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We have all watched with amazement and disbelief as the waters of the Red River have inundated the northwestern part of our state and Grand Forks, North Dakota. Our hearts go out to those who have lost everything and whose immediate future is bleak and unknown. Unless one has suffered it, it is difficult to imagine such destruction and loss.

Yet can we learn anything? Indeed, if we don’t the disaster will have been even more devastating. So then what do we learn? The Lord is in the wind and the flood. In the 28th chapter of Isaiah we read: “Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, Who will bring them down to the earth with His hand.” This is a word of judgment against Ephraim.

Now shall we suggest that the people of the northwest were sinners beyond the rest, for which reason God is judging? Be careful of drawing false conclusions! In the 13th chapter of Luke Jesus said: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem. I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Many catastrophes have befallen this nation and areas of our nation, from earthquakes to floods to drought. What is God doing? Each of these devastations carries with it not an excuse for pharisaical finger pointing, but a call to repentance to a nation who has forgotten the Lord God, a nation that gives lip service to Him, but denies the substance of Truth. We live in a nation where sin is no longer sin, where right is wrong and wrong is right. We are people who carry our love of independence from authority to the extreme of rejecting the authority of God. God’s call to repentance is part of His loving concern to recall us lest a worse fate befall, eternal judgment. “The Lord is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” If we will not respond to a gentle nudge, the Lord must awaken with a thud.

Another thing we learn is that which is material passes away. It is a most helpless feeling to see one’s material wealth, and hopes tied to it, washed down a murky river whose tentacles spread across the landscape, or to see a wind blow a lifetime of work away in a minute. We know that ultimately all these things will pass away. They will not accompany us past our death bed. We know that. But yet we live and act as if we don’t in the mad rush to accumulate.

Our Lord encourages us rather to lay up treasures in heaven. In the Sermon on the Mount, He said: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6). If we will not learn to turn to the Lord in repentance and faith, if we continue neglectful of Word and Sacrament, we will not have heard the call of the present devastation. God will have to do it again, not because He hates, but because He is desirous of our salvation.

The Lord said to Solomon: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for Myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chr. 7).

When catastrophes occur, we can do a number of things. We can blame God. To what end, but more judgment? Or we can see the hand of God, listen to the voice of God (His Word), and believe His promises. Yes, we can enjoy the blessings we have here — they too are from God for our good — and turn our heart’s attention to the cross of Christ where is the answer to the sin problem, and to the empty tomb through which life is restored and hope rekindled day by day. The love of Christ is the seal that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). Though the faithful also must suffer, there IS a rest that remains unto the people of God, eternal in the heavens.

May the Lord awaken us all to His call, and at the same time heal the wounds and strengthen the hearts of all who after a long winter have had to suffer yet another devastation. We pray that the Lord’s message will go unheeded by no one.

–From the weekly church bulletin of Grace Lutheran Church, Fridley,

Minn. Daniel Fleischer is pastor.