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Where Was God When the Freeway Fell?
November 12, 1989


My text this morning, taken from the suggested reading for this morning, is II Thessalonians 3:3, "The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from evil." The Lord is faithful and will guard you. What about those who lost their lives in the earthquake? Where was God when the freeway fell? Why did some die? Why were some saved? Will God take care of you? The hymn we just sang, "God will take care of you, through every day, o'er all the way," almost didn't get into the new hymnal. Several on the committee said it should be deleted. A seminary professor said the hymn is not only sentimental, but not always true.

Several of those who survived the freeway crash publicly thanked God for taking care of them, believing that God answered their desperate prayers. What about those whose prayers were not answered? What about those who lost their homes? Is God fair? Hanging on the bulletin board and printed in this week's New Outlook is a list of what your children think are the most things our church should teach. Renae asked the children in Sunday School on Reformation Sunday to list important beliefs like Martin Luther did. One important belief your children have is, "God is never unfair." Are they right? Is God never unfair? If so, why do the good sometimes suffer, and die young? Why do the bad guys seem to prosper? Why are there natural disasters?

These are questions that have bothered human beings throughout history. However, the earthquake has convinced me that these are the wrong questions to ask. Because these are the wrong questions, no wonder the answers traditional theology have given are so inadequate. It sometimes takes earthquakes to shake us out of our stupor, and face reality. Did your teacher ever shake you to get your attention? Or your mother? You weren't paying any attention to what she was saying, so she took you by the shoulders, shook you, looked into your eyes and said, "Listen to me!" An earthquake is the way the earth releases pressure. An earthquake might also be the way Mother Nature shakes us to get our attention, "Listen to me!"

The earthquake and the aftershocks have had a sobering effect on most of us. People seem to be in shock. Their energy level is low. Some are discouraged and depressed. Some are close to panic. It is good to talk with others about the stress we all are feeling. You are invited to the Wesley Room following this service to talk about the earthquake. The earthquake has also brought out the best in people. The crime rate was almost nonexistent for several days. People helped one another. For a few refreshing moments, priorities got straightened out. So many have said, "I realize how unimportant things are." Or, "I learned how important my family is to me." Did you read the article how some businesses are concerned about the attitude of employees who are reevaluating how hard they are working, and did it matter in the long run. The earthquake did shake us and got our attention.

What is the message? What is being said to us through the earthquake? It's a new message to me. Oh, I have verbalized it before, but I see it now with a clarity I didn't have before. THE PLANET ON WHICH WE LIVE HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN, NOT CENTERED ON US. The earth is not in existence for us. We are not the owners of this planet. We are guests. We are strangers. We are foreigners. We are only visiting for awhile. Like a Star Trek episode where the heroes battle unfriendly elements on a distant planet, that distant planet is actually the earth. The earth is not always friendly. It is our egos that get us into trouble!

My colleague down the street, Jim McLeod, pastor of All Saints' Church, wrote in his newsletter. The earth in all its wonder is "our fragile island home." It is both fragile and immensely powerful. It is our friend. But, if we don't respect it and its natural laws, the earth can be our enemy. It is the only place we have and we are dependent upon it. It is a gift from God and a reminder of God's almighty power, faithfulness, and love.

The planet on which we live has a life of its own, not centered on us. Ian Cribbs in the Palo Alto Times, touched the heart of this message as he described his experience during the earthquake. He was in a supermarket when it happened, grabbed his two children and hovered over them. He wrote, You wait for it to end because you are powerless to do anything else. It does end, finally, and you collect your loved ones and move to someplace safer where you congregate in groups--friends, acquaintances, total strangers, it doesn't matter. You gather together because you have been stripped of every shred of self-importance you ever possessed.

The October 11 issue of The Christian Century magazine had a fascinating article, published before the earthquake, "Fierce Landscapes and the Indifference of God," by Belden C. Lane. Professor Lane observes how the land in which people live affect their beliefs. People who live in the sparse Sinai desert, the austere Scottish Highlands, and the stark Tibetan mountains have encountered a God of fierce indifference. By this he means the Old Testament Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, and Scottish Calvinist Presbyterians, because of a hostile environment, learned how to live with God and survive an unfriendly earth. They developed a rigorous, fierce, tough, resilient faith and life style.

