BLOG – March 31, 2020
Matthew 10:28-31 (NRSV)
28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
These are Jesus’ words. Jesus does not want his followers to be naïve about the powers of destruction that exist in this world. War, famines, violence, viruses, diseases, events can kill people – and that is serious business. But those things cannot kill the soul. The worst that these things can do is limited. There is someone who is greater Jesus says, and that One can destroy both the soul and the body. In other words, this other One is One to be truly afraid of – and that is God. God alone holds the keys to the life to come.
Jesus makes clear that God our heavenly Father loves us and cares for us. There are things in this world that can take our lives, but none of them can threaten us with destruction in the life to come. God alone, the one who knows the number of hairs on our head, holds us fast for eternity. The fear we have is the fear that causes awe, the fear that exists in the presence of something so powerful and beautiful that we feel weak in the knees.
Paul writes in I Corinthians 15, the great resurrection chapter, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Cor. 15:19) Our hope rests in the life to come, a life that is held for us by a God of life who holds us fast.
This is not an invitation to irresponsible action. This is not permission to ignore the instructions of medical personnel and government officials. Rather it is an assurance that COVID-19 while capable of causing great harm and death in this life cannot destroy us for the life to come. For God’s promise of the life to come is secure and certain.
Throughout human history Christians have been at the forefront of providing medical care to the dying even in the midst of plagues. They did this because they recognized the value of preserving lives, of helping people flourish in this life, of providing comfort to people in this life. They did that because this life is good and a gift from God. At the same time, these agents of Christian compassion, held their own lives loosely for they knew that God held their futures in the life to come absolutely secure. There was no contradiction between these two: caring for people’s physical needs in the present, while living fearless lives because of God’s holding their live secure for the future.
We live knowing the power of COVID-19. But we are not afraid. Nothing that COVID-19 can do to us “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39) The one who holds us fast loves us beyond measure and will bring us safely to the life to come.
God of power and might, we rejoice that nothing can snatch us from your hand. We rest secure in the knowledge that you will not let go us, bringing us safely to your eternal home. Teach us to live now in the light of that promise that we may be signs of hope in the midst of this present moment. These things we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
BLOG – March 30, 2020
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18 as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
The earlier chapters in Zephaniah proclaim a message of coming disaster, but the book ends with the promise of restoration. Even as the people of Israel were warned to be ready for the disastrous hard times that were coming, they were being told that the hard times were not the final word. The day was coming when God would turn “away your enemies.” A day was coming when the people would rejoice and exult with all their heart.
(A sidebar: When we use the word, enemy, we tend to think of human enemies who threaten us with violence. But maybe our definition of enemies should include all those things which limit human flourishing. This fits with what Paul writes in I Cor. 15:26 – “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In that understanding COVID-19 would be an enemy.)
On the day when the disaster was over, on the day when the feasting began, the people of Israel are told: “Do not fear, do not let your hands grow weak.” The invitation to the people of Israel is two-fold. First, they were to enter fully into the celebration and the feasting, to not hold back from the joy and celebration. They were to not let your hands hang at your sides, rather they were to be clapping God’s victory, to have their arms raised in triumph over what God has done. Second, they were not to let what had happened cause them to hold back from engaging in life in the future. Having seen what could happen, having seen the disaster, they were not to allow fear of future disaster prevent them from fully engaging in life.
We who live in North America have become so accustomed to the abundance that is always before us, that we are always feasting. We are not familiar with the famine and feasting flow of life. A flow of life that those who came before us knew very well, and which many of our human sisters and brothers around the world know as being the flow of their lives. The moment we are in feels like famine: social isolation, needing to make do with what we have, dealing with the frustration of being limited, and so on. The promise is there is a day coming when there will be feasting. COVID-19 will have been defeated. When that day comes, we are invited to enter in with joy and excitement – to not let our arms hang down, to not fear what might happen next. We are invited to fully engage in the feasting that will come, even as we are fully engaged in the famine which is now here.
The promise of the feasting to come gives us the hope to live through the present moment of famine and limitation. The hope will one day find fulfillment as we feast with joy and celebration, feasting without fear, feasting with arms held high.
God of famine and feasting, you are with us in the ebb and flow of life. May we know your presence with us now so that we may live in hope. Living in the hope of the joy that is come, the joy of feasting again from the bounty which you provide. Rejoicing with arms lifted high in celebration of your grace, mercy and victory. These things we pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
BLOG – March 29, 2020
Lamentations 3:55-57 (NRSV)
55 I called on your name, O Lord,
from the depths of the pit;
56 you heard my plea, “Do not close your ear
to my cry for help, but give me relief!”
