We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.
Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.
My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.
Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.
Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.
Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!
We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…
It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!
Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.
That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.
These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
139 O Lord, You have searched me and known me. 2 You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. 3 You [a]comprehend my path and my lying down, And are acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word on my tongue, But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. 5 You have [b]hedged me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [c]hell, behold, You are there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall [d]fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness [e]shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
13 For You formed my inward parts; You [f]covered me in my mother’s womb. 14 I will praise You, for [g]I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. 15 My [h]frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You.
19 Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you [i]bloodthirsty men. 20 For they speak against You wickedly; [j]Your enemies take Your name in vain. 21 Do I not hate them, O Lord, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? 22 I hate them with [k]perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; 24 And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.
We can’t hide from God. We can ignore Him, deny His existence, even rage against Him. But we cannot escape His Spirit. We cannot hide who we are or what we think from Him. And we cannot flee from His goodness or mercy; we cannot run beyond His ability to restore us, heal us, or save us. He knows the worst about us, and He calls us to the very best we can be. Which begs the question– Why would we want to escape from God? Why do we try to hide from Him? What is it about God that would give us a reason to flee?
There are many terrifying things in this world–right now, we are faced with a global pandemic; a plague that brings sickness and death. Now THAT is something worth hiding from! Many of us are “sheltering in place,” trying to hide out until it is safer to interact with others. The disease seems to be everywhere–but it really isn’t– it cannot go where there are no hosts to carry the virus. It can be spread wherever we find other people who are infected, or where the virus lingers on surfaces. The disease does not seek us out or come searching for us if we stay put. Unfortunately, “sheltering in place” comes with its own dangers. We cannot survive long in a bubble. We are interdependent. We need food, medicine, fresh air, and interaction with family and friends to survive and thrive. Hiding away from a tiny virus is only effective in the short term. And there are other diseases from which we cannot hide– cancer and heart disease, and even other viruses that are active, but haven’t been traced or identified.
There are other terrors that we try to escape by fleeing– hurricanes, fires, floods, war, etc. And we may escape immediate danger from such terrors–if we have advance warning or if we have the means to escape. But there is no place of absolute safety: no place on earth where such dangers cannot exist. There is no Utopia– no earthly dwelling, community, or settlement where there is only goodness, harmony, peace, and plenty. There is no place to hide, and no place of escape.
It is understandable that we should want to hide from danger or flee bad things, even if such escape is impossible in life. But why should we wish to hide from a loving and merciful God? Is He as bad as COVID-19? Is He as threatening as a hurricane or an air raid?
Certainly, He is as powerful (and even more) than any of the dangers we fear. God has the power, and the authority, to judge, punish, and destroy all who live on the planet. He has the power to obliterate all of His creation, and none of us could stop Him or challenge His right to do as He pleases. And if we should challenge God’s authority, we would be wise to want to run away, hide, or escape the consequences of such foolishness.
Adam and Eve tried this long ago. After they sinned by eating the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they hid from God. And God’s response was not instant obliteration. He didn’t storm through Eden, destroying everything in His righteous anger before torturing Eve, making Adam watch in horror before He killed them both. Nor did God negate His Holiness by changing the consequences of sin. Death DID enter creation– along with disease, pain, guilt, envy, hatred, lying, greed, destruction– they all exist, persist, and continue to plague all of God’s creation to this day.
But God’s first act–His first words to Adam and Eve after their rebellion– was to seek their presence. God came to walk in the Garden; to meet with Adam and Eve. He called out to them, “Where are you?” He wasn’t asking because He didn’t know that they were hiding. He knew where they were, and why. And even in assigning their punishment, God did not throw extra guilt and recrimination at the fallen couple. He didn’t shout, “How could you do this to ME?!” “How dare you!” “I wish I’d never made you!” “You’re worthless. What a waste of time and energy. Get out of my garden! I never want to see you or hear from you again!”
God’s Spirit is always seeking reconciliation, communion, restoration, and love. God is Holy, and God is Merciful. Holiness desires Whole-ness. Mercy desires Peace. God pursues us, not because He wants to infect us or devour us or destroy us– God wants to hold us, heal us, and give us Life.
