sermon

How do we respond to pandemic?

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Sunday we were still able to hold worship service at our church. This is what I preached:

How do we respond to pandemic?

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) It sounds so good. Maybe you have it on your wall somewhere. Maybe you’ve posted it to social media. But the people who heard it first hated it. 

God’s own chosen people, the people he had set aside to be his own, had rejected him. Can you imagine how much that hurts? To be rejected by an entire nation? And God had sent warning after warning. “This is what will happen if you don’t turn back to me!” And the people hadn’t listened. So God drew back his protection, and the nation of Babylon conquered Israel. And God’s chosen people were taken into exile. And while they were there, false prophets were saying, “We’re God’s favorite! He’ll take us back! Don’t get comfortable here in exile!” 

And that’s when Jeremiah steps in and says, “No, you pray for the good of the city you’re staying in. God wants to prosper you… here. He wants what is best for you… here. It’s not where you want to be, but he’s giving you hope and a future here.” 

And that’s why the message isn’t nearly as comforting as you might have expected! But despite the fact they weren’t where they wanted to be, despite the fact they were torn away from what they wanted, God was working for their good. He used the exile to bring his people back to his side. 

And he’s working for our good, too. It doesn’t always look that way, though, does it? “I have plans for you.” Except there’s a pandemic. Except there’s shortages. We went to Aldi. Yep. The toilet paper was totally gone. I’m glad we have enough at our house! “I have plans for you. Plans to prosper you.” But we look around this world… this pandemic? The world is broken, isn’t it? But this wakeup call is good. It reminds us we have a home, and it’s not here. Our home is in heaven. So let’s not get too comfortable here, even as we’re confident God has good plans for us. 

So… how should we react to pandemic? 

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Don’t panic. Pray. 

Maybe you’ve seen some panic. Maybe you’ve felt it. There’s this pressure on your chest. Start hoarding. Are we going to have enough? What’s going to happen to us? Panic focuses on me. It focuses on mine. And maybe you hear that and go, “Well, good. I’m just thinking of my family!” Again — focusing on me and mine. My family? It focuses on what I need to do, or on what I can’t do. And panic brings out this terrifying truth: I can’t do what I think I need to. Panic makes us so, so small. Panic doesn’t help. 

I want to encourage you to do something different. I want you to pour out your fears. Be honest with them. But don’t turn them over and over in your mind. Instead, be honest with your fears and pour them out to God. 

A little bit ago we sang Psalm 65. What does that say? Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Do you hear that honesty? God, listen to me! I’m crying out to you! 

How about Psalm 13? How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?  Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me. Notice how honest he is. “This is what’s going on!” And he struggles with his own thoughts. That sound a bit like panic? Like someone who knows he shouldn’t panic, but does anyway? But in the end he says that he will still rejoice because of God’s unfailing love. He knows that despite what it looks like, despite what he feels, God still loves him. 

Just speak what’s in your heart to God. Pour it out. He can handle it. So instead of keeping it all inside, instead of running that impossible emotional treadmill, let it all out to God. And God’s listening. Our second lesson said it bluntly: For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer. (I Peter 3:12) He’s listening. He’s paying attention to you. You’re not shouting into the void. 

But then don’t just pray.

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Ponder the Passion. 

When God created this world, he looked at all he had made and said it was very good. There were no diseases. Every body of every animal and human worked perfectly. Nothing went wrong. But when Adam and Eve rejected God, all creation fell under the curse. Now there was disease as a direct result of sin. Creation is broken. 

Can you imagine leaving a perfect place like heaven to come to a broken place where there’s not just sin, but disease too? Where you’re personally threatened by disease? Jesus did. Jesus was capable of getting sick. He felt the effects of sin. 

We don’t know if Jesus ever got sick, but we know he confronted sickness. You heard it in our Gospel: Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. (Matthew 9:35) Not just some of them. All of them. Every disease. Every sickness. And that was the beginning. See, Jesus came not just to take care of the problem of sin, but every symptom as well. And here he began doing that. He began wiping out disease. And no disease was too much for him. He wasn’t a specialist that said, “Yes, well, I can fix your cancer, but not your depression.” He could handle any of it. 

