A huge crowd
Late April heralded a volcanic eruption in Iceland, grounding air traffic across the UK, Ireland and northern Europe, and preventing travel between the USA and UK. A huge cloud of ash, potentially damaging to jet engines and thereby lethal to passengers, was spewed out into the atmosphere.
Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded, for up to two weeks, unable to travel on to their destinations. All they could do was wait for the ash concentrations, reportedly with the consistency of talcum powder, to disperse naturally.
Holiday makers and business travellers were caught, while schoolchildren and teachers couldn’t make it to school after the Easter break.
There were other knock-on effects, including shortages of some fruit and vegetables, and delays in transporting critical medical supplies. One UK girl, for example, had to wait for bone marrow tissue to be flown in from Canada.
What lessons can we learn from these, for us, unusual events? At least two. First, we are powerless in the face of God’s sovereignty. No airline executive or politician could stop the ash and make it safe to fly.
Revising ‘rules’ for ash ‘tolerance’ was merely adjusting our response to the inexorable. Only almighty God stops volcanoes erupting – even little volcanoes!
There was also an uncanny resonance in these events with the words of James 4:13-15: ‘Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that”.’
The secular world does not take God into its plans, but the cloud reminds us that he is always there and we must take account of him. Moreover, Christians know that God’s sovereign will is always best, and that he is infinite in wisdom and love (Romans 8:28). As the hymn puts it, ‘behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face’.
The cloud brought with it another lesson by way of illustration. In Isaiah 44:22, God promises his people, ‘I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist’.
All people are born into this world with a big black cloud of sin separating them from God. This prevents them from enjoying fellowship with him (Romans 5:19). Yet the Bible affirms that God in his mercy is able to take this cloud away from us – ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us’ (Psalm 103:12).
The gospel proclaims that God sent his own Son into the world to deal with our sin cloud problem – those sins which separate us from our maker. It says, ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3); ‘he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24); and ‘he appeared to take away sins and in him there is no sin’ (1 John 3:5).
It is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, by his atoning death on the cross, that our sins are forgiven. The blood of Jesus removes our sins from God’s sight and restores fellowship with God our maker. Through Jesus, God can say to us, ‘I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud’.
As I write, the volcanic ash cloud remains. We are living in unusual days, but the Bible exhorts us to look up to God who does not change. He is ‘infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’.