When the Mountains Move

blog-picThe following is based on a transcript of a message I delivered to Grace Church last Sunday on how Christians are to think rightly about the recent earthquakes in NZ as well as natural disasters as a whole. You can listen to that message here.  

Two significant events occurred in our country recently that have got people talking and attracted a lot of media attention.

The first and most significant event was a massive earthquake, 7.8 in magnitude that erupted 15 km just north Culverden three weeks ago. It progressed northwards at a speed of 2 km per second over a length of 200 km in a complex sequence that tore apart roads, caused massive landslides, ruptured underwater pipes and sewage systems and brought down buildings. The greatest damage occurred in Kaikoura but it also caused widespread damage to many high-rise buildings in Wellington as well as the port.  Miraculously there were only two deaths but that does not in any way minimize the event. Mountains have moved. Coastlines have changed. The seabed was lifted in some parts up to two metres.  Repairs and reconstruction is going to take months and cost our country billions of dollars.

That’s the first event. The second was a sermon preached by Brian Tamaki at Destiny Church the day before where he stated that it was sexual perversion and homosexuality was the cause of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch quakes.  Quoting from the Old Testament he said,

“Leviticus says that the earth convulses under the weight of certain human sin… It spews itself up after a while – that’s natural disasters. Because nature was never created to carry the bondage of our iniquity.”[1]

His sermon went viral causing public outrage and a media storm. Prime Minister John Key called his comments “ridiculous.” The mayor of Kaikoura called them “pathetic”.  A petition launched by Change.org to remove Destiny Church from tax-free status now has reached 125,000 – which is a little worrying because if accepted could set a precedent for the government to deregister any church when people don’t like what we are saying.

This isn’t good. It isn’t good for the cause of the gospel or for the NZ church.  Now I think most New Zealanders are sensible enough to realize that Brian Tamaki is a bit of a loose cannon and not all Christians are like him.  But the truth is what he says and does affects us all. And don’t think all this will simply go away after a few weeks because it won’t. It’s likely to stay with us for some time.[2]

There are several issues that I think need to be addressed and I want to take them one at a time. The first one is this:   Are earthquakes simply natural disasters or are they the result of God’s judgment on sin?

The answer to that question is YES. “Yes,” earthquakes are natural and “yes” earthquakes are the result of human sin.  That is, every earthquake on our planet has a spiritual root for their cause, but not in the way that Brian Tamaki espouses.  Let me explain.

In the beginning, when God finished creating the earth he looked at all he had made and it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  The Hebrew word for “very good” means beautiful, beneficial, and well-ordered.  I don’t believe it was the same earth that we see today. There were no flaws in it – no imperfections defects or faults. There was no disease or death, there were no floods or tsunamis or hailstorms or famines or earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.

So what went wrong?  The two individuals God put on the earth rebelled against God’s good and kind and benevolent rule. They wanted to be like God. They wanted to be self-ruled. And they got it – along with its consequences. God warned them that if they rebelled – if they sinned, they would suffer greatly. And we learn in Genesis 3 (the account of the fall) that not only human beings suffered the effects of the curse but also the earth.[3] They physical creation “groans” Romans 8 tells us and awaits the day when it will be released from bondage.  That will be when Jesus returns and God creates a new heaven and a new earth, restoring this present earth to its pre-fall state.

So all the havoc we see occurring on our planet – the severe weather patterns; the floods and tornadoes and hail and snow-storms and droughts, and the sliding tectonic plates are all a direct result of the fall of man.  This planet is like a broken eggshell.  It’s full of problems. And we (that is, all of humanity) are the cause of it.

So, whether it’s an earthquake in Christchurch or Kaikoura or a tsunami off the coast of Japan or a snowstorm in New York or a famine in Somalia we shouldn’t say, “God must be judging that city” or “God must be angry with that country” or “There is sin in this place or that place”; instead we should be saying, “Yes – human sin brought all this about.  And that sin is in me.”

You say, “OK then, so God has nothing to do with natural disasters – floods and tornadoes and snowstorms and earthquakes and the like. He simply set all these things in motion and then walked away.”

