A Christmas Tsunami Lament

Nine nights ago we gathered here to sing and celebrate
We told stories about a baby
A baby who would save the world
A baby whose birth was greeted by angels
A baby whose birth meant tidings of joy for all people everywhere
We spoke of God-made-flesh
Cute chubby baby flesh

We sang familiar songs
We enjoyed familiar company
We smiled at baby Piper playing over here as we sang about the baby
We drank champagne and ate Christmas cake
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, oblivious
And others partied on
And holidayed on
Walked along moonlit beaches hand in hand
Wrapped final presents as the kids fell asleep
But underneath, the pressure grew and grew

"All is calm, all is bright," we sang
"Sleep in heavenly peace"
"Now you hear of endless bliss," we sang
"While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love,"
"We will live forever more, because of Christmas Day,", we sang
But the pressure grew and grew
knowing nothing of the bliss of our songs
or the angels' watch

Nothing gave way that night, or the next
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 sudden movement caused a wave
Quite explainable

But as the churches went on singing that Sunday morning
Singing songs about that lovely baby again
That wave was tearing babies out of people's arms
Sucking beds out through hotel windows with people still in them
Dumping sharks in swimming pools
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

We've all seen pictures of what it left behind
Haunting horrible pictures
Mud and ruins and corpses
Tens of thousands of corpses
Old, young, men, women
The life sucked out of them
Dead children strewn everywhere
Hundreds and hundreds of dead babies

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 of Aceh?
And what child is this?
And this?
And this?
Who knows?
Corpses everywhere
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
and grieves
and 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's flesh strewn all over the streets
Broken lifeless flesh
Beginning to bloat in the sun

What do those songs we were singing mean now?
Do the angels' tidings of great joy mean anything in the face of this?
Can we stand in the mud and debris of Banda Aceh or Phuket or Galle
and speak of the one who is called Emmanuel
God with us?

Or would it sound obscene?
But that's the challenge isn't it?
Because if the Christmas gospel has nothing meaningful to say
in Tamil Nadu or the Maldives or Meulaboh
then it doesn't really have anything meaningful to say at all
Someone once said
- perhaps it was Athol Gill
I can't remember -
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 the carnage and shock and horror
what can we say?
There are no words
The lovely lines of peace on earth and goodwill to all
sound impossibly trite and hollow

And worse still
we are afraid to even speak the name of God
aren't we?
For inside there is a horrible question
that we dare not face
that we don't know what to do with
It is not just that our faith seems to lack adequate words of comfort
It is that our faith is not sure that God is not to blame

What did our psalm say just a few minutes ago?
Our words of sacred scripture?
God sends the snow and frost and hail
God speaks, the ice melts
God breathes, the waters flow
That's what it said

And if we believe that
If we believe that that is not just poetic hyperbole
but fundamental doctrine
If we believe that God directs the weather
that God speaks and the earth shudders
that God can calm the waves with a word
then can we escape the awful conclusion
that the tsunami is God's doing?

And what did John say in our gospel reading?
All things came into being through him
and without him, not one thing came into being
The tsunami?
Through him?

Those who shake their fists at heaven
and say that either there is no God
or that God is a callous tyrant
have got irrefutable evidence on their side this week
Perhaps every week
Even if God didn't directly make the tsunami
doesn't God have to accept responsibility
for creating the things that create tsunami?
Or is God somehow exempt from manufacturer's liability questions?

Let us not speak too hastily in defence of God
lest we be guilty of simply trying to prop up our own shaky faith
and silence the doubts and fears that lurk within all of us
Let us allow God to speak for himself

Another preacher rang me up on Thursday
he needed to know that he wasn't the only one
with a head full of horror
wondering how to preach the gospel this week
It's lonely, he said,
being the one who has to find words to say
Impossibly daunting too
bearing the responsibility of preaching the gospel
in a week when the news of the world
seems to make a mockery of it
It struck me that we preachers should probably feel like that every week
charged with the responsibility to speak the word of God
to a desperate people
in a world that seems always capable
of proving our every word a lie

