Amos 3:1-8 (text); Luke 13:1-9; Romans 8:18-30
© November 24, 2013 (Pasig Covenant Reformed Church) • Download this sermon (PDF)
Beloved congregation of Christ: After the huge tornadoes struck the Midwest and Southeast United States in March 2012, a well-known evangelical personality commented:
“God doesn’t send tornadoes to hurt people. He doesn’t send… ‘acts of God’ (but they’re not). So, all I can say is, why do you build houses in places where tornadoes are apt to happen? It’s their fault, it’s not God’s. Don’t blame God for doing something foolish.”
This is the same Pat Robertson who said that God sent an earthquake that killed 200,000 people in Haiti in January 2010, because they made a pact with the devil more than 200 years ago. How insensitive and ridiculous can he be? Maybe if he can still be on TV today, he will blame Filipinos for living in the Philippines, a country on the path of 20 typhoons like Yolanda and sitting on the earthquake-prone, volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire? Even Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte chimed in, “God must [have been] somewhere else or he forgot that there’s a planet called Earth.”
Most Christians agree that God is the only Sovereign and Almighty over the universe. But then many ask, Is God really not responsible for disasters? And if he is the source of calamities, does he send them to punish unbelievers and bad people? These and other related questions about evil and suffering in this world are difficult to answer.
Our text in Amos answers the first question with a resounding “No!” When disasters come, God is the one who sends them, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” (Am 3:6) Many other Biblical texts affirm the prophet Amos.
Amos was a prophet in the 8th century B. C., a time of prosperity and complacency in the two nations of God’s people, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. But it was also during the time that the Assyrian empire was on the rise and was threatening the two nations. The Lord sent Amos to the people to warn them that judgment is coming because of their many sins, including idolatry, sexual immorality, and injustice against the poor to become rich.
Whenever a great calamity happens, Christians are often tempted to conclude that those who suffer and die are being punished by God for their sins. But in our reading in Luke 13, Jesus rebukes those who said so, asking them rhetorically, “Do you think they were worse sinners?” Instead, he warns the self-righteous Jews to repent or else perish under God’s judgment.
Sometimes, Christians also tend to use the popular verse in Romans 8:28 as a catch-all phrase when disasters and sufferings come. But how would saying “All things work together for good” for those who love God, when their loved ones are dead, their homes, fields, places of work destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda? How can this disaster be for their good?
But Amos’ last words in Chapter 3 also paint a picture of God’s judgment on Israel as the destruction of the beautiful and ostentatious houses of the rich.
This Lord’s Day, our theme is: “Did Disaster Come to Tacloban City, Unless the LORD Has Done?” under four points: (1) “The LORD God Does Nothing Without Revealing His Secret”; (2) “Do You Think They Were Worse Sinners?”; (3) “When All Things Do Not Work Together for Good”; and (4) “And the Great Houses Shall Come to an End.”
“The Lord God Does Nothing Without Revealing His Secret”
All true Christians believe that God is sovereign over all, declaring from eternity past “the end from the beginning… I will accomplish all my purpose” (Is 46:10).
After he created the universe, God did not just let it spin unhindered on its own course, and only intervenes at times so he can accomplish his purpose. Rather, God, in his providence, is always involved in its affairs: he preserves it, he governs it, and he causes all his creatures to act precisely so that his will is done. This is why Article 13 of the Belgic Confession, quoting Amos 3:8, says, “He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment.”
God continuously upholds his creation, and creation only endures through his preservation (Nh 9:6; Cl 1:17; Hb 1:3). He gives life to all his creatures (Ac 17:28), and “gives food to all flesh” (Ps 136:25). God also guides man to act according to his purpose, “fashion[ing] the hearts of men” (Ps 22:13-15), even turning the king’s heart “wherever he will” (Pr 21:1). And lastly, God also rules over all his creation as the King of the universe (Ps 22:28; 103:19; Dn 4:34,35; 1Tm 6:15). He controls the courses of the sun and the moon (Ps 104:19; Je 31:35), and determines when each sparrow will fall to the ground (Mt 10:29). He calls each one of the billions of stars by name (Isa. 40:26), numbers each hair on our heads (Mt 29:30), and directs each lightning’s target (Jb 36:32). Even decisions made by casting lots, seemingly by chance, are determined by God (Pr 16:33).
The Bible also teaches that God works in every act of His creatures—whether good or evil. Does this make God responsible for man’s sinful deeds? Of course not, because God, in his perfect holiness, cannot sin (Nm 23:19; 1Pt 1:16), and he doesn’t tempt anyone (Js 1:13). Again, Article 13 of the Belgic Confession affirms this, “He orders and executes His work in the most excellent and just manner, even then when devils and wicked men act unjustly.”
From the story of Job, we see that Satan can also cause disasters, because he sent brigands, fire, storm and disease to take away the health, wealth, and the children of Job, a righteous man (Job 1:6-19; 1:1, 8). But he can do so only by God’s consent, and within limits set by God (Job 1:12). The devil is still “blind[ing] the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8), but only as God allows him to do so for God’s glory.
