A Christmas Tsunami
adapted from Nathan Nettleton by the Rev. Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Des Moines, Washington
Today’s sermon is rooted in a sermon entitled, “A Christmas Tsunami,” by Nathan Nettleton, a Baptist pastor from Melbourne, Australia. I was so touched by Pastor Nettleson’s sermon that I forwarded it onto seven thousand other Lutheran pastors here in the United States. Like most preachers always do, I adapted and revised this sermon for my own use.
The sermon grows out of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh, a human being, and lived among us.”
During this past Christmas Eve, we gathered here in this sanctuary to sing and celebrate.
A baby who would save the world.
A baby whose birth was greeted by the angels.
A baby whose birth meant tidings of great joy for all people everywhere.
“We spoke of God-made-flesh,
Cute, chubby, baby-flesh.”
Pink flesh. Warm flesh. Cuddly flesh.
The smells and feels of a new born baby flesh.
God became flesh in the baby Jesus.
“We sang familiar songs.
We enjoyed familiar company.
We smiled as we sang about the baby.
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.
And others partied on.
And still others holidayed on.
We wrapped the final Christmas presents as the kids fell asleep.
But underneath the Earth, the pressure grew and grew.”
“All is calm, all is bright,” we sang.
“Sleep in heavenly peace,” we sang.
“Now you hear of endless bliss,” we sang.”
We sang of endless bliss??? That Christ was born for this???
Were we so naive?
Are we always so naïve?
“The pressures underneath the Earth grew and grew and grew, knowing nothing of the “endless bliss” of our songs.
“Nothing gave way that Christmas Eve or the next evening.
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 movement caused a wave.
“But as the churches went on singing that Sunday morning,
Singing songs about the lovely baby again.
That wave was tearing babies out of peoples’ arms.
Sucking beds out through hotel windows with people still in them,
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 or drowned.”
“We’ve all seen pictures of what the tsunami left behind.
Haunting horrible pictures.
Mud and ruins and corpses.
Old, young, men and women.
The life sucked out of them.
Dead children strewn everywhere.
Hundreds and hundreds of dead babies.”
Thousands upon thousands of dead babies.
130,000? 140,000? 150,000 dead and decaying and smelling flesh.
Human flesh. Drowning flesh. Dead flesh.
Flesh buried in mass graves in muddy pits.
Flesh burned in flaming pyres on rubbled beaches.
And the Mind of God became human flesh and lived among us. Hmmm.
“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 on the beaches (of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka?)
What child is this?”
Who knows what child is this?
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
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 is flesh strung all over the streets (and beaches of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka).
Broken lifeless flesh.
Human flesh beginning to bloat and smell in the sun.”
The Word, the Mind of God became flesh, human flesh, baby flesh. What does that mean? What does that mean to the people living in the beach towns of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka? In the towns of those twelve nations hit by this tsunami?
“What do those Christmas songs (about endless bliss) mean now?
Now you hear of endless bliss, Jesus Christ was born for…this?
“For this? For endless bliss?
Do the angels tidings of great joy mean anything in the face of this?
Can we stand in the mud and debris
And speak of the One who is called Emmanuel,
God with us?”
“Or would it sound obscene?
“But that is the challenge, isn’t it? To preach the gospel at this time of enormous disaster.
“Because if the Christmas gospel has nothing meaningful to say to the people of the beaches of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka,
Then it doesn’t have anything meaningful to say at all.”
“Someone said 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 carnage and shock and horror,
What can we say?
There are no words.”
At times, there are no words to speak.
We can only be present in love, in silence, with no trite answers.
As a pastor said,
“I don’t want to hear any comfortable clichés
Comfortable clichés like “all things work together for good”
Or comfortable clichés like “they have gone to a better place.”
I don’t want cheap worded clichés at times like this.
So said Pastor Nathan Nettleson in his sermon for today.
The Book of Job offers a clue.
Job lost everything. Job lost his family, his farm, his children, his grandchildren. Everything that was sacred to him. And what was the initial reaction to Job’s suffering by his friends? In Job 2:13, the Word of God says, “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” When we see suffering so great as in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, there is nothing to do but to sit quietly with those who grieve.
At times, there are no words to speak but only the sounds of numbed silence.
And then perplexing questions begin to bubble to the surface?
Who is to blame for this enormous tragedy?
As human beings, in the face of tragedy, we instinctively want to blame someone or something.
We, as human beings, get sucked into the “blame game” when evil hits our home, our beach, our friends, our family, my town.
The blame game. On TV, I heard people blaming the rich nations of the world who did not develop a warning system for all the nations around the globe but simply for the wealthier nations in the Pacific. The blame game: blame the rich.
The blame game. In an interview with a man on the beach, I heard him defiantly blaming his government for not giving himself warning for his family to run away from that gigantic tsunami. In his heart, he was blaming the government for his family’s death. The blame game: blame the government.
The blame game. I heard some people blaming God. Yes, God.
“They shake their fists at heaven
And say that there is no God
Or that God is a callous tyrant.
Such people say,
“Even if God didn’t directly make the tsunami,
Doesn’t God have to accept responsibility
For creating the things that created the tsunami?
Is God somehow exempt from the manufacture’s liability questions?”
Yes, some people have a need to blame God for tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons and cyclones. The blame game: blame God.
The blame game. Some Christian determinists and literalists want to blame God for evil and quote the Bible to prove their beliefs.
Yes, such literalist Christians often quote the Bible and the Book of Psalms.
In Psalm 147, the appointed psalm for today, we hear that God created the snow, the frost and the hail.
“God speaks and the ice melts.
“God breaths and the waters flow.”
