16th February 2014

“God and the floods”.

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but he whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal  laws”. Those words were allegedly spoken by King Canute – or, more accurately, Knut the Great – as the tide rose and the waves lapped around the feet of his throne. Of course no-one really knows if the story is true or not; or whether it took place by the Thames at Westminster or on a beach near Southampton. Certainly the tale has gone down in English folklore as a display of Canute’s vanity and pride – when it seems that its real aim was to demonstrate that every king has limitations and should submit himself to God.

Well, the residents of the Somerset Levels, the Thames Valley or the city of Worcester may be feeling that a visit from King Canute would have been far more effective than the combined efforts of the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and the Environment Agency! For, as we all know, we are living in the midst of a flooding crisis almost unparalleled in British history – one, indeed, that some commentators have inevitably called “Biblical”. What started off by affecting one large, but sparsely populated, area has now spread to engulf several areas of the country. Many thousands of people have, at least, been hugely inconvenienced and, at worst, lost their homes and livelihoods. And they are angry at the politicians who have appeared to spend more time apportioning blame than offering any practical response; they are incensed at the Government which seems unable to see beyond the Westminster village to the distant rural shires.

So what might we, as Christians, say about these terrible floods – apart, of course, for offering our prayers, or even our practical support, for their victims? For, if we believe that God is the Creator and Sustainer of our world, and if we say that he is concerned for the people within it, then it is surely right for us to take time in church to look beyond the political and practical questions that this crisis raises and reflect upon any spiritual significance it may have.

I would want to start by refuting any suggestion that we should regard these floods as God’s judgement on our nation. I’m sure that most of us will have heard of David Silvester, the town councillor who wrote to his local paper saying that David Cameron has brought God’s anger to bear on Britain by supporting the Same-sex Marriage Act. He wrote, “The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war”. Mr. Silvester presumably thought he was making a brave prophetic statement; but he not only had to give up his seat on the Council but was thrown out of his party as a result. Sadly his own town of Henley-on-Thames is one that has been directly affected by the floods. Is Mr. Silvester now hinting that it is particularly sinful? And what would he say to the residents of Bangladesh who are flooded on a yearly basis – are they specially worthy of punishment?

What I find interesting here is not that Mr. Silvester attracted such criticism – apparently a petition against him very quickly attracted 24,000 signatures – but that he was attacked for holding a position which would have been unremarkable fifty years ago and which the Old Testament thoroughly endorses. For those ancient writers not only believed that God determined the weather for the Jewish nation but also that the weather they got depended on their moral behaviour. We see that belief in the story of Elijah, who prophesied a lengthy and deadly drought in the time of wicked King Ahab; and of course we see it in the story of Noah and the Great Flood when, we are told, God was so fed up of the way that humans were acting that he resolved to wipe most of them from the face of the earth and start all over again.

Now – and irrespective of their views on Same-sex marriage – I think intelligent Christians would want to abandon making any direct correlation between natural disasters and human sinfulness. For we now know a lot more than the Biblical writers did about the way the world works, and we do not think that God personally directs the weather, if at all – although, having said that, there are still plenty of churches which pray for dry weather when they are about to hold an open-air service or organise an outing to the beach; I always wonder how God balances their prayers with those of the farmer across the road who is asking for rain to fall on his parched fields!

Joking apart, I think we would agree that, although God created the world with its climate and weather systems, these are controlled by a multitude of factors including the strength of solar radiation, the temperature of the oceans, the reflectivity of the atmosphere and so on. We still don’t quite understand how the weather works (although we are better at forecasting it) but we are pretty sure that it isn’t a matter of God sitting on a cloud and blowing wind and rain at us!

I think, too, that our notions of God have moved on – we simply don’t think of him as a strict and vengeful arbiter of our moral values any more, a deity whose finger is constantly hovering over the buttons marked “divine judgement” and “total destruction”. Our own picture – derived more from the New Testament than the Old – is of a benign God who prefers to forgive than condemn, drawing reprobate people to himself so they may change their ways rather than be punished.

Now, we do have to be careful here: some Christians might say that we have distorted and softened our concepts of God, and I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them. After all, the New Testament – and, specifically, Jesus himself – does present us with some terrifying pictures of judgement. But it seems to me that these relate to the final consummation of the created order than to day-by-day chastisement. Indeed, when a drought is mentioned in the book of Acts, there is no suggestion of any divine cause, merely prophetic advice to Christians to make sure they put aside enough food to get by while it lasts.

However, an increasing number of people would say that we have indeed brought God’s judgement upon us, albeit indirectly, in the sense that we are guilty of having meddled with his created order and of using his bounty carelessly. For there is an emerging consensus that the world’s ecosystem is finally balanced and that our greedy and thoughtless misuse of the earth’s resources has disturbed its delicate equilibrium. In other words, the extraordinary weather which we seem to be experiencing more and more often is at least partly due to climate change which, in turn, has been induced or affected by us humans. If this is true, then our problems are not just physical but spiritual. For what we have done is arrogantly set ourselves up as the owners of the world and the masters of the universe, believing we can do what we want with God’s creation without suffering any ill consequences. To put it in simple terms, God has given us a world to live in, but we have believed we can flout its Maker’s instructions with impunity. As King Canute was apparently at pains to show, that kind of atheistic arrogance is futile and can only lead to disaster.