God wills not only the good deeds of men (Phl 2:13), but also their evil deeds (Ac 14:16). He uses man’s willful sins to accomplish his purpose in saving his people: through Joseph’s brothers (Gn 50:20), through Pharaoh of Egypt (Ex 14:17), and through the Jews who killed Jesus (Ac 2:23). God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is a paradox that belongs to the realm of “the secret things” of God (Dt 29:29). Can we know whether or to what extent the devil’s hand was involved in Typhoon Yolanda? No, we cannot. What we know is that God is sovereign over all things, both good and evil.
We know all of these things are true because they are revealed to us in his inerrant Word written by inspired prophets and apostles. This is what Amos 3:7-8 says: “For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.” Amos illustrates this truth with a lion: when we hear the roar of a lion, we know that it has found and killed its prey. Amos’ series of questions in verses 3-6 demonstrates that the outcome of certain events are predictable. A bird doesn’t just fall from heaven without any cause. A snare doesn’t just spring from the ground if an animal is not trapped.
And to emphasize his focus on warning Israel about God’s coming wrathful judgment against their sins, he says that a trumpet is not blown when there is no imminent danger. The LORD uses prophets like Amos to sound the alarm. And his message is still God’s Word today: Judgment Day is coming upon all unrepentant sinners in the world.
“Do You Think They Were Worse Sinners?”
This was what Jesus told the Jews in our Luke 13 reading. They told Jesus about the abominable deed that Pilate did when he killed Galileans and then mixed their blood with the blood of the animal sacrifices at the Temple. Knowing what was in their minds, Jesus asked them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” (verse 2). Jesus then gave them his own example: 18 people died when the tower near the pool of Siloam fell on them. And he asked the Jews the same question: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” (verse 4).
Jesus rebuked the Jews for connecting disasters and personal sufferings befall those whose sins are serious. They were all sinners, because all have sinned and fall short of God’s law. No one is exempted. This is what he also told his disciples in John 9 when they asked him if a man was born blind because of his sin or his parents’ sin. The Pharisees as well believed that he was “born in utter sin” (verse 34). Jesus answered that the man was not born blind because of his or his parents’ sin; he was not a worse sinner than they were.
The Jews in Jesus‘ day were not the first who believed that disasters and sufferings were caused by sin. Job’s friends also concluded that he lost his children and all his wealth because of sin. But Jesus taught them a lesson that they did not understand: all mankind are sinners under God’s wrath. And he has a warning to all, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk 13:5). The verb “perish” does not mean only literal death, but eternal hell. The Greek word is often translated as “to be destroyed” or “to be lost,” the same meaning in John 3:16, where all who do not believe the Son of God will not have eternal life, but will “perish.”
What does this tell us today in the aftermath of the death and destruction of Typhoon Yolanda?
First, as Jesus warned the Jews, we are not better than anyone else if we do not repent. We will perish in hell just like everyone else who do not believe in Christ and repent of his sin. It is only by God’s grace and mercy that the Spirit gives us repentance and faith. It could have been you or me in the path of Yolanda’s 300-kph winds and 10-meter storm surge, and God will still be just!
Second, since we are all sinners, none of us are “good.” So when disasters and sufferings come to us, we must not ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” No, both good and bad things happen to all people, and all people are bad in the sight of God. All the bad things that happen in the world are the result of God’s curse upon Adam’s sin. Before the fall, there were no disasters, no sufferings, no evil in this world. Adam’s fall brought sin, disasters and sufferings to all. This is why Paul says that not only man, but the whole creation is groaning under the curse of sin, and God’s people wait for their redemption from this curse (Rm 8:22-23).
Third, mere creatures like us have no understanding of what God is doing in the world. We are far from being able to judge whether he is just or unjust, good or bad, or playing favorites. God is the only one in this universe who perfectly understands what in the world is happening, because he has decreed everything that will come to pass long ago in eternity past.
“When All Things Do Not Work Together for Good”
All things that God decreed are for his own glory. All of God’s creation, including man, exist so they will glorify him. Even disasters, sufferings and evil are for his glory.
But subservient to the glorious purpose of his will is his purpose for his people: to work all things for their own good. Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were for all mankind to glorify not only his justice and righteousness, but also his grace and mercy in saving his people. The disaster in the tower of Siloam happened so that some people will repent of their sin. Jesus gave sight to the man born blind so “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (Jn 9:3) in his powerful and gracious work.
Christians always have in mind the powerful and assuring words of Romans 8:28 whenever disasters, sufferings and evil come into their lives: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Notice a few things. First, Paul is sure, “We know.” No doubt. No ifs, ands, or buts. We know this for a fact, because God has decreed it and revealed it to us.
Second, for whom is this verse directed? For his people, those who love God and are called by God. Third, he works “all things.” Not just good things, but also bad things. God is sovereign over all things. Fourth, he works all things for the good of his people “according to his purpose.” Not only for our sake, but also for his own glory, because this is the “the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” in Christ (Ep 1:5-6).