So my friend and I are stuck
As much as we might want to flee the wave of fear and uncertainty
that threatens to uproot us
and suck the life out of our faith
we have been called to preach the faith of the Church
in season and out of season
and preach it we must
So I cannot hide behind my own advise
to let God speak for himself
because when God speaks for himself
I am one of the ones God has called
to interpret to you the word God speaks

And at times like this
such a responsibility can feel a bit like some of those awful pictures
I can feel a bit like the man wading through the chaos
with his beloved child cradled in his arms
limp and lifeless
Here is the gospel
the faith of the Church
Is there life in it yet?
Or has it drowned in the angry wave of awful reality?
I'm not sure
but dead or alive I still love this child

I can't speak to you as one who has the answers
Like you I am looking for signs of life
amidst the chaos and devastation
But I can and must speak as one called by God
to interpret what God says in the face of all this
So what does God have to say?
What word am I to interpret?

There is a Word from God
And the Word became flesh
The Word became flesh and cast in his lot with us

Why do we call Jesus "the Word"?
We call him the Word because he is what God has to say
What God has to say is made flesh in the Word
All that God has to say is made flesh in the Word
What God has to say in the face of unspeakable suffering
is made flesh in the Word

There are all too many other words spoken about God
Everyone has an opinion
Some will say that God is absent, dead or doesn't care
Some will say that God is all-powerful
that nothing happens except at God's say-so
and that yes, tsunamis only happen if God wills them to
Some will say that the tsunami is God's judgment
words words words
there are no end of words about God
But what does God have to say?

God, are you all-powerful?
God, do you care?
The Word becomes flesh
God, did you make the tsunami?
The Word becomes flesh
God, where are you?
The Word becomes flesh

Of course there is always a temptation
to try to repackage the Word
to make it say what we wish it would say
We want a messiah who will protect us from every danger
and we can find words about God that will say that
We want a messiah who can calm the waves before they get us
and we can find a story of Jesus doing that
We want a messiah who will ride in triumphant
like the cavalry at the last minute
and vanquish all that would harm us
and bring us singing and weeping tears of joy
to the victory banquet
Our reading from Jeremiah speaks with such words
But if we make the words say whatever we want
we may miss the Word that God speaks altogether
the Word that takes flesh

Because God has spoken a Word
and it hasn't charged in like the cavalry
God has spoken a Word and it did make the world shudder
The Word became flesh
and the world shuddered
and a great wave of hostility and selfishness and bitterness rose up
and flung itself against the Word
devastating all in its path
killing even children in its rage
snarling, surging, seething, smashing
a great wave of darkness
furiously seeking to annihilate the light

And where was God as the wave hit?
Wasn't God right there bearing the brunt of it
Wasn't God there clinging to his beloved child
only to be overwhelmed by the wave
and have the child ripped from his arms
and torn away on that surging flood of hatred
and battered and smashed and pierced
and tossed limp and lifeless to the earth

As a father
I've been tormented by those images this week
Imagining myself trying to protect my child
as the wave hit
desperately clinging to her with every ounce of strength
only to feel her ripped from my arms
and torn away in the surging blackness
and then later hunting for her
in the chaos and ruins
checking body after body
desperately hoping that none of them are her
that somehow she will have been washed to safety
and then finding her crumpled and lifeless
and blindly carrying her limp body
looking for someone who could help
but knowing in the hollow depths of my guts
that nothing can help
and seeing in the eyes of everyone who passes
that to all but me she is just one more
of a hundred thousand corpses

It took three days of news footage before it really got to me
It finally broke me when I saw footage
of a mother in Australia
who had just got news that her daughter
who she thought had been lost
was safe
and she wept tears of joy and relief
and it struck me
that everyone of those hundred thousand corpses
represented a real person
over whom there would be no such tears of joy and relief
and I wanted to hold my daughter close and cry
but I couldn't
because ironically she was at the beach with her mother
so I broke down
and sobbed alone

Do I have any idea what it would really feel like?
I doubt it
It was bad enough just imagining it
I don't know how I'd cope if it was real
I certainly wouldn't want to be hearing any comfortable cliches
like all things working together for good
or they've gone to a better place

