The Book of Job begins with a man who has everything family, prosperity in money and land, friends, community respect, and in addition, has a genuine humility. For the sake of the story, each of these is stripped away as servant after servant comes to tell him of disasters. This reading is the fourth set of disasters.
That servant was still speaking, when a fourth one dashed up and said, "Your children were having a feast and drinking wine at the home of your oldest son, when suddenly a windstorm from the desert blew the house down, crushing all of your children, I am the only one who escaped tell you."
When Job heard this, he tore his clothes and shaved his head because of his great sorrow. He knelt on the ground, then worshiped God and said:
"We bring nothing at birth;
we take nothing with us at death.
The Lord alone gives and takes.
Praise the name of the Lord!"
Job 1:1822 (CEV)
Near the end of the Book of Job, Job is confronted with the awesomeness of God in the weather.
Have you been to the places where
I keep snow and hail,
until I use them to punish and conquer nations?
From where does lightning leap, or the east wind blow?
Who carves out a path for thunderstorms?
Who send torrents of rain
in empty deserts where no one lives?
Rain that changes barren land to meadows green with grass.
Who is the father of the dew and of the rain?
Who gives birth to the sleet and the frost that fall in winter,
when streams and lakes freeze sold as a rock?
Can you arrange stars in groups such as Orion and the Pleiades?
Do you control the stars or set in place the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper?
Do you know the laws that govern the heavens,
and can you make them rule the earth?
Can you order the clouds to send a downpour,
or will lightning flash at your command?
Did you teach birds to know that rain or floods are on their way?
Can you count the clouds or pour out their water on the dry, lumpy soil.
In the ongoing attempt by the religious leaders of Jesus' day to attack him, we have this account.
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. He told them:
If the sky is red in the evening, you say the weather will be good. But if the sky is red and gloomy in the morning, you say it is going to rain. You can tell what the weather will be like by looking at the sky. But you don't understand what is happening now. You want a sign because you are evil and won't believe. But the only sign you will be given is what happened to Jonah.
Then Jesus left.
Matthew 16:14 (CEV)
Today, we are worshiping in what is called "a climate conditioned" building a euphemism for a structure in which the windows do not open. With less precision, we could also say that we live in a climate conditioned environment. The only time we have to experience the weather is in those brief times we move between our air conditioned house, air conditioned car, air conditioned office, air conditioned shop, air conditioned classroom and air conditioned church. That means we experience changes in the weather more through TV news than our skin.
Weather is the result of a complex interplay of temperature, air pressure, wind and currents, moisture, precipitation and the rotation of the earth. Weather is not a local phenomena.
In 1988, and continuing into 1989, North America suffered its worst drought for many years. Crops withered, cattle were slaughtered for lack of feed and large, navigable rivers dried, leaving ships and barges grounded. While North American parched, western Europe had practically no summer at all; it rained almost incessantly and temperatures were low. Australia, too, had unusually heavy rains in September and, for a time, the desert was carpeted in green.1
El Niño2 high over the Pacific affects the weather throughout this country and in West Africa, and the so called "butterfly" effect (a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking affects the weather in Houston) makes our weather a world wide phenomenon. As much as we think we have learned to predict the weather, the unannounced tornado recently leveling the community in central Texas and the unexpected severe flood this spring inundating Bismark, North Dakota, makes us aware of how limited predictability is. Still, tracking hurricanes out of the Atlantic is of immense benefit to us.
Today's sermon is not a discourse on meteorology. It is, as the subtitle points out, some thoughts on a "Theology of Weather Watching." Prior to thinking about this, I had not given much thought to how much weather fills the biblical record:
We heard Job and Jesus in our scripture readings.
There is the rainbow as a promise to Noah that water will not again destroy the earth (Genesis 9:1217);
Thunder and lightening and thick clouds surround Mt. Sinai while Moses received the Law;
Jesus said, "The Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory" (Mark 3:26));
The end of the world includes: "Peals
of thunder, rumblings, flashes off lightening and an earthquake"
according to the author of Revelation (8:5).