57 You came near when I called on you;
you said, “Do not fear!”
This chapter of Lamentations is 22 triplets of verses (66 verses in all) – each of the triplets starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet (there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet). These three verses each begins with the letter Qof.
“From the depths of the pit.” The previous verse (vs. 54) reads: “Water closed over my head; I said, “I am lost.”” The writer thought they were drowning. “The depths of the pit” then is the pit of threatened death, maybe the writer was feeling like they were living in the pit of hell. The situation was bleak, hopelessness ruled the day. From that place of hopelessness, at the end of their rope, the author called for help.
How often is that the case with us? When we have tried everything else, when hell seems about to invade our lives, we call on the name of the Lord. We join the author in asking, “Give me relief.” Rescue me, save me. O, how we want that rescue, that salvation, and we want it now. “Get me out of this now,” is our cry. God hears the cry of the author. God comes near and says, “Do not fear!”
We are stunned by this answer, it is not what we expect. We feel like shouting: “Wait! That is the message?!? There is nothing more than “Do not fear!”?” Where is the rescue operation? Where is the stopping of COVID-19? Where is the return of everything to normal? How can this be an answer?
Let’s back up for a moment. As we saw, the author felt they were about to be destroyed; death and destruction were imminent. As suggested earlier the pit is the pit of hell, of despair, of destruction. And to that place of hell, that place of death and despair – God came near (vs. 57).
God came near to death and hell, came near to destruction and despair, God came near in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. In the agonizing cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus has come into the pit of despair. Jesus has come near all who feel broken and destroyed. Jesus has come near all who feel like they are threatened by the pit of hell. Jesus – the Jesus who experienced the cross – says to all who feel they are in the pit – “Do not fear! I am with you, and I have walked this road before.”
God may not yank us out of the pit – the sources of despair and discouragement may still be present – but Jesus who knows what it is to walk through the pit of hell and come out the other side – and Jesus Christ has said – “Do not fear.” And that changes everything. Jesus who has experienced the pit, and all that the pit can throw at a person, and Jesus who came through the pit to the other side, that is the Jesus who is with us through COVID-19 and any other things that threaten us and worry us.
God of all comfort, your Son Jesus Christ went down into the pit so that he might be near those who are also in the pit. We rejoice that you have heard our cry that Jesus has come to be with us and all those in the pit of despair, confusion, and threat. Teach us to live into the hope you offer so that we may walk through the pit without fear. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
BLOG March 28, 2020
Esther 4:9-17 (NRSV)
9 Hathach went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. 10 Then Esther spoke to Hathach and gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, 11 “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 12 When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, 13 Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. 14 For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 15 Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, 16 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 17 Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.
While working on yesterday’s piece – I was reminded of this passage. While not explicitly saying “Do not be afraid”, that message is implied.
We pick up a story part way through. A plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire was afoot. Esther was a Jewish woman married to the King of Persia; she was the Queen. Mordecai, Esther’s adoptive father, sent news of the plot to the Queen, asking her to intervene with the king to stop the plot. Esther was afraid to go see the king, pointing to the law stating no one could go into the king’s presence unless the king had invited them.
Mordecai was blunt, speaking to Esther not as the Queen that she was, but as his adopted daughter, which she also was. He said, “If you don’t act God will find another way to save his people.” But he added the great line, “Maybe it was for such a time as this that you came to royal dignity.” Moved by this call, Esther pledged to go to the king after three days of prayer and fasting.
Now, since we have the book of Esther, we can figure out that things go well for Esther when she went to see the king. The plot was stopped, the people of Israel survived.
But is there more here for us than just a cool story. We too have been placed at a time when the risks feel high, the challenges great, and we would like to not be involved. We are not called to speak to angry kings and expose murderous plots. However, might it be that we have been placed where we are, for such a time as this? As grandparents, do we have a chance to say something to grandchildren, to offer hope in the face of their anxiety, at such a time as this? As parents who have children with us 24 hours a day, do we have a chance to model care and compassion in the midst of stress, recognizing it is for such a time as this that we are parents? As children of our parents, do we have the opportunity to find new way to be helpful to our parents, at such a time as this, as they navigate challenging times?
