1 Cor 1:18-25
by Yuki and Revd. Dick Johnson; Yuki is Licensed Lay Minister with the Japanese Anglican Church (UK), St Martin’s West Acton, and Commissioned Lay Chaplain to the Japanese Community St Michael and All Angels, Mill Hill.
March 11th this year marks the 10th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the NE coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu in 2011. More than 16,000 people died, many towns and communities were obliterated, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged with 50,000 households evacuated and hundreds of square kilometers of land contaminated.
Such ‘natural’ disasters happen in many places around the world – floods, landslides, wildfires, drought – and your community may be no exception. These notes try to bring into focus firstly the experience of those who have lived through the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (which you can read more about in the additional material), and the years of rebuilding and renewal since, and, secondly, on the subsequent reflection and projects of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai (Anglican Church in Japan) and other faith groups.
NOTES ON THE READINGS
Exodus 20 v 1 – 17
The ten commandments are given to enable God’s people to live in God’s world on God’s terms. The Israelites received them as they began their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, which is echoed in our current 40 days of Lent. In the desert the power of the natural world is most evident, and the vulnerability of life exposed.
The commandments begin with three that focus on our relationship with God, and end with six that are about how we treat each other. Between these is the commandment to keep holy the sabbath day. This connects our relationship with God, with our relationship with each other. Our working week is about how we build our world, earn our living and make what we are needful of and capable of, individually and as a society. The sabbath reminds us that this is only possible because God is part of the picture. At the heart of the ten commandments is the reminder that ‘the earth and the sea and all that is in them’ (v 11) is through God’s will and provision, not our ambition.
The psalm is in two parts. Verses 1 – 6 proclaim how the ‘heavens proclaim the glory of God’. In His very creation we see the wisdom, love and power of God. The rest of the psalm brings us back to the Law of the Lord, and how this ‘revives the soul’, ‘rejoices the heart’, and ‘enlightens the eyes’ (v 7 – 8). We are thus reminded that the world is God’s creation and we are part of that, not those who stand alongside God and take it upon ourselves to create a world in our own image.
1 Corinthians 1 v 18 -25
Paul contrasts the wisdom of God with that of the world (v 25). God’s wisdom is seen in the person and work of Jesus Christ, ultimately on the Cross. This seems like foolishness to the world, but in truth it is the way to life.
The wisdom of the world has led us to all manner of crises, political, social and environmental. Only now are we beginning to understand the depth of the crises we have caused by our self-confidence in our own wisdom. The scale of climate change; the unbalancing of nature by the destruction of habitats with immense consequences for the extinction of precious species; the contamination of the land by nuclear accident; should all lead us to be wary of the wisdom of this world. The Cross stands as a statement of solidarity with all who are victims of this pride, but also as a sign of judgement on the sin of humanity that turns so easily away from the God whose wisdom establishes the earth, maintains it in balance and renews it by His love and grace.
John 2 v 13 – 22
The setting for Jesus’ wrath is the Temple in Jerusalem, and the economy that has sprung up around the rites of sacrifice and offering which has become its function. Animals were needed for sacrifice; money of the correct denomination for the offering, hence the need for money changers. No doubt the closed nature of the market led to some degree of profiteering.
The whole episode builds to the contrast that is made when Jesus is confronted by those who have most to lose by his actions. Jesus’ words can clearly be understood as criticism. They are accused of ‘Destroying this temple’ (v19a) by perverting its purpose in turning it into a marketplace. Instead, God will raise His own temple in its place – and that in three days, a clear reference to the resurrection that is finally understood by his disciples only after it has occurred (v 22). The comparison Jesus is drawing is between the temple human beings are capable of building, and that which God will bring to be in and through Jesus himself. The contrast is stressed by the different time scale. The one has taken 46 years, and is still not finished; the other will take three days.
So it is when we compare the plans of God with those of human beings. What humanity creates is so often a perversion of what God intends. In the case of the temple it is the difference between a dwelling made for God, with all the limits that seeks to place on God; and a dwelling which is God where we dwell knowing God’s love, compassion, forgiveness, grace and peace. The same contrast is seen between the world as God has created and sustains it; and the way human beings have taken that creation and, far from acting as good stewards, have exploited, polluted and destroyed it.