Such Christian literalists then conclude
“That God directs the weather,
That Jesus calmed the waves with a word,
And they come to the awful conclusion
That the tsunami is God’s doing.”
Based on their interpretation of the Bible.
They believe that God controls and directs everything, including the recent tsunami that killed 140,000 people within fifteen minutes.
Yes, many human beings get sucked into the “blame-game,” and don’t read nor comprehend the last four chapters of the Book of Job.
Job did not comprehend the mystery of suffering and neither do we.
At the end of the Book of Job, after thirty seven chapters, God finally speaks and asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you, Job, know!”
What sarcasm about Job. “Surely, Job, you know about the mysteries of the beginning of the world. Surely Job, you know about the mysteries of human suffering.”
Job finally concludes that he does not comprehend the mystery of God and nor does he comprehend the mystery of human suffering. Job said: “I have uttered what I did not understand.”
Yes, Job had blamed God for his suffering but Job was wrong. Job was completely wrong.
And anyone who blames God for tsunamis is wrong. Completely wrong in their interpretation of the Bible and the love of Jesus Christ.
So we ask: “What does the Lord God have to say to these recent events that occurred on the shores of the Indian Ocean? What does the love of Jesus say to these things that have happened here on Earth in the past few days? What does the message of Christmas have to say to those who lived and died so tragically in the beach towns of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka?
In this moment of time, can we who proclaim the gospel message say anything that does not sound trite or like a comfortable cliché?
The message of Christmas? En Carnest Est. Latin. God in the flesh. God came to earth as flesh, real live human flesh, and therefore God understands the suffering of human flesh. That is, God did not stay up in the safety of heaven but came down to earth and became a human being. God became real flesh.
God became the flesh of a new born baby.
Cuddly flesh. Brown skinned flesh. Soft flesh.
Real Flesh that grew up.
Real flesh that needed food and water.
Real flesh that cried, no, he sobbed, at the death of his best friend.
Real flesh that faced the horrors of Good Friday.
Real flesh of his back which was whipped and dripping blood.
Real flesh of his hands that were pierced by nails.
Real flesh of his forehead that was penetrated by thorns.
Real flesh of his side that was punctured by the thrust of a sword.
Real flesh that died.
God did not protect Jesus from being real flesh.
Jesus was the real flesh and body of God on this earth,
And Jesus suffered immeasurably when he was here on Earth in the flesh.
We, the Church, have always taught that the cradle cannot be separated from the cross.
That the manger cannot be separated from the madness of life.
That the baby on Christmas morning cannot be separated from the beatings of Good Friday.
The truth of the Christmas gospel is that God became flesh.
And when the flesh was rotting on the beaches of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, God knew the depths of human pain for he knew the misery of human flesh.
As a local Roman Catholic priest from Sri Lanka said, in the midst of all of this, “If God did not protect his own Son from the suffering of humanity, we should not expect to be protected either.”
But … “Some people want a Messiah who will protect them from every danger.
Some people want a Messiah who will calm the waves before they get to us.
Some people want a Messiah who will ride in with the cavalry to save us at the last minute.”
These words, In Carnest Est, are not trite words, cliché words, hackneyed words but are words at the heart of the Christian faith and the Christmas message. For centuries, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, during the Mass, when these Latin words were spoken, In Carnest Est, the people would fall to their knees. These words are at the heart of the Christian faith.
A second message of Christmas: Immanuel. The baby Jesus was given the name of Immanuel, which means, God is with us. As people have often said, “God is with us … in our mess.” God is with us at all times in our lives but including times like these. God is with us in the valleys of the shadows of death. If God is not with us in the valleys of death, and on the beaches of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, then the truth of the Christmas gospel is a farce for fools. The promise of the Christmas message is that Jesus had a name and his name was Immanuel: God is with us … in our mess called life.
A third message of Christmas: gifts for those in need. The three wisemen for example. As the three wisemen came to Jesus, they carried their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The poor baby Jesus and his poor parents, Mary and Joseph, needed those gifts as they traveled to Egypt to escape the killing wrath of King Herod. At the very heart of the Christmas message, is to give gifts to those in need. The wisemen gave their gifts to the poor Holy Family who needed their gifts for their survival and travel to Egypt.
St. Nicholas symbolizes the giving of gifts to those in need. Originally, Jolly old St. Nicholas was not a red-suited advertisement created for the Coca Cola company in 1931, but St. Nicholas was a real live bishop in [what is now] Turkey of the fourth century who gave gifts to needy children. Christmas is about giving of gifts to those in need.
And today, we know who needs our Christmas gifts. We all know the needs, for years to come, among those families in the twelve nations in the Indian ocean, those 140,000 people who were part of God’s family, and part of your family and part of my family. You know their need. Your heart wants to give them needed gifts, not only now when the cameras are focused on their plight, but when the cameras are gone and the world has again forgotten, as it inevitably does, you and I want to be there, with Christ, helping these people to slowly rebuild their lives. We give them gifts to help them begin again.
Why? Because of the truth about Christmas. The truth? Immanuel: God with us. En Carnest Est. God with us in the flesh. Gifts to those in need.
A Christmas Tsunami? The very words are strange.
“Christmas Tsunami” by Edward F. Markquart, Sermons from Seattle, Grace Lutheran Church, Des Moines, Washington. Adaptated from the sermon, "A Christmas Tsunami," by Nathan Nettleton, Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources, South Yarra Community Baptist Church, Melbourne, Australia. The quotation marks indicate sentences from Nettleton's sermon. Used by permission.
Sermons from Seattle provides sample sermons and more for the three years of the lectionary cycle, to be adapted for local situations and styles of delivery.