Earlier this past week, I thought I’d try my hand at making a big bowl of macaroni salad to have on hand for “sheltering in place” days ahead. So I went down to Raleys to buy the stuff. First on the list was macaroni. I went to the pasta aisle and did a double take. Empty shelves!
Quick change of plans to potato salad. Picked up the potatoes and headed to get the mayonnaise. Not one bottle of Best Foods Mayonaise on the shelf. Oh, they had the vegan mayonnaise and the Best Foods olive oil mayonnaise. But no regular Best Foods mayonnaise.
And as I went through the store I began to take note of all the empty shelves. At first I was annoyed. The vultures had descended on Raley’s and have made shopping a problem. Then I experienced just a twinge of panic. Are the food producers going to be closed down? Are the truckers going to stop deliveries? It’s not as of I keep a well stocked pantry. It was at that moment that the words to this morning’s Psalm echoed in my mind: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
We’re living in uncertain times right now, aren’t we? For many of us, this National Emergency presents some inconvenience. We’re stuck at home and we don’t know how long this is going to last.
But then there are others who are suffering right now. Some are battling the virus. Others are grieving for a loved who has died. I have a friend who has metastatic breast cancer. She was just admitted to the hospital with pneumonia.
Still others are facing economic suffering – not knowing how they’re going to pay the rent next month. Will they have a job to go back to? And it raises the question of “Where is God in the suffering?”
This morning’s Gospel passage features a man who had been born blind from birth. Can you imagine growing up blind? Can you imagine growing up blind in 1st century Palestine – they didn’t have the Americans with Disabilities Act back then. He could look forward to a life of sitting and begging.
This was a man who knew something about suffering. Why did he have to endure that? Jesus tells the people that it was so that God’s works might be revealed in him. And when Jesus healed him God’s works were, indeed, revealed in him.
Suffering is something we all experience in different degrees. Suffering tends to draw our focus back to God, doesn’t it? We don’t question God about much when things are going well. But when our lives take a left turn, it’s natural to ask, “Why?”
The bible connects four kinds of suffering with cause or purpose. There’s the suffering that comes to test our faith. Abraham knew something about that. God told him to sacrifice is only son. And for three days while Abraham led Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him, Abraham suffered. That suffering tested his faith.
Job was another example of suffering endured as a test of faith. For Abraham and Job, testing strengthened their faith.
Then there’s the suffering meant for our growth, for our moral improvement. Hebrews teaches us: “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
I’ve experienced that in my own life. I grew up in the church and don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t know God. It was in the difficult times of growing up that I walked most closely with him. But once I got out of school, got a good job, got my own apartment, it was easy to compromise my walk with God. And God loved me so much, that he called out my sinful behavior.
It’s not comfortable experiencing the Lord’s discipline. It was a season of suffering. But I’m so grateful for it. Because I wouldn’t be here today if God had not disciplined the one he loves.
Then there’s the suffering that comes as punishment for sin. It’s a direct consequence of the sin. Chuck Colsen could testify to that kind of suffering. Chuck was a brilliant attorney and part of Nixon’s White House staff. His ambition got ahead of his good judgment and he became known as Nixon’s hatchet man. That led to his incarceration for seven months in the federal penitentiary for obstruction of justice. But in his suffering, Chuck came to Christ. When he got out of the pen, he established a ministry to prison inmates. He became a pillar of the evangelical community in the United States. His life continues to bear fruit even after his death eight years ago.
Finally, there’s the suffering that shows forth God’s glory. The raising of Lazarus is one example. And this morning’s Gospel story is another. In this story, God begins to reveal his glory in a very peculiar way. Jesus takes some dirt, spits into and makes clay. Then he dabs the clay on the man’s eye. Jesus sends the man off and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man is healed and God is glorified.
Which brings us to the suffering that we endure today in different degrees because of the National Emergency. Bishop Barron is a Roman Catholic author and theologian who hosts an online ministry. Last week he spoke of a 17th century spiritual writer who said, Whatever happens is in some sense the will of God. Because God is either directly willing it or, at least, permitting it.
So, in some sense, this National Emergency is the will of God because he is directly willing it or, at least, permitting it. That being the case, Bishop Barron challenges us to consider what insight we gain from this. What do we learn about God and his love for us? Two things came to mind for me.
First of all, I have gained a greater appreciation for my church family. It’s Sunday morning! And I miss seeing everyone arriving here at church.
I miss Jackie scurrying around to make the coffee. And Dcn. Chuck reviewing the Gospel reading that he will deliver.
I miss seeing Karen rehearsing the choir and Helen checking the Altar to make sure everything is just perfect. I miss seeing the Beaumont kids bounding in and trying to get by Bill Atwood without getting razzed about something.
I miss those seats in front of me filled with dear souls grateful to be worshipping together. I miss all the fellowship at the Coffee Hour and Marlene’s salmon mousse bagels.
Jesus was always about bringing people together. He always spoke in the second person plural – That would be “ya’ll” down south and “you guys” up here. He commanded that we get together regularly and celebrate with a meal.
This “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” has given me a new appreciation for the church family gathering on Sunday morning. God had a good idea when he told us to get together and celebrate Holy Communion as often as we could.
A second insight that comes to mind is a lesson I’ve always known, but a lesson that came through loud and clear this past week. Psalm 20:7 says Some boast in chariots and some in horses, But we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God.
Where do we place our trust? For some, it’s a healthy stock portfolio. You can work and sav and invest wisely. That kind of responsible living is to be commended. But there are no guarantees in this life.
Who would have thought that we would see the stock market drop 2000 points in one day. We were supposed to have learned from the 1929 Wall Street Crash. We have a Securities Exchange Commission to guard against another crash. Then, overnight, the market plummets. And who knows if it’s coming back?
A lot of folks learned this past week that you can’t place your faith in your stock portfolio. This National Emergency has shown us that God alone is worthy of our faith. God alone is worthy of our trust.
The National Emergency has generated some new vocabulary. Terms like “social distancing” “self isolation” and “sheltering in place.” There is an invisible enemy out there that has turned life upside down. And the only way we can fight it is to “shelter in place.” We sit at home and maybe worry about the future. No one is saying when it will all end.
And yet, we’re not the first to go through something like this. There’s some precedent in the bible.
Travel back with me to the year 700 B.C. when the Kingdom of Judah experienced a National Emergency. The reigning monarch was King Hezekiah. He was one of the good kings. He honored God and brought reforms to the Kingdom.
At that time in history, Judah had to pay tribute to the king in Assyria. But Hezekiah wanted to put a stop to that. So he quietly maintained communications with his neighboring kingdoms who also were vassals to Assyria. He prepared Jerusalem to survive a siege if it came to that. He strengthened the walls and dug a tunnel to bring a ready supply of water within the city walls.
Tensions built in the region between the vassal states and King Sennacherib of Assyria. It came to a head in 702 when Sennacherib set out toward Jerusalem leaving a path of destruction in his wake. He took over all the towns of Judah and then headed for Jerusalem. He surrounded the city and threw up earthworks against the city walls. Anyone coming out of the city gates paid for his crime. King Hezekiah was shut up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.
The troops surrounding the city taunted Hezekiah’s watchmen on the walls. And the people just hunkered down waiting and wondering what would happen to them. You might say all of Jerusalem was “sheltering in place.”
Then, just at the moment when the siege was in full swing, the unexpected happened. Sennacherub broke off the attack and left. What happened?
Here’s what the bible says: That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-fivwe thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies. So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there. (2 Kings 19)
One explanation for the abrupt departure was that Sennacherib’s army was plagued by a sudden infestation of rats. But all we know for sure is that Hezekiah’s faith and his “sheltering in place” saved him.
The days ahead are uncertain. A lot of people will be suffering. And with a lot of time on our hands during this National Emergency, it is easy to get a little fearful.
To that end, I commend Psalm 46. It is inspired Martin Luther to write his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” But many scholars believe that it was written, perhaps by King Hezekiah, to give thanks for God’s miraculous rescue from Sennacherib’s siege when Jerusalem had to shelter in place.
Let me read it to you.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Please pray with me.
Father in heaven,
We give you praise and thanks for love and watchful care.
We thank you for the examples of those recorded in the bible who endured suffering, yet remained faithful to you.
During this time of our National Emergency, we turn to you.
Bring healing to those who are afflicted.
Give peace to those who are troubled.
Shield us from the virus that menaces,
particularly those who are in compromised health,
those who are on the front lines ministering to the sick,
those who work in essential services and must expose themselves to the public everyday.
And strengthen your church to be a blessing as we shelter in place, and as this nation and the world will recover from this emergency.
For we know that you,
You, the Lord of Hosts is with us
You, the God of Jacob is our refuge.