There were at least fifty tornado reports during a horrific outbreak this weekend. More than eighty people are feared dead in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee. Kentucky was hit especially hard: homes were demolished, businesses were leveled, and rescuers scrambled to find survivors. A massive Amazon warehouse in Illinois was also smashed by a tornado, killing at least six people.
Wes Fowler, pastor of First Baptist Church in Mayfield, Kentucky, walked through what remained of his church building Saturday morning and said: “What I’ve already told our church is we teach and preach it and now we have to live it—the campus and facility is not the church. It’s the people.”
He added, “I really think the Lord will somehow use this tragedy for good. I just don’t know how yet.”
“Why, O Lᴏʀᴅ, do you stand far away?”
Tragedy is a tragic fact of life. From horrific events such as the truck crash in Mexico that killed fifty-five migrants Thursday evening to the escalating loneliness epidemic that now affects 31 percent of Americans every day, it is normal and natural for us to ask with the psalmist, “Why, O Lᴏʀᴅ, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
But the fact is, God does not hide himself in times of trouble. He grieves as we grieve (cf. John 11:35) and walks with us through the “waters,” “rivers,” and “fire” of our broken world (Isaiah 43:2). Because “the Lᴏʀᴅ is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18), you and I can claim the fact that “the Lᴏʀᴅ is near to all who call on him” (Psalm 145:18).
God proved his solidarity with suffering humanity when he entered the human race. Unique among the world’s religions is the Christmas miracle whereby “Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7).
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis explained the incarnation this way: “The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”
Henri Nouwen experienced the miracle of such grace: “It is hard to believe that God would reveal his divine presence to us in the self-emptying, humble way of the man from Nazareth. So much in me seeks influence, power, success, and popularity. But the way of Jesus is the way of hiddenness, powerlessness, and littleness. It does not seem a very appealing way. Yet when I enter into true, deep communion with Jesus, I will find that it is this small way that leads to real peace and joy.”
“Let us now hold onto the Word”
Our greatest gift we can give suffering people is to invite them to share Nouwen’s experience by pointing them to the Christ of Christmas.
John the Baptist understood well the privilege and urgency of this calling. When invited to claim the status of Messiah for himself, he was adamant: “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20). Rather, he said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (v. 23).
In a sermon on John the Baptist’s ministry, St. Augustine noted: “John [was] a voice; the Lord, however, in the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). John a voice for a time, Christ the eternal Word from the beginning. Take away the word, and what is a voice? Where there is no meaning, it’s just an empty noise. A voice without the word knocks at the ear, it doesn’t build up the intellect. . . .
“So the sound, having conveyed the word to you, doesn’t the very sound seem to say, ‘It is necessary for him to grow, but for me to diminish’? The sound of the voice rang out to perform its service, and departed, as if saying, ‘This joy of mine is now complete’ (John 3:30, 29).
“Let us now hold onto the Word, let us not lose the Word conveyed in the very marrow of our minds.”
“Christianity or Christ?”
St. Augustine is right, of course: we must “hold onto the Word” personally if we are to convey him to others.
This fact was made clear to me recently in an account of the Shantung Revival of the 1930s in China, one of the greatest movements of the Holy Spirit in the twentieth century. C. L. Culpepper’s stirring account of this remarkable awakening begins with the desperation of the people. Seventy churches had died; many others were dying.
The best-known evangelist in the region, on the point of despair, expressed his fear that more than a thousand church members “had been converted to Christianity, not to Christ.” In response, Christians began to call on God for a mighty movement of his Spirit, and the revival was the result.
If Satan cannot keep us from becoming Christians, he will do all he can to lead us to be committed to Christianity rather than to Christ. He knows that the key to the spiritual transformation we need so desperately is not a religion about Jesus but an intimate, transforming relationship with him.
Are you being tempted in this way? Would the Holy Spirit say you are committed to Christianity or to Christ?
“Our firm anchor still holds fast”
Our best Christmas gift for hurting people is helping them experience Christ. Who do you know who needs the Jesus you know? How will you give them what has been given to you?
What trials and tempests are you facing personally? Will you name them and bring them to the One who came at Christmas just for you?
The hymn writer offers us the hope our storm-tossed souls need:
In the world’s despair and turmoil
One firm anchor still holds fast,
God is on his throne eternal,
He alone the first and last.
Who or what is your anchor today?