Sunday, March 15, 2020

“The Lord Is My Shepherd And The Coronavirus”

Our message comes to us today from Psalms 23 and James 4:13-15.

Psalms 23The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will 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; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

James 4:13-15Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

“The Lord Is My Shepherd And The Coronavirus”
By Rick Gillespie-Mobley
New Life At Calvary Presbyterian Church
Cleveland, Ohio

As we look at the closings of schools, cancellations of sporting events, celebrations being rescheduled, and even churches closing, we have to look at “what is at the heart of these unprecedented drastic measures that have been taken?” What is it that we are trying to stop?

What is it that we are afraid might happen? What is it that has so many people worrying? Is there really an unseen enemy out there that we can’t control that is out to get us? Are the leaders of this world humbled by the reality that no army in the world can stop it, and that stockpiles of nuclear weapons cannot deter it?

Are we ourselves humbled by the reality that we are nowhere near as independent and confident of the control we have over our lives than we did just two weeks ago. Things that we thought were going to be our greatest moments in championship basketball games, state tournaments, and even March Madness basketball tournaments have gone in an instant like a puff of smoke.

Our vacation plans to Disney World, Disneyland, and the theaters have all changed with no input from us. For all the boasting of what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, has now been changed.

One of the things I remember growing up as a kid was how often the old folks would end their conversation with the words, “Lord willing” or “if the Lord wills.” It was only later that I understood they were quoting a well-known writer by the name of the Apostle James.

James wrote a section of the Bible, and he recorded in James 4:13-15, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”

There are things we thought last week that nothing was going to stop us from doing, that all of a sudden we won’t be doing because of an announcement by some government official. Those old folks knew what they were saying when they said, “If it be the Lord’s will.”

As we are faced with a situation that has bloomed into a crisis, every one of us is confronted with the issue of “who is our leader at this time?” What do we want our leaders to protect us from? What will happen if they fail? What are we willing to do or become if this thing continues? What freedoms will we give up?

One thing for sure, we must appear to God like sheep scattered on a hill trying to figure out which direction to run. Thanks to the spread of information and disinformation on social media, some sheep are terrified, and their own fear will kill them.

When you peel back the layers of our anxiety, what is at the heart of it all? What are we really worrying about? We are worried about the possibility of dying. Fear of our own death or fear of the death of those that we love is a genuine concern. Yet as believers, we have the antidote to the fear of death. His name is Jesus Christ. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.

Can we really trust what Jesus tells us about death? I think we ought to consider his opinion at least in that we know he died, and we know he rose again from the dead because over 500 eyewitnesses saw him at one time.

Jesus died on a cross, and he rose from the dead because he knew each one of us was going to die because of our wrongdoing and the evil in our hearts. He knew that we would be afraid of death because inside we know that we have done wrong and that somehow we are going to give an account for what we have done.

It was out of his love for us that he gave us the words to remove the fear of death from us. Jesus said in John 14:1-3, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Today, more and more people are being troubled because they are forced to face with, “I could get this coronavirus and not even know it.” They convince themselves they will be among the small percentage of people that die. They can take all kinds of precautions, but they still little control over what happens.

How should believers respond to any crisis in which the fear of death is out there? It begins with knowing, our hope is always to be rooted in God. Our most well-known verse in the Bible is where we begin. Psalm 23 tells us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

I want you to know that God says we are his sheep and the sheep of his pasture. God knew about the coronavirus ten years ago and even a 1000 years ago. God knew about our days before a single one of them came into being. Nothing has ever caught God by surprise.

God did not wake up and say, “I’ve got to change my plans for the church and for the world because I forgot to take into account the coronavirus spreading in the world in the year 2020.”

This is not the first virus or plague to enter the world. Have you ever considered the possibility that God wants to use the church, to show the world who He is by how we react to the coronavirus? Are we willing to talk with others about what the fear is with the virus? Are we ready to bring up the topic of death, and what’s there afterward?

When our friends and co-workers mention how worried they are about what’s going to happen next, do we join in with how worried we are too? Or we will remember the words of Jesus in which he said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

If the Lord is truly our shepherd, then is not the Lord free to do with His sheep what God thinks is best. As believers, are we to be afraid or to worry about what the coronavirus might do to us? Do we believe that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purposes? We never know where our faith is rooted until we run into a crisis.

Past rampant plagues and diseases have been opportunities for Christians to shine in society. Between the years 250 AD and 270 AD, a terrible plague devastated the Roman Empire, which stretched across Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa.

We are not sure if it was the measles or smallpox. They didn’t have the hospitals and medicine we have today. At the height of the plague, known as the Plague of Cyprian, St. Cyprian chronicled that 5000 people died every day just in the city of Rome itself. That’s not including the rest of the empire.

This occurred at the same time there was empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius. The enemies of the Christians blamed the Christians for the plague. There were two problems with the theory of the Christians being responsible.

The first is that many Christians died from the plague. Why would Christians start something to kill Christians? But the second problem with the theory was the witness of the Christians of the love of Jesus Christ to their pagan neighbors. Whereas many people abandoned those who got sick, the Christians risked their lives to take care of those who had been abandoned by their families.

A century earlier, the Antonine Plague had symptoms like smallpox. 10% of the population of Rome died. The leaders and people, including the doctors, began to abandon the city, leaving the sick behind to die. The Christians stayed in the city to take care of those who were ill.

Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes, “an epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity. “By their action in the face of death, Christians showed their pagan neighbors that Christianity is worth dying for.

Do we believe Jesus when Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd? We like to believe that means that Jesus is always going to surround us with good things that will make us comfortable in life. He’s going to lead us to lie down in green pastures where there is plenty of food for us to eat and be happy.

