Disaster in Japan




Psalm 46:1-11

(1) God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

(2) Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

(3) Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.

(4) There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

(5) God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

(6) The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

(7) The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

(8) Come, behold the works of the LORD, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

(9) He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

(10) Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

(11) The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.


If you have a black sense of humor, you might appreciate the following story that came out of last week's disaster in Japan. After the earthquake and tsunami, Kyoko Nambu returned to her devastated hometown of Somo, which is about 30 miles north of the Fukushima nuclear plant. She found the lot on which her house had stood. There was nothing left, not a stick, not a brick, nothing. About that time, a government truck came by driven by a person wearing a radiation suit. He leaned out of the truck and yelled, “There is radiation in the air. Get into your house.” As I said, you have to have a black sense of humor to appreciate that.

Dangerous levels of radiation leaking from a crippled nuclear plant forced Japan to order 140,000 people to seal themselves indoors Tuesday after explosions and fires dramatically escalated the crisis spawned by an earthquake and tsunami. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation has spread from the four stricken reactors of the Fukushima nuclear plant on Japan's northeastern coast. The region was shattered by Friday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, plunged millions into misery and pummeled the world's third-largest economy.

There have been four explosions at the nuclear complex since the quake and tsunami knocked out power, crippling the systems needed to keep nuclear fuel cool. Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary, warned that the fire had helped release more radiation. He said, "Now we are talking about levels that can damage human health." Edano warned, "Please do not go outside. Please stay indoors. Please close windows and make your homes airtight. Don't turn on ventilators. Please hang your laundry indoors."

The only major route heading south from Fukushima city is jammed with stop and go traffic as an exodus of people try to flee the region. Most drivers and passengers were wearing masks.

"I don't think they are telling us the truth. Maybe even they don't know," said Toshiaki Kiuchi, a 63-year-old innkeeper whose business in the community of Soma was flooded by waist-deep water in Friday's tsunami.

We need numbers to help us understand the extent of the disaster. Right now Japanese officials estimate that 10,000 people are likely dead, 15,000 are unaccounted for, Half a million people have been evacuated from their homes, a quarter of a million people are living in makeshift rescue centers in the worst hit areas. The Japanese stock exchange instantly lost half a trillion dollars in value. The repair bill for all this is estimated to be several hundred billion dollars.

I learned about a new measurement this week, new for me anyway, the “Sievert.” The Sievert measures the biological effects of radiation. Exposure to 100 mSv for a year can lead to cancer. 350 mSv is the standard that officials use to begin relocation. If it gets to that, everyone should leave. They have been measuring 400 millisieverts (mSv) an hour near the No. 4 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Since we are doing numbers, 4 out of 6 reactors at Fukushima have overheated and exploded. The Japanese have evacuated about 200,000 people from a 12-mile exclusion zone around the nuclear power station. They have ordered another 140,000 just outside that zone to stay indoors amid radiation threats.

I have some more numbers. 2,050 evacuation centers have been set up in northeastern Japan. 5 million homes are without power. 76,000 buildings were damaged. 6,300 buildings were completely destroyed. It was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and it threw the earth off its axis more than 9 inches. It shifted the Japanese island 7 feet away from its normal position. It was a 1000 times more powerful that the recent earthquake that struck Christchurch in New Zealand.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the earthquake is that it slightly increased the Earth’s rotation speed, making the day a fraction of a second shorter. U.S. space agency scientist Richard Gross said the quake shifted the way the Earth's mass is distributed, which made the planet spin a little faster, cutting the 24-hour day by an estimated 1.8 microseconds. Now that is less than two millionths of one second, so it is nothing to panic about, but it is still amazing.

You probably saw some of the news footage of the disaster: the burning port city, the wave of cars, ships, and buildings pushed along by the tsunami. It is a catastrophe to add to our long list of recent natural catastrophes--the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Tsunami in Indonesia.

We cannot see such events, even from afar, without asking the big question. Where was God? How can a good God allow such things to happen? We are not the first to ask those questions. We will not be the last. George Barna, the public-opinion pollster, conducted a national survey in which he polled adults: “If you could ask God one question, what would you ask?” The number one response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” Atheists do not bother with such questions. Life is a cosmic accident, they say. Disasters just happen. Some religious groups try to explain away suffering as an illusion. Others define everything in direct cause and effect terms. Somehow, those people in Northeastern Japan were more evil than anyone else in the world, so they got what they deserved, or so the argument goes.

Christians however cannot so easily dismiss the questions that disasters pose. We believe in God. We believe in a God who loves us so much that he would die for us. He did die for us on the cross. God is loving, caring, powerful. God knows what happens and God cares about what happens to us. Disasters like those that we have seen this week force us to confront a hard question. How can what I have just said possibly be true? How can such terrible things happen if God is loving, caring, and powerful? These are questions that believers have been asking all the way back to Abraham. Job asked similar questions. I do not presume to think that I have all the answers. I believe that there is a powerful benevolent force behind all things that loves us beyond all measure, and yet I know that horrible things sometimes happen in this world.