But at the cross, he dealt with what caused all of it. He took your sin on himself. And when he died, he really died. And when he rose from the dead, he conquered death itself. Sickness is not as powerful as death. If death itself couldn’t stand up to Jesus, sickness can’t do a thing. 

Now, you may have noticed. Jesus defeated sin, but there’s still sin here. Jesus defeated death, but death is still around. We will have sin until we see Jesus face-to-face. Unless Jesus comes back first, that’ll be after we die. And because of that, until we see Jesus face-to-face, we still have the symptoms of sin. We’ll still face death. And we’ll still face sickness. But they don’t have any power over us anymore. Sin is nailed to the cross. Now the worst thing that will happen to you is going to heaven. That… that’s something we can handle. 

It’s kind of like we’re in Babylon with Israel. God says he’s going to prosper us. Maybe it’s not the way we wanted, but he does have our good in mind. We’re not where we want to be. We want to be home with Jesus. But in the meantime, Jesus is still watching out for us. He hasn’t forgotten us! So when panic sets in, ponder the Passion. Think about what Jesus has done. How he has already defeated what’s scaring you. How Jesus is on your side. No reason to panic. You got Jesus. 

And when you ponder the passion, you’re free. You’re not thinking about what you have to do or what you can’t do. You’re thinking about what Jesus already did. What’s already done. And you see how far God goes for you. No reason to panic. You got Jesus. 

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Provide Peace.

So, Jesus heals every disease. And then he looks around and says, “More people need to know about this. So pray that God sends more people out.” And if we kept reading, you know what the next thing Jesus does is? He sends out the people that are praying. 

You can be confident in Jesus. He loves you. He has defeated death. And that means just like Jesus showed mercy on you, you can show mercy to those around you. You can provide peace to them. First, it means you don’t panic. You don’t have to. Jesus has it under control. The God who died for you still loves you and still holds you in the palm of his hand. No need to panic. If you find yourself panicking, go back. Pray. And ponder the passion. Second, it means you’re not going to look down on those who are scared. Why? You can totally identify with them, can’t you? If not over this event, then over something else! Instead of judging, show mercy on those who fear. That includes showing mercy on yourself. Again, pray. Ponder the passion. 

And then? You can provide peace. You provide peace by going through the proper protocols. You know what? God gave us soap as a blessing. And he gave us reason as a blessing. So if it means keeping from shaking hands for a while, then don’t shake hands for a while! If it means stepping back from seeing other people for a bit, what a blessing that in this era we have this digital way to be able to talk to each other. No, it’s not the same as being in person, but how much better than being totally alone! 

Provide Peace by seeing how we can love one another. 

First, here, among the family of believers. If you have needs during this pandemic, please share. Text or email or call me, so we can help each other. God gave us brothers and sisters in Christ not just so we can help each other, but so we can also be helped. Encourage one another. Text. Call. Let’s see how we’re all doing. We’re not alone. Christ has put us in a body to be able to lift each other up! 

And then we can also be equipped to reach out to those outside the church as well. Do you know that’s one of the reasons why Christianity grew? In ancient Rome, plagues ripped through the cities. Those who were able to flee got out of any city with a plague. But the Christians stayed behind. They cared for those who were left behind. And that love was noticed. 

Martin Luther did the same thing. The black plague went through Wittenburg. Luther chose to stay home. He opened his home to the sick. He and his wife took care of them. Luther wrote that if a Christian saw it as his duty to flee, as long as that person wasn’t abandoning responsibility, say, that person was a doctor, the Christian was free to do so. But he stayed behind to show love. 

Guys, in this pandemic, we get the chance to shine Christ’s love. We get to keep panic at bay by showing love to one another. So invite others in so they can know the reason for your hope, even as you support them. 

Jesus has this. He is with you even now. Even right now as this pandemic is ripping across the globe. The God who has holes in his hands from loving you so much isn’t going to drop you now. Don’t panic. Pray. Ponder the Passion. Provide Peace. 

Amen.

Let it go.

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The sermon was crap.

