Ty Garrison was Lay Leader for last Sunday’s service, and he opened by praying:

This week we’ve seen some magnificent displays of the universe, the very forces that give us life, by experiencing the dramatic solar eclipse. We’ve been reminded of the awesome working of the cosmos through the orbits and rotations of the earth, moon and sun. Then we saw the amazing terrifying power your creation is able to demonstrate in Hurricane Harvey’s destructive hammering of the Texas coast, and we realize that we mere mortals have no understanding of such power. We’ve seen how magnificent and how terrifying your creation can be, and we’ve come today to bow before you and worship you.

Later in the day, I was watching TV coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s effects on Houston residents, and I heard the interview of a young woman in a flooded area. She said that watching people evacuating their homes, leaving valuables and memories behind, was heartbreaking. Then she added that the experience was also heartwarming, as she saw total strangers helping each other everywhere she looked. Heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

That’s the way life is: heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once; magnificent and terrifying at the same time.

In insurance policies, natural disasters are sometimes called “acts of God.” It’s hard not to see it that way. Every time nature seems beyond our human control, we tend to interpret it as an indication that God is angry with us and wants to destroy us.

The first natural disaster recorded in the Bible is the Great Flood, during which Noah escaped with his family and representative animals This was seen as a judgment from God. Afterwards, God made this promise to the people who would repopulate the earth:

“I am establishing my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-19)

Though the world afterwards has experienced many floods, none would ever be on the widespread, massive scale of the one described in Genesis 9. Technically, God has kept his rainbow promise. But there has been no shortage of natural disasters to remind us how puny we are in comparison to the power and potential danger of God’s creation.

While Jesus was on earth, he warned people of a judgment to come. One of his disciples, Peter, is credited with writing these words a few decades after his death and resurrection:

By the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:5-13)

An American slave spiritual, “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” longed for the day when judgment would come upon the oppressors and justice to the oppressed. Embracing the Biblical teachings of both Genesis and 2 Peter, this simple affirmation is expressed:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
“No more water but fire next time”

Those familiar with the 1960s Civil Rights struggle will recognize that the title of James’ Baldwin’s pivotal book , The Fire Next Time, was taken from the phrase of that spiritual.

When God acts in his created universe, it can mean judgment to the oppressor and justice to the oppressed at the same time. It may be an expression of how magnificent his creation is – and how terrifying. The effects on weak, helpless humans can be both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

God sent Jesus Christ into the world to be an even greater rainbow than the one he sent after the Flood. When you feel threatened, even terrified, by natural disasters – floods, forest fires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, your own death — be reassured by Jesus Christ, God’s great rainbow promise to you.

— Pastor George Van Alstine