In 1936, a movie was made of the Broadway play “The Green Pastures.” The movie, with an all-black cast, would probably be politically incorrect today. According to Joe Bob’s Ultimate B Movie Guide, Rex Ingram starred as “De Lawd,” the Hall Johnson Choir as angels with cardboard wings, and Oscar Polk was Gabriel who started the movie by saying, “Gangway for De Lawd God Jehovah!” De Lawd is constantly criticizing the angels, telling them to stop dancing around the moon, and every once in a while he goes down to earth to tell humankind to stop drinking and gambling and drinking Mammy Wine and to tell Noah not to forget to label all the animals with cardboard signs so they won’t forget which ones are which. At one point God gets so mad about all the wickedness on earth that he exclaims, “Even bein God ain’t no bed of roses.”
The movie tells the story of how God first sent Moses and then the prophets to call his people back to him, and, when all else fails, sends his Son to share their suffering. All the angels grow exasperated with the rebellion of humankind. Time and time again in the play Gabriel wants to blow his horn and bring it all to an end. Gabriel repeatedly implores God, “Now Lord, can I blow the trumpet now?” But each time God holds out in patience. Finally, one of the angels watching the chaos on earth exclaims, “Everything nailed down is coming loose!” Yet still God would not give up.
Did you ever feel that way – that everything nailed down was coming loose? Did you ever feel that a seismic event had shaken your world beyond recognition? The Bible provides hope for us in just such times like that, for the Bible often speaks to people facing cataclysmic events. The history of Israel tells us of times when the chosen People of God were slaves in Egypt, conquered by the Assyrians, and deported into exile by the Babylonians. The apocalyptic portions of the book of Daniel were written for such traumatic times.
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In the New Testament, early Christians faced persecutions and torture. Jesus’ own crucifixion set the stage for the kind of martyrdom than many of his disciples experienced. The emperor Nero visited horrific persecutions on Christians. The words we read today from Mark 13 provided hope for people facing these terrible events. Mark 13 is called “the little apocalypse.” The book of Revelation provides an even fuller apocalyptic view of hope for people in despair.
I was struck by the use of the word “earthquake” in today’s scripture, so I looked through the Bible to find how many times earthquakes were mentioned. According to my computer concordance, earthquakes are mentioned thirteen times in the Bible.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah meets God at Mount Horeb. God said to Elijah, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.” Then Yahweh passed by. Then came a great wind so strong that it split mountains and broke rocks in pieces, but the Scripture records, “The Lord was not in the wind.” And after the wind came an earthquake, but again the Scripture records, “Yahweh was not in the earthquake.” After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a sound of sheer silence. It was after the silence that a still small voice came to Elijah.
A similar scene is described in Isaiah 29:6 where the Scripture says, “She will be visited by Yahweh of Armies with thunder, with earthquake, with great noise, with whirlwind and storm, and with the flame of a devouring fire.”
A historical earthquake is mentioned in passing in Amos and in Zechariah. The ministry of Amos is dated “in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake ” (Amos 1:1). The same earthquake is mentioned in Zechariah 14:5, “You shall flee, just like you fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah.”
Matthew 27:54 tells us that an earthquake occurred when Jesus was dying on the cross. “Now the centurion, and those who were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.'”
Another earthquake occurred at the resurrection according to Matthew 28:2. “Behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from the sky, and came and rolled away the stone from the door, and sat on it.”
Paul and Silas were in prison in Acts 16:26 when, “Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were loosened.”
Then earthquakes are mentioned five times in the book of Revelation describing the cataclysmic events of the end times (Revelation 6:12, 8:5, 11:13, 11:19, 16:18).
Obviously, Biblical writers were fascinated by earthquakes, and referred to them often to make their point. An earthquake is a good image for cataclysmic times when “everything nailed down is coming loose.” Earthquakes threaten our assumptions about the stability of life. We like to think of earth as rock solid, but sometimes the earth moves. Sometimes when people fear flying on a plane, they resort to the ancient Latin by saying, “Just get me back to terra firma.” We expect the ground to be firm. We want our buildings tied to the bedrock because our foundations need to tie to something that won’t move.
We are easily lured into thinking the same about our lives. We expect stability. We expect our lives to be “rock solid,” but then something traumatic happens and “everything nailed down is coming loose.”
The noted theologian Paul Tillich once wrote a sermon entitled, “The Shaking of the Foundations.” His sermon reflected on the devastation of World War II, the holocaust, and the invention of the atomic bomb. If ever there was a time when the foundations shook, then surely that was it.