OK, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I hold myself to higher standards. See, I want to speak God’s Word faithfully. Every week I want to deliver Law that cuts and Gospel that heals, as revealed in that specific portion of God’s Word we’re concentrating on. But that’s still not enough. I want to apply it directly to my congregation’s lives. What does it mean for them personally? How does this portion of God’s Word affect them in their daily lives? How do they live it?

And the sermon wasn’t there. Oh, it really, really wasn’t there.

Now, there was no false doctrine in it. There was Law and Gospel. But it needed to be clearer. Sharper. Applied better.

The problem: All last week, I felt like junk. I had a depressive episode on Monday that kept me from doing any hard work. Then I got physically sick. I slept very little because of coughing. I felt terrible. It meant I memorized the sermon a day later than normal, having done less work on it than normal. (more…)

Sin Links You to Christmas

Christmas Easter

2 Samuel 12:1-13

The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. 9 Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”

I want you to think up your favorite Christmas specials or movies. OK. Let’s see how many we can list off real quick. Now: How many of those specials specifically mention Jesus? Why is that? If Christmas is Jesus’s birthday, why do so many Christmas specials ignore him? Who shows up more often? Santa Claus Why is that? (more…)

Worth Nothing

Melting way in a storm

This is what I am now. Broken. And this is what I should be. My name is Gomer. I wasn’t always this filth. Once I was happy.

The day of my wedding. It hurts to remember it now. The rabbi pronounced us married. And I turned to my husband. My new husband. Hosea. You should have seen his smile. He was so in love with me. He had built me a home. Built us a home. He was a man of God. He always treated me so, so well. He loved me just because I was his.

And then I thought I found someone better. I noticed another man who was taller than Hosea. Better looking. And he treated me well, too, when we’d meet in the street. And when Hosea held me, I’d pretend I was in this other man’s arms. It was just my imagination. It didn’t matter. And then I went into the other man’s arms.

I left Hosea. I left the man who had smiled so much on our wedding day. I left him for someone else. And it was good. The other man prized me. For a while. And then he decided he wanted someone else. And I was. I was alone.

It was better with Hosea. But I can’t go back. I can’t dirty him with what I’ve done. So I dwell in the ruins. I’m not good enough for him. I’m not good enough for his love. I’m not good enough for his smile. I am broken. I sell myself, but I know what I’m worth. Nothing. (more…)

Today I am thankful for depression.

Praying on Beach

I told them.

It started as a simple Thanksgiving sermon. Straightforward.

Ephesians 5:20: “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I look up from my Bible. “So, that’s it, right? Just give thanks to God for everything. Amen? All right. Shortest sermon ever.” I turn away, as if to move on to the next part of the worship service. The congregation chuckles. I turn back. “All right, we should probably go a little deeper, huh?”

I’m glad they chuckled. When you start with that lightness, it opens people up. It builds trust in a weird way.

I ask, “What are some things you thank God for?”

People in the congregation answer. Family. Nature. Food. Our senses. All great answers. I spend a few sentences on each answer, encouraging and confirming that it’s great to thank God for such things. And it is.

But did you notice… it doesn’t say, ‘Give thanks to God for the stuff you like.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Give thanks to God for the things you think are good.’ It says, ‘For everything.’”

And that’s not easy, is it?

How do you give thanks for things that cause pain? (more…)

This is the Time for Justice

Esther pic - final - fade out edges

Esther puts her hand against the wood paneling of the door to the throne room. She whispers to herself, “If I perish… I perish.” She pushes the door open.

The king’s guards turn and draw their blades. The king has summoned no one. The only reason anyone would have to come in here without being summoned is to assassinate the king. The law is clear: Kill any uninvited guest.

Esther holds her hands out, showing she is unarmed. Her only chance is the mercy of the king. The guards tense to strike.

And Xerxes extends the golden scepter. The only thing that would keep any uninvited guest safe. “What do you want, my queen? Ask it, and it’s yours.” Xerxes smiles. His queen. The one he chose. His queen.

Esther tries not to faint. She heaves a deep breath before answering, “Come to a banquet I have prepared for you today. You. And Haman.” She gestures to the man sitting at her husband’s right hand. She gestures to the man who wants her murdered. “Come to my banquet. That’s all I want.”

