Real Life – 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami

This was sent to me by a friend who feels that it very much applies to the days we currently find ourselves in. I do too.

VIDE – Reflections
Real Life – 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami

Here is God’s Word as Pastor Nettleton of Australia shares it with us in the middle of Lent, in the world of flesh and real life, in the world of death and resurrection: a sermon after the tsunami in S. East Asia that killed hundreds of thousands.

Nine nights ago we gathered here to sing and celebrate

We told stories about a baby
A baby who would save the world
A baby whose birth was greeted by angels
A baby whose birth meant tidings of joy for all people everywhere
We spoke of God-made-flesh
Cute chubby baby flesh

We sang familiar songs
We enjoyed familiar company
We smiled at baby Piper playing over here as we sang about the baby
We drank champagne and ate Christmas cake
God was in heaven and all was well with the world
Or so it seemed

But all was not well with the world
A pressure was building up deep beneath the surface
Two unyielding forces were pushing against each other
And we sang on, oblivious
And others partied on
And holidayed on
Walked along moonlit beaches hand in hand
Wrapped final presents as the kids fell asleep
But underneath, the pressure grew and grew

“All is calm, all is bright” we sang
“Sleep in heavenly peace”
“Now you here of endless bliss” we sang
“While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love”
“We will live forever more, because of Christmas Day”, we sang
But the pressure grew and grew knowing nothing of the bliss of our songs or the angels’ watch

Nothing gave way that night, or the next
But the pressure went right on building
And the next morning all hell broke loose
It was a simple thing really
Those two great forces pushing against one another
One slipped a bit
The earth shuddered
The pressure was released
All quite simple
The sudden movement caused a wave
Quite explainable

But as the churches went on singing that Sunday morning
Singing songs about that lovely baby again
That wave was tearing babies out of people’s arms
Sucking beds out through hotel windows with people still in them
Dumping sharks in swimming pools
Turning idyllic beachside villages into churning soups of angry water and broken glass and car parts and blood and corrugated iron and dying children and splintered wood

It was all over in minutes
The water ran back into the sea taking with it whatever it wished whatever it hadn’t impaled or trapped or buried.

We’ve all seen pictures of what it left behind
Haunting horrible pictures
Mud and ruins and corpses
Tens of thousands of corpses
Old, young, men, women
The life sucked out of them
Dead children strewn everywhere
Hundreds and hundreds of dead babies

What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
What child is this who laid to rest in the mud and devastation of Aceh?
And what child is this?
And this?
And this?
Who knows?
Corpses everywhere
Battered lifeless unnamed corpses

Every now and then there is a scream and one of the living gives a name to one of the dead and grieves
and thousands more lay waste in the sun some perhaps with no one left alive who knew their name

What can we say?
Who wants to sing of cute babies now?
Who wants to stand up and talk of the Word made flesh?
There’s flesh strewn all over the streets
Broken lifeless flesh
Beginning to bloat in the sun

What do those songs we were singing mean now?
Do the angels’ tidings of great joy mean anything in the face of this?
Can we stand in the mud and debris of Banda Aceh or Phuket or Galle and speak of the one who is called Emmanuel God with us?

Or would it sound obscene?
But that’s the challenge isn’t it?
Because if the Christmas gospel has nothing meaningful to say in Tamil Nadu or the Maldives or Meuloboh then it doesn’t really have anything meaningful to say at all

Someone once said – perhaps it was Athol Gill I can’t remember – that any theology that can’t be preached
in the presence of parents grieving over their slaughtered children isn’t worth preaching anywhere else either

But in the midst of the carnage and shock and horror what can we say?
There are no words
The lovely lines of peace on earth and goodwill to all sound impossibly trite and hollow

And worse still we are afraid to even speak the name of God aren’t we?
For inside there is a horrible question that we dare not face that we don’t know what to do with
It is not just that our faith seems to lack adequate words of comfort
It is that our faith is not sure that God is not to blame

What did our psalm say just a few minutes ago?
Our words of sacred scripture?
God sends the snow and frost and hail
God speaks, the ice melts
God breathes, the waters flow
That’s what it said

And if we believe that
If we believe that that is not just poetic hyperbole but fundamental doctrine
If we believe that God directs the weather that God speaks and the earth shudders that God can calm the waves with a word then can we escape the awful conclusion that the tsunami is God’s doing?