And on and on it goes – for such a time as this we have been placed where we are, to live with hope and courage, resting in the God who has put us where we are.
God of glory and honour, in you we live and move and have our being, and you have placed in this time and in the places where we are, for such a time as this. Give us the courage to be and to do, to speak and to live into those things that you are calling us to at such a time as this. These things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
BLOG – March 27, 2020 (NRSV)
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
7 But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
The Bible passage is part of the story of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet of God. The opening lines are beautiful – God says “Before I formed in the womb, I knew you.” Before there was a ‘you’ or a ‘me’, God knew us. Jeremiah was a youth when the call came to be a prophet. He said “I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” In other words, “I am not qualified, I am not trained, I am not… (fill in the blank) to be a prophet.” But God would have none of that argument. God says, “You will go where I send you, you will speak what I tell you to say.” Those words sound demanding, but they come with the promise – “I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
God would be with Jeremiah even though God would take Jeremiah into places that would be dangerous. Why else would God say that he was going to “deliver” Jeremiah? There would be threats – most likely from people, but other specific threats as well, that arose because Jeremiah would go where God sent him and would speak what God told him to say.
In the midst of COVID-19 we easily say, “I don’t want to be here.” A friend commented on the pressure leaders are under – mayors, premiers, cabinet ministers, the prime minister. My friend went on to say “Who wants the pressure of dealing with this? No one signed up to lead in a crisis like this.”
None of us signed up to be living through this crisis, but this is the moment we are living in. We might say, “I don’t know how to speak, I don’t know how to act.” We all can pull out reasons why we are not qualified for this moment – Too young…too old…too middle aged; Not trained; Not… (fill in the blank). But this is the moment we have been sent to by God who knew us before we were born. In whatever place we are, we are God’s people sent to that particular place by God.
We have been sent to the place we are by God who promises to be with us. We may be called to be God’s people where we are, by living in hope rather than fear, by being agents of the peace which passes understanding. We may be called to connect with others, by phone, by e-mail, by other technology, sharing a word of encouragement, being a listening ear of care. We may be called to act with care and compassion towards others, providing physical support like delivering food, offering transportation, being the arms and feet of Jesus. We may be called to speak on behalf of others who cannot speak, making sure their needs are known and addressed. We may be called to pray, praying for the world, for those who are called to lead, for those on the front lines of this crisis, for those who are anxious. We have been placed where we are by God who says, “Do not be afraid…I am with you.” So, with courage we take up our calling to be God’s people where we are.
O God, you know us, you knew us before we were. You have placed us where we are in this moment. Give us the courage to take up our calling where you have placed us, as we live in the assurance that You are with us. We are confident You will provide us with the words and strength, resources and insight we need to be Your people in the places where you have sent us. Amen.
BLOG – March 26, 2020
Isaiah 43:1-7 (NRSV)
43 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
As I was sitting down to write this, I thought, “This is the ninth day in a row of reflecting on Biblical passages that say “Do not be afraid” or “Do not fear”.” The thought continued, “I am sure people are bored with being told “Do not fear.”” Then two other thoughts came to mind. First, it is said that people cannot be told, “I love you”, too many times. Maybe in the present context we cannot hear, “Do not be afraid”, too many times. Second, this text is breath-taking in offering us an unassailable reason to not be afraid. To give the punchline away, the fact that God loves us gives us confidence to live without fear.
The parallels between vs. 1 and 7 are evident. In vs. 1, God created and formed the people God has redeemed and God has called them by name. God knows our names, and says to us, “You are mine.” In vs. 7 God created, formed and made the people who are called by God’s name. Not only does God know our name, He gives us His name making us part of his family “my daughters” and “my sons” (vs. 6). Between these bookends is astounding news: God declares that those who are called by his name are “precious” in God’s sight and God says, “I love you.”
That love is demonstrated in two ways. Flood and fire will not overwhelm those called by God’s name. Neither the flood of health challenges posed by COVID-19 nor the fire of economic difficulties caused by responses to COVID-19 will overwhelm or consume us. The threats are real, the dangers significant. Raging rivers and wild fires are serious business – but we do not fear because we are God’s. We are loved by God.