Haman. The man who had masterminded a new law: On a certain day in the twelfth month, it will be legal to kill any Jew and take their possessions. He doesn’t know the queen is Jewish.

But neither does the king. (more…)

This is the Time to Stand

Esther pic - final - fade out edges

My queen!” one of the eunuchs rushes to Esther. “My queen! Your friend. The one out in the gate. Mordecai? He’s going to be punished!”

Esther sits up. “What? What’s happened?”

He’s wearing sackcloth, your majesty. Anyone who’s mourning isn’t allowed in the king’s gate. I tried warning him, but he’s still just sitting there in the gate crying out!”

What could be wrong? Why would Mordecai do this? Esther looks at the eunuch. “Go to the market. Purchase him some appropriate clothes. Bring them to him. He won’t refuse a gift.”

Yes, your majesty.” He rushes out. Esther paces the harem. What’s wrong with Uncle Mordecai? What’s happened that he’s mourning, and so loudly, and in a place that will kill him? (more…)

This is the Time to Do Good

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Hadassah’s parents’ voices were filled with longing. “Someone is coming to save us. The Savior will be born back home in Israel, from our people. He is coming to redeem us from our sins. And our God will not forget his promises.” They told her of God’s faithfulness to sinners like Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham. They filled her with wonder that God wold love sinners like her no matter how bad she was. They told her, “And we have a promised land, Hadassah. So many of our people already went home. And someday we will go, too. We’ll leave Persia and go to the land our God promised us.”

And then… her parents died.

Hadassah went to live with her older cousin Mordecai. He told her those same promises over and over again.

And then the king exiled his queen. And then he got lonely. And then there was a contest. And Hadassah was taken. She was pried out of her home by the king’s guards, stolen from the man who had raised her, kidnapped by the government from Mordecai. As the guards marched toward their home, Mordecai grabbed Hadassah. “Don’t tell them who you are. Go by your Persian name!” He knew how dangerous it would be to be a minority, especially if the king’s eyes were on you. And so she was known as Esther.

And then Esther won the contest. She pleased the king so much, he threw a week-long party to celebrate. (more…)

This is the Time

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Hadassah lugs the clay jar back home. Susa’s dust swirls around her ankles. The capital city of the Persian empire is relatively quiet at this hour; the women gossip at the well, and over at the market the men grumble as they set up their stalls. The sun peaks over the roofs of the buildings around her, sending golden light everywhere. She breaths a morning prayer of thanks to Yahweh. “Creator, you make the sun to shine on us. Bless this day and bless this water. Give us life. Move us to be thankful. We look for the One you promised would come. Watch over those Jews who have gone home. Bring us home to Israel someday. And help me have a good birthday.”

She comes to the orange clay wall that hides her home. As she rounds the gate to the front garden shadowed by two date trees, she sets down the jar and wipes the sweat from her forehead. Today she is fifteen. Maybe Uncle Mordecai will finally tell her who she’s going to marry. Most of her friends are already married. Chava’s going to have her first baby soon! She hoists the jar to carry into their little home.

Somewhere in the distance, someone screams, breaking the quiet morning air. And then another person screams. There’s weeping far away, carried over the clay roofs of the city. (more…)

Late for My Own Sermon

How could I show up fifteen minutes late for worship? I’m the freaking pastor! My family scuttles in to a row of seats as I rush back to get my robe on. The guest pastor is sort of hopping from leg to leg – his granddaughter is being baptized today, and he asked permission to step in and do that. So not only am I late, showing disrespect to my congregation, but I’m looking bad in front of a brother in the ministry.

Not just any brother in the ministry.

The freaking president of the seminary. A man who taught me.

He leans over and whispers to me, “You good to go?”

I nod.

He stands to start the service. And as he does, he sort of quirks his head like I remember him doing so often in class. “You know, this sort of reminds me…” And he launches into an incredible devotion, just off the top of his head, like always did in class. Just taking something that just happened and using it as an example of Law or Gospel, marrying it to a biblical text, and just making the sacred an everyday thing in the best way.

And he’s doing it here in my congregation, where I just showed up fifteen minutes late for worship. And then I glance at the bulletin.

I don’t remember what I’m preaching on. (more…)