Let us pray first: Gracious Lord, we are thankful that you are always there for us – in good times and in bad, in happy times and sad. Let us rest – completely rest in Your will as the news keeps flying at us, and yet also be active in love as members of the Body of Christ, Your body on earth. In Your Name we pray, Amen.
I read an article a few days ago profiling the reaction of the little town to one of their own having the coronavirus. At that point, against the governor of that state’s recommendations, that church was holding a physical worship service though taking some precautions. One woman there told an interviewer: “I feel like the Lord is going to protect us. He’s not going to let anything happen to us in church.”
I understand my sister in Christ’s point of view, but, unfortunately that point of view is an extension of an idea that says that when you become a Christian only good things will happen to you. Yet in our New Testament lesson last week Paul praised suffering as a Christian, writing, “and suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope – and hope does not disappoint us, because” – and this is for each one of you! – “God’s love has already been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has already been given to us.”
So through the Holy Spirit, who gives us an unending supply of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (and, boy, do we need God’s self-control now more than ever!), we can, through suffering, gain endurance, shape our good character to help others, and have hope in these darkening times.
Going back to what the woman said, we worship a Lord who sent the Son of God to deal with suffering directly. At Lazarus’ death Christ did not fail to cry; when confronted with illness, He did not fail to be compassionate and heal, even in the midst of criticism; and on the cross Jesus did not fail to bleed for you and me.
I’m reminded of an old joke you may have heard. There was a fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help. Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.”
The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.” So the rowboat went on. Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.” To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.” So the motorboat went on. Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.” To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.”
So the helicopter reluctantly flew away. Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in You but You didn’t save me, You let me drown. I don’t understand why!” To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
With this worldwide Satanic illness impacting all of us, let’s remember: God is sending us, through social distancing and risk mitigation strategies, plus the leadership of people in government and in healthcare, God’s help.
God is here for us, as we work together. We know we are called to help others as best we can, though physically apart. Not only the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, but also those who are already prone to anxiety, need our supervision and care, because remember: while anxiety is a normal reaction to these unprecedented circumstances, the fear and spiraling worries caused by all the unknowns can be especially serious for people who already are struggling with mental illness. I’ve noticed this in my own counseling thus far.
So God is sending us ways to be physically safe, ways to keep from spreading the illness – spreading it less than we would normally do. But as we do so how is God helping to keep us safe mentally and spiritually? Where in God’s Word do I go for God’s earthly help?
Well, the first place I go is Philippians 4, especially verses four to fourteen. I will use the New Revised Standard Version of that text. The Apostle Paul writes to his Philippian brothers and sisters: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
Notice that Paul references “peace” several times. He recommends doing certain things so that “the God of peace will be with you.” He wants Christians – not just for themselves but in order to be God’s servants to others – to be energized and rested – both – in God’s peace when Paul writes, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will GUARD your hearts – guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We need our hearts and minds guarded in these times by God because God wants us to love the world at the guidance of His Spirit, in a focused, spiritually mature way.
How? Well, Paul minutely describes the tools – and each tool has a “spiritual” addition. Let me go down his list! “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, rejoice.” To rejoice is to feel joy again and again, to remind yourself of how much God has done, is doing and will do for you and others: remind, rejoice. Paul even repeats himself: “AGAIN I will say, rejoice,” and he also adds the spiritual word, “always.” The Spirit gives us that: that we can rejoice “always.”
Paul asks us to pray but in a certain way – lifted up already by reflecting on our blessings. He tells us, “With THANKSGIVING let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving is the special Spirit sauce – it’s praying not out of desperation but out of a sure and certain faith in the God who has blessed us and WILL bless us again.
Skipping the next paragraph for a minute…Paul, who is in jail and yet rejoicing always, tells his Philippian sisters and brothers, “I rejoice greatly” that they have sent him a gift, we know not what exactly. He later admits his need of it, but at this point he tells them, “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Paul is telling us today to spiritually prepare for being without some material things or material experiences, such as “going out” to a restaurant, or being physically with friends. He points out that secret Spirit sauce is knowing that he can do and handle – and we can do and handle – all situations…but only “through God who strengthens” us. We then can spiritually strengthen others. The mask that plops down in an airplane crisis to breathe through is the Spirit giving us spiritual maturity in this and other ways. Breathing through our spiritual mask, we are inspired and able to help others breathe through their Spirit masks in the coming days, weeks, and maybe months.
Let us pray: Gracious Lord, keep helping us ‘BEEF UP’ our spiritual strength, as we meet physical crises. As you said today in Philippians through Paul, help us to rejoice always and think on these blessings – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, excellent and worthy of praise, that You, the God of peace of mind and heart, will be with us.”
I would like to end with the 23rd Psalm. I will read each phrase, and you can repeat it: The Lord is my shepherd…I shall not want…God makes me lie down in green pastures…God leads me beside still waters…God restores my soul….God leads me in right paths…for God’s name’s sake….Even though I walk through the valley…of the shadow of death…I fear no evil…For You are with me…Your rod and Your staff…they comfort me…You prepare a table before me…in the presence of my enemies…You anoint my head with oil…and my cup overflows….Surely goodness and mercy…shall follow me…all the days of my life…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord…forever.
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