No, that’s not true either.  According to Psalm 135:6-7 God controls the weather. Psalm 77:16 says he controls the skies and the rain. Jeremiah 51:16 says he controls the wind.  Job chapter 37 is a remarkable chapter.  We find that God – rather than being absent and aloof is very much involved in what is going on with our planet.  Here are a few selections from that passage:

God thunders marvelously with His voice; He does great things that we cannot comprehend. For He says to the snow, “Fall to the earth,” and the torrential rains, His mighty torrential rains, serve as His sign to all mankind, so that all men may know His work.” (Job 37:5–7)

He saturates clouds with moisture; He scatters His lightning through them. They swirl about, turning round and round at His direction, accomplishing everything He commands them over the surface of the inhabited world. He causes this to happen for punishment, for His land, or for His faithful love.” (verses 11–13)

Listen to this, Job. Stop and consider God’s wonders. Do you know how God directs His clouds or makes their lightning flash? Do you understand how the clouds float, those wonderful works of Him who has perfect knowledge?” (verses 14–16)

What does all this tell us?  It tells us that God is in control of EVERYTHING that occurs on this earth – even the weather. His invisible hand is on all things, even when we cannot see it.  Any Christian that says it is God is not in charge of ‘natural disasters’ is going to be out of sync with what the bible clearly and repeatedly teaches.

So, God is in control of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. Yes he is. But it’s not necessarily his judgement on any specific sin. That appears to be the case. Has there ever been a time when God did send an earthquake as an act of judgement?  Yes he has.

We find evidence of that in the opening chapter of the book of Amos:

The words of Amos, who was one of the sheep breeders from Tekoa —what he saw regarding Israel in the days of Uzziah, king of Judah, and Jeroboam son of Jehoash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake.” (Amos 1:1; emphasis added)

We are told this earthquake occurred during the reign of Uzziah king of Judah, in the 8th century B.C.  Isaiah chapters 2-6 give us a vivid picture of the moral and spiritual condition of Judah during this time. And it wasn’t good. King Uzziah started off well, and God blessed him and the nation. The nation prospered. But the success went to the king’s head and he became proud. So did the people. They started following other gods and then slipped into gross sin. And God warned again and again through his prophets that he would judge them. And the specific judgement would come by way of a massive earthquake:

 Then suddenly, in an instant, you will be visited by the Lord of Hosts with thunder, earthquake, and loud noise, storm, tempest, and a flame of consuming fire.” (Isaiah 29:5–6)

This is the earthquake Amos refers to. He speaks further in the book of a land being shaken (Amos 8:8), houses being smashed (6:11), altars being cracked (3:14) and event he Temple being stuck and collapsing (9:1).  This was no ‘natural disaster’ or random tectonic plate movement. God brought it about. It was divine judgment on Judah’s sin.

picture1For years bible scholars have searched for clues as to where and when this occurred. Then archeologists found the remains.  Excavations began in the 1950’s and continue to today. The more they dig, the more biblical evidence – cities, kings, and earthquake damage they discover. The evidence points to a large regional earthquake around 750 B.C. with the epicenter being north of Jerusalem – most likely Lebanon just above the Dead Sea Transform plate.  After examining the intensity of damage of the ruins geologists estimate the earthquake to be at least magnitude 7.8 – the same as the Kaikoura quake.  Only the human destruction was much worse. Six cities were toppled by this quake over a distance of 400 km. There was utter devastation.

You say, “OK then, so the earthquake in Isaiah and Amos’ day was God’s judgment on disobedience and sin.  So how do we know God wasn’t doing the same in the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes? Maybe Brian Tamaki got it right?  

Firstly, because that earthquake came with a divine warning. God sent his prophets to tell them it was going to happen – and why.  Amos 3:7 says, “the Lord God does nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).  God doesn’t go around the place beating people over the head who are not behaving well, and then saying “Guess who?”  If he is punishing or correcting us, he clearly tells us why.  Secondly, the earthquake was judgement on God’s people, not Gentiles. And this is no small point: the only biblical references to God using a sizeable earthquake as a means of judgement were to teach his people something – not Gentiles.