Even all the evil things that Joseph‘s brothers did against him was according to God’s plan of saving Joseph’s family from famine. Joseph finally understood this after God had accomplished his purpose. This is why he forgave them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Gn 50:20).
Romans 8:28 beautifully demonstrates to Christians the doctrine of God’s sovereign providential care of his people and all creation. His salvation plan from Genesis to Revelation is like little pieces of simple cloths sewn together from a pre-conceived design revealed as a exquisite quilt. God brings all things together into a beautiful salvation plan, even good out of evil, restoration from destruction, joy out of suffering, light out of darkness.
What about those who have lost everything, including families, to the winds and floods of Typhoon Yolanda? How would they see the glory and the beauty of God’s sovereignty over the destruction? Their lives have been changed by this disaster for the next several years, maybe for the rest of their lives. Where is the beauty in the heap of rubble that used to be their homes? Where is God’s beautiful purpose as they bury their dead? There is only grief, fear, hopelessness, anger, bitterness, and all other kinds of bad emotions.
But out of all these, God is working all things for the good of his people. Most often, we do not see this good at the moment. All we see are the sufferings. But behind this “frowning Providence,” is a beautiful plan of salvation and restoration, a plan that is now hidden as a mystery.
Disasters, sufferings, and evil are a mystery, like the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. We can only fully understand these mysteries in the age to come when all things are revealed and united to Christ. But God is not obligated to explain this mystery to us. Job found this out as he asked God, “Why?” God answered him with a series of questions that no human being can ever answer, because he is the infinite Creator and we are finite creatures of no consequence. Again, Belgic Confession Article 13 warns us to be content “to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing these limits.”
Paul exhorts us to rejoice in all circumstances. And this knowledge that God works all things for our good is the basis of this joy. Even in sufferings. Even when what we are experiencing at the moment does not seem to be working out for our good.
“And the Great Houses Shall Come to an End”
But for those who do not love God, those who are not called according to God’s purpose, things do not work out good. Evildoers may prosper in this world, and everything may be good for them today. But in the end—what counts forever—none of their prosperity will work out for their good. They will turn out to be for their destruction. Jesus said they will perish because they did not repent.
Amos 3 is a prophesy of God’s judgment on Israel, both north and south. The whole nation was plundered by their enemies. No one was spared, except for a small remnant who were taken into an oppressive captivity. The rest of God’s people perished because they did not repent of their sins. The LORD says in verse 15, “I will strike the winter house along with the summer house, and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end.” Their prosperity will end in a disastrous defeat at the hands of Gentile kings. Their glorious Temple would not be able to defend them. The Spirit of God, seen in the glory-cloud over the Temple, departed from them, telling them that the LORD himself gave them over to their enemies.
Israel’s destruction and all the other great disasters in the Bible are only warnings of the greatest disaster that will befall the whole unrepentant world on Judgment Day. All of God’s judgments in the past—Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70—are mere portents of the most terrible of all judgments. Just as the people of Sodom, all those wicked, unjust people—who plunder billions and amass their “houses of ivory” in foreign lands on the backs of people groaning under the weight of poverty—will also be burned in hell.
And the world today is spinning towards this day of judgment. Typhoon Yolanda and great earthquakes are all foretastes of the terrifying day of the LORD.
But we are not to speculate that the end of the world is near around the corner. We are not to say either that the return of Christ is not near. We do not and cannot know. What we are to do in the face of this disaster is to repent of our sin, humble ourselves before God, and prepare our hearts to meet God—it could be today, or whenever Christ returns.
Brothers and sisters, be not terrified at this prospect. Although things do not seem to be working out for our good, and sufferings and evil seem to prevail over righteousness, God is still true to his word. Romans 8:28 is always true.
How is God able to work all things out for your good? He has used the most horrible evil deed in all of history to bring about his eternal salvation plan: the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Jews and Romans who crucified him were part of this plan. You are part of this plan, but having contributed nothing except for sin.
No place on earth is safe. In these disasters, many find safety in evacuation centers. But ultimately, the only safe place in the world is God who is our Refuge, Strength and Salvation.
But we still wait for our final redemption. Right now, we must weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn. Do not say their suffering is part of God’s good plan. Or that they have sinned greatly by being idolaters. Or that the end of the world is near.
It is also true that disasters happen because of the curse of sin. But for those people who have suffered terribly, this is a time to grieve. There will be a right time to encourage them with these words of the Bible. It is better to keep our silence and pray for them. And to give help in any practical way we can. These are the best comfort we can give them in this time of sorrow.
Pray for the salvation of many, that this disaster will be “a blessing in disguise,” because God can use anything, good or evil, to save many. Pray that God will use this disaster for people to come to faith in Christ and repent of their sin. Because, for certain, the worst disaster is waiting for those who do not repent and believe: eternal suffering and perishing in hell.