Lane contrasts their religion with that of America where we have mixed popular psychology with a theology wholly devoted to self-realization, a theology that lets us down when earthquakes shake. Listen to his words, I really don't want a God who is solicitous of my every need, fawning for my attention, eager for nothing in the world so much as the fulfillment of my self-potential. One of the scourges of our age is that all of our deities are housebroken and eminently companionable; far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.

We tend to have it backwards, trying to find gods who will serve us, rather than we serving the transcendent God who, along with the earth, is not dependent on us! This article, written before the earthquake, helps me understand how our religion, especially those of us who live in California, is shaped by a warm climate, surrounded by the beauty of Yosemite and the ocean, and influenced by a Hollywood culture. Too many of us have fallen into the error, even heresy, of believing that God's sole purpose is to keep us happy and provide us with pleasure. We want a Zsa Zsa Gabor religion: everything my way! Or a Frank Sinatra religion: I did it my way. We seem to believe if we think positively enough, and pray, everything will work to our benefit. And, when it doesn't, we can't understand it. We are disillusioned and depressed, and ask irrelevant questions like why do the good suffer, and where was God when the freeway fell?

We live in earthquake country, and wonder why there are quakes. Many wise people before us, including Jesus, warned us about the foolish man who built his house on the sand. Sooner or later, a child who plays with fire will get burned. And when he gets burned, do you blame the match? And ask, where was God when he got burned? Or, why do little boys suffer? Those questions are irrelevant.

The American pioneers had a tough religion for their austere conditions. They knew they lived on an unfriendly earth. They battled the elements, battled unfriendly nature, and were grateful for their victories. They expected, and here is the difference from us, the land to be unfriendly. They expected tornadoes and floods. They expected hail and pestilence. They expected disease and death. They recognized their vulnerability in the face of nature, and their utter dependence on God. They recognized how much they depended on God for deliverance and blessings, for good weather and good crops.

And they praised God and thanked God when they were delivered. They rejoiced, praised and thanked God when they didn't die, rather than feeling cheated when a loved one did die. They gathered in the churches, they gathered at thanksgiving feasts to praise God when there was a harvest. How many of you were in church following the earthquake to thank God for your survival? How many of us are grateful to God for every breath we breathe, for every drink of clean water we take?

The earthquake shook us up, and got our attention. The planet on which we live has a life of its own, not centered on our plans and desires. The earth is friendly at times, but the givens are earthquakes, storms, cancer, disease, death. Why should we be surprised when death occurs? Why should we be surprised and question why when the good die young? Why should we wonder why some survive and some don't? The surprise is that some survive! Praise God! The surprise is that many houses did not fall. Praise God! The surprise is that not everyone dies young. Praise God! The surprises are evidence that God is faithful, God will strengthen you and guard you from evil.

The planet on which we live has a life of its own, not centered on us. No, the questions to ask are not, where was God when the freeway fell? Why do some survive and some don't? Why do the righteous and the young die? The questions to ask are, how do we get along with God? How do we live on this earth where earthquakes, fires, cancer, plagues are indiscriminate, where the victims may be good, righteous and young? Then, we are led to the answer: in humble dependence upon the God of nature who, through prayer and faith, gives us the courage, strength, and resilience to fight the elements, take up the challenge and risk; expecting evil, death, earthquakes, and taxes; and expressing gratitude to God for the victories and surprises.

With this outlook and belief system, we will discover on a very deep level that God is faithful, God will strengthen, guard and protect. That's the promise. At a deeper level than what things we want, a deeper level than our pleasure and happiness, a deeper level than our self-importance and fulfillment, a deeper level than the battle with an unfriendly earth, a deeper level than life and death, is the promise, the assurance, that your salvation is in Christ, and God will take care of you.

"God will take care of you, through every day, o'er all the way." During the debate in the Hymnal Committee over whether "God Will Take Care of You" should be included in the new hymnal, a woman who had come into United Methodism from a Lutheran background, said, "This hymn is not in any Lutheran hymnal. It does not meet my objective standards for good music or a good text. But when my Lutheran grandmother was dying, this was the hymn she wanted sung to her. What I remember about it at the time was the extravagance--more than what made good sense--of God's love and care that was promised." On a deeper level than even death, her grandmother knew that God will take care of her.

The planet on which we live has a life of its own, not centered on us, but God will take care of you. II Thessalonians 3:3: "The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from evil."


© 1989 Douglas I. Norris