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When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginnings of birth-pains.

This week has seen a tragic development in the Church of England – I am sure this will be the focus of a future blog.  But I wanted, this week, to mention the horror that has been filling our screens: the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and Syria.  How can we make sense of this, and how should we respond?

We are right to be horrified by such devastation and loss of life. Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35), for human death is an alien intrusion into God’s good world. True, earthquakes are a natural feature of our world, and would appear to have been happening throughout the aeons of earth history; but that they should cause such damage to humanity, made in the image of God, should fill us with a sense that something is horribly wrong.

Sadly, the effect of the present earthquake are made significantly worse by the ongoing conflict in Northern Syria, which hampers the delivery of relief.

But not surprise
We should not, however, be surprised that things like this happen, for Jesus himself said they would be a feature of our world, as in His teaching quoted above.

Because this passage in Mark is also about Christ’s return, it is sometimes taken to imply that earthquakes and the like will increase towards that day. But this is not Jesus’ point. Instead, He’s talking to His disciples, who will see such things happening during their lifetimes (Mark 13:30), and counselling them (and us) to go on trusting God even through it: Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. There have been earthquakes and natural disasters all through human history.  As many as 60,000 people are thought to have died in the the Lisbon earthquake, for instance – back in 1755. We need to face that fact, and not lose our trust that God is ultimately in control.

But all this raises the question, “why does God allow them?” We should not be glib in answering this, pretending we know it all. But we must hear Christ. Back in the passage in Mark 13, Jesus said These things are the beginning of birth-pains.  Although He is not saying there is to be an increase in these things ahead of His return, there is a link. That day will be a day of judgment, and events in this life can serve as warnings of that last day, warnings that all is not well between humanity and God, so that we repent and put our trust in Christ. They are warnings that God is serious.

That is not to say, for one moment, that the people affected by this disaster were worse than anyone else. We cannot say that, and must not, for Christ Himself cautioned us against such an assumption. In Luke 13:4-5 He talks about some people killed by a falling tower: Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But what Jesus does say is that we should take these events as a warning to us. He continues (Luke 13:5): But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Jesus knew that, because of the way we have sought to live in God’s world without Him, our natural situation is to be under His judgment, until we turn to Him.

One of the great problems of our age is that people refuse to believe that God could possibly be serious in His warnings of judgment to come. This is because in His grace He does not treat us as our sins deserve, and in His patience He gives us time to repent. Tragically, we need to be warned of the death that faces us all, and that as a race we stand under the judgment of God, or we will never take it seriously. Sometimes after such an event, many turn to God (but not always: see Revelation 9:20-21). The events of this week should heighten our awareness of the urgency of the gospel.

The gospel tells us that God did not just sit back and let our world face the consequences of our sin. He entered our world and endured the agony of the cross (He is not immune to human pain!). This was, wonderfully, to bear the penalty for our sin so that all who trust Him might be forgiven. But His awesome self-sacrifice should also spur us to generosity. In 2 Corinthians 8-9 the Apostle Paul – in the context of raising money for people affected by a famine – says that God’s generosity should act as a model for us in our own giving to those in need.

The earthquake should cause us to reflect on our own standing before God.  But it should also stir us to dig into our own pockets, to see what we can do to help.