that reason? For example, could bad things happen (i.e. child abuse, rape, immoral acts) simply because evil exists? Maybe God planned what happened in Japan, and maybe He plans other natural(?) disasters as well. And we will never understand why these people have to suffer and why we don’t. But does God plan bad things that we do to each other? Or does He simply know that we will continue to do evil things and that the reason is simply we are sinful? Can good come out of us doing evil? I would think that more good would come out of us doing good. I just can’t believe that I would benefit (or anybody else for that matter) out of unGodly acts that we do to each other. But, then, my faith is rather wishy-washy in this area?

    March 19, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    • Teresa


      The only thing I know for sure is that God is in control and that good will come of everything because He is in control. I don’t know if God causes bad things to happen or allows them, but I do know that He could if He willed it, and that we deserve whatever happens because we are full of sin. I realize that there are horrible unspeakable things that happen every day and I really can’t believe that God allows child molestation to teach someone a lesson or punish them. That is just too terrible to believe. However, since God is in control, however He accomplishes it, I believe that good will come of it. It may not be in our lifetime or the child or perpetrator’s lifetime, but it will happen.

      God does not promise that our life will be without trial and suffering here on earth. Whether He actually causes the trials and suffering I do not know, but He sure didn’t hesitate in the Old Testament. What makes us any different? I realize that God sees us through Jesus and that is what saves us from eternal damnation, but I don’t think that protects us from the effects of sin here on earth. We can rely on Him to comfort us and guide us through the trials and suffering, but it’s still gonna be there until we are gone from this sinful earth.

      I pray for enough understanding for all of us that we don’t go crazy thinking about this. 🙂

      March 19, 2011 at 9:50 pm

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