Other theological metaphors arise as well.
Jesus uses the weather to speak of God's
love for every human being when he said; "God causes his
sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain (here as
a blessing) on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew
In communicating with the theologian
Nicodemus about contact with the Divine, Jesus says, "The
wind blows where ever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you
cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is
with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:8).
When the seventy disciples returned
from their short term mission reporting that even demons were
subject to them in Jesus' name, Jesus said, "I saw Satan
fall like lightening from heaven" (Luke 10:18).
It seems obvious to me that people living closely to the weather in an agricultural society would quickly understand these analogies in the Bible. But, we who live in a "climate controlled" environment, have more difficulty in seeing weather as pointers to God or seeing weather as a ministry of God.
All kinds of weather, according the author of Psalm 104, ministers to humans and is a means of praising God. But, weather in the Bible is also a seen as a punishment for evil done. Drought, earthquake, wind and hail all result from human sinfulness. The worse famine that Amos prophesied was a famine not of food but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11).
I certainly can't look at weather as a direct blessing or a direct punishment of God, for the weather, as I know it, is the result of known, if not always predictable, forces.
Still, one experience did profoundly affect my view of the weather. Although not a "climate controlled" environment, growing up in a city did insulate me somewhat from the direct effect of the weather. It was the six years I lived in a rural area with marginal rain that the weather became a visible daily reality. No rain for a week, and people's faces on the streets of this very small town were glum. Have it rain and smiles appeared. In that community, rain meant life and community and hope.
I also learned on that open prairie the awfulness of weather: the storms rolling in and after the storm the utter sense of the calm and peace that spread across the land. It was sometimes hard to breathe for fear of disturbing the perfect silence. Awe, a theological category, I learned in those times.
But, awesomeness is also experienced in weather's overwhelming power. Standing on my porch in Tarsus, Turkey, the day before Christmas in 1968, I watched the water visibly and rapidly rise across the plain. That night, we slept in our landlord's apartment on the second floor. The next morning, we walked through our apartment with water up to our waist. Given the fact that the apartment was already three feet above the ground meant that the water was covering the land with six and a half feet of water. What an awesome irrepressible power of water, and what a total impotence of this human standing in its way.
The absence of rain, the stillness after a storm, the power of a flood are more dramatic forms of weather. Weather is also the common coin of everyday relationships. It is a conversation starter both with friends and with complete strangers. Small talk is not to be despised, for small talk is at least talk. A beginning of human contact.
Theologically, for us, the weather raises the same question that is raised on the occasion of disasters which maim and kill.
Sunday, 27 March, 1994. The children, dressed in their Sunday best, waited anxiously to take part in a Palm Sunday drama. Outside the storm clouds gathered strength. As the congregation celebrated Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, disaster struck. A deadly tornado generated by the storms hit the church, shattering windows and toppling a brick wall on top of the pew where the children waited to sing their songs. Amidst the rubble lay nineteen bodies, six of those children.
Why is that picture so troubling?
Is it because children died? Well, then what about the adults; they, too, have loved ones? Is it because it happened to a church, or it happened on Palm Sunday? Would it happening on another day or another place make it more palatable?
Why do such disasters shake us so deeply? Death will do that. But I believe disasters affect us even more.
Disasters bring disorder to our construction of reality. In order to function, we organize our environment with structures that provide us with a well ordered world. We seek to find order in the physical world around us. We develop patterns for our social relationships. We impose rules for driving on our roads. There are rituals at the work place, a presidential inauguration, a university graduation, and a worship service. There is a profound need in us for orderly structures.
Disasters shatter that order, our security. A disaster demonstrates to us our frailty and finiteness. We are left speechless,or mumbling inanities in light of disasters.
One person who has headed a Red Cross Disaster Reaction Team said that there are four phases of a disaster. First, there is the immediate "heroic phase," in which people act to help others survive and recover. Then there is the "honeymoon phase," in which, without asking for it, help is given. The third phase is "disappointment and disillusionment," as frustration builds with delays assistance faltering, and finger pointing beginning: finger pointing at the inept weather service, the government, the Red Cross, the media and God. Finally there is the "reconstruction" phase when the community begins to rebuild and to recover.