In Old Testament times, prophets in times of natural calamity would call upon their listeners to forswear their evil ways, offer sacrifices and turn back to God. If they did that, those prophets believed, the situation would improve. We would not see things in such naive terms, I’m sure: I can’t imagine our Government calling for a national “day of repentance and prayer”, however much some Christians might think that it was a good thing. Far less can I imagine altars being constructed in places like Trafalgar Square or our own Cornhill and Anglican Bishops offering up sacrifices of dead animals upon them (although some folk might think that certain politicians would make very good victims!) For we don’t believe that the floods were directly caused by an angry God and we don’t believe that performing bloody and arcane religious rituals will deflect his wrath and miraculously makes things better. That reeks of a primitive paganism and superstition which, we would say, we have long grown out of.

But, as we say that, we may be missing an important point. For, even in the Old Testament, sacrifice did not occur alone: it was always part of a spiritual package which also included repentance and changing one’s ways. Indeed, the mere ritual of sacrifice was never enough and the prophets (and Jesus himself) repeatedly railed against people who did all the right religious things but whose attitudes and actions seemed totally untouched by them. It is perhaps Micah who makes this point most clearly when he says: “Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings and calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I even give my firstborn child for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” The answer to these questions is clearly “No”, for the prophet goes on: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. For what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

So how might we repent and offer sacrifices in today’s context? – not, you understand, because we want to curry God’s favour and avert his wrath, but because we want  to right an imbalance and learn how to treat God’s world with the respect it deserves. Well, even those of us who have not been affected by the floods may find ourselves making the sacrifice of paying higher taxes or making donations so that other people may have better defences against them (we have already seen farmers in Essex and Yorkshire taking hay to their stricken colleagues in Somerset). And folk in areas that are liable to flood may not only have to give up their desire for a nice sea or riverside view, they may have to offer some of their time and energy to form local groups which can be mobilised to serve their communities in times of crisis.

But I think our repentance and sacrifice must go far deeper than that. For, if we believe that these weather-related disasters (which are not just afflicting Britain) are truly the result of climate change caused by human activity, then that activity has to change. We who live in the rich nations would have to give up our affluent lifestyle and the economic models of growth which we can no longer afford; we might well have to go back to the living standards that we enjoyed (say) fifty years ago. Equally, because the climate and economic systems of the whole world are interconnected, the developing nations would have to respond to global warming by giving up their aspirations for the sort of prosperity which we have enjoyed for years.

Clearly these are counsels of perfection which seem to be entirely unattainable. I’m not, of course, proposing that an African farmer should have to remain in a life of grinding poverty nor suggest that Britain should degenerate into a barren waste. But I am seriously suggesting that nations like China may have to scale back their economic expansion to levels which our world can sustain, or that our own appetite for world travel may have to remain unsatisfied. All this, of course, will only happen if billions of individual people are prepared to make radical changes to their lifestyles, or if the leaders of every nation are willing to work together for long-term aims rather than for their own benefit. To be honest, I can’t see either of those things happening any time soon – which means, I fear, that our climate will continue to deteriorate and our misery will increase.

That is a depressing thought – yet perhaps the churches can be groups of people who show a way ahead (as they already have, for instance, in the matter of Trade Justice). Can we live in ways which benefit the whole planet as a whole, even if we think it is a fruitless exercise? Can we raise these issues locally and, through our Members of Parliament, at national level and beyond? Can our Bishops and Moderators and Secretaries be at the forefront of promoting ways of living which respect God’s created order better than our current ones? The simple answer is, “I don’t know – but we can at least make the effort and hope that we are seen, heard and followed”. Taking up our crosses and following Jesus means both swimming against the tide of popular opinion and denying ourselves, for the good of others.

I have said a lot this morning; you may feel that it has been somewhat abstract and distant from the plight of so many people who are suffering. You may also have felt that I have left us in a position of pessimism and despair. But that isn’t where I want to end at all; for I want to close by taking you back to that second reading, from the book of Revelation. You might have wondered why I had chosen it this morning, but there is a reason: for in the midst of the celestial city, the vision of a new creation, there is a river. That river is not filthy or muddy, it is not subject to the vagaries of the weather, it most certainly does not cause death or destruction. For this river, we are told, is pure and docile; it will never break its banks or flood; and it is gives only life. Perhaps the vision of that heavenly stream, combined with the earlier image of the rainbow, can give us hope that – despite appearances – our world is not entirely chaotic nor abandoned by God. He still seeks us through the rain, his promises are not vain. Even in this time of disaster, we cling to the hope that day will finally dawn on the glorious, harmonious and sunlit world he has made new.