I thought that in light of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, my trip might well be postponed. However, the pastors of both churches where I was scheduled to speak assured me that I was most welcome and that the congregations would be encouraged to hear from Jews for Jesus. So I am writing from Jackson Mississippi, where I spent the weekend ministering in two churches.
I changed planes in Houston and found myself amidst a group of people with weary and glazed expressions. Jackson, though 100 miles away from the worst of the storm, has one of the closest working airports to the region of devastation. These folks were probably returning to see what, if anything, could be salvaged from their former homes. It was a quiet ride from Houston to Jackson.
Arriving, I saw that the powerful winds had indeed made their mark. Scores of trees that had lined the road leading from the airport were torn up, roots and all. Billboards along the highway into town were in shreds. In the hotel I turned on the television—all the local stations had banners running across the bottom of the screen, announcing the desperate need for baby formula and other items for those made homeless by Katrina. Many were staying in the Jackson convention center.
On Sunday morning I spoke in Ridgecrest Baptist Church. Many in the congregation had spent the week making trips to New Orleans to help the victims. More than a few were sharing their homes with people whom they’d brought back, so both morning services had folks from New Orleans in attendance. Deacons distributed large orange buckets to church members. Each contained a list of supplies people could load into those buckets for the church to transport in the coming week. When I stood up to speak I told the congregation how moved I was by their genuine community and their great outpouring of love and support for those in need. Then I did what the pastors had asked of me. I spoke from Leviticus 23 about the fall feasts of Israel. I realized that these festivals had a very particular message for those in the midst of crisis.
The Need For Repentance
First is the Feast of Trumpets. The blast of the ram’s horn was God’s wake-up call to the people of Israel—a call to repentance in preparation for the coming Day of Atonement.
I’ve heard people wonder if Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for people in the Gulf Coast region. Some Christians have pronounced that it’s God’s judgment on America for the sin of abortion. Other Christians have claimed the disaster was God’s judgment for the U.S. endorsement of Israel’s pullout from the Gaza strip. Of course the terrorists insist it is payback” for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I can’t explain this tragedy, but some of the speculation reminds me of a conversation Jesus had 2000 years ago. “There were present…some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘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 in 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.'” (Luke 13:1-5)
Jesus said that all of us deserve God’s judgment—and that calamity is an opportunity to repent of our own sins, not to point the finger at others. We must show care and concern to those who are suffering and remember that it is God’s goodness that leads us to repentance. Times of national disaster may tempt us to play the “blame game,” but that is not the response God desires.
The Need For Redemption
Repentance opens the door to redemption. That is the point of the second Fall Festival, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
It was no surprise that more people have been attending churches in Jackson since the disaster struck. The same thing happened across the country four years ago after September 11. It may not be a long-lasting phenomenon, but it certainly provides an opportunity for us to share the message of redemption and salvation in Jesus. Through His shed blood we can receive the forgiveness foreshadowed by the Day of Atonement. This message is as relevant today as it ever was. People who have suffered loss must have their physical needs tended to, but physical loss often brings a greater awareness of spiritual needs. We can’t be satisfied to meet only those physical needs and call it missions or evangelism. That has been the failure of liberal Christianity. Mercy ministry is not evangelism. Mercy ministry is our obligation and our privilege but so is making known God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. The two should go hand-in-hand.
The Need to Remember
The final fall festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, helps people to remember God’s presence and provision, but it also helps us distinguish between the temporal and the eternal. God commanded the children of Israel to dwell in booths for seven days, “…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). Joy is a main theme for this feast, yet so is the memory of our wilderness wanderings when we lived in the flimsiest of “mobile homes” and God miraculously provided our meals on a day-to-day basis. The message of Tabernacles is a call to remember our dependence on God and to adjust our priorities accordingly. Like the old spiritual says, “This world is not our home, we’re just a-passin’ through.”
The people of the Gulf Coast have more reason than most to appreciate and appropriate that perspective. In the midst of loss there can be hope. In the midst of devastation there can be true shalom, and even joy in Mississippi, Louisiana and everywhere else. Our true security is always, ultimately, only in Jesus.
Nearly 9,000 Jews for Jesus friends and supporters live in the region most affected by Hurricane Katrina. We hope some are able to read this from the homes of family or friends. We love you, we appreciate you and you are in our thoughts and prayers. As we join people across the nation in sending donations to your area, we pray they will be used effectively to help you. If you are sending e-mails to family and friends to let them know how you are doing, please consider including us at [email protected] so we can let our staff know how you are and how to pray for you.