Aardbeving in Nepal. Vrienden van ons, een oud-collega uit Dehradun (India), Arbin en Bimala Pokharel, vangen mensen op bij ‘hun’ kerk (foto). Tegelijkertijd worstelen wij hier met de vluchtelingenstroom uit Afrika, die waarschijnlijk alleen maar heviger gaat worden. Ik werd herinnerd aan de tekst waarover ik destijds in Dehradun, in de Chapel van PTS, sprak – ik voel nu hoe actueel die is. “Destijds deed zijn stem de aarde beven, nu heeft Hij deze belofte gedaan: ‘Nog eenmaal zal Ik de aarde doen beven, en met de aarde ook de hemel.’ Met dat ‘nog eenmaal’ wordt bedoeld dat wat geschapen is, wankelt en verdwijnt, zodat alleen blijft wat onwankelbaar is.” (Hebreeën 12: 26 en 27.) Ónze Koningsdag komt eraan!
De hier bedoelde aardbeving was op 8 oktober 2oo5. (Ik zie dat mijn Engels nog een beetje primitief was.)
Four weeks ago, the earthquake happened in Pakistan and Kashmir. We all remember it. Most of us have felt it ourselves. By that time we did not yet have an idea of the devastating consequences elsewhere, and the thousands of casualties. We talked about it for a couple of days; now, much less only.
Still, thousands of people suffer because of the consequences. Their houses are demolished. It is getting winter. They don’t have shelter. Relief is coming slowly. Still there is shortage of tents and blankets. Many more people will die. Many survivors have lost their dear ones; many others their livelihood. The consequences will be felt for many more years.
The same is true for the tsunami, only nine months ago; also a trembling of the earth’s crust, but then below sea-level. Reconstruction will take many years. But it will not often be mentioned in the news.
It is far from our bed. Here, life goes on as usual.
Yet, this time, there is fear. Geologists predict that a new earthquake will come, most probably, in this area, even bigger and more devastating, causing maybe a million deaths in the Ganga plain. Doon Valley, where we live, is likely to be severely hit.
Only, we don’t know when. Much is known about earthquakes and their causes nowadays: about tectonic plates, their movements, fault-lines, and increasing pressures in the earth’s crust. But little can be done. We know we live in an earthquake-prone area (there are some more in the world). We learn what to do in case of an earthquake. As a measure of prevention, houses can be built solidly; but not everybody can afford that; and, because it happens rarely, not everybody is interested in it. Once it happens… We prefer not to think about it. The same is true for the people living in the San Francisco area in the United States.
But we’d better do: talk about our fears. Admit; and consider how to deal with them. That’s why I interrupt my series on the book of Numbers for this time. The Bible teaches us about earthquakes. It helps us to prepare.
Earthquakes tell us about our God.
- He is Father.
- He is coming.
- He is King.
On the third day of creation – as Genesis 1 tells us – God created solid ground. He said: “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear”. We remember that, up till then, the whole earth was covered by water. It has been calculated that, if the earth’s crust would be flat, with the present amount of water on the earth, the whole earth would be covered by a sea, 200 metres in depth.
Imagine that you had to struggle permanently to keep your head above the water. You would soon be exhausted. We would all drown.
The whole week of creation, those six days, God was at work like a Father who builds a house for his family. Even before we were there, even when we were not yet imaginable, He already had us in mind; he envisaged us. Carefully, and intently, he made the earth inhabitable for us; hospitable. God provided solid ground under our feet; carefully, even before we were there. Psalm 104 expresses it this way: “He set the earth on its foundations; / it can never be moved. (…) At your rebuke the waters fled…”
Once we learn more about geology, about the earth’s crust, being a relatively thin layer around a centre of fire; and about these tectonic plates, the unimaginable forces and energies working below our feet, we are even more filled with awe for God’s superior power and wisdom on that third day of his creation; and ever since. Even today, no scholar can tell us how this came about, why continents are here, and islands there, and seas only around. But God, our Father, gave us a floor in his world, so that we could live on it, walk around, work, build houses and hostels and classrooms and more, and could sit, and lie down quietly, and confidently; and be happy.
Till the present day. Even after so many earthquakes. They remind us that this solid ground cannot just be taken for granted! He sustains it with his own, living hand.
Even in these last days, it is still there. The book of Revelation, chapter 11, shows us… “A severe earthquake (,) and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified…” Still, we are here, on Father’s earth.
Psalm 40 expresses his wonderful work this way – and then, it is about salvation, later on in history; David leads in singing, and believers will follow – let me just quote it: “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, / out of the mud and mire; / he set my feet on a rock / and gave me a firm place to stand. / He put a new song in my mouth, / a hymn of praise to our God”.
