Cyclone Pam and the Cross, Reflections on the Aftermath of Cyclone Pam

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Vanuatu was on all the major news channels as the world watched the approach of category five Tropical Cyclone Pam. Photos and videos were soon on the Internet. The news channels covered the story as it developed. People everywhere were talking about Vanuatu. Many were praying. And many have given to help in the relief efforts here.

Many have noted the resolve of the ni-Vanuatu to work. Immediately after the cyclone, you began cleaning up and rebuilding as you have been able. You have had a mind to work and to rebuild. You have been courageous in the face of adversity. Most if not all have suffered the loss of property, and some have even lost loved ones. Our heart goes out to you. We have wept with those who weep. On the Joy Bible Institute campus, five of our buildings suffered serious damage. We lost roofs, furniture, and library books to the cyclone. Many of our churches have been damaged and some have been destroyed. Cyclone Pam was the strongest cyclone of the Southern Hemisphere on record, and the financial loss to the country is beyond calculation.

But you have responded with courage, strength, and determination. I need not tell you that there remains much to do or that rebuilding will take time and perseverance. I simply want to encourage you and tell you that many have noted and admired your strength of character. Well done!

1.      Question: Where was God?

Natural disasters sometimes provoke us to ask the question, “Where was God?” Cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes, famines and other natural disasters sometimes strengthen faith; sometimes they weaken faith. Many of you thanked God that your lives were spared. The strength of the winds was beyond anything that we could have imagined. We are all amazed at the tremendous damage that was wrought. Some say, “Thank God we were spared!” Others ask, “Where was God in all this?”

The question is often put like this: How could an all-good, all-powerful God permit this to happen? How could a loving all-powerful God allow a cyclone to wreak such destruction? If God is a God of love, he must not be all-powerful. Or if he is all-powerful, he must not be a loving God.

That sounds simple enough. If there is a God, then he is either powerless to stop such events, or he is not loving enough to care. And some conclude that events like Cyclone Pam prove that God does not exist.

While the reasoning seems simple enough, it is really simplistic. It is a simple-minded reasoning that assumes to understand and know exactly how an all-wise and all-loving God must act. It is a type of reasoning that fails to understand what God has said about his way of thinking in Isaiah 55:8-9.

Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. 9 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

The type of reasoning that rejects the idea of God because He does not conform to our way of thinking is a pride that elevates itself against God and assumes itself to be omniscient (all-knowing) and all-wise.

2.      Well, what about prayer?

Why didn’t prayer stop the storm? Last week while we were still in the United States, an elderly American pastor called me. “Gary,” he said, “when you told us that there was the danger of a cyclone, I began to pray that God would spare Vanuatu. I guess I didn’t pray hard enough.”

Really? Is that the problem? Did we suffer the ravages of Cyclone Pam because people did not pray hard enough? Not at all!

The Bible is utterly realistic. There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that we can be spared the storms of life. Sometimes the gospel is presented in such a way that people get the impression that there will be no problems in the Christian life. I am afraid that is a false gospel.

Prayer is an acknowledgement that we are absolutely dependent on God. We are to pray at all times, the Bible tells us. And when we are threatened by the elements, we should certainly call out to God. But we must not imagine that we can control God or the elements of nature by prayer. There is no promise that we will be spared difficulty in life. God never promised us a storm-free life. Quite the contrary!

Time and again, in every book of the Bible, whether by illustration or by teaching, we are told that we will all pass through storms in life.

Jesus told the parable in Matthew 7 about the wise man and the foolish man. The wise man built his house on the rock while the foolish man built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the house of the wise man and on the house of the foolish man alike. Both the wise man and the foolish man went through violent storms. But the house of the wise man did not fall because it was built on the rock, while the house of the foolish man “fell and great was the fall of it” because it was built on sand instead of on the rock. Jesus said that everyone who hears his words and does them is like the man who built his house on the rock. But everyone who hears his words and does not do them, is like the foolish man who built his house on the sand.

Both the wise and the foolish will face violent storms in life. How we survive depends on the foundation. If our lives are founded on the Word of God, we will survive the storms of life.

In Acts 11 we read about a man named Agabus who predicted that there would be a famine:

Acts 11:27-30 ESV Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

It is helpful to notice what the Christians did and what they did not do. The Holy Spirit spoke by one of the Christian prophets and told the church at Antioch that there was going to be a famine, a natural disaster. We know what this means. A famine is a time when the crops do not grow well and food is very scarce. When food is scarce, it becomes very expensive.