And what did John say in our gospel reading?
All things came into being through him and without him, not one thing came into being
The tsunami?
Through him?

Those who shake their fists at heaven and say that either there is no God or that God is a callous tyrant have got irrefutable evidence on their side this week
Perhaps every week
Even if God didn’t directly make the tsunami doesn’t God have to accept responsibility for creating the things that create tsunami?
Or is God somehow exempt from manufacturer’s liability questions?

Let us not speak too hastily in defense of God
lest we be guilty of simply trying to prop up our own shaky faith and silence the doubts and fears that lurk within all of us
Let us allow God to speak for himself

Another preacher rang me up on Thursday he needed to know that he wasn’t the only one
with a head full of horror wondering how to preach the gospel this week It’s lonely, he said, being the one who has to find words to say
Impossibly daunting too bearing the responsibility of preaching the gospel in a week when the news of the world seems to make a mockery of it
It struck me that we preachers should probably feel like that every week charged with the responsibility to speak the word of God to a desperate people in a world that seems always capable of proving our every word a lie

So my friend and I are stuck
As much as we might want to flee the wave of fear and uncertainty that threatens to uproot us and suck the life out of our faith we have been called to preach the faith of the Church in season and out of season and preach it we must
So I cannot hide behind my own advice to let God speak for himself because when God speaks for himself
I am one of the ones God has called to interpret to you the word God speaks

And at times like this such a responsibility can feel a bit like some of those awful pictures.  I can feel a bit like the man wading through the chaos with his beloved child cradled in his arms, limp and lifeless.

Here is the gospel, the faith of the Church
Is there life in it yet?
Or has it drowned in the angry wave of awful reality?
I’m not sure but dead or alive I still love this child

I can’t speak to you as one who has the answers
Like you I am looking for signs of life amidst the chaos and devastation
But I can and must speak as one called by God to interpret what God says in the face of all this
So what does God have to say?
What word am I to interpret?

There is a Word from God
And the Word became flesh
The Word became flesh and cast in his lot with us

Why do we call Jesus “the Word”?
We call him the Word because he is what God has to say
What God has to say is made flesh in the Word
All that God has to say is made flesh in the Word
What God has to say in the face of unspeakable suffering is made flesh in the Word

There are all too many other words spoken about God
Everyone has an opinion
Some will say that God is absent, dead or doesn’t care
Some will say that God is all-powerful that nothing happens except at God’s say-so and that yes, tsunamis [happen only] if God wills them to Some will say that the tsunami is God’s judgment – words, words, words, there’s no end of words about God
But what does God have to say?


God, are you all-powerful?

God, do you care?
The Word becomes flesh

God, did you make the tsunami?
The Word becomes flesh

God, where are you?
The Word becomes flesh

Of course there is always a temptation to try to repackage the Word to make it say what we wish it would say
We want a messiah who will protect us from every danger and we can find words about God that will say that
We want a messiah who can calm the waves before they get us and we can find a story of Jesus doing that
We want a messiah who will ride in triumphant like the cavalry at the last minute and vanquish all that would harm us and bring us singing and weeping tears of joy to the victory banquet
Our reading from Jeremiah speaks with such words
But if we make the words say whatever we want we may miss the Word that God speaks altogether the Word that takes flesh

Because God has spoken a Word and it hasn’t charged in like the cavalry
God has spoken a Word and it did make the world shudder
The Word became flesh and the world shuddered and a great wave of hostility and selfishness and bitterness rose up and flung itself against the Word devastating all in its path killing even children in its rage, snarling, surging, seething, smashing a great wave of darkness furiously seeking to annihilate the light

And where was God as the wave hit?
Wasn’t God right there bearing the brunt of it
Wasn’t God there clinging to his beloved child only to be overwhelmed by the wave and have the child ripped from his arms and torn away on that surging flood of hatred – and battered and smashed and pierced and tossed, limp and lifeless to the earth