God’s love is shown, secondly, by God gathering his people from every place to which they have been scattered by the threats and dangers, from north and south, from east and west, God will redeem them, ransom them and bring them safely home. The Good Shepherd who finds the lost sheep and brings them home is an image that plays here. COVID-19 has scattered us, causing us to live isolated from one another. COVID-19 has caused us to heighten the barriers between nations as borders have been hardened. God will bring all those called by his name, from every place where they may be, God will bring us home. We, the beloved of God will be brought home. Therefore, we will not be afraid.
Great God of glory, by your creative power you made us, shaping us in our mother’s womb, forming us with skills and gifts and personality. We rejoice that you know our name. We praise you, O God, that you have given us your name, that as your daughters and sons, as your children, we might live without fear knowing that we are loved by You. We rejoice that the flood and fire of COVID-19 cannot separate us from Your love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
BLOG March 25, 2020
Isaiah 41:1, 8-14
41 Listen to me in silence, O coastlands;
let the peoples renew their strength;
let them approach, then let them speak;
let us together draw near for judgment.
8 “But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
you descendants of Abraham my friend,
9 I took you from the ends of the earth,
from its farthest corners I called you.
I said, ‘You are my servant’;
I have chosen you and have not rejected you.
10 So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
11 “All who rage against you
will surely be ashamed and disgraced;
those who oppose you
will be as nothing and perish.
12 Though you search for your enemies,
you will not find them.
Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
13 For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you.
14 Do not [fear] be afraid, you worm Jacob,
little Israel, do not fear,
for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
The directive here in Ontario that non-essential businesses must close as of midnight last night is weighty. The last week has been draining physically and emotionally. It has been exhausting as we have been deluged with information and directives and opinion and other people’s anxiety. And the fear factor rises.
The people of Israel were exhausted. They had no strength. The fear factor rose as around them were any number of potential threats. They felt little and weak. They felt unimportant and insignificant. In their discouragement they felt like worms (vs. 14). (Sidebar: God is simply using their own vocabulary, the people described themselves as “worms” because of how weak they felt.)
God says, “You may feel that way on your own, but I am with you.” God begins with a statement of fact, “I have chosen you.” God chose us, bringing us into his kingdom. We may say, “Yes, in the past God chose us, but what about now?” God says, “Yes, I chose you, and I have not changed my mind. I have not rejected you.” Then comes the first “Do not fear”, because God is with us. We are not to be discouraged for God will strengthen us and help us, holding out his hand to us.
God says, “You may feel the threats of COVID-19, of job loss, of health threat, of economic peril – those things that wage a war against you, those things that rage against humanity, all of that will come to nothing in the end.” They will be so turned to nothing that they can not be found. How is this possible? Because God will take us by the hand and will say to us, “I will help you.” And here comes the second “Do not fear.” When we are too tired to even reach out to put our hand in God’s hand, God takes hold of our hand.
And just in case we missed it, a third time the Hebrew says “Do not fear.” Do not fear, O human beings who feel like worms. Do not fear, little ones, who are discouraged. Do not fear, because “I myself with help you”, says the Redeemer. Notice the “I myself” – just in case we did not know who to trust., God Himself will help us.
God, who helps us, remind us that you have chosen us, and that you hold us by the hand. Teach us to not fear, but instead may we rest in the assurance of your presence, so that hope may overcome discouragement, and we will be strengthened by the promise of your help now and forever. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
March 24, 2020
6 A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
The well-known Isaiah 40:1-11 contains messages proclaimed by three different voices. The text above is the instructions to and words of the second and third voices.
A herald is told in vs. 6 to do their job and cry out a message. But what message? It is a sombre message, “All people are like grass.” How true that is. Little need to debate that statement in the moment we are presently in as communities, a nation, the world. Just in case we didn’t get it – comes vs. 7 “Surely the people are grass.” Human beings are limited. Human beings are fragile. Human beings are mortal. Human beings pass away.
At the end of this herald’s sombre message comes unexpected hope: “the word of our God endures forever.” Not everything is grass, not everything withers away – God’s word will be accomplished. But word does God have?
That word is for the next herald to proclaim. (A sidebar: this herald is a woman. The “you” used here in the original Hebrew is feminine singular.) She is to climb to the highest point she can find and from that vantage point proclaim the coming hope. God is coming as victor. Hear the words “sovereign”, “comes with power”, “mighty arm”, “reward…recompense” – these are the words of triumphant warriors who have come through the tough times of battle and have succeeded. These are the words of victory. The herald proclaims, as loudly as she can, the coming victory of God. She is told to lift up her voice without fear (vs. 9). What might she be afraid of? Afraid that the victory she is to proclaim is not yet won and might not happen. Afraid that what she is so confident in might not take place. And God says – “do not be afraid, my kingdom is coming, that is certain.” The herald with full confidence can proclaim her message of the victor’s arrival.
