May the Earth Tremble
It’s hard sometimes to listen to the idea that God’s hand is in the trembling of the earth and the smoking of mountains. When natural disaster strikes, some people will say it’s the hand of God, rendering quick judgment against our sins. But for most of us, I would guess that our thinking wouldn’t really go down that path, but if we’re going to be honest, we might have to admit that sometimes, even if we don’t mean to, we wonder.
Japan was just hit by the fifth largest earthquake to ever be recorded in human history. It was soon followed by devastating tsunamis. Thousands of people are dead. To drive home the point of just how devastating this earthquake was, I need to remind you that this is not a third world country with few resources. Japan has one of the largest economies in the world and they know earthquakes. Just like children in California, Japanese children practice earthquake drills on a regular basis and have earthquake emergency kits always close at hand. Japanese buildings are designed to withstand all but the strongest of quakes and they have enough experience to know that earthquakes can trigger tsunamis. Between their coastal cities and the ocean are high walls designed to keep tsunamis at bay. Walls to hold back the ocean. From what I understand, most of the time, these walls work. But, this was a magnitude 8.9 earthquake, and the tsunamis it triggered flew over those walls, like an ocean wave crashing over the moat of a child’s sandcastle at the beach. These tsunamis carried with them the full force of earth and water, Mother Nature’s fury unleashed on our tiny human attempts to contain her.
In our reading today of Psalm 104:24-34, there is only one tiny mention of humanity. Not only is there but a single mention, but the mention itself is indirect. In between the great and wide sea, and the Leviathan, there are ships. That’s all. That’s all we get. Ships.
The thing that you really have to remember here is that the Psalms are poetry, and in poetry, the choice and placement of each word is extremely important. Words in poetry are always in relation to each other. So when the text says, “living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan,” you know that Leviathan is great, and that the ships are small.
There was this amazing image of the aftermath of the earthquake. It was a ship caught in a gigantic whirlpool that the earthquake or tsunami had somehow triggered. I’m not sure exactly how big this whirlpool was, but it looked like it might have been the size of a city block. And there was this ship, this tiny white speck, about to be sucked into a funnel that was pulling everything towards the ocean floor. The news reporter didn’t know if anyone was onboard.
This is what we’re up against. The Japanese were not unprepared. There was no preparing for this.
It’s no wonder that ancient peoples equated these natural forces with acts of God, for who else but God could command such power. Psalm 104:31-32 says, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works – who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.” The hand of God, in the trembling of the earth and the smoking of the mountain.
As the death toll from the earthquake rises, we have to ask ourselves, “Was this really the hand of God? Did God do this?” See, times are different now. Unlike the antique writer of the psalm, we know the scientific explanations for why these things happen. We know about tectonic plates, and friction, and the convection currents of magma under the Earth’s crust. And, since we have all of this knowledge, it’s not just the non-believers that have stopped pointing their fingers at God every time there’s a lightning storm, a volcanic eruption, or an earthquake. But, if we’re going to believe in an all-powerful Creator, even if we’re not going to blame God directly for doing it, we have to ask ourselves, “Didn’t God have the power to stop it?” If we aren’t going to blame God for causing this disaster, do we also let God off the hook for letting it happen?
This psalm talks about the many ways in which God is a wonderful creator. God made all the creatures, the raging sea, everything. God set everything into motion at the beginning of time, and as the psalm says, did so in wisdom. So, what does that mean anyway, did so in wisdom?
I like to think of God as an artist, and creation is God’s continuing masterpiece. Now, you can take this metaphor in two different ways. One way to think of artistic expression is to think of fine porcelain or hyper-realistic painting, you know, those paintings that look like photographs. When creating art in one of these forms, the artist has to exert almost absolute control over the medium in order to create the desired effect. The amount of talent and skill that’s required to produce one of these works of art is incredible, not to mention the patience and the time involved. These are perfect works, flawless, unchanging. Like marble sculptures. Perfect, flawless, frozen. Can you imagine a perfect world? A world were everything is perfect and beautiful? A world where nothing ever changes. A world that is stark and hard. Frozen. Some people would say a world like this would be the opposite of good. I might venture to say that a being who created such a thing might actually be evil. The God that we know and love could never create a world like this.