Renewal and Resurrection in the face of Natural Disaster.
When ‘a natural disaster’ happens what is natural and what a result of human activity, including climate change, is not always clear. In the case of NE Japan the most obvious human caused impact has been in the area around the nuclear plant, where still residents cannot return to their homes and where the earth is contaminated. This has led to the NSKK campaign for the removal of all nuclear power from Japan.
In our sermon we might reflect upon the power of nature. In it we see the glory of God proclaimed (Psalm 19 v 1 – 6), but also the power of the natural world to damage and destroy. There are times when human beings are culpable, thinking we can take the place of God, controlling the forces of nature, with our own science and technology. This hubris can lead to disaster – as in the nuclear plant meltdown and contamination – that destroys life and community. This happens when we ignore the way of living in the world that God offers – through the law (Exodus 20), and ultimately through Christ. Not only is Christ the one through whom all things are made (John 1 v 3), He is the fulfillment of the law, and the one by which the world is renewed through the cross (1 Cor 1: 18 – 19); and resurrection (John 2: 19 – 22).
It is the Cross and Resurrection which our Lenten discipline leads us towards. Our repentance must be for our actions that damage and destroy the world God creates, and on which our collective life depends. We need to repent of relying on our wisdom and self-confidence, rather than God’s wisdom (1 Cor 1 v 20 – 25) which focuses, not on ourselves, but justice and life for others, including all non-human life that we so easily destroy through our selfishness.
There is though also the challenge when natural disasters do happen, without any culpability of human beings. Earthquakes are seen as signs of the end in some scriptural traditions (Luke 21) but many see the randomness of such events as, at best, proof that God cannot exist and at worst as evidence of a capricious and heartless god that, whilst having power to prevent such disasters, chooses not to. The Old Testament often portrays God as the bringer of disaster, because of the sin of the people in turning from Him to other gods, and so breaking the first commandment (Exodus 20 v 2) – e.g. Jeremiah 4. But bad things do happen to good people. Our texts also remind us that, in the Cross, God not only bears the sin of the world, but stands in solidarity with the world, in all its suffering especially where that suffering is borne by those who are innocent, oppressed and persecuted or who suffer the randomness of life as epitomized in our current COVID pandemic. In this it is the Cross which, at the darkest moments, helps us know we are loved, even beyond death. (Romans 8 v 35 – 39)
Ultimately, if we can learn to look, in all things, to ‘Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor 1 v 24b) then God brings resurrection, rebuilding and renewal to our world – just as has happened in the rebuilt communities of NE Japan, and as Christ spoke of in the context of his cleansing of the temple. Ultimately our salvation, and that of all creation, is found, not in our efforts to build a human world as epitomized by the temple in which we can house God, but in Christ, the new temple, rebuilt after three days (John 2 v 19, 21) which is our everlasting home that cannot be destroyed.
News reports and photographs of the events of March 11th 2011 and its aftermath
Research and academic reports into the causes and extent of the disaster, and the response of religious groups
Questions for further reflection and discussion:
- Rebuilding and reconstruction may have been progressed but experiences of the disaster of 2011 remain strong in many people’s minds, like a very bad nightmare. Very recently (13th February 2021) there was another strong earthquake in the same area, which was described as an aftershock of the quake of 2011. There were no deaths, but for many people it brought back painful memories, and caused great anxiety. How can those with such experiences of trauma be offered hope? What do different religious traditions have to offer those whose experience of the natural world is coloured by such experiences?
- Nuclear power. Part of God’s world and yet so easily destroying life.
Whilst the destruction caused by the tsunami is being repaired and communities rebuilt the impact of the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant continues. What should the Churches be saying about this, and based on what theological understanding of God’s creation?
- Nuclear power is seen as green energy by many, in terms of carbon emissions, but is not environmentally friendly in other ways. Nuclear power in the UK is seen as a strategy to move away from dirty energy. But at what price? Should nuclear power be part of the energy strategy of any country given the continuing risks associated with it, and the problems of disposal of toxic waste?
by by Yuki and Revd. Dick Johnson