In the second place, earthquakes tell us that God is coming.
Earthquakes don’t mean that God’s hand trembles; it doesn’t. They announce that he comes down to reveal himself.
In the first place, he did this when he descended on Mount Sinai, to establish his covenant with his people. We have read it together. This is what our passage in Hebrews 12 refers to: “At that time his voice shook the earth”. The earth trembled. The Psalms express it again and again: the earth will tremble; it should tremble, when the Lord comes. It should tremble with fear, and awe.
It was his voice that shook the earth. We know how awe-struck the Israelites were when they heard his voice, speaking the Ten Commandments. They requested that he should not go on speaking to them like that. Look, it was not only the people, but even the earth itself, that trembled with fear.
This is basic for history, centuries afterwards.
Again, an earthquake took place in the time of king Uzziah. It is mentioned only in Amos 1: “The words of Amos (…) two years before the earthquake”. We know how this prophetic book is full of rebuke. The word was not empty. God came to discipline his people that had become idolatrous and rich and complacent and oppressive towards the poor.
The earth trembled when Jesus died. “The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life”. Here, such a terrible event as an earthquake is full of the gospel; full of the promise of life. Life through Christ’s death. Resurrection from the dead.
A few months later only, the earth trembled again, when the church prayed… after the first persecution: Peter and John had been arrested, interrogated, and released. The church prayed against the world, the world leaders, the enemies of Christ, with the words of Psalm 2. Yes, the Lord is coming, to answer the prayers of his church, and to show who the real king is.
Again, apostles were persecuted: Paul and Silas, in Philippi. In prison, they prayed, and sang God’s praise. There was a violent earthquake; the prison doors flew open. Once more, the Lord came to set the prisoners free: his servants. He gains victory.
O.K., in the area of the Mediterranean Sea, the eastern part, earthquakes had a different geological cause, and were more local in character. Yes, when God laid the foundations of the earth, even that part of the earth, he already had the victory of his Son and his triumphal journey across the earth in mind!
God comes, to reveal himself, to prove himself a Father, and a King. Psalm 18 sings about it; again, David leads, and we will follow: I was in great trouble, surrounded by enemies, close to death; “In my distress I called to the Lord… He heard my voice… The earth trembled and quaked, / and the foundations of the mountains shook; / they trembled because he was angry. (…) He … came down… The valleys of the sea were exposed / and the foundations of the earth laid bare… He took hold of me… He rescued me…”
David had not experienced an earthquake himself. He extolled the God of Sinai; the God of the covenant, who came to save his people, his servants.
If your fear of earthquakes is fear of God, it is not without hope; and – even – confidence.
“Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens”. That is even more terrible. Stars will fall from the sky. The old world will be removed. John saw it in his vision: “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away”. How many casualties will there be on that day? How many buildings will collapse?
But… this is a quotation from Old Testament prophecy, and it is not a threat, but a promise. We read it in the book of Haggai. The Israelites have returned from exile. They are a small group only, in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. They are prone to despair, feeling lost between the nations, threatened by hostility, and impoverished by poor harvests. But they are rebuilding God’s temple. And then God promises to shake even heaven and earth. The whole old order of the universe will be reversed. The riches of all the nations will be brought here to serve the splendour of the new temple.
“The Lord reigns, / let the nations tremble; / he sits [on the throne] / let the earth shake” (Psalm 99).
This, says the author of the book of Hebrews, is a promise of the New Testament. The Old Covenant was founded on Mount Sinai with an earthquake. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with a quake of the universe. It will be devastating indeed.
But then, the passage continues: “…So that what cannot be shaken may remain”. What is that? It is expressed in verse 28: it is “A kingdom that cannot be shaken”. God comes as King. His shaking of the universe, his reversal of the old world order, is part of his policy. He comes to establish his kingdom in full glory. “…A new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness”.
“The Lord reigns. / The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; / he will judge the peoples with equity” (Psalm 96).
That’s what God has promised. That’s what we will receive. That’s what we look forward to.
Reverence- and awe-inspiring; yes, that’s what it is. Without this great transformation, there will be no new world. Without this terrible heaven- and earthquake, there will be no ultimate stability. Even our present bodies will not enter the kingdom of heaven just as they are now.
Reverence and awe – that is the author’s conclusion from this universe-quake-vision. Let us worship God, let’s serve him, in that way. That is appropriate when you look forward to such a future. That will be acceptable to him.
That is different from the attitude of people around us: suppressing our fear, concealing it, not wanting it to be mentioned, let alone discussed; so that you may soon even forget it yourself – till something like that happens again.
Quite the contrary: to people who react in that way, we have a message. Not only: What will happen when you die? But also: How do you feel about the threat of a new earthquake? “Say among the nations: “The Lord reigns””.