I doubt whether I have any idea what it would really feel like
but I reckon God does
because when we cried out for answers
for explanations
for deliverance
God spoke a Word
and the Word became flesh
as a beloved child
and the child was torn from the Father's arms
by a ruthless wave
and the waters of death closed over him
and spat him out as just another
of the hundreds and thousands and millions
of unnamed innocent victims
down through the ages

I reckon God knows
And I reckon that as hard as we might find it
to talk about flesh
while the nameless flesh of countless corpses
are necessarily treated as little more
than a threat to public health
and piled into mass graves
God is still not afraid to be identified as flesh
fragile flesh
brutalised flesh
limp and lifeless flesh

Because the promise of Christmas
is not just that the Word became cute and chubby baby flesh
but that the Word became flesh
and cast in his lot with us
hunted flesh
despised flesh
tortured flesh
dead and buried flesh
three days dead flesh stinking and a threat to public health

And although our story of the Word made flesh
does not stop with dead and buried
we will not really understand the rest of the story
if we think of resurrection as just some kind of miracle cure
which means that death is no longer part of Christ's reality
In the book of Revelation we see the vision
of the risen one on the throne
who still looks like one mortally wounded
The risen one is still the crucified one
The rising one is still the being-crucified one
The people who say all crosses must now be empty are wrong
because the risen Christ is still
the suffering and dying Christ
The risen Christ who promised we would meet him
in the least of these desperate and vulnerable ones
can be seen lying dead in the mud in Khao Lak and Meulaboh
The Word became flesh

If you want to see what God has to say in the face of this
go walk among the ruins of Banda Aceh
or just turn on your TV
for God is speaking
and the Word has become flesh

Perhaps as we begin to see what God is saying
we will begin to comprehend how blasphemous
so much of what we blithely say about God really is
and how chillingly we treat powerful and dangerous realities
and casual and comfortable little things

Perhaps when water is flung at us in a few minutes
to remind us of our identity
as those who have been buried
in the deep waters of death with Christ
perhaps this week we'll have
a little more sense of what a serious matter it is
to go under the deep waters of death

Perhaps when we hold out our empty hands
to receive the piece of bread we will be offered shortly
we will recognise something of our solidarity
with desperate hungry people
holding out empty hands
for the food aid the world is trying to muster
And perhaps we will see in those images
of the Father holding the limp body of his dead child
the image of the Father who spoke the Word that becomes flesh
and whose grief and suffering take flesh still
in body and blood
offered for the life of the world
and placed into our empty hands
that we might live
even in the face of death

And perhaps when we have heard that Christmas story
the story of God speaking a Word
which becomes human flesh
and falls victim to the full force
of the waves of horror that assail the earth and its inhabitants,
a Word which continues to take flesh
in all the suffering and grief and desperation
perhaps then we will be capable
of hearing the story of resurrection
and recognising that our songs of endless bliss
and our promises of sorrow turned into joy
are reduced to pious platitudes if they are not seen
in their contexts of unspeakable fear, death and anguish

I pray that we
and I
might have the courage and compassion
to recognise the Word that God speaks this week
and follow where the Word calls
into the places that terrify and horrify us
the places where we will know what it means
to cry out for salvation
the places
perhaps the only places
where we are capable of knowing
the Word of resurrection
the Word made flesh
the Christ born of Mary

Preached in response to the South Asia Tsunami disaster.
Texts: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

A sermon by Nathan Nettleton, 2 January 2005
pastor at South Yarra Community Baptist Church in Melbourne.

© LaughingBird.net Reproduced on Everything2 with permission. Softlinks are entirely my own doing.
CST Approved.

South Yarra Community is a liturgical, High-Church Baptist church (not necessarily a contradiction in terms). Nathan Nettleton has a Master of Theology and has been pastor at South Yarra for about 10 years. He is also a Lecturer in Liturgical Studies at Whitley College in Melbourne.

I have been attending South Yarra Baps for over two years now. I guess I find the mix of Liturgy, quiet contemplative prayer, biblical paraphrases, icons and silence a very welcome change from the noisiness and impersonality of giant "contemporary worship" churches.

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