As a father I’ve been tormented by those images this week
Imagining myself trying to protect my child as the wave hit desperately clinging to her with every ounce of strength only to feel her ripped from my arms and torn away in the surging blackness and then later hunting for her in the chaos and ruins checking body after body desperately hoping that none of them [is] her that somehow she will have been washed to safety and then finding her crumpled and lifeless and blindly carrying her limp body looking for someone who could help but knowing in the hollow depths of my guts that nothing can help and seeing in the eyes of everyone who passes that to all but me she is just one more of a hundred thousand corpses

It took three days of news footage before it really got to me
It finally broke me when I saw footage of a mother in Australia who had just got news that her daughter who she thought had been lost was safe and she wept tears of joy and relief and it struck me that everyone of those hundred thousand corpses represented a real person over whom there would be no such tears of joy and relief and I wanted to hold my daughter close and cry but I couldn’t because ironically she was at the beach with her mother so I broke down and sobbed alone

Do I have any idea what it would really feel like?
I doubt it
It was bad enough just imagining it
I don’t know how I’d cope if it [were] real
I certainly wouldn’t want to be hearing any comfortable clichés like all things working together for good or they’ve gone to a better place

I doubt whether I have any idea what it would really feel like but I reckon God does because when we cried out for answers
for explanations
for deliverance
God spoke a Word and the Word became flesh as a beloved child and the child was torn from the Father’s arms by a ruthless wave and the waters of death closed over him and spat him out as just another of the hundreds and thousands and millions of unnamed innocent victims down through the ages

I reckon God knows
And I reckon that as hard as we might find it to talk about flesh while the nameless flesh of countless corpses are necessarily treated as little more than a threat to public health and piled into mass graves
God is still not afraid to be identified as flesh
fragile flesh
brutalized flesh
limp and lifeless flesh

Because the promise of Christmas is not just that the Word became cute and chubby baby flesh but that the Word became flesh and cast in his lot with us
hunted flesh
despised flesh
tortured flesh
dead and buried flesh
three days dead flesh stinking and a threat to public health

And although our story of the Word made flesh does not stop with dead and buried, we will not really understand the rest of the story if we think of resurrection as just some kind of miracle cure which means that death is no longer part of Christ’s reality

In the book of Revelation we see the vision of the risen one on the throne who still looks like one mortally wounded
The risen one is still the crucified one
The rising one is still the being-crucified one
The people who say all crosses must now be empty are wrong because the risen Christ is still the suffering and dying Christ
The risen Christ who promised we would meet him in the least of these desperate and vulnerable ones can be seen lying dead in the mud in Khao Lak and Meuloboh
The Word became flesh

If you want to see what God has to say in the face of this go walk among the ruins of Banda Aceh or just turn on your TV
for God is speaking, and the Word has become flesh

Perhaps as we begin to see what God is saying we will begin to comprehend how blasphemous so much of what we blithely say about God really is, and how chillingly we treat powerful and dangerous realities as casual and comfortable little things

Perhaps when water is flung at us in a few minutes to remind us of our identity as those who have been buried in the deep waters of death with Christ perhaps this week we’ll have a little more sense of what a serious matter it is to go under the deep waters of death

Perhaps when we hold out our empty hands to receive the piece of bread we will be offered shortly, we will recognize something of our solidarity with desperate hungry people holding out empty hands for the food aid the world is trying to muster
And perhaps we will see in those images of the Father holding the limp body of his dead child, the image of the Father who spoke the Word that becomes flesh and whose grief and suffering take flesh still in body and blood offered for the life of the world and placed into our empty hands that we might live even in the face of death

And perhaps when we have heard that Christmas story, the story of God speaking a Word which becomes human flesh, and falls victim to the full force of the waves of horror that assail the earth and its inhabitants, a Word which continues to take flesh in all the suffering and grief and desperation, perhaps then we will be capable of hearing the story of resurrection and recognizing that our songs of endless bliss and our promises of sorrow turned into joy are reduced to pious platitudes if they are not seen in their contexts of unspeakable fear, death and anguish

I pray that we and I might have the courage and compassion to recognize the Word that God speaks this week and follow where the Word calls – into the places that terrify and horrify us – the places where we will know what it means to cry out for salvation – the places, perhaps the only places, where we are capable of knowing the Word of resurrection, the Word made flesh, the Christ born of Mary

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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