Notice what the church did not do. The church did not pray against the famine. They did not pray that the harvest would be greater than ever. They did not pray that the famine would not come. They did not pray that the famine would not affect the Christians. They did not pray that the church would somehow be spared the disaster brought on by the famine.

Nor did they simply assume that the famine would not come or that the church would somehow not be touched by the famine.

What did the church do? Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us,

Acts 11:29 NLT So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could.

True Christianity is practical. The believers responded to the need by sending relief to the Christians in Judea.

We must not think that somehow we are exempt from suffering, or that the storms of life will pass by on the other side. God never promised us that. Notice what the LORD says through the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 43:1-2 ESV But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

The LORD tells us that there will be times when we pass through the waters. It will seem that we are about to be carried away by the rivers. There will be times when we will walk through fire. But the word to the Christian believer is that we must not fear. Why not? Because the LORD has redeemed us. He knows us by name. He has called us and we belong to him. When we pass through the waters, he will be with us. When we pass through the rivers of difficulty, they will not overwhelm us. When we walk through the fires of oppression, we will not be burned up. The flames will not consume us.

Psalm 46:1-11 ESV God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

God makes no promise of a trouble-free life. On the contrary, Psalm 46 tells us that we will have troubles. There will be times when it seems that the earth beneath us is giving way, that the mountains are sliding into the depths of the ocean. The tsunamis will come and the waves will roar! But, the psalmist says, we will not fear! Why? Because God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. We take refuge in God himself. Verse 4 continues,

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. 6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah 8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” 11 The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Once again, notice that the Bible is utterly realistic. In Acts 27, the Apostle Paul is a prisoner of Rome. He has appealed to Caesar in order to get a fair trial. He is under Roman guard and is traveling by ship across the Mediterranean Sea from Israel to Rome. With great difficulty they make it to the island of Crete. Now the Apostle Paul is a well-seasoned traveler. He knows the weather conditions of the Mediterranean Sea and advises that they pass the winter on the island of Crete rather than trying to travel any farther. Luke describes the situation:

Acts 27:9-10 NLT We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for sea travel because it was so late in the fall, and Paul spoke to the ship’s officers about it. 10 “Men,” he said, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on– shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to our lives as well.”

Notice that Paul is an utterly practical and realistic man. He knows the weather conditions. He knows that there is danger ahead. There are several things that Paul does not do:

         He does not say, “No worries, mate! I’m the Apostle Paul. You will always have smooth sailing with me!” No, Paul has already gone through three shipwrecks before. He has also spent a night and a day adrift at sea (2 Corinthians 11:25). He knows the reality and the dangers of the sea. He is realistic.

What happens next?

Acts 27:11 NLTBut the officer in charge of the prisoners listened more to the ship’s captain and the owner than to Paul.

They set out to sea and are caught in a terrible typhoon. What does Paul do?

         Paul does not pray against the typhoon.

         He does not rebuke it in the name of Jesus.

Luke tells us that for 14 days and nights, they were driven by the storm. They threw over all their cargo, but “at last all hope was gone” (Acts 27:20).

We read that the winds and the waves obey the Lord Jesus Christ, but they do not obey us. Neither the New Testament Christians nor even the apostles that the Lord had personally appointed — none of them presumed to be able to control the elements. Nor did they believe that they would be protected from all such danger.

But in this case, the Lord sent an angel to the Apostle Paul who told him not to fear for God had determined that Paul would appear before Caesar. Furthermore, God in his goodness granted safety to all of Paul’s traveling companions (Acts 27:21-26).

But it does not always turn out that way. This was Paul’s fourth shipwreck. Stephen was stoned to death. James was beheaded. Paul himself would eventually be beheaded. Twenty-one Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya last month. 147 people were killed by Islamic radicals at a university in Nairobi, Kenya this past week and many of them were Christians who had met together for an early morning prayer meeting. The night before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples,

John 16:33 NLT … Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

We so want to understand that sometimes we invent reasons that are not true. But it is only when we do not understand that we can exercise trust. Trust means believing when you do not understand. To trust in God is to hold on to him when you do not understand what he is doing or why you are going through trials and sorrows.

3.      Why do these things happen?

We can see from reality and from Scripture that bad things happen in this world in which we live. But why? If God is all-good and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen? Is it because some people deserve bad things more than others?

Not at all. It is so tempting to put on our self-righteousness and look at those less fortunate and think that we are better or more righteous. Terrible things happened to Job. He lost everything. His family, his possessions. Only his wife remained and she told him to curse God and die. And then there were his three miserable friends — “comforters” — who said that there must be a secret sin in his life for these bad things to happen to him. But by the end of the Book of Job, God has vindicated his faithful servant Job and proven his comforters to be wrong in condemning him.

