Fourth Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Ryan Slifka
You may recall back in on March 11 of 2011, a magnitude nine earthquake hit off the coast of Japan. This was the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japanese history, setting off Tsunamis with giant waves that killed more than fifteen thousand people. It also caused meltdowns of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Japan, leaking radiation and causing massive evacuations. It was terrible. Earthquakes and tsunamis hit often enough. Maybe it was the nuclear stuff that made it so scary.
Following, Facebook was lit up with people’s “thoughts and prayers” for the people of Japan. And I remember in Sunday worship someone in the United Church congregation we were attending Revelstoke praying for safety in Japan. And praying for cooperation between nations to relieve the humanitarian crisis. And to help clean up the wreckage.
This is how most responses went. Most Christian ones, even. Prayers for the victims, prayers for rebuilding and relieving of suffering. Leaving it there. Some, however, tried to make sense of why the earthquake happened in the first place. Tried to offer some religious meaning to the event.
This pastor started off by saying that it is the duty of Christians to do acts of charity and attend mercy to all who suffer, and should do so for Japan as well. Standard stuff. But then he went on to say that God was behind the disaster to begin with. He started by talking about God’s awesome power. Pointing out passages in the Bible that image God as control of the seas and earthquakes. God is all powerful, God is in control. Therefore God caused the earthquake. And God caused it for a purpose:
“God's unilateral taking of thousands of lives,” he writes. God’s taking of lives in this earthquake, “is a loud declaration that ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away’ (Job 1:21). The message for all the world is that life is a loan from God (Luke 12:20) and belongs to him. He creates it and gives it and takes it according to his own will and owes us nothing. He has a right both to children (2 Samuel 12:15) and to the aged (Luke 2:29). It is a great gift to learn this truth and dedicate our lives to their true owner rather than defraud him till it is too late.”
Not only did God set the Tsunami in motion, he writes. But God caused the earthquake for a larger purpose. God showed this awesome power to elicit our fear. And not just to make us afraid. But to drive us away from our sin and self-preoccupation, ultimately driving us into his almighty arms. An act of holy shock and awe for our good, you could say.
If this pastor’s assessment of the earthquake upsets you in some way, you wouldn’t be alone. It was met with a huge backlash from many non-Christians and Christians alike. And I can honestly say that when I heard it, I basically just groaned another groan for the public reputation of Christians everywhere. It seemed unkind towards the victims and their families. It’s the kind of thing that makes people not only not want to be Christians, it makes them not even like us. It seemed supremely insensitive. At best. And makes God out to be a violent monster. At worst.
All the moral indignation aside, though, it’s an understandable thing for a preacher to say. It’s understandable because it an attempt to answer a hard question. We live in a world that is filled with small injustices all the way up to huge natural calamities. If there is a God. And if this God is all knowing and all powerful, then how could God allow such terrible things to happen? One answer to this question is that God is all powerful, and either allows these things to happen. Or, in this case even causes them. In this line of thinking, we may not know the reason why, but God enacts even the most terrible of events for our great good. And God’s greater glory. They aren’t nice things. But they happen for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. Whether part of a secret, unknown plan. Or to shake us to our very core. God shows us his world-shaking, Tsunami-crashing power, to turn us away from our destructive habits. And towards God.
Like I said, it makes sense. But not everything that makes sense is right. Or true.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Christian tradition, we define God as powerful, yes. We call God “the Lord of all creation.” The Apostle’s Creed draws us our belief into “God the Father almighty,” and we end the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his followers, with “thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.” We’ve never shied away from proclaiming a powerful Creator, with no other rival. We believe God is powerful.
God is great. God is sovereign. God is the active agent in the universe above all others. Not denying that. God is powerful. But the issue is in its definition.
When Jesus came on the scene, people had high hopes for him. They gave him the title “Messiah,” meaning the “anointed one.” The same title afforded to King David, the warrior King. For years, Jesus people had been living under the yoke of occupation. First Assyrians, then Babylonians, then Persians, then Greeks, and now Romans. The Messiah was the one who’d been promised. The one invested with the divine power to overthrow their oppressors, and establish the basileia tou theou, the kingdom of God. God would outstretch his mighty arm. And this Messiah would land like an earthquake of divine vengeance, and toss the Romans out. God’s royal rule would finally come to earth.
