In September, I went to Lisbon, Portugal. I was speaking at a gathering of Adventist college and university students from across Europe. One day, I decided to explore. I took a taxi to the Gulbenkian museum to see its exhibit of Islamic art. And then I thought I’d take a walk through the Edward VII Park. It was slightly drizzly, but it was warm, and I was in an adventurous spirit. The park was many blocks long, and was a kind of wide boulevard-like green space. I followed it to a hill, and as I crested it, I looked down upon the old heart of Lisbon. It was like I was on a rim of a half-bowl. There were hills all around the central part of the city, which is built on the north bank of the Tagus River, not far from where it empties out into the Atlantic.
I continued walking, around the Plaza of the Marques de Pombal, and down the Avenida da Liberdade to the Plaza of Commerce, a wide open square on the river front, with monumental buildings all around, and a monument to King Jose I in the center.
Standing on the river, I looked back up where I’d come from. Hills on all sides, with tightly packed narrow buildings decorated in colorful tiles perched on their steep slopes. To the right, on one high hill, stood the Castle of St. Jorge, built a thousand years ago when this was a Muslim city, and the sounds of the call to prayer echoed around these hills five times a day. Tucked away in some corners of the city are Roman ruins, two thousand years old. And in other places you can see evidence of civilizations even older, going back to the Phoenicians who first established this port city some 1000 years BC.
But when Seventh-day Adventists think of Lisbon, we don’t tend to think of the Phoenecians, or the Romans, or the Moors. We think of a fall day, November 1, 1755, when King Jose felt his kingdom rock and sway beneath his feet.
I t was All Saints Day, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, and the city’s churches were filled–gorgeous churches, their altars covered in gold, reflecting the riches of the Portuguese empire, which stretched around the world. The faithful came to pray, as they did on every Sunday, festival, and saints day. But on this morning, as they gathered for mass, they felt a rumble.
It was 9:30 in the morning when the first of three jolts hit the city. Stones were loosened by the first jolt, and on the second, the churches crashed down on the worshippers. Three jolts, over a period of fifteen minutes, and the city was flattened.
And then came fire. As cooks ran from their kitchens, they abandoned their cooking fires. Upturned and untended, the flames found plenty of fuel in the ruins, and swept through the city.
And then those on the waterfront watched as the river pulled back from the shore; it retreated to the ocean, exposing the river bottom, littered with the wrecks of ships. The ships that were at dock, and those in the shallows, toppled over into the mud. And then the sea came in with a vengeance. The earthquake, which was centered off shore, triggered a tsunami, which hit the city at the very spot in the Plaza of Commerce where I stood. Three times it pulled back; three times it slammed the city. The ships in the harbor were smashed against each other, and against the buildings on the shore, and with each wave the wall of debris pushed further into the burning ruins of the shattered city.
The quake probably measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, and was felt in Spain, France, Italy, and Switzerland. The tsunami affected a wider area, from North Africa to the British isles, all the way to islands in the Caribbean, on the other side of the Atlantic. When it was over, maybe 100,000 people were dead. In Lisbon itself, maybe 50,000, a quarter of the city.
The French philosopher Voltaire described the scene in his book, Candide:
they had scarcely set foot in the town when they felt the earth tremble under their feet; the sea rose in foaming masses in the port and smashed the ships which rode at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares ; the houses collapsed, the roofs were thrown upon the foundations, and the foundations were scattered; thirty thousand inhabitants of every age and both sexes were crushed under the ruins. … “What can be the sufficient reason for this phenomenon?” said Pangloss. “It is the last day!” cried Candide.
That was not the cry of Candide alone—it was the cry of the citizens of Lisbon, and of Bible students, Catholic and Protestant, looking on from around the world.
King George II of England appointed the following February 6 as a Day of Fasting and Penitence to reflect on the tragedy, and preachers and writers all drew the same conclusions—this was an obvious sign that must, in the words of one English writer, “awaken the world to serious and devout contemplations,” to “compare it with the prophecies relating to, and now fulfilling in this its last days.” He called it “one of the infallible omens,” a “signal from the King of heaven.” He continued:
“For my own part, I do really suppose, from the present condition of Europe … that this is surely nothing less than the outstretched arm of God prepared to break the earth in pieces with a rod of iron, and to cleanse and purify it from all pollutions and filthiness both of flesh and spirit, to make way for the glorious kingdom of the millennium; like the voice of the first angel to call all nations everywhere to repent while it is day, and make all pious men now look up, for their redemption draweth nigh; when he shall appear again with healing in his wings.”
John Wesley thought the earthquake punishment for the Inquisition, and published a book of sermons on it, as well as a hymn:
Woe! To the Men on Earth who dwell,
Nor dread th’Almighty Frown,
When God doth all his Wrath reveal,
And showers his Judgments down!
Sinners, expect those heaviest Showers,
To meet your God prepare,
When lo! The Seventh Angel pours
His Vial in the Air!
