Exodus 17:1-7; Psalms 42:1-9; Matthew 11:2-7
I planned to continue our Sermon on the Mount series today and by Wednesday night had almost finished a sermon on the portion of the SOM which include the Lord’s Prayer.
God knows that we need prayer and a lot of it right now. However, by Thursday morning, it seemed that the earth had shifted under our feet and we found ourselves living in a different age than the one in which we began the week.
As I watched the early news that day, it seemed that something other than a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer was needed because we have entered the Age of the Coronavirus.
May it be short-lived and its consequences only minor. . . but experts are not predicting that will be the case. As you know, most predict serious consequences and some are saying that they will be long-term.
Truthfully, though, I guess the Age of Coronavirus arrived two months ago and I only noticed it this week.
Jesus tells us to pay attention to the signs of the times, doesn’t he? I had failed to do so, but woe be to us if we do not pay attention to them now, for the signs of the time ring out loudly around us.
The times are dangerous.
I checked some statistics in preparation for this sermon. The following are all from the Center for Diseases Control website.
At the end of January, the coronavirus was reported to be in China and 20 other countries. In those countries, a bit over 8000 cases had been reported. The death toll stood at 150.
As of yesterday (3/14/20), some six weeks later, the virus had spread to 130 countries and the total number of cases had climbed from that 8,000 to over 150,000. The death toll, meanwhile, increased from 150 to 5614.
All of these are increases along the lines of four or five hundred per cent, at least according to my rather shaky mathematical abilities.
And, it also was last week when the WHO declared the virus to be a pandemic.
Around mid-week, we started hearing of cancellations, closings and delays.
The NCAA tournament, the Masters, the NBA season, the rest of spring training and the first few weeks of the regular season for Major League baseball.
Some cruise lines shut down trips for at least one month. Others shut down for two months
Disneyland, Disneyworld, Six Flags, Sea World and other theme parks went dark.
School districts and universities cancelled classes and/or extended spring break.
And, it was Thursday morning when a case popped up in Austin. It was a man over 60 who had been transferred from a rural hospital somewhere in the Central Texas region. That hit home. It could have been one of us.
I also was surprised Thursday morning to open an email from our district superintendent in Kerrville saying that the decision to hold services would be left up to each church.
You are probably aware by now that many churches in the United States and across the world have cancelled services or are having online services only.
These include churches not just in so-called virus “hot spots” but also churches which are exercising precautions, not so much in worshipping God as in hosting a public gathering that might threaten the health of those in attendance as well as the health of those who might come into contact with someone who attended.
Please note that I am not asking that we cancel our services right now because of our small size. However, as we talked about last week, we need to exercise the recommended social distancing and hygienic precautions.
In addition, many churches that are still holding services have suspended celebrating the Lord’s Supper or have begun using prepackaged communion sets.
Consistent with this, I have ordered 250 prepackaged sets for us. However, these will not ship until Tuesday at the earliest. Hopefully, they will arrive in time for the first Sunday of April. If not, we will need to make other plans that may include suspension of the Lord’s Supper.
So that is a quick summary of coronavirus news and how the ground shifted under us this past week.
However, I also did an internet search to see how other churches, theologians and pastors regarded the coronavirus. I looked at the websites of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian church, Episcopal church, Church of Scotland, United Church of Christ as welll as that of others.
They all excelled in listing the hygienic and social contact considerations and other related matters, but at his point, I was more interested in theological and spiritual issues.
I had two main questions rolling around in my mind.
The first was, “Where is God in this?” I wanted to find out how our Christian brothers and sisters saw God moving in these times.
I had a tentative answer in mind. That is why these verses from Exodus were read today.
That question, “Where is God?” was stated a little bit differently in those verses. You might remember in verse 7, the question was stated, “Is the Lord still with us or not?” However stated, the thoughts come from essentially the same point of view: where is God in hard times such as these?
You might remember the background to these verses. God had delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them across the Red Sea.
That put them in the desert portion of what today we call the Sinai peninsula. In that desert, there are two main seasons. There is the dry season and the very dry season. Surprisingly, there are also times of the year when it can get quite cold at night but, not so surprisingly, there also are times when it can get very hot during the day.
We don’t know the time of year it was, but we do know in these verses that the Israelites were thirsty.
That is not surprising. According to Exodus, there were several hundred thousand of them, each needing water. And they had no water and no immediate prospects of finding any.
Even in good conditions, a human can only live about four days without hydration. If the temperatures are hot, that period might shrink to one or two days at most.
The Israelites might have been in life-or-death situation. Whether or not that is true, we do that a wail went up from them to Moses, “Are you trying to kill us?”
And, in my words, “Where is God?”
Or, as the verses say, “Is the Lord with us?”
The quick answer is that God was with them. In fact, God was going to lead them to water and quench their thirst.
Just so, I think God is with us now, that God is with all people affected in the outbreak of this evil and that God will see us through these times.
My second question was, “What, then, are we to do?”
This question came from a number of places in the Bible that describe what God or God-in-Jesus did in response to evil and human suffering, as well as our readings from the Sermon on the Mount and hundreds of other verses that describe how God’s people are to live.
You might recall talking in past weeks that we are called to act like Jesus, who also calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
One instance that tells of God’s actions in hard times is described in Isaiah 42 as well as the verses surrounding that entire chapter.
Those chapters all combine to tell us about a great Second Exodus, one of God leading the Hebrews out of exile in Babylon and bringing them back to the Promised Land.
In these particular verses, God talks of one who will be sent in the future to take on human suffering and deliver divine justice.
God spoke and said in part,
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
His servant, God said, would not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick but would faithfully bring forth justice.