So how do I handle this problem? I keep on believing, and I turn to the scripture for answers. For example, in Luke 13, Jesus discusses some similar incidents. Some Galileans came down to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, and apparently, they angered Pilate in some way and he executed them. Jesus said, do you think these Galileans who were killed were worse than all other Galileans, and that they were killed because they were such great sinners? He answers his own question. No. they were not. Then Jesus takes another example. There was a tower in Jerusalem that had fallen and killed 18 people. He asks, do you think these 18 people were the worst sinners in Jerusalem? Again, he says no. Their deaths were not caused by their sin. To take our example, Jesus might have said, do you think that the people in NE Japan who are suffering from earthquake and tsunami, from nuclear radiation and fallout, do you think that they are the worst sinners in the world? Jesus would say no. They are not being punished for their sins. They just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Matthew 5:45, Jesus said, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” He might have said God sends the earthquake and Tsunami “on the evil and on the good.” God sends the Hurricane “on the just and on the unjust.” Things happen. Continental plates shift. Weather patterns off Africa create hurricanes. These are natural things that happen, and therefore sometimes innocent people suffer, but that does not mean that God does not love us and care for us.

Turn with me to Psalm 46. The psalmist reassures us that in the midst of our confusion and fear, God is our help and strength. God is our refuge even when what seems permanent is demolished. When the world crashes in around us, God is still there for us.

The phrase “very-present help” means that God is always with us to help us. God is present with us right now, and because God is here, now, for us, we do not need to fear. In the midst of our affliction, distress, tribulation, God is with us. God is calling us today to live abundant courageous live because we can be absolutely certain that God is our refuge and strength.

In verse 2, the psalmist describes earthquakes splitting the earth, volcanoes erupting, mountains slipping into the sea. He might almost be describing NE Japan. The Psalmist says, Even though the “earth be removed,” or the landscape suddenly be changed, we should not fear. Most people think of mountains as the most secure part of nature. Mountains are fixed and firm, so they think, but this is an illusion. We now know all too well that mountains can slip and slide and move. Therefore, we have all the more need for God.

Verse 3 describes the roaring waters of the sea, a tsunami. Again, the psalmist could be talking about our newspaper headlines. The “mountains shake and quake with the “swelling thereof.” They do indeed.

However, the psalmist urges us not to fear, for God is our protector, and God is right here with us. Verse 4 paints a picture that is easy for us to miss. The city of God is Jerusalem. While Jerusalem was a beautiful city in ancient times, it had no river that ran through it like other ancient cities. Babylon had the Euphrates. Egypt had the Nile. Rome had the Tiber. Jerusalem did not have a physical river but it had something even better, the presence of God. God’s grace flows like a river to bring gladness and joy to His people. While the ocean rages and foams, God’s presence is depicted as a gently flowing stream. This image in Scripture is used to represent happiness, abundance, and peace, even when everything else is falling apart. God’s presence with His people is one of the central truths of Scripture. Verse 5 says that “God is in the midst of her” and verse 7 declares that the “Lord of hosts is with us.” This is from the root word “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” In Matthew 1:23, we are told that “Immanuel” is a name of Jesus. That means that when we put our faith in Jesus, we have “God with us” at all times.

Notice the last part of verse 5: “God shall help her and that right early.” The emphasis is on the immediacy of God's help. You can depend upon God right now. God is present with His people even when “nations are in uproar and kingdoms totter” according to verse 6. No matter how bad things get, we can always count on God. The last part of verse 6 reminds us of God’s incredible power. When “he lifts his voice, the earth melts.” This is the awesome power of God.

Verse 7 again hits the theme of God as a fortress. As in verse 1, God is depicted not only as powerful, but also as a refuge that we can turn to for safety. By the way, this is the verse that moved Martin Luther to write the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

A mighty fortress is our God,” he wrote, “a bulwark never failing,

Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

According to verse 8, we are instructed to “come and see the works of the Lord.” We are to gaze on God's creation, to contemplate God's power. Again, V9 shows us God's power. God can make “wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.”

Verse 10 calls us to “Be still and know that I am God.” Stand in awe. Pause to worship. We almost have the idea that the psalmist is stunned by the vision of God.

Verse 11 is a great summary statement. Because “the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge,” we can trust God.

The thousands who died in Japan last week were not planning to die that day. They got up in the morning, went to work or school. They had no idea that they would by dead by sunset. Then they were gone. Life is too unpredictable and too brief to live without God at the center. We count our lives in years but the psalmist tells us to number our days, maybe even our milliseconds. Every one of us is just one heartbeat away from eternity. Any of a multitude of events could snuff out our lives in an instant. This is our real condition on this earth. This is the way things are. How do we deal with it? How do we deal with such an unstable, unpredictable situation? Listen to the psalm. “God is our refuge and strength.”


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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Last Modified: 05/02/13