The danger is not in God’s presence, but in our ability to reject it. God is everywhere, but not everyone will see Him, accept His authority, or welcome His mercy. Some will spend a lifetime hiding and fleeing, only to discover that God will, reluctantly, give them what they want– an eternity without Him. Without Grace, without Love, without Peace, without Wholeness, without Hope.
That is a fate far worse than waking up to “shelter in place,” or even suffering through a virus that can separate us from loved ones for weeks, months, or even a short lifetime.
There are many things worth fleeing in life– But we can find joy, hope, and peace in the presence of a Loving and Omnipresent God.
These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.
But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.
In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?
In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:
Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” (Psalm 23:4a KJV)
The world is waking up to a global pandemic as I write this. Over 100,000 cases worldwide have been diagnosed; thousands have died. Projections are dire, with the possibility of millions of people who will need to be quarantined or hospitalized, and several thousands more dead before the year is out. Panic has already set in– people are hoarding cleaning supplies, stealing medicines and masks from hospitals, demanding testing long before they show any symptoms, and spreading rumors and false information about how the disease is spread or ways to prevent its spread.
In the midst of chaos, fear-mongering, and panic, the Bible provides both comfort and practical wisdom to face times of struggle and crisis. Psalm 23, often used to comfort people in times of grief, actually says a lot more about life than death. We have no need to panic– even though we find ourselves in unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening situations.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Yea, though–Not “if”, or even “when” I walk through tough times, but “though.” Death is inevitable and unpredictable, and the shadow of death, the threat of our mortality, will fall on us, often when we least expect it. Even without a traumatic event, like a pandemic, we all must travel this valley path at some point. A crisis like COVID-19 is unsettling, but death and disease wasn’t invented last year, and whatever steps we take to prevent or treat COVID-19 will not stop death or its shadow from touching our lives. Nor will panic and fear, denial, or wishful thinking make death’s shadow dissipate. It is wise to face the reality of this crisis with truth and the proper perspective.
I–Not “we.” We are surrounded by others who may share much of our fear, our grief, or our confusion at a time like this. But, when we walk through this valley, it is deeply personal, and our reactions, perspectives, beliefs, and emotions will be uniquely experienced. One of the most difficult things about times of crisis is the isolation we may feel when others cannot enter into our thoughts and hearts and painful emotions. Especially when they are dealing with similar fears and pain. Not only is this valley dark and low, it is often narrow. Even so, God is still present and powerful. We can turn to others for advice, comfort, or even excuses. But no one else can walk the road beneath our feet; no one else can choose whether we will focus on the shadows we see or the light beyond the shadows.
Walkthrough— There is a great temptation to try to hurry through any crisis– to look for the shortcut– the immediate cure; the escape hatch; the high ground; the detour. God’s love doesn’t give us the promise of ease and escape. God does not ask us to sprint through this part of our life’s journey. But God gives us the grace and power to keep walking– this valley is not the destination, but part of the longer race. This leg of the journey is difficult; there will be darkness, rocks and walls closing in on us; we may feel the cold finger of death, disease, and loss. Some days our walk may feel more like a crawl–but take heart and keep moving through.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death–Death is stark, uncompromising, cold, and overwhelming. Its shadow looms huge and oppressive. But the valley is not death; the shadow is NOT death; and even the reality of death is not bigger or more powerful or more eternal than God. COVID-19 will bring death to many thousands or millions of people, and it will bring sickness, fear, pain, grief, and distress to many more. But it cannot kill God– it cannot dim His great love for each person who suffers; it cannot catch God off guard and unprepared. We may question God’s timing and purpose. We may face hardship, loss, and confusion in the days and months ahead. But we will not face anything– even COVID-19– that can weaken God’s sovereignty. The same hand that raised Lazarus from the dead; the same power that rolled the stone away at Easter; the same Shepherd that led David all the days of his life–the One who holds galaxies in his hand and has numbered every hair on your head–He walks through this valley with us!
As God gives us wisdom, let us seek positive ways to reach out to those in crisis. Pray! Pray often, and fervently for those who are sick, and those who work in healthcare. Pray for wisdom, that our nations, regions, and communities will respond proactively and compassionately. And pray for opportunities to demonstrate and share God’s grace and mercy.