Tillich makes the point that God had laid the foundations of the earth, but humankind had discovered its undoing. The power of the atomic bomb is merely releasing the power that was harnessed by God in the beginning. The explosion of the bomb comes from splitting the atom, and it is an incredible power. Tillich points out that this same power was captured by God, tamed and balanced in creation.
Now humankind has the power to undo creation. We have enough nuclear-tipped rockets aimed at one another to destroy the earth many times over.
The question still lingers – “What will we do with this terrible ability? Will we destroy the foundations of the earth?” Up until now, our national defense strategy has depended on “mutually assured destruction,” with the appropriate acronym “MAD.” We kept the Russians from firing their nuclear weapons at us by having enough weapons aimed back at them to assure mutual destruction. And they returned the favor. As strange a defense as it is, it seems to have worked so far.
Sometimes I think “mutually assured destruction” is the strategy that many people take in their relationships. People relate to one another in a private form of atomic warfare. When disagreements occur, one party or sometimes both have their finger on the “red button,” and are fully prepared to destroy one another, to launch “mutually assured destruction.” I’ve seen it all too often, and I’m sure you have too.
The image of an earthquake portrays our destruction as an “act of God.” It pictures us as passive recipients of the disaster that hits. But most of the time the destruction is of our own making.
It was that way for the people of Israel. The major thesis of the prophets of old was that the Hebrew people were turning from God and bringing destruction on themselves. I find reading the prophetic books extremely tedious because they are prone to pile dire predictions of disaster on top of one another for chapter after chapter. I’ve just finished reading Amos where the prophet couches the judgment of God in the repeated phrase, “For three transgressions of Moab, yes, for four, I will not turn away its punishment.”
But then in chapter five, Amos explains that they have brought the destruction upon themselves through taking bribes, pushing aside the needy, trampling on the poor, and then offering an empty worship to try to cover up their misdeeds.
The prophet Isaiah wrote during the same time period as Amos. He witnessed the destruction of the Northern Kingdom at the hands of the Assyrians, a fate that would fall to the Southern Kingdom as well 150 years later. It was a devastating time. Isaiah uses earthquake imagery to describe the events:
“The foundations of the earth tremble. The earth is utterly broken. The earth is torn apart. The earth is shaken violently. The earth will stagger like a drunken man, and will sway back and forth like a hammock. Its disobedience will be heavy on it, and it will fall and not rise again” (Isaiah 24:18b-20).
What do you do when “everything nailed down is coming loose?” In times like those, we need more than a message of judgment. We also need hope and that is the main purpose of all of the apocalyptic literature in the Bible – to give hope for people in desperate circumstances.
Isaiah says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment; and those who dwell therein shall die in the same way: but my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” (Isaiah 51:6).
“For the mountains may depart, and the hills be removed; but my loving kindness shall not depart from you, neither shall my covenant of peace be removed,” says Yahweh who has mercy on you” (Isaiah 54:10).
Amos also concludes his message with hope when he says, “But let justice roll on like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He calls the people to turn from their “mutually assured destruction.” He says over and over, “Seek Yahweh, and you will live!”
In Mark 13, Jesus speaks of eschatological events, events of the end times. He says there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, false messiahs and false prophets. Verses 24-25 say,“the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken.” It’s Jesus way of saying, “Everything nailed down is coming loose!”
But then he says, “but the end is not yet.” The earthquakes of life do not have the last word; that belongs to God alone. At the last word, the difficulties of this life will be set aside and God will wrap up human history, right the wrongs, and reward the faithful.
Jesus ends our “little apocalypse” in Mark 13 with good news. He says, “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 13:27 Then he will send out his angels, and will gather together his chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the sky” (Mark 13:26-27).
All of these dramatic messages about earthquakes end in hope. Hope is the essential ingredient for seeing us through earth-shaking events.
The volunteer tutor was asked to visit a nine-year-old in a large city hospital. She took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the boy’s teacher that they were studying nouns and adverbs in class. It wasn’t until the tutor got to the boy’s room that she realized the boy was a patient in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a nine-year-old so horribly burned and in such great pain. She felt she couldn’t just turn and leave, so gathered her courage and entered the room.
“Hi, I’m the hospital teacher,” she stammered. “Your teacher asked me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” And, clumsily, she launched into the lesson.
The next morning a nurse called the tutor. “What did you do to that boy?” The tutor immediately began a tearful apology, but the nurse interrupted her.
“No, no, no. You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him. But since you were here, he’s fighting back, he’s responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.”
The boy explained that he had given up hope, until the tutor came. “I figured they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a kid who’s dying, would they?” (“Hope in the active voice,” Connections, Solemnity of Christ the King, Nov. 1998)
When everything nailed down is coming loose, remember – God is not through with you yet.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2000, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.