Rev. Brandt Hoffman
Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines on the morning of November 8 as one of the world’s most powerful storms on record to make landfall. The Category 5 typhoon made landfall near Leyte Province in Eastern Visayas Region causing massive destruction and loss of life. The storm hit with wind gusts up to 235 mph, nearly 16 inches of rainfall and waves up to 45 feet in some areas. (Lutheran World Relief)
The Philippine government is reporting that they don’t know the full extent of the losses in the wake of the recent typhoon, but they have confirmed that nearly 2,500 people were killed. As I think about those numbers I marvel because that is the equivalent of wiping out 5 to 10 villages in my home state of Alaska! It’s then that the loss of those lives so far away can become very personal. No longer is it something that “simply happened” in a faraway place to a group of nameless and faceless people, but it is a tragic loss of lives in a terrifying display of wind and rain.
Certainly these are terrible times and the media has no shortage of people making commentaries regarding the possible connections to “God” and His role or plan in all this. Atheists are quick to mock the faithful by saying “Where is your god now?” Foolish preachers calling themselves Christians are decrying “God’s judgment on a world filled with fornicators, idolaters and homosexuals”. In the end, you find yourself in the middle asking “What does it all mean? What do we say about God in these situations?”
It seems that any time we experience a “natural disaster” (hurricane, earthquake, typhoon, etc) the question comes to light “Why God?” You might remember back in 2004, the Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed 150,000 lives and in 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,800 lives in Mississippi and Louisiana. In each case, when people are faced with these kind of horrors, they not only want answers, they want comfort. They want to know that sense can be made of such a shocking display of death and suffering!
We tend to only notice death collectively when it comes in such a dramatic fashion. When the death is exceptionally graphic or on a large scale. It doesn’t seem to strike us that every year, our world loses 259,800,000 to deaths unrelated to horrible and dramatic events such as we have witnessed in the Philippines recently. The news is not interested in sending reporters to visit a family devastated at the death of an 8 year old girl in the Netherlands who died of a congenital heart defect or the 52 year old man who lost a battle with cancer in Detroit, Michigan. As a pastor and volunteer hospital chaplain in a state with a high infant-mortality rate, I can say that a young mother holding the lifeless body of a child not one hour old is as great a tragedy as any wave or flood can produce. I can tell you that in these less-known, less-dramatic deaths, the exact same questions are asked by people who are hurting and suffering at a time of great sorrow and confusion. They look at me and ask “Why did this happen? Why did she have to die? Why me?” Like the deaths in the Philippines to villages in Alaska, death seems to only become “real” to people when it becomes personal, spawning very personal questions to and about the nature of God in these situations.
That’s the trouble. People have lost sight of the right question. Rather than asking “Why did MY daughter die, God?” or “Why did so many people in the Philippines die, God?” The right question is “Why do people die at all God?” or “Where does death come from?” When death is only personalized, God can only be seen as adversarial and vindictive. But as we look at the Scriptures, we see that although death comes to us in many ways, (violently, slowly or quickly), it comes only for one reason: because we are fallen and broken sinners. Since the fall in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) God has told us that we will indeed die. There is nothing “natural” about death and disasters. They are both a product of the fall. They are a result of the curse under which this world lives. So now, in the face of all disasters (both great and small) we no longer ask “Why did he/she/they die?”, rather we ask “What does Jesus say about the world we live in?” In John 16:33 He is quite clear that people living in a world infected by the fall are going to suffer. “In the world you will have tribulation.” At no time did He say “Fires, floods and storms won’t affect you because you are a Christian.” Quite the opposite, really. Jesus told us that being his follower, being His child, His redeemed, means we will suffer (Acts 9:16, Phil 3:8, Col 1:24, Matt 10:39) and that the rain (from a typhoon or otherwise) falls on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). So to all of the trials and tribulation we suffer in the world, Jesus completes John 6:33 by saying ” But take heart; I have overcome the world.” In other words, when sin death and the devil show themselves, we need not ask “Why?” but rather take comfort in the fact that the world does not dictate our faith in good times or bad. Instead we may ask “How long, O Lord?”
In Revelation 3:11 Jesus answers that question. He says:”I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” After the fall, God let us know that all death to Him is indeed very personal and the time is coming when He will bring a final end to death (1 Corinthians 15:26). By sending His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross and rise for you, God has indeed shown that He is the master over sin, death and the devil. At Christ’s ascension, He promised us that He would return in glory to judge the living and the dead. He promised to wipe away our tears and that this earth and heaven would be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth. Of course, in the meantime, He tells us our waiting for His return would not come without suffering. All of the evidence of the fall is there. So where is God in the midst of suffering? He is where He established Himself to be on that first Sunday in Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago. He is where His Word is purely preached and His Sacraments are rightly administered. Church is not a refuge for the righteous, but a hospice for sinners. It is where all the troubles of the world can be brought and where every sin you have, may be brought and all of that evil removed. It is where you are fed and washed with the food and water from God. When Christ ascended into the heavens, we were called to await His return, and we will wait. In the midst of joys and sufferings, in the midst of our prayers for all people who are caught dramatically in suffering and for those who suffer silently, we will wait in the hope of our Redeemer who has promised us rescue and redemption.
The Rev. Brand Hoffman is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Anchorage, Alaska.