Vs. 11 brings a surprising twist. The victor, the one with the mighty arm, is not in fact a warrior, but is instead a shepherd. Caring for the sheep, carrying the lambs, gently leading. The gentle victor, the powerful one who cares, the mighty arm that carries the little ones. This is the victor who is coming – of that we can be sure. The victor who will wipe every tear from every eye.
Sovereign God, your Word will last forever, accomplishing those things which you set out for it to do. We, human beings, are but grass. You are the triumphant victor whose mighty arm will win the victory over sin and death and destruction. In confident praise we celebrate your coming as the gentle victor, the mighty shepherd. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
March 23, 2020
Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy….
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the dwarves sheltered from the worst of the battle in a dark, dank stable huddled around a small charcoal fire to keep themselves warm. They closed their eyes tight so they would not see the horror occurring around them. When the battle ends, the walls of the stable are gone, and the sun comes out, peace begins to reign, flowers bloom – you get the picture. The dwarves, however, with their eyes tightly closed cannot see what is happening. They do not believe the bird’s song they hear to be real. Even though friends and other creatures tell them the war is over and Aslan has won, the dwarves will not believe. They remain huddled, eyes closed, refusing to see that the world has changed.
Isaiah 35 opens with the desert blooming; the glory of the Lord has been revealed. The chapter ends with the exiles returning to the land, and sorrow and sighing being gone forever. The reign of God has come. Buried in the middle of this extraordinary joy is verse 4: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong and do not fear.”” It seems out-of-place in the middle of the restoration of the people and the desert blooming.
(A sidebar: Another line in vs. 4: “He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense” feels jarringly out of place from the hope around it. The recompense is the justice/judgment that will be experienced by those peoples and nations who harmed Israel and held them captive. Part of the return from exile includes the oppressors being held accountable by God.)
Fear can become so embedded in our lives that when restoration occurs, when hope becomes reality, it seems too good to be true and we reject the renewal. We doubt that it is real. There will be a time after COVID-19, just as there was a time after the Black Death, just as there was a time after the Spanish Flu, just as there was a time after SARS. COVID-19 will not win. At some point it will be in the rear-view mirror, behind us. When that day comes, we are told “do not fear.” Put fear behind us. When that day comes, we are to sing (even those of us who can’t sing). When that day comes, we are to rejoice with all the earth. Fear cannot hold us, now or in the future. Fear cannot steal the joy of the coming redemption. Joy and gladness must be free to flow down in response to the salvation that is coming.
O Lord, you are our God, and you will bring your kingdom into full bloom in our world. We anticipate the day when the lame will walk, the deaf will hear, those who cannot sing will sing, and all of creation will see your salvation. Grow enough hope in us that we will be ready to celebrate the arrival of your kingdom. Give us enough faith to live free of fear’s grip of despair. With joy and expectation, we pray, “Your kingdom come.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
March 22, 2020
11 For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. 13 But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.
Some historical background will help. Early in Isaiah’s ministry, the northern 10 tribes of Israel and the people of Aram wanted to be free from Assyria’s control, they were planning rebellion. Israel and Aram tried to convince Judah (the southern 2 tribes where Isaiah lived) to join them in the rebellion. Not surprisingly rumours circulated through Judah. “Conspiracy there, conspiracy here, have you heard the latest intrigue”, was the conversation of the day.
The king of Judah was under pressure to decide was he joining the rebellion or not. That decision would be made without knowing if the rebellion would succeed or fail because the king did not know the future. The same pressure confronted Isaiah and the rest of the people of Judah. Friends and neighbours demanded to know: “Which side are you on – join the rebellion, or do not join the rebellion?”
In this context God spoke to Isaiah, spoke a strong, compelling word. Isaiah was called to walk a different path than the people around him, he was to distance himself from their attitude and focus. Isaiah was to not pay attention to the conversations about conspiracy, to not pay caught up in the fears about what would happen if the king did or did not follow a particular path. Isaiah was to be focussed on God, the Lord of hosts. As Proverbs tell us “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Placing God first, living with awe and reverence towards God, would put the conspiracy and fears others were talking about in their proper place.
