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God And Weather
August 8, 1993

MATTHEW 14:22-23

While preparing for this sermon by reading the lectionary suggested Scripture lessons for today, the Midwest floods were in the news and on my mind. When I read Matthew's account of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm, I wondered why God didn't calm the flood waters in the Midwest. I wondered why God didn't stop the rains. Surely the victims were praying for the rains to cease. Then I contemplated the larger question: why does God often seem so ineffective in controlling the weather? Think of the devastating earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts.

Are these storms signs? Some fanatics and doom-and-gloomsayers like to quote a few--and I might add, a very few--Scripture verses, and predict that the weather we are having is a sign of the end times. They say that earthquakes and floods are signs of coming calamities, and sure signs of the Lord's imminent return.

But, wait a minute! Haven't there always been earthquakes? And floods? In fact, wouldn't level heads admit that weather and occasional violent phenomena are essential to the planet's well being? Doesn't the earth need water, and occasional flooding? Aren't forest fires needed to remove the underbrush and dead trees? Aren't earthquakes necessary to relieve stress and pressure? Aren't volcanoes like safety valves letting off steam?

Let's look at God and weather this morning. Storms can teach us much about living our lives effectively, successfully, and confidently. Storms teach us:

We human beings were not here first! We arrogant human beings have a tendency to think the universe is here to accommodate us. We like to think everything is arranged for our benefit, forgetting that the planet also must survive, forgetting that the planet has a life of its own. Have you ever moved to a small town, particularly a small Scandinavian town in Minnesota? If so, you soon discover that you are an outsider. If you weren't born there, you never quite belong. "You're a newcomer," they tell you. What they mean is that if you want to survive in that town, especially if you want to succeed in that town, you must learn the customs, traditions, the pecking order, what is done and what isn't done.

We human beings are newcomers on this planet. The earth is approximately four billion years old, and human beings evolved about two million years ago. We are newcomers. We are outsiders. We humans don't quite belong here. And, if we want to survive, if we want to live here successfully, there are some principles, customs, traditions, we need to learn to know what is done, and what isn't done. We ignore them, we defy them to our peril. For example, if you want to live in a river basin, you had better build high levees and keep them in good repair. Confucius said, "He who builds house on side of hill is not on the level." But, some people like to build their houses on hillsides, and then are upset when mud slides wash them away.

Likewise, they who live in a river basin will get wet. Almost every spring the Russian River floods its banks. The media rush to Guerneville to interview the same people year after year. They either ;enjoy floods, or they enjoy living on the river so much they are willing to put up with the floods, which is certainly their prerogative. They understand that those who live beside a river will get wet. Likewise, they who live on earthquake fault lines will shake. They who live in Florida will get blown away by hurricanes. They who live in the Midwest will experience tornadoes. Why are we so amazed when the weather is itself?

It's like people who move next to airports, and then try to keep the planes from flying. Hey, the airport was there first! If you have driven through Manteca, you know that Spreckles' Sugar factory leaves quite an aroma. The beet pulp makes excellent cow feed, so couple the pulp smell with the smell of cow manure and the south side of Manteca is quite aromatic; in fact, it stinks!. It amazes me how people have built a mobile home park and houses next to Spreckels and then complain about the smell! Who was there first? I'm the Chairperson of the Campgrounds Site Committee for our conference. One of the camp properties we own is Monte Toyon, a beautiful camp in the redwoods near Aptos. Over the years, people have built houses along one side of the camp, right across the road from the camp, and then complain about the noise! It baffles me. Why would anyone want to build a house across from a camp, and then are surprised by the noise! The camp was there first.

Likewise, we humans were not here first. If we humans are to live on this earth, we must adapt to nature, and work to cooperate with nature. It won't work the other way around. In fact, the earth is not always friendly to us; often we find ourselves in an adversarial relationship. There are laws, currents, patterns all operating--sometimes for us, sometimes against us, which we must confront and with which we must contend. They who eat sweets will rot out their teeth. They who smoke will get lung cancer and heart trouble. They who eat high cholesterol food will get heart attacks. They who go to rock concerts and dances will lose their hearing. We cannot abuse our bodies without the consequences. There are principles, laws operating on this planet that we ignore or defy to our peril. We were not here first, and we did not make the rules; and when we choose to defy nature, we must expect to suffer the consequences; or learn how to cooperate with nature. When living in a flood area, build strong levees, or when living in an earthquake area, build flexible buildings.

In other words, Don't expect life without storms! It's interesting how the Bible uses water as symbolic of death. Water is life-giving, but it is also death threatening. The Sea, or lake of Galilee, has frequent storms, violent storms that come without warning, and cease as abruptly. In the Bible, water became a symbol of the dark, bubbling chaos of death. Those of us who do not live near the sea, and who do not make our living on the sea, tend to romanticize the ocean and sentimentalize the sea. But, an old sea captain once said, "Never forget, the sea is your enemy; it is out to kill you." At the end of the Bible, in Revelation 21:1, the kingdom of God is envisioned as a place where the sea is no more. Have you wondered what that means? The sea is no more is where there is peace and tranquility, no more storms.

But, in the meantime we experience storms. Sometimes the storm is a natural phenomenon, experienced as threatening to us because we don't quite belong here. But, there are also storms that seem chaotic, senseless, without saving grace, like automobile accidents and cancer. There are storms that are life-threatening, storms that defy reason and predictability, like auto accidents and cancer and little children with birth defects and debilitating diseases. Where is God, we ask. Where is God when the storms come?

When floods come, when earthquakes destroy, when accidents happens, when cancer comes, when you lose a job, don't ask irrelevant, unanswerable questions like: Why did God do this to me? Why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? These are the wrong questions because they assume that life is always friendly, which is a false assumption. They assume that we were here first, and the universe revolves around us, which is a false assumption. They assume that everything that happens to us comes from God, or is God's will, which is a false assumption.

Where is God? Today's Scripture lesson tells us. The disciples had gone out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had remained on the mountain side to pray. Then the storm hit, unannounced, without warning, fierce, frightening and threatening. The disciples panicked. When they tried to return to the shore, they found themselves contending with a ferocious head wind. Then Jesus came, walking on the water. Note the symbolism, walking on the water, above the water, and yet in the midst of the storm. Not letting the storm stop him, Jesus came to them. Where is God? God is in the midst of the storms. Sometimes we experience God when it is quiet, calm, and serene; when we can meditate, reflect, and pray. But, we also can experience God in a storm. The disciples met Jesus on a raging sea, adrift in a boat, frightened out of their wits.

When you find yourself in a raging storm, when life seems frightening and unreasonable, when all seems lost, and you are going down for the third time, look up and see Jesus coming to you, walking on the water, on the problem, and saying to you, Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. And Jesus holds out his hand, and offers, Come! And you like Peter, can walk on the water, you too can walk on your problem, as long as you keep your eyes on Jesus. Peter was able to walk on the water until he got distracted by the wind, until he lost his focus on Jesus.

What do storms teach us? They teach us that we were not on this planet first, and there are patterns, natural phenomena, laws, principles operating with which we cooperate or perish. Storms teach us that God meets us in the storm. When the storms come, don't waste energy on senseless, false questions like, Why me, Lord? What have I done, Lord, to deserve this? Instead, look to Jesus, walking on the water, walking to you, holding out his hand and saying, Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.


© 1993 Douglas I. Norris