New Year celebrations were more solemn than ever this year. In Southeast Asia especially, celebrations were subdued with sadness and grief. Many nations, like Indonesia, suspended official celebrations and urged people to attend be reflective, to be prayerful, and to attend religious services.

Even in countries not directly effected by the force and fury of the earthquake and tsunami, the ringing in of 2005 was perhaps a bit more sober. Many would have liked to "lose themselves" in the party and forget about their cares and worries, but it is hard to ignore 150,000 deaths (one third of them children). It is hard to ignore 5 million left homeless.

And then there’s the staggering reality than this is just the beginning. Even the media has found it difficult to move past this story and return to the news that matters most (keeping us informed of the latest celebrity marriage, divorce, trial, shooting, fistfight). This story seems to be growing in intensity and severity each day. There’s the inevitable problem of disease and poverty. There are brewing controversies over which nation will help the most and whether or not we are doing all we can. Ironically, the tsunami doesn’t pay any attention to your national origin, your income, or how you voted in the last election. It doesn’t discriminate between Muslim and Christian, Buddhist or Baptist. The severity of this event has humbled humanity and made us ask some important questions; deep questions about the sort of things we would sometimes rather ignore.

A week ago it was Southeast Asia. Last summer it was Florida. A few years ago it was the north coast of Honduras struck by Hurricane Mitch. What will it be and where will it be next time? You may have missed this "lesser" bit of news in the coverage of the tsunami, but last week astronomers discovered an asteroid that had a 1 in 37 chance of striking the earth 24 years from now. They have updated their data recently to revise the path of the quarter-mile wide rock so that it is less likely to hit us. But what if they are wrong again? It’s all a bit frightening and we are not used to being so concerned. We work hard to keep our homes safe and secure, but how do you control the planet? Perhaps our arrogance has convinced us that we can control nature and solve any problem. We are told that we have the power to destroy creation, but maybe we have forgotten that creation has great power to destroy us too. In the insurance business, these events are called Acts of God. I don’t think that the insurance companies are managed by theologians, rather, this term harkens back to the realization that there are some things that only God can control. [Want to read more about the asteroid risk?]

It raises many questions, doesn’t it? The sort of questions that we in our quick-fix world tend to ignore: Is God paying attention? Did God sanction the earthquake? If not, why didn’t God protect against it? Why does the tsunami strike Southeast Asia and not somewhere else? Is there something unique about that place? Is it random or directed by God? Maybe the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, but sometimes it seems like it falls harder in some places!

These are the sort of questions Jesus fielded in his ministry. The people in the first century were accustomed to the concepts of fortune and misfortune. An act of God was more than insurance jargon to them ...

Luke 13:1-5: 1About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were sacrificing at the Temple in Jerusalem. 2"Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than other people from Galilee?" he asked. "Is that why they suffered? 3Not at all! And you will also perish unless you turn from your evil ways and turn to God. 4And what about the eighteen men who died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? 5No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will also perish."

Background: Jesus is teaching that judgment will come, so be ready. Fear God who has power to end life and eternal life. He is the judge we must deal with. Certainly he is merciful, but his mercy doesn’t deny the seriousness of having a rich relationship with him.

Prompt: In the course of his teaching, someone brings up the tragic news of the day. Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans at worship. He mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrifices. Pilate went straight into God’s house and killed these people who were doing nothing more than worshipping. Why? Had they done something to offend God? Did God allow it? If God didn’t, then why didn’t he stop Pilate? (It is a question of their fate).

Response: Rather than comment on Pilate’s attack, Jesus focuses on the main issue: the need to repent.

The 150,000 who died are no more or less sinful than any of us. [Yes, there were children – and like our children they are innocent in their ignorance of right and wrong.] Sometimes, towers collapse. Sometimes, earthquakes strike. Sometimes, tornadoes destroy. Sometimes, planes and cars crash and collide. Sometimes, cruel leaders and desperate psychopaths commit acts of terror. And sometimes they do not. But unless you repent, you will perish.

Repent = not just turning away from what’s wrong, but turning toward God. A parable about repentance (turning toward God) from Luke 13:6-9 ...

6Then Jesus used this illustration: "A man planted a fig tree in his garden and came again and again to see if there was any fruit on it, but he was always disappointed. 7Finally, he said to his gardener, 'I've waited three years, and there hasn't been a single fig! Cut it down. It's taking up space we can use for something else.' 8"The gardener answered, 'Give it one more chance. Leave it another year, and I'll give it special attention and plenty of fertilizer. 9If we get figs next year, fine. If not, you can cut it down.' "

The owner of the vineyard had every right to expect figs from his fruitless tree. He had been patient with it for three years. He has the authority and the right to cut it down. But he mercifully gives the tree another year. One more year ...

The New Year is a time when many of us consider changes we want to make in the upcoming year. There is some degree of reflection and moral introspection. Some of us will resolve to save money, to read a good book we’ve long intended to read, many of us will resolve to be more active and disciplined in our daily lives. Some of us will make a special effort to end a bad habit like cursing, smoking, or eating too much. But we all need to change. We need to repent, to turn toward God and be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian life is not a matter of keeping the rules and keeping up appearances. Life in the Kingdom is not a game with God of gaining favors and avoiding losses. Life in the kingdom is about aligning our lives with God’s purposes. This means that the knee that bows before God is a part of the same leg that walks a life worthy of that worship. Without repentance (turning toward God) all our gains are nothing but loss. Christian life/Life in the kingdom is a changed life rooted in Christ and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. When our lives and our life together are rooted in Christ they yield a harvest of spiritual produce.

Perhaps we have a year ahead of us to bear fruit consistent with changed lives. Perhaps a year – or more – or less. It’s hard to say because Christ could come back ready to clear out the worthless trees – or a tower might collapse, an enemy might strike, the earth may shake, the waters may come crashing down. I don’t know – and neither do you. But we do know this – unless we repent, we will certainly perish.

[The teaching of Jesus is a call for you to turn to God. If you find yourself in sin, turn away from sin and turn to him. And God help us if any of us should be judgmental. Are we more or less sinful than any who respond? If you find yourself in need of help – maybe a crisis of a different magnitude has come crashing into your life, turn to God and let us pray with you. You may have to endure it, but not alone.]

Addendum: I think every Christian should consider this recent article from the London Guardian. In no way am I agreeing with every point made by the author, but I think he sets forth the spiritual and theological challenge that all disciples should spend more than a minute considering. This is especially true if we want to proclaim a biblical worldview.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 2 January 2005

Want to donate to tsunami disaster relief?

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Little Rock, AR 72203
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3201 N. 7th Street
West Monroe, LA 71291
Rapha International
402 Blue Smoke Court West
Fort Worth, Texas 76105
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455 McNally Drive
Nashville, TN 37211

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