The conspiracies and fears gaining traction in people’s conversation these days are not about war and rebellion, but fear and conspiracy talk is common. We, like Isaiah, are invited to not engage in conspiracy conversations and to not fear what those around us might fear. We are invited to raise our sights beyond COVID-19, which will some day be no more. We are invited to be humble enough to know we do not know the future, while we live with the hope that the future is secure in God’s hands. The future does not lie in the hands of COVID-19. We are invited to focus our attention on the Holy God, the Lord of Hosts, who in the past brought his people through danger and disaster. We are to lift up our hearts in the knowledge that the God of the universe will not abandon the world and the people He has made. We feel the hand of God upon us calling us to live in awe and reverence before God who says to us “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Lord God of hosts, our world is full of rumours and fears, we confess we are easily distracted by conspiracy and dread. Draw our attention to yourself and the promises you have made to us to be with us, never leaving us or forsaking us. Remind us of those times when you have brought your people, including us, through the dark valleys into the joy of your bounty. Cause us to live in awe and wonder of You, overwhelmed by your majesty and power. These things we pray in the name of Jesus, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. Amen.
March 21, 2020
Proverbs 3:25-26 (NASB)
The words inside the square brackets are other possible translations of the original Hebrew words.
25 Do not be afraid of sudden fear [panic]
Nor of the storm of the wicked when it comes;
26 For the Lord will be your confidence [at your side]
And will keep your foot from being caught.
Panic is evident everywhere these days. Panic is evident in how people are shopping and the bare store shelves where paper products, or canned vegetables, or yeast used to be. Panic is evident in the shrill voices that dominate so many conversations these days. Panic is evident in the ways we tell each other stories about what is happening. Panic gets in the way of careful thought. Panic turns us into angry, self-seeking, protective-of-our-stuff people. Panic feeds more panic and the spiral deepens.
In the previous paragraph I used the word “panic” eight times – I know I felt my blood pressure rise, my anxiety increase, just writing the paragraph.
The proverb tells us to not be afraid when sudden panic comes at us. Fear can rise like a sudden storm on a lake, and those storms are dangerous for they catch us off guard, when we are vulnerable. I am replacing “of the wicked” in the second line with “threatening destruction” – to make it “Do not be afraid…of the storm threatening destruction.” The suddenness, the unexpectedness of such storms reminds us to be ready and vigilant, to seek a place of stability so that we can ride out the sudden waves of panic and fear that are going to come at us in this moment in the world’s history.
To make that point again, we will not be able to prevent moments of fear and panic sweeping towards us. However, we can be ready for them, so that we are not swept along in the panic.
The proverb is clear about where the ability to withstand the waves of sudden panic comes from – “the Lord will be at your side – the Lord is our confidence.” In the face of the fear so evident around us, we can remain confident for we know that God is by our side.
The promise is, with God by our side our foot will not get caught. If your foot is caught in something you cannot move, you cannot avoid getting hit by the storm. With God by our side we are free to step out of the way of the wave, to move and find shelter in storm. Since we are not caught, we can live into the words of the hymn, “O Jesus is a Rock in a weary land, A shelter in the time of storm.” With confidence, for God is by our side, we can face the storms of panic without being afraid.
In you alone, O Lord, do we have confidence. You alone are able to keep us stable in the storms of panic that come sweeping towards us in this time. We thank you for the calm you bring to our lives, use us as signs of your calm. Do this so that hope and peace might grow to overcome the panic that so many people feel. These things we pray in the name of Jesus, our shelter in the time of storm. Amen.
March 20, 2020
I Chronicles 28:11-21
11 Then David gave his son Solomon the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; 12 and the plan of all that he had in mind: for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts; 13 for the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, and all the work of the service in the house of the Lord; for all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord, 14 the weight of gold for all golden vessels for each service, the weight of silver vessels for each service, 15 the weight of the golden lampstands and their lamps, the weight of gold for each lampstand and its lamps, the weight of silver for a lampstand and its lamps, according to the use of each in the service, 16 the weight of gold for each table for the rows of bread, the silver for the silver tables, 17 and pure gold for the forks, the basins, and the cups; for the golden bowls and the weight of each; for the silver bowls and the weight of each; 18 for the altar of incense made of refined gold, and its weight; also his plan for the golden chariot of the cherubim that spread their wings and covered the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
19 “All this, in writing at the Lord’s direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works.”
