50 years ago today 144 people died, 116 of them children, in the small mining village of Aberfan, South Wales. A huge slag heap had become unstable after being saturated with rain and spring water. it started to slip down the hill side, reaching speeds of up to 50mph, before crashing into the side of the local primary school. The scale of the tragedy was etched onto the faces of those who saw it and into the minds and hearts of a nation.
But whose fault was it?
Some people would say it was just an accident. That people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was certainly the line that the National Coal Board took initially. Claiming that no one could have known about the spring under the heap, even though it was marked on local maps and people had raised concerns about it's position and stability in the months before the disaster.
Some people would blame God. How can he claim to be loving and let children die like that. What had they done to deserve it?
The Bible addresses both these views.
I'm working on Luke 13:1-8 for a sermon on Sunday night. In those verses Jesus talks about a very similar incident of his day. It appears that some people have been killed by the collapse of a local building. Luke 13:4-5 "Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!"
To the question what had they done to deserve a death like that, Jesus answers, "Nothing!" It is not that they were any more guilty than anyone else. Because disasters like falling water towers or deadly landslides or even the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by hurricane Matthew in Haiti usually don't bring suffering to the people who are most responsible for them.
At one level they remind us of the selfishness of the human heart. The actions of the NCB before and after Aberfan where sickening. It was a preventable tragedy. But they chose to ignore the warnings. Then once it happened, they showed almost no compassion towards the parents who'd lost children, most of whom were miners working for them. They refused to take responsibility. And when eventually forced to pay compensation it was a pittance. At one stage they even planned to decide the amount by asking each parent, "How close were you to your child?"
The issues have been the same in Haiti, where over the years aid money has made the ruling elite rich whilst almost nothing has been done to help the poorest, who suffer most from natural disasters.
The human heart is a font of evil. We need rescuing from ourselves.
At another level disasters remind us that we live in a world that is under God's curse. Not His blessing. That since humanity decided to reject God's rule through our forefather Adam, our relationship with God has been broken, our relationships with other people have been broken, and our relationship with the world around us has been broken. Nature often works against us rather than for us.
That is why Jesus goes on to say in Luke 13: 5 "But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Jesus words come in the context of a section where he has been teaching about his return to judge the world. It is the day that all the Aberfans will end. Forever.
On that day Jesus will restore creation to perfection as he rids it of evil once and for all. He demonstrated he has power and authority to do that through his miracles whilst he was on earth. He will bring in a world without any natural disasters.
Also on that day Jesus will judge all people according to how they have lived. How they have behaved towards God and each other. No one will get away with anything. Their will be no more selfishness and evil like that demonstrated by the NCB or the government of Haiti.
But he will judge everyone. And that is why we need to repent. To turn back to God and ask him for forgiveness. Because though our actions might not have cause the death of anyone. We have still lied to preserve our reputation. Taken more for ourselves without thinking about those who have less. Failed to show compassion to the sick and suffering around us. We have find to love God and other people.
By God's perfect standards we have fallen short.
But the same Jesus who judges in the Jesus who died in our place. God knows what it is to lose a child. Not in an event out of his control. But according to his plan to take upon himself the sin and suffering of the world. So that if we turn to him one day we will enjoy a world without sin and suffering anymore.
There were a lot of people who believed that in Aberfan. That's why they laid out the flowers in the shape of a cross. The chapels were full after the disaster. Both with corpses. And those who knew that faith in Jesus was the only place to find true hope.