The tendency to point the finger to others is found even among the disciples in the New Testament. One day, Jesus came up on a man who had been born blind.

John 9:2-3 NLT “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” 3 “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.

3.1.   We live in a Genesis 3 world

Bad things happen because we live in a Genesis 3 world. There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. Only four of those chapters describe a perfect world. The world is a perfect place in the first two chapters of the Bible before man sins, and in the last two chapters of the Bible in the new heavens and the new earth, but in between the beginning and the end, the Bible describes a fallen world. In Genesis 1 and 2, the world was perfect. Man had everything that he needed and he walked with God in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day.

But in Genesis 3, we read that sin entered into the world, and that by one man Adam. Adam disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the one tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam fell and all of creation was brought under the consequences of Adam’s sin.

In the original creation there were neither thorns nor storms. There were no cyclones or tsunamis or or earthquakes or sickness or death. But Paul tells us in Romans 8,

Romans 8:20-21 NLT Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, 21 the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay.

Yes, the last chapter of the Bible describes the new heavens and the new earth, the restored creation.

3.2.   Bad things happen in this Genesis 3 world.

That does not mean that the world is out of control. It does not mean that God is powerless to stop bad things from happening.

But God is so wise and so powerful that he often uses bad things to bring about good. The first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, tells us that Jacob had 12 sons. Ten of these sons were jealous of their young brother Joseph. The twelfth son, Benjamin, was too young to be involved in their jealousy, but the ten sons plotted together to get rid of Joseph. They sold him into slavery in Egypt and lied to their father, telling Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, but God was with him. Falsely accused, he ended up in prison through no fault of his own, but God was with him. But 13 years later, he is brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dream, and Joseph is made the Prime Minister of Egypt. Yes, God had been with Joseph all the time. God had sent him to Egypt in order to oversee the food supplies of Egypt and that region of the world so that the children of Israel would be saved. When the brothers of Joseph found out that the brother that they had sold into slavery was the master of Egypt, they feared for their lives, but Joseph told them,

Genesis 50:20 NLT You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.

The Bible assures us

Romans 8:28-29 NIV And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

The Bible does not say that all things are good, or that God works all things together for the good of everyone. It only says that he works all things together for the good of those who love him, those who have been called according to his purpose. And his purpose is that we would be changed into the likeness of his Son. God takes the bad things and uses them to make his children be more like Christ his Son.

3.3.   Bad things happen to warn us about things that are worse than bad.

The people told Jesus about some bad things that had happened to some Jews who were offering sacrifices to God:

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

Bad things happen in this world. Many Christian students holding a prayer meeting at a Kenyan university were killed this past week. Were they worse sinners than those who escaped? Not at all. But if we do not repent and turn away from our sins, Jesus says that we will also perish.

This nation has suffered terrible devastation. Many have lost their homes and some have lost their lives. Were they worse sinners than those who were spared? Not at all. But there are things that are worse than losing our homes, our possessions, and even our lives.

Matthew 16:24-26 NLT Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. 25 If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. 26 And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?

4.      The Cross

Bad things happen. The cross of Christ was the worst and the best thing that ever happened. The greatest outrage of justice that ever took place, took place on the cross. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus was “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Heb 7:26 ESV). The governor Pilate pronounced him innocent: “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38). One criminal on the cross said to the other criminal,

Luke 23:41 NLT We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man [Jesus] hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Redemption’s Song
© J. Gary Ellison, April 4, 2012

See Him there upon the cross
As He dies in shame
We are the ones who nailed Him there,
We are the ones to blame.

It was for crimes He had not done,
Our sins that caused His pain.
He knew no sin, the Righteous One,
For sinners He was slain.

O Lamb of God on sacred tree
Twas there You died for me
To take away my sin and shame
That righteous I might be.

That Holy One did bear our sin
No other one could do.
He is the Lamb, the spotless One,
Who died for me and you.

Holy, innocent, undefiled,
On Him our sins were laid,
To cleanse us from our awful deeds
The penalty He paid.

O Righteous One, I hear you now,
“It’s finished! It is done!” —
The work on Calvary’s bloody cross —
The victory’s been won!

They laid Him in a borrowed grave
He would not use it long.
God raised Him up that He might save,
This is Redemption’s song.

Yes, the cross of Christ was the worst and the best thing that ever happened. On the cross Christ bore our sins. By the cross we have been reconciled to God. And just as sentence of death was overturned by Christ’s literal physical resurrection from the dead, for the Christian, all wrongs will be righted. Death will give way to life.