But, there are different kinds of art. If porcelain is at one end of the ceramics spectrum, raku is way over on the opposite side. Porcelain requires the finest clay, and sometimes even powdered bone, the highest quality glazes, extremely hot, non-fluctuating firing temperatures, and a slow, controlled cooling process.
With raku, the type of clay that you use isn’t as important, and the glazes are sometimes thick and clumpy on purpose to provide texture. So you take what might start out looking like a lumpy mess and throw it onto what basically amounts to a campfire, and you toss some random things on there, whatever you happen to have on hand, pine cones, seaweed, whatever, and you cover it with a garbage can. The firing temperature is low and uneven. There is no cooling process. You cannot plan with any kind of precision what the end result will be, because the materials you use have almost as much say in how the piece will turn out as the artist does. But, the results can be amazing! I once created a bowl, and I have no idea how it happened, that had an almost glowing metallic fuchsia circle on the inside wall, surrounded by metallic blues and golds and greens. It was stunning! You really just never know what you’re going to get.
That’s the kind of artist that I imagine God to be; an artist that works in cooperation with us, instead of simply bending us to some cosmic purpose. We talk a lot about our free will and how we exercise it. Free will is a gift from God. But, we are the component parts that God works with in the formation of this world. And make no mistake, God is in control, and knows what the world is supposed to look like. But, God will never override our freedom. God doesn’t force us to do anything. Only with the utmost love, encouragement and desire for what is best for us does God graciously appeal to our better selves that we might participate in this grand symphony of life.
But, the gift of God’s freedom does not stop there. What good would our freedom be, if our world was not free? There would be nothing for us to do, nothing for us to participate in or interact with. Nothing for us to help create. God grants freedom to all of creation. Dogs are free to be dogs, cats can be cats. A car is free to be a car, a city is free to be a city, and a mountain or forest or island is free to be that thing that God created it to be. A tectonic plate is free to be a tectonic plate. A large body of water is free to be a large body of water.
See, I believe that God was there in the earthquake. And, I believe that God was there in that wave. Does that mean that God wanted these things to happen? I don’t think so. I think God anguished over it. I think God suffered with all of the people that were caught up in the crush of the rushing waters. And so I wonder, maybe if God wasn’t in the earthquake, if God wasn’t in the tsunami, maybe the human tragedy would have been that much worse. How much more devastating might they have been, if God wasn’t there?
See, God doesn’t act in singular moments, isolated from other moments. Think about how God was working through history, moving the Japanese people to build those sea walls. How much more devastating might the damage have been if those walls were not in place? And, think about God working through people to make buildings capable of withstanding the force of an earthquake this large. Think about how much higher the death toll would have been if all of those buildings had collapsed. And then, God was in the making of earthquake emergency kits. Victims of the earthquake and tsunamis are suffering right now from the lack of food and water and other resources. How much greater would their suffering be if not for the supplies in those kits.
The psalm tells us that God gives all living things food in due season. God made sure that those emergency kits were ready for when this would happen and is acting even now, moving in the hearts of people around the world who are donating food, money, their skills and labor, to help the victims of this disaster. And, God is right now with all of those people who are suffering, all of those people who have lost their loved ones, all of those people who may not know where their loved ones are, or whether they’re living or dead. God is there, suffering with them, loving them, being present for them, offering them hope and the truth that death does not have the final word.
As much as I love the art metaphor, it’s an imperfect metaphor because no matter how free you allow the materials to be, there always tends to be a final frozen form. There comes a point at which the freedom of the materials comes to an end, and no matter how beautiful it is, in some ways the materials have died, to remain forever frozen as a vase, or an abstract painting, or a candid photograph. The world’s not like that. As human beings, as tiny, tiny human beings, we are working with God and with the rest of creation to bring the realm of God into fruition, where everything that has died will live again. How this happens is a mystery. We are human and we have free will, but God is always with us. God is always with us. And like the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our actions will always be both fully human, and fully divine. We are the medium. God is the artist. But, we are also the artists. And creation never stops. Amen.