And make no mistake, this virus is evil and divine justice needs to address it.
That points to my tentative answer for what we are called to do. Remember, the my tentative answer to the first question was God is with us. My tentative answer to this second questions is that God is in the healing, God is working against virus to bring forth life. And, we are called to join our Creator in that great work.
Part of my tentative answer also comes Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:2-7.
John the Baptist has been imprisoned. He was wondering who Jesus was. Was he the One whom God promised to send? Was this man from Nazareth the Messiah?
So, John sent some of his disciples to find Jesus and ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
In response, Jesus described his work on earth,
“‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.'”
Again, God is where the and wherever healing is occurring or relief to be found.
A corollary to that is that we are to join God in that great battle with this virus.
But still, I wanted to know what others were thinking. So I checked out some websites. Not surprisingly, there are a variety of reactions to the coronavirus within the world of Christendom.
I first went to the website of John Piper. He is a noted evangelical preacher, author and thinker.
He gave what seemed to me to be a rather classical explanation of how some people understand God to be working in these situations.
In short, he said that God could have stopped this, but in God’s providence and wisdom, God did not stop this. He concluded that whatever else we might say about this, it is a time to repent and turn back to God. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-do-we-make-sense-of-the-coronavirus
This seems to me to be incomplete, but there you have it.
I moved on an quickly found the preacher seemed to get the most publicity for his views about the coronavirus. I will not mention his name. However, he claimed the virus is God’s angel of death sent to destroy LGBTQs and other sinners. Well, may his kind decrease and decrease quickly. https://www.advocate.com/religion/2020/1/29/god-sent-coronavirus-destroy-lgbtq-people-says-trump-okd-preacher
One more prevalent opinion was given on a few different sites. There were some differences on what God was up to but these sites agreed that this is a chance to call non-believers to belief, in other words, a chance to evangelize. https://www.christianpost.com/voices/the-coronavirus-and-evangelism.html
And then there were those who said that the virus is part of the trials and tribulations of the end times. Their point was that the apocalypse is near. https://www.thetrumpet.com/21859-the-wuhan-coronavirus-and-the-bibles-prophesied-disease-pandemics
By my reading, all of these theories seem to tell us that God caused the coronavirus for a particular reason. God had a plan in mind, they might say.
That might be true. Maybe.
I look to other places in the Bible, though, that tell me evil happens and that God is:
with those who hurt and suffer,
with those who are lonely and despairing,
with those who are ill and disabled,
with those who sore and beaten down,
with those who need freedom and liberation.
Just so, God was with the Hebrews in the wilderness.
God told Moses to go ahead and he would be there at Mt. Horeb and that there would be water in the rocks.
In other words, God was there to give drink to the thirsty.
Later, when John wanted to know if he was a Messiah, Jesus didn’t say, “Yes, and I have come to judge all and punish the guilty.”
Instead, in essence, he said, “I am he whom God has sent. I am the one who will not break a bruised reed. I am the one who will not quench a dimly burning wick. I have come to be with those who suffer. I have come to hold their hand; to heal their ills; to lift their oppressions; to grant them new life; and, even to raise the dead.
So, friends, I don’t think God sent the coronavirus to achieve a particular purpose or carry out some kind of plan. Instead, disease seems to be part of the evil of nature that sometimes breaks out.
I do think, however that we see God-in-Jesus at work:
wherever someone is ill or dying;
wherever someone is searching for a cure;
wherever someone is seeking to develop a test to detect the illness;
wherever a healthcare worker lifts a spoon to feed someone who is ill;
wherever a pastor, friend or family member speaks a good word to someone fearful or someone afflicted; or
wherever a local or national official speaks to bring truth, calm and direction.
I believe that Jesus is doing what he has always done, seeking to:
heal the afflicted;
lift people’s burdens;
soothe their fears;
calm their souls;
give them direction in life; and
offer them life and even life abundant.
So, as we go forth today,
let us go forth to live and serve as did our Lord,
let us forth to seek to bring forth life,
let us go forth to love to our neighbor,
to bring hope there is despair, and
kindness where there is sorrow.
We want for our Lord to live through us.
So, my answers to those issues of where God might be and what God might be doing are: that God is with us and seeking to bring about good.
And, we need to join God in seeking that good.
But, let us remember something two other things, as well.
I came across article this week about Martin Luther, who lived during a recurrence of the Black Plague. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/january-web-only/martin-luther-coronavirus-wuhan-chinese-new-year-christians.html
It told of how Luther was asked how Christians should respond and that he wrote a relatively long response to the question. It then described his response.
First, Luther challenged Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46).
We have covered that.
Second, Luther also stressed that Christians needed to take care of themselves.
So, take this seriously. It is a killer. Take care of yourselves.
Luther made it clear that God gives humans a tendency toward self-protection and trusts that they will take care of their bodies (Eph. 5:29; 1 Cor. 12:21–26).
“All of us,” he wrote, “have the responsibility of warding off this poison to the best of our ability because God has commanded us to care for the body.”
He also defended public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available.
Each of us has ample information and amply opportunity to take care of ourselves and not take this virus lightly.
We do need to remember, though, that even as we take care of ourselves, there are times we can help others and be useful to each other, at least in some small way.
Finally, we can also remember from our study on prayer that we are called to pray.
So, let us pray,
pray for an end to the virus,
pray for a vaccine to arrive,
pray for test kits,
pray for health to be widespread and robust,
pray for grace to prevail,
pray for those who have died,
pray for those who love them,
pray for those who are ill,
pray for the caregivers,
pray for local, state and national officials trying to cope with this virus,
and pray to in all things to be the salt of the earth and a light to the world,
always trusting in God and God’s good will toward humankind.