Harrowing Of Hell
March 8, 2020

Coronavirus Pandemic

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Last week I wasn’t feeling too well so I was assigned by my staff to work from home. That doesn’t happen much, but it was the right decision. I slept for hours. And when I wasn’t asleep, or answering emails, I would lay there and notice how quiet it was. It was so still, and I thought how beautiful that was, the stillness, the quiet…and then a bird would chirp, and I’d think of spring; or a dog would bark, and I’d be reminded to let the dogs out; or an airplane would fly overhead, and I’d think of the coronavirus.

Seems like the coronavirus is on everyone’s mind. Steven Colbert in his monologue on the Tonight Show last week walked around his set ringing a bell and shouting: ”Plague, plague, plague. A righteous cleansing to punish man for his lust and vanity. Oh, swing your scythe, you angry God: repent, repent, repent, repent.”

And while that is how Colbert rolls, in truth, there is something medieval about this virus. It feels like a foreign agent has infiltrated our good world. There is something about this pandemic that ignites a deep, bone rattling chill…awakening in us all the horror of all of the plagues seen by all our ancestors passed down through the generations, igniting an uncontrollable impulse to blame. Who can I blame to stop this invisible agent of the devil… this plague? It is such a human instinct, and it always has been; the blame game is as old as witch-hunts themselves.

The first great persecution of Christians coincided with plague in Rome under the rule of Decius in 250AD. Decius blamed Christians and actively killed them.  His blame, of course, was unfounded. Christians were dying from plague like everyone else.  But unlike everyone else, Christians were also actively caring for those suffering with the plague, even caring for their pagan neighbors.

Their selfless and fearless actions, of course, lead to more Christians dying, and yet, paradoxically, it also inspired more people to become Christians. God sort of works that way. The bad thing is never the last thing.

Over the next few months, you may experience some feelings of fear and anxiety and blame. These are uncertain times and they will remain so for a while. And some of us may get sick. And if you get sick I’ll be right there with you; and if you put one foot in the grave, I’ll be right there with you; pulling you back and also reminding you to look for God. And if you jump the moat, I’ll yell after you as you’re soaring toward heaven…”Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I’ll yell after you that God never puts an end to anything God loves, and that God loves you. I’ll yell after you that the bad thing is never the last thing… And we know this because we are Christian; because we are followers of Jesus Christ; because we are people of the resurrection!

Then I’ll go home, and I’ll cry for a while, because I’ll miss you. And after that I’ll smile, because you make me smile, and from that day forward every time I remember you, I’ll smile. How is that?

But here is the deal – there might be days I can’t be at your side; or there may be too many who are ill for one person to check in on everyone…which is why Jesus formed us, you and me, to be the Church.  The Church is not one of us, it is all of us. We care for one another, and encourage one another, and smile at each other. It is all of us who say to the world: The bad thing is not the last thing, because we are people of the resurrection!

But now I want to teach you something that we can learn from our ancient Jewish brothers and sisters about how to live in uncertain times. Here is the story we borrow from the Prophet Jeremiah, chapter 34. The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. God was unhappy that the Israelites were keeping slaves. So, God commanded them, through the words of Jeremiah, to set all of their slaves free…AND to never enslave them again.  The Israelites agreed. They freed their slaves. But then some time passed, and the Israelites slipped back into their old ways, and they took back their previous slaves,violating what God initially commanded them…but God sees; God knows; God remembers, so, God said: “You have not obeyed me by granting release to your neighbors and friends; and here is what I am going to do, I am going to grant release to you – a release to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine” (Jer 34:17).

So, God smote the Israelites because they re-enslaved their neighbors and friends…God unleashed a good, old school smiting. How does that sound? You might say: “Well Preach, that makes for a good Bible story, but God doesn’t do that. God doesn’t smote with wildfires, earthquakes, wars, and pestilence. That is not how God works.”

And I’ll say: If you say so, but for the sake of the intellectual exercise let’s say that we do believe, as the Israelites did, that God actually is that invested in our lives; and that God actually sees what we do; and cares about what we do. Let’s say that God has a preference for freedom and justice and truth and fairness and proportionality. 

And let’s say that because God has these preferences and because God can act, that God indeed does act…in ways that cause us to sit up and take notice. And maybe we do what the Israelite’s did…instead of looking for someone to blame, we look inward; and ask ourselves: “What IS important to us? What is the most important thing?”

I do not want to posture that we have an angry God that set this coronavirus upon us; but I also don’t want us to miss the chance to be self-reflective and ask: ”What IS important to us? What is the most important thing?”

These questions do two things: they return our focus to God, and because they are self-oriented, they tap down the impulse to miss the mark and blame others.

Keep your eyes open during this time of the coronavirus to what God is calling us to do. I’ll give you a little example from my life.

I am driving to see a doctor and as I’m doing so, I get a call from a nurse, and basically, she said if you can breathe and don’t have a temperature above 105 stay home. She sounded overwhelmed. So, we get into a conversation and church comes to us. I’m a pro and can get anyone into a conversation about church in like 6 seconds. She was a Christian, and she lamented  her church had been cancelled last Sunday. 

So, I offered to send her our At A Glance: “How to behave at Church during a pestilence” instructions.  So, I did, and I also gave her some words of encouragement as well: I reminded her that God has given her the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ; I reminded her that God never puts an end to anything God loves and that God loves her; 

I reminded her that the bad thing is never the last thing…we are the Christians; we are the followers of Jesus; we are the resurrection people! And she emailed back and said she cut them out and put them on her bulletin board.

For as long as this coronavirus demon lasts I want you to be people of massive encouragement. I want you to be wildly brave; and keep reminding other people that the bad thing isn’t the last thing.

But there is also one more thing I want you to do: I want you to email me and ask for the name of a neighbor you can look in on, someone you can go over and visit – even if they are not sick. Just Christian connection;to give a word of Christian encouragement.

And you may say: “Preach, why Christian? Can’t we just be good neighbors and give general good words of encouragement?  And I’d say in normal times any kind of pablum is OK, but now people need real courage, they need a true backstop that will stop a speeding bullet…and that is what Christian have, and always have had. 

We are the best in the worst time because we know whose we are; and we know where we are going. We know God through the person of Jesus Christ.

Now is the time for you to be out of the closet as Christians. This is the time, right now, that we say: “I am a Christian: How can I help you? I will pray for you. You are loved, don’t be afraid.”

As people are staying home more and more, as travel goes down, this is our chance to remind people how great it is to be woven into the life of Jesus Christ through their neighborhood church. This is the time to be out there with our faith, to let our light radiate dimming the fear and anxiety  and blame that is polluting our world.

Remember, we are the Church; we are Christian; we are followers of Jesus; we are resurrection people-and we know to the core of our being that the bad thing is never the last thing.