20 David said further to his son Solomon, “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished. 21 Here are the divisions of the priests and the Levites for all the service of the house of God; and with you in all the work will be every volunteer who has skill for any kind of service; also the officers and all the people will be wholly at your command.”
This detailed and obscure passage is about the building of the temple, with David, the architect, telling his son, Solomon, how to do that. Reading vs. 11-18, one feels the weight of the challenge, details to keep track of, people to organize and manage. Just reading it is tiring, let alone being in Solomon’s shoes trying to accomplish that work.
It would be one thing if Solomon were the planner who would then implement the plan. But this is not the case, Solomon is not the one who is making the plan – he is carrying out what David had designed. Human beings don’t do well with being told what to do, we rebel against others who seek to control our lives.
Living in the present times feels overwhelming. The details and patterns are new and strange. We did not make these rules and patterns, they have been imposed on us. The stress is evident all around us, from hoarding toilet paper to rants on Facebook to the anxiety evident in the stories people tell me.
David knew that what he was asking was overwhelming. He says to Solomon, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God is with you.” The word “dismayed” caught me – I found this definition written in dictionary fashion: “to deprive of that strength or firmness of mind which constitutes courage; to discourage; to dishearten.” That is what we are seeing all around us, people who are disheartened, people who are discouraged, people who have lost courage. In the midst of being overwhelmed we join with Solomon in hearing the challenge and the promise: “Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God is with you.”
O God, who sent your Son, Emmanuel, to be with us, we confess that we are discouraged and disheartened. We are dismayed. In this overwhelming time give us courage built on the promise of your presence with us. Move Your Spirit in us to hearten us to live with strength and courage. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord, God with us. Amen.
March 19, 2020
Deuteronomy 31:1, 2a, 6-8
When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, 2 he said to them:… 6 ”Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”
7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
The people of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land. When they did everything would change. No longer would they be nomads becoming a settled people. No longer living in tents, instead living in houses. They would go from having no land to manage from year to year to having land that had to be cultivated and cared for. These were fundamental changes. In addition, they faced the challenge of enemies in the land seeking to disrupt the people of Israel from settling in the land.
Moses said to the people on the edge of this dramatic change: “Be strong and bold; have no fear.” Why was Moses able to say that – because God was with the people and God would not fail them nor forsake them.
The application to our time is not hard to make – we are living in a pattern that is completely new to us. It is hard to make the adjustments to this new awkward time, where we don’t know the patterns of life. We fear the loss of the known patterns with which we are familiar. The promise to us is: “it is the LORD your God who goes with you.”
There is more to see in this passage. Moses, in the sight of all of Israel, says to Joshua – the leader who will lead Israel into the new land, into the new pattern of life – “Be strong and bold….Do not fear or be dismayed.” Why can Joshua do these things – because “it is the LORD who goes before you.” The promise is the same as the one given to the people: God will not fail you or forsake you.
The leader in this new time is told “do not fear.” The implicit invitation is that the people pray for Joshua that he will not fear, to pray that he would “be strong and bold.” If leaders “do not fear”, it is more likely that followers will do the same. If leaders “do not fear” in the face of transition and threat, then those who look to them are more likely to live that pattern. We are called to pray for leaders at all levels – national, provincial, municipal, in neighbourhoods, in churches, and so on -- that they would not fear but would be strong and bold.
God who does not fail us or forsake us, we pray for our leaders at all levels in our country, in our provinces, in our communities and neighbourhoods. May they not fear, but instead be strong and bold. Teach those of us who follow also to not fear, but to be strong and bold. These things we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who shows us how to live without fear. Amen.
BLOG – March 18, 2020
14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
This is not the most cheerful of Biblical stories. Hagar and her son, Ishmael, were thrown out of Abraham and Sarah’s household. Hagar and the boy end up in southern Israel wandering in a dry wasteland. The water ran out and Hagar knew they were going to die. Unable to watch her son die, she put him in some shade, that was all she could offer, and sitting a distance away from him she began to weep.
The God who saw Hagar (Genesis 16:13-14) and promised to be with her, now comes to Hagar as the God who has heard the boy crying. The God who sees is also the God who hears. After a brief conversation God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water – the boy and she will live.
We don’t know why Hagar did not see the water source earlier. The line “God opened her eyes and she saw” intrigues me. How often in the midst of crisis, in the midst of fear, have I become so tunnel-visioned that I cannot see anything but impending destruction. All I see is disaster.
