A Word from the Fire
A sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 February 2009
© LaughingBird.net


Message
God is with us to comfort and revive us in the face of horror, but also to challenge us to turn things around.

Sermon

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” asks the prophet Isaiah.

I guess we did know that yesterday was coming.
We knew that fire is a normal part of the cycle of our bush.
We knew the bush was tinder dry.
We knew that it was only a matter of time
before extreme temperatures and high winds
combined to bring the explosion.

So yes we had known. Yes we had heard.
Yes it had been told us from the beginning.
But nothing could really prepare us for the awful reality.

Ten weeks ago we had a church camp at Marysville.
Two weeks ago Paul & Alison and the kids had a few days break up there.
Today Marysville is virtually all gone.
Just smouldering piles of rubble.
Just the odd house here and there
spared for no apparent reason.

Two and half weeks ago I was at a conference in Canberra
One of my friends at the conference was Bob Brown.
Bob is the pastor of the combined Anglican Uniting Church at Labertouche
Labertouche has been surrounded by fire for most of the last week
I hate to think what Bob and his people are going through.

James is not here tonight because he’s visiting his brother, Dave,
whose house is singed but still standing
but surrounded by six other houses
all burnt to the ground.

The Christian conference centre at Kinglake
where Margie and Jude
and the rest of the Whitley residential college leaders
were to hold their leadership retreat next week
may not exist any more.

At Wallan, up on the Hume Highway near Wandong,
there is a Baptist Church.
A member of the congregation is missing
At least two members’ homes have been lost
And the Mission Maintenance base where several members worked has gone.

Yes we had known. Yes we had heard.
Yes it had been told us from the beginning.
But the prophet asks,
“Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
Tough question that.
Have we understood?

There is nothing simple about knowing what it is we are called to understand.
Religious lunatics with their pet hates
will always want us to see the fires
as God’s judgement on this or that.
But the fires affect good and bad alike
If God is punishing specific sins, his aim is appalling.

But the question doesn’t go away
“Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

And the prophet follows it
with a reminder of mortality that could have been written for yesterday.
Of even the most powerful people, he says,
“Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when God blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”

Yesterday the tempest carried whole towns off like stubble.
And as we see picture after picture of fatigued fire fighters
it is not hard to hear echoes of the prophet’s words:
“Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted.”

It is harder though to see any immediate relevance to the promise that follows:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

The endurance of those fire fighters is often unbelievable,
but I don’t think talk of “waiting on the Lord” will be much help just now
It’s heavy rain they want
and there are only isolated showers in the forecast.

The prophet’s words assert that God is the creator
that God is in control
And the insurance companies will call this an “act of God”
But the idea that God is behind this
or that God is controlling this
would portray God as a monster
unworthy of our worship.
And yet what are we to say?
In our gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39)
we heard of Jesus reaching out to the desperate and afflicted
But we also heard that he couldn’t cope with the demand
Like our ambulance services that have been unable today
to keep up with the number of calls
to attend to the injured around the town of Kinglake,
there was not enough of Jesus to go around.
He was there for them,
but in the morning when they kept on coming
he had to move on to the neighbouring towns
for they needed him too.

The God revealed in Jesus
is no monster remaining aloof from the trauma,
but he can’t snap his fingers and put it all right either
and sometimes that’s what we want in a god.
Sometimes what we crave is explanations and instant solutions
because solidarity and compassion don’t heal the burns
or house the homeless
or hold the next fire at bay.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Surely there are things here we have not understood
and it is time we did.
Devastating bushfires are not new
they come regularly
But drought that some think may now be permanent
and temperatures soaring to 46 and 47 degrees,
that’s new.
And half of Queensland is under water
and much of the northern hemisphere
is having record cold snaps.
Our climate seems to be going berserk.

Yes, we have known, and yes, we have heard.
But have we understood?
Have we begun to respond in more than a token way?

For the most part, no.
We have not because, as a society, we are addicted.
We are addicted to consumption and growth and “progress”.
Our government, who was elected on a platform
of getting serious about climate change
is now urging us to consume our way out of a financial recession
even though we know that it is over consumption
that is driving up the pollutants that are driving climate change.

Instead of seeing the financial recession
as a chance to share more, recycle more, grow our own,
and learn to make do with less,
we are urged to fuel our own addictions
and burn our planet
in order to make sure the flow of money goes on forever.

No wonder Jesus weeps over our cities,
“O you that kills the prophets and stone those who are sent to you!
How often have I desired to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
and you were not willing!”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
London, New York, Tokyo,
Jakarta, Berlin, Seoul,
Melbourne, Sydney, Perth.
How I longed, but you were not willing.

God has not been silent
The warning has not been muted
And yet on we go, spending, consuming
trying to grow things bigger and bigger.
Even cloudy Germany can get its solar energy industry thriving
while ours is withering on the vine
as we continue to subsidise the emissions from coal and oil instead.
Our houses on average are thirty five percent bigger
than they were three decades ago
yet our families are mostly smaller.
And even when we build our houses in bushfire zones
we mostly build in keeping with the latest consumerist fashions
and not in accord with unique needs of a dangerous environment.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Perhaps understanding has not been enough
It seems we need to be converted
we need to repent
we need to turn away from our addictions
we need to radically rethink the ways we are willing to live

But of course, denial is part of the make-up of any addiction
and the problem always looks to us
to lie with someone else
or with the government or some other authority
and what can we little people do when the problem is on a global scale?

But if I begin to admit to my addictions
and make some real changes
and you begin to admit to yours
and make some real changes,
and if we can support one another
and find a new way together
and it begins to catch on wider and wider,
that’s when governments will take notice
and begin to reflect the values of a changing mass of voters.

It’s not easy, and its not going to undo all the damage in any hurry
It will cause us some significant pain - breaking addictions always does
But God will be with us
Jesus will walk among us with words of good news
And in this context, the promise to those who struggle will make some sense:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”

Today we mostly feel helpless
We can pray
We can give
We can break bread in solidarity with those who are broken and grieving
And none of that will feel like enough
But here at this table, Jesus reminds us
that he is gathering up all our seemingly feeble and broken efforts
and offering them all for the life of the world
and if we will follow him on on from here
on the pathway of repentance and transformation,
we will rise up with our strength renewed
and make it on through the charred valley of despair
all the way to the banquet of life
and the cool oceans of Christ’ love.

In addition to the many news reports from the bush fires, this sermon is indebted to an article by the Revd Simon Moyle titled “Fostering a dangerous climate of addiction” in The Age newspaper of 7 February 2009.