There are two exceptions to this however.  One is the flood in Genesis 6-10 where God brings catastrophic judgement on the entire earth (which by the way, came with a clear warning).  The other is the devastation God will unleash on the entire earth when His Son returns.  The Old Testament refers to it as The Day of the LORD. It will be a great and terrible day. And every description of calamity and disaster we find in the Bible – whether it is earthquakes or floods or hail storms or tsunamis, are glimpses of what will one day come upon everyone on the earth. The book of Revelation paints the picture in graphic detail.  Chapter 16 speaks of plagues and firestorms and darkness and water turning into blood.  It also speaks of flashes of lightning and thunder and then in verse 18 –

And a severe earthquake occurred like no other since man has been on the earth—so great was the quake.” (Revelation 16:18)

The book of Zechariah describes the same event in chapter 14,

You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come and all the holy ones with Him.” (Zechariah 14:5)

So does God have any message for the people of Christchurch and Kaikoura?  If he is not judging them for some specific sin, what is he doing? What is he saying?

I believe it is this:

“Wake up New Zealand.  Wake up from your slumber. Stop ignoring me. Stop living as if I don’t exist or you don’t need me. I am the one who gave you life. I am the one who gives you food and water and grows your crops and blesses you with good things. I sent my son to die for you. He paid for your sin on the cross. It’s all done. All you need to do is believe. I am trying to get your attention.  The shaking you have experienced is nothing with the devastation you will face when My Son returns. I desire that none should perish but all come to repentance. So come to me.  Come to me and live.”

 That’s God’s message for the people of Kaikoura.  And that’s God’s message for all of us. God is not judging the people of New Zealand for their sinful behaviour.  God has already pronounced his judgement on those things when he put his Son on the cross.  That’s where we find God’s act of judgment today. As Jesus said to Nicodemus,

 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.” (John 3:14–18)

When God put his Son on the cross, he said to the whole world, “This is how seriously I take your sin. This is what sin does. Sin brings about death. But I love you so much I’ve sent my Son to take your place. If you come to him and believe in him, I will receive you. I will forgive you.  But if you reject him, there is nothing more I can do for you. You have brought about your own judgement.”

So then, in conclusion, how should Christians respond to these events?

With godly fear. Our God is not to be trifled with. He is not to be messed with. He ought to be feared. We must not treat him flippantly. We must not presume on his mercy and grace. We must not think we can do whatever want and imagine God will turn a blind eye. He will be faithful to discipline his covenant people.

With continued prayer. We need to be people of prayer. We need to be spiritually alert. “The end of all things is at hand,” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:7, “therefore be serious and disciplined for the purpose of prayer.” Earthquakes are not our problem.  Satan is.  “For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12)

With gospel hope.  Christians ought to be the most hopeful, most confident and most optimistic people in the world.  Think about what’s coming to us!  What a future we have! What a hope! This ought to propel us forward, each and every day, to confident and joy filled living – particularly in times of uncertainty and fear.  People will see it. They will notice it. And they will come asking us about it.

With love, compassion and care.  Whenever there is a disaster of this nature, there will be people hurting. In this case, only two lives were lost. But many more lives will be adversely affected. Some won’t be insured. Some will lose income.  Small business will fold. We need to demonstrate compassion, love and care to people who are distraught, troubled and suffering. And we are to do what we can to help and assist them. Because I believe this is what our Saviour, if he were here today, would do.

[1] Tamaki is quoting from Leviticus 18 where the LORD God warns his covenant people not to follow the practices of the nations around them. If they don’t heed the warning God promises to drive them out of the land – “If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it has vomited out the nations that were before you.” (Leviticus 18:28). It has nothing to do with earthquakes or physical rupturing of the earth because it cannot “cope” with human sin.

[2] That very evening National MP Paul Foster-Bell announced he wss gay, saying preacher Brian Tamaki’s claims about homosexuals causing earthquakes meant he had to speak up.

[3] “The ground is cursed because of you. You will eat from it by means of painful labor all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.” (Genesis 3:17–18)

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