When we look back on those days, they seem so long ago. The skeptic today would think it quaint that an ancient earthquake could be seen as a sign of the Lord’s return. An earthquake in a distant land across a wide ocean, 258 years ago. There have been bigger earthquakes. There have been more devastating earthquakes. All those things that we have seen as fulfillments of prophecy: an earthquake in 1755, a dark day in New England in 1780, a meteor shower in 1833—how can they be relevant in 2014?
Our Adventist pioneers were not naïve in this, nor were they searching for obscure events to prove a point. They were reporting on events that shook the world. The world saw the Lisbon earthquake as a fulfillment of prophecy. The kings of the world saw it as a call to repent. And it drove others deeper into the Bible, to pay attention to the prophecies of the Bible, to see what might be the lessons for their day.
Oh, but today, we know better. Earthquakes are natural events. Disasters don’t have the same impact upon us because of our rational view of the world. We look for and find natural explanations. And we have a view of God in which he is distant. Unconcerned. Not involved. A God of love, who doesn’t judge, who doesn’t condemn, who doesn’t get angry, who doesn’t rain fire and brimstone. We’ve matured, we tell ourselves. And if someone makes a link between a natural disaster and God’s judgment, we laugh along with the world, and go back to our favorite reality show or football game or afternoon nap.
We’ve forgotten how to read the signs of the times.
That phrase makes me think of my grandmother. We called her “Ma,” because my uncle once said her small house, with its kids and grandkids, nephews and nieces, was as crazy as that of Ma and Pa Kettle. She used to have a lot of folksy sayings. “Oh dear, bread and beer, if I hadn’t been married I wouldn’t be here.” Or this, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning.” That expression, or a version of it, goes all the way back to Jesus’ day.
Jesus said in Matthew 16, verses 2 and 3, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”
Can you? Can you interpret the signs of the times? Do the things in nature and in the affairs of men send you to your Bible—and to your knees?
That was the significance of the Lisbon Earthquake—it drove skeptics and cynics and believers to their knees, and to their Bibles. It produced in them an awareness that time was short, and their days were numbered, and that the Bible was true, and that we must pay attention. And they started studying the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation as never before.
C. S. Lewis once said of pain, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We could say the same thing about the signs of the times. They, too, are a megaphone God uses to rouse a deaf world.
The world reacted with fear, back in 1755. They were unprepared. This was the age of reason, the age of science, the age of empire. Man seemed invincible—and this reminded him he was not.
And fear will be the world’s reaction to the destruction of the last day, as we read in Revelation 6:16, “And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
But the reaction of the saints is different. The saints are not surprised. The saints are not afraid. Isaiah 25:9, “It will be said on that day,‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
The world looks at disaster, and potential disaster, and wants a plan to avoid it. Can we jack up the city of New Orleans, so it doesn’t flood? Can we build the levies higher? Can we make better early warning devices for those in tornado alley? Can we slow down and reverse anthropogenic global warming? It is assumed we are in control, and we can control even the forces of nature, even earthquakes and fires and floods, if only we figure out the right engineering techniques, and bend nature to our will.
But the Christian looks at these as indicators of that great event that will be disaster to the world, but will be salvation to us. We do not fear, we rejoice, and we can say, “Bring them on!” As the prophet says in Isaiah 64, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!”
We see the signs, because our eyes are open.
Look around today. What do you see? Fear. Confusion. Division. We see American cities in flames, because of riots. American streets filled with protesters, calling for justice. American cops in armored vehicles with body armor and military weapons. American soldiers exhausted because of 13 years of wars and rumors of wars. We see an America that says those who keep the Law of God, who respect marriage’s Edenic foundation, must not be allowed to be in business. An America that, in fear, surrenders its freedoms and tortures its enemies. An America that shows itself wiling to embrace totalitarianism. An America ready to fulfill its prophetic role.
And yet, in the midst of the darkness, a light shines. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not.”
God’s greatest sign stands revealed in our midst this time each year. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” A sign the world sees, but doesn’t understand. God comes to us—in love. God comes to us—to be with us. God comes to us—to overturn the rich and the powerful and the corrupt. God comes to us—to be with the poor, the despised, the rejected. God comes to us to heal our illnesses, to forgive our sins, to restore our broken world, to establish his kingdom.
People were mad that Jesus didn’t do all these things when he came the first time. Jews say that proves he wasn’t the Messiah. But his coming in the manger was the sign, the promise, the assurance, that he will come in glory. His coming in the manger was the sign that that coming in glory is first and foremost to save his people. And so the question for us is, do we look forward to the promise of his return with the same joy we greet the celebration of his birth?
His promises are true. He is coming again. Signs are all around us. Signs through history have marked its advance. A world that was corrupt, that stripped the wealth of colonies around the world, a city that had martyred hundreds, that was arrogant and sinful with a veneer of piety—that city fell in an earthquake that shook the world, and had skeptics and preachers alike speaking of the Day of Judgment.
But we’ve gone back to sleep. What will it take to wake us up?