The God who sees and hears, opens Hagar’s eyes so she can see a well of water, a well of hope. In the midst of difficulty and lethal threat, she could not see hope until God opened her eyes. How many times in the face of impending disaster has God had to open my eyes so I could see hope. Only then can I can move past the fear and live into the hope God offers.
In the present context it is easy to be caught in the fear of impending destruction; that is all we can see. We are invited to pray that God would open our eyes, and the eyes of others who are also caught in fear, to see where the well of hope is.
You are the God who sees and the God who hears. In our fear we cry out to you, for our resources are gone, we have nothing left. Thank you that you hear us and see us, open our eyes so we might see the well of your hope and live as people who do not fear. These things we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
March 17, 2020
Psalm 118:1-6, 8, 9, 13-16, 29
[The words in square brackets are my additions – which the Biblical text caused me to think of.]
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
5 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
6 With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals [or COVID-19] do to me?
8 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in mortals.
9 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to put confidence in princes [or governments].
13 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
14 The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.
15 There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
16 the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Notice that vs. 1 and vs. 29 are the same – God is to be thanked for God is good, and God’s love endures forever. Whatever else is being said, whatever else competes for our attention – this is true: God’s love never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end.
Thus vs. 6 becomes our confident hope – “With the LORD on my side I do not fear.” With God beside us there is no reason to fear. Yes, we are called to be wise and prudent, we are not to act rashly or dangerous ways, but we do not fear. The things we are afraid of have become our God; we have given them the control our lives. We have only one God – the Triune God of grace – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Next to God what can COVID-19 do to us? God holds us in his hands and will bring us through until we are finally safe in the arms of Jesus.
Already and most likely in an increasing way over the next weeks we will feel like vs. 13 – “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling.” We have the promise that the LORD will help us. And therefore, we do not fear. The day is coming when we will sing glad songs of victory.
God whose love endures forever, from the distress of our fear we call to you. Calm our fear. Assure us of your presence. Strengthen us when we are hard-pressed. Open our eyes to see salvation at work in the world. That we may join in giving you thanksgiving and praise. These things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I hope to blog each day through the present moment. The new blog will hopefully be up by noon each day. It will appear on St. Andrew’s blog and my Facebook page and will be e-mailed.
March 12, 2020
Some Reflections on Responding to Coronavirus
COVID-19, the Coronavirus, has become a major topic of discussion and matter of concern for many people. I admit it was not until earlier this week that I was convinced that the church had a place in the conversation and therefore in the response to COVID-19.
I think that the church, by church I mean both local congregations and regional and national structures of the church, has three distinct roles in this conversation.
First, congregations can play a public health education role. On some congregational websites and facebook pages I have seen some excellent pieces giving people information and describing practices that will limit the spread of COVID-19. Congregations may need to change some practices in response to COVID-19.
Second, congregations and collections of congregations in communities and neighbourhoods can make plans for delivering food and supplies to those who might enter self-isolation. Given the large number of single persons in Canadian society, there will be a need for people to support single persons who are in self-isolation.
Third, and this is part I am most interested in at the moment, the church has a role to play in speaking about hope in the face of fear. The church has a role to be people of compassion and care, in the face of anxiety and competition for scarce resources. COVID-19 has many people worried, even afraid. Christians have some things to say in the face of that fear, truths the church holds dear.
The Christian community is called to remind the world that COVID-19 is not going to last forever, its power will be broken and its ability to cause fear will end. Only one thing lasts forever as Psalm 136 drives home with the repeated refrain “God’s love endures forever.” God’s love will win in the end, of that we can be certain.
The Christian community tells the story of Jesus. Jesus knows what it is to be afraid in the face of the unknown and death as his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane so clearly shows. The one who was afraid and found the courage to continue into the hard place, walks with us in our fear. In Jesus Christ we have one who understands our fear and is with us.
The Christian community has been around long enough to have examples of followers of Jesus who faced pandemics. Julian of Norwich lived through the Black Death pandemic of the 14th century. A woman of deep prayer who was sought out as a spiritual guide, many people came to her asking how they should live in the face of the fear caused by the Black Death. Julian invited them to trust God, an invitation she framed with the saying, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.” Christians in our time and place can echo Julian’s words. We can trust God to bring us through for in God’s hands “all will be well.”
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church Phone: 519-843-3565
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