Everyone had high hopes. But when Jesus actually got about his business, people got confused. They got worried. Because the earth didn’t shake at the sound of his footsteps. Just the sound of sand crushing under his sandals. And this guy didn’t getting things done the way they thought he would. And when he went about his business, we went from town to town healing the sick, feeding the hungry. And freeing people’s souls from torment. The only army he raised was a gang of losers, nobodies, and outcasts nobody else really wanted anything to do with. And the only weapon he ever used was the word of his mouth. They got confused, and they got scared. Because this Messiah didn’t look like a Messiah at all. Instead of powerful, this guy seemed completely powerless.
Things weren’t changing. So his followers began to lose faith, and lose heart. And so, Jesus told parables like the ones in our scripture reading for this morning.
“The kingdom of God,” he says. “Is like a guy who planted some seeds. Went to bed and got up each and every day. Watching the field grow on its own, not even understanding how it happens. But on the day of the harvest he’s out there chopping the crop with all his might.”
Then this one. “What’s the kingdom of God like?” he asks. “It’s like a mustard seed. Tiniest seed you ever saw. But when you toss it into the dirt it becomes the greatest shrub around. With branches so big birds can even make their homes in it.”
A parable about seeding. Slow-moving patience that results in a tremendous harvest. And another about a tiny seed that takes time to germinate. But once it does grow, it becomes strong. In fact, it’s supposed to be funny. A mustard bush is a squat little weed. It pops up unannounced. Under the radar. And it spreads, taking over the landscape while larger trees grow one by one and take their time. But, Jesus says, this little shrub is shelter, a sanctuary for life.
This is how God’s kingdom comes. This is how God’s royal rule is established. This is how the world becomes the way God wants it to be. It comes slowly. It’s built up over time, like the universe coming into being over billions of years. It starts small, hidden, unseen. But when it finally roots in… the storehouse overflows. Branches reach out towards heaven. Sturdy enough for all to find a place.
We often define power, especially divine power in human terms. That God works the same we would if we were God. With acts of destruction and control. An earthquake with an accompanying Tsunami is the natural world’s version of guns, tanks, missiles. One of those things that we humans can’t predict, let alone control. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring, fearful things we can imagine. So we assume that God must work like that.
But according to this parable, God’s power isn’t like that at all. God’s power is a different kind of power. God’s power is not the kind that is plugged in to surround-sound, 24-hour news cycle broadcast ready. A sorrow-inflicting, fear-inducing Tsunami. There are few parables about earthquakes (though I know there’s at least one). But there are many about seeds. Scattering, planting, tending, growing. Hidden, steady, patient, eventually bearing a harvest beyond belief. According to Jesus, God’s power is less like a Tsunami that lays waste to everything in its path. Inspiring fear. God’s power is more like mustard. Popping up like a sturdy weed. One that evokes gratitude. Turning the world from dead brown to lush green.
God’s power is the hidden power for life.
God’s power is the power for new life where there was none before.
So if you are someone who doubts… like Jesus’ disciples. If you’re someone who sees no evidence of God in our world, no evidence of something loving at the center of all things greater than us. Because you haven’t seen the big tsunami. Or because you’ve seen the Tsunami and refused to believe that God is like that. Look at the mustard seed instead. Take a look at the small mercies in your life that have come without you noticing them for deserving them. Take a look at lives lived in patient love for God and neighbor. Take a look at Jesus… and you’ll see God’s power on display. And know that your life is dirt. But in a good way. No matter who you are, your life is potential soil for the seed of God’s kingdom, the beginning of a whole new world. The world is the work of a loving Creator. And God is already working. Bringing new life.
Friends, brothers and sisters. There is a power in this universe. One that is greater than any other power. The power of God. But God’s power isn’t power defined in the world’s terms. One that rules through acts of devastation and fear. No. God’s power is a hidden one. God’s power is like a tiny seed that grows beyond our seeing and out knowing. God’s power is behind the scenes. God’s power is like mustard. And your life, too, can be covered in the holy weeds of healing, mercy, and forgiveness. If you let it.