This parallels the `disaster' of the death of a loved one as well. There are heroic efforts to get injured individuals to the hospital and of loved ones maintaining a 24-hour vigil in the hospital. Then there is the reaction of family and friends in gathering around in support. Next, comes the blaming phase: "Why didn't I ? The doctors didn't ! Where was God!" Finally, we enter into the reconstruction phase of recovering and rebuilding.
And so there is an active response in which we do things, and a reflective response in which we are forced to agonize over constructing a new world view that embraces the disaster that overtook us. Theological questions get asked in this reflective time.
Throughout the world and throughout the centuries disaster strikes without warning, shattering lives and dreams, and giving rise to questions about the fairness of life and the goodness of God.
A disaster shatters that order, our security. A disaster demonstrates to us our frailty and finiteness. We are left speechless,literally speechless in light of disasters. "What do I say? What can I say?" is typical. There is often a feeling of betrayal: by nature, by other people, by God. How often do people pull into disasters their own shortcomings and sin? "If I only would have ; God, if you let her live, I will never again ; I knew I shouldn't have ." Or, today the comment is, "Let's sue."
Theodicy is the word that tries to understand God's responsibility for disasters. Traditionally, the question has been formulated this way: if we believe that God is all powerful and all loving, then why is their evil, but if God is willing to prevent evil but unable to do so, then God cannot be all powerful?
The common view expressed is that disaster is the result of sin. Often people automatically say, "What did I do wrong?" If only I would have ."
Rather than seeking the causes of evil, we need to affirm our ability to respond to disasters. We are given the power to respond in a constructive manner to the many tragedies that confront us.
The Christian belief in resurrection affirms the overcoming of the power of death without circumventing it. As a result, we are empowered to respond and to overcome but not to avoid death and suffering. Although it is a part of human nature to seek causes and responsibility, we also much affirm our responsibility It is through our responsibility that we affirm both life and the goodness of creation. Through our affirmation of life in the face of destruction and death, we remain faithful to the message of the gospel.
But this is not just words, it is the life giving and life affirming community that we find the power of resurrection.
In the wake of the tornadoes that brought death and destruction to the community of Piedmont, Alabama, came an affirmation of life. People responded to the plight of those affected. The community was slowly rebuilt. The very following Sunday, the members of Goshen United Methodist Church once more gathered amidst the rubble to worship God. As they gathered on Easter morning, they affirmed the power of the Resurrection and the gift of life in spite of the agony of death,
We can see some of the power of Paul's words in Romans.
What can we say about all this? If God is on our side, can anyone or anything prevail against us? God did not keep back his own Son, but he gave him for us. If God did this, won;'t he freely give us everything else? If God says his chosen one are acceptable to him, can anyone bring charges against them? Or con anyone condemn them? No indeed! Christ died and was raised to life, and now his is at God's right side, speaking to him for us. Can anything separate us form the love of Christ? Can trouble, suffering, and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger and death? In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us form God's love not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us form God's love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!
1 Michael Allaby, Air: The Nature of Atmosphere and the Climate, New York: Facts on File, 1992, pp. 91-92
2 El Niño is Spanish for `boy child,' or in this case `Christ child,' because the weather associated with El Niño begins to affect the western coast of South America, especially Peru, in December.
Allaby, Michael, Air: The Nature of Atmosphere and the Climate, New York: Facts on File. 1992, pp. 91-92 [Ring 553.6 A416]
Faidley, Warren. Storm Chaser: In Pursuit of Untamed Skies. The Weather Channel: Atlanta, 1996 [Ring 551.55 F159]
Pedraja, Luis G. "In Harm's Way: Theological Reflections on Disasters," Quarterly Review, Spring 1997, pp. 524. [StM]
Stevens, R. Paul. "Toward a Theology of Weather Watching," CRUX, December 1995, pp. 1417 [StM]
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