He will take us to where the water is calm and peaceful so that we can drink, and it’s not splashing back in our faces. Yes, we enjoy the still and quiet waters. Oh, we just have joy from Jesus in our souls as we feel refreshed coming out of our devotions, especially with some good praise music on.

But then we choose to forget, that’s not the only place Jesus leads us, and that’s not the only role Jesus has for us. What is this talk about walking through the valley of the shadow of death or walking through the darkest valley?

Do we still look to Jesus then, or is there something else we want to grab on to? This valley does not catch Jesus by surprise because the verses before it said that he was leading along the right path when I arrived at this valley.

There are all kinds of valleys the shepherd leads us down. The valley of sickness, the valley of loneliness, the valley of pain and suffering, the valley of broken dreams or unfulfilled promises, the valley of unemployment and homelessness, the valley of the loss of a skill or talent, and the valley of the death of someone we love. Those are valleys we have no control over, and yet the events of life seem to slide us into them whether we are willing to go or not.

But then there are those valleys that are created for us specifically for us to do the will of God. Jesus, who knows the role of the good shepherd, seems to switch hats on us at times. Jesus says in Luke 10:2-3, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few, ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers in the field. Go! I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.”

Let’s just suppose for a moment that this coronavirus is being used by God to create a harvest of hearts that are open because of fear, anxiety, and worry. Beyond the virus itself, people are going to worry about how they are going to pay their bills with their jobs being shut down, and who will watch over their kids while they work.

How many of us are willing to be a lamb sent out among wolves for Jesus in this crisis? I do know that Jesus knew, if he sent out lambs among the wolves, some of those lambs are not going to make it back. Then there are other words of Jesus that sort of putting us on the spot when we are all tempted to quarantine and isolate ourselves. What did he actually mean when he said, “Greater love has no one than this, than that he should lay down his life for a friend” (John 15:13). Should we only serve Jesus when it is safe to do so?

What was it the Christians had during the plagues in Europe that caused them to head toward the sick and dying to help them when everyone else was running away from them trying to save their own lives? Could it be they loved Jesus more than they loved their own lives? Could it be they believed the promises of Jesus even in the face of death itself? Were they trying to love their neighbor as themselves?

Did they understand, their witness might be the final thing separating this person who was ill from entering eternity hopelessly lost, dying in their sins with no chance of a Savior to stand beside them at the great judgment?

Whatever it was, I want it for my own life. I want it for today’s body of Christ. We have a hope promised to us that goes beyond the concerns of this world.

The psalmist did not stay in the valley of the shadow of death. He went on to write, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” It’s good to use all the hand sanitizer you can, but that’s not where your deliverance is. Your deliverance is in the fact that God is with you.

But because God is sovereign, and we have voluntarily given our lives to Him through Christ, if God desires to use us through receiving the coronavirus, then we say, “your will be done.” The psalmist says God’s rod and staff they comfort him. God’s rod and staff come in many different forms.

Listen to the many forms we find in Hebrews 11:35-38, “…others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.”

How many of you would choose the coronavirus over being flogged, sawed in two, or put to death by the sword for the cause of Christ? Is God still in control or not? Does God choose in his mercy who will live and who will die? Is God free to decide how our lives would best glorify him?

The Apostle Paul once wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Is that where we are in our hearts today? Do we really believe that Jesus is going to be there for us? I know some of us to say, but I’ve got others depending on me, so I can’t just die. It is an illusion to think we can determine how long or short on earth our time is going to be.

If we quarantined every person in the world that has the virus, we still are no more in control of our lives than we were two weeks ago, for we are still going to ultimately die and still will have to give an account of our lives to God. We just won’t have the news media and social media constantly reminding us that we should be worried because we could be next.

How does God expect to use us in response to the worry and fear that has spread through our nation and the world? Will we see this as an opportunity to reach out and serve those who are affected by this situation directly or indirectly? Will we show confidence in Christ for our future that the world has not known by not joining in the panic?

Will we become bolder in our witness of God actually being in charge of our lives? Will we be willing to continue embrace those who are being cast aside? It won’t be long before we start to look at people a certain way and decide that person probably has it and so I’m going to keep a little bit more distance. Inside we actually think that person is less in the image of God than I am.

When Lepers had to be isolated by going through the streets yelling unclean, Jesus voided the isolation ban and went to touch them. When sinners were declared to be religiously unclean, Jesus went, and he touched them so that they could be healed. The woman who had a disease for 12 years, said, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” We lose something in the body of Christ when we can no longer reach out and touch each other.

Even if we think the coronavirus is a great enemy, the psalmist concludes in Psalm 23:5-6, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” We should be able to celebrate what God has done for us, even with the coronavirus around us.

There’s a line in a hymn that reads, “Whose report will you believe, we shall believe the report of the Lord.” They can say what they want to say about the coronavirus, I still believe God is sitting on the throne of heaven, and God’s plans and purposes will still be accomplished.

Let us pray: God of Mercy, be with the tens of thousands of people who have contracted the coronavirus around the world. Comfort those whose loved ones have died. Bring peace to those living with uncertainty after perhaps being exposed to the virus. Give patience to those who are quarantined and unable to move freely in their communities.

Wise and Faithful Guide, watch over and protect other people from catching this deadly virus. Strengthen those who are risking their own lives to care for sick patients.

Help us to respond with generosity in prayer, in assistance, in aid to the best of our abilities. Keep our hearts focused on the needs of those affected, even after the crisis is over. May we all be filled with compassion for those who are suffering. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Scripture is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Sermon contributed by Rev. Rick Gillespie-Mobley.
This sermon deals with what should be a believer’s response to the crisis of the coronavirus. Our hope is to be in the Lord, who is our Shepherd.

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