Sermon from May 17: The Battle
Easter VI; May 17, 2020
II Chronicles 20:13-17
Sales of shirts have remained steady, sales of pajamas have gone up, sales of pants have gone down: one of the unforeseen consequences of doing most of our connecting with each other over video conferencing. One of the questions we followers of Jesus have to consider is what the unforeseen consequences are of worshiping via Facebook Live and YouTube.
Today’s message and next week’s I am thinking of as a two-part message on thinking our way through this pandemic. These two months we have done some laughing, some weeping, some physically-distanced fellowship and more physically-distanced committee meetings (we can be so Presbyterian!). What does it all mean? What is the big picture? Before I tell you a little more about the Scripture, I want to give you the summary of everything I have to say today: Only the Cross makes sense to me.
I told you a few weeks ago that I’m using Scriptures that have been helpful to me or to someone during the pandemic. I was inspired by some preachers who were interviewed on NPR; one of them said that he was inspired by II Chronicles’ phrase, “The battle is not yours but God’s.” You heard me read that in today’s Scripture; the King of Judah was afraid of an impending invasion, because he knew the country wasn’t strong enough to stand against the allies arrayed against it. But a prophet urged him not to worry; “The battle is not yours but God’s.” So the King arranged his forces appropriately, but did not charge out into battle. And the way it turned out, God confused the enemies so they ended up destroying each other.
The preacher said that he was able to work through the pandemic with the confidence that the battle is not his, but God’s. He doesn’t have to solve all the problems medical, social, and economic that are before us. The battle is not his, but God’s. That is certainly true for the preacher, and I have always been helped by the reminder that it is my duty to proclaim the Gospel, but it is not my duty to make you believe it or live by it. The battle is not mine, but God’s.
And yet: the guidelines that have enabled us to live securely, inhibiting the spread of COVID-19, were not handed down on Mt. Sinai but came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What we are looking for in order to deal with this disease long-term is not going to miraculously appear at a wedding in Cana, but will be the product of intensive research for a vaccine and for treatments. Restoring livelihoods and financial security will be the product of hard work and entrepreneurial innovation, not trumpets blowing down the walls of Jericho. You may be shocked to hear me say this – I may sound like a hardened secularist – but I believe I am telling the truth. The truth, as I see it, is defined both by Biblical theology and scientific discovery.
So I want to say a few things that will take us to my conclusion that only the Cross makes sense. I don’t know all the nonsense being said in the name of God about this coronavirus, but I want to say this clearly: this particular thing is the normal result of living in the world as God is making it. God didn’t send it as punishment for anything, but it also is not something that comes from Hell against the will of God. Keep two things in mind: God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve; and Creation isn’t about us. I once heard a children’s teacher say that if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, then mosquitoes would not harm us. That is nonsense. Don’t teach our children nonsense. Mosquitoes have evolved to nourish themselves the way they do; some of them carry diseases harmful to humans. God could have, no doubt, built everything so that nothing ever changes and nothing ever causes harm, but God did not do that. God is creating a world that has the freedom to evolve, and so harmful things such as this particular coronavirus will naturally emerge. And that is particularly true when, as Biblical theology makes clear, we human beings are not the purpose of creation. It isn’t all about us. Things that have their own lives and processes will emerge, irrespective of what we think is good. It isn’t all about us.
That’s the first and the hardest thing I have to say to you. The rest comes more easily. This coronavirus is causing more suffering than anything the world has dealt with in a very long time. Many are suffering directly from the disease COVID-19. And then many are suffering from being on the front line of care; one man I communicate with on social media reported recently his sadness when two more of his patients died of it. He suffers emotionally. Many suffer from anxiety, either because they go to work and are constantly exposed to the possibility of catching the coronavirus, or because they are staying in and are feeling closed in. And a huge number of people are suffering financially and from reduced self-image, because they are not working and have less income and do not know when they will be able to work again.
That was what hit me several days ago: when the morning news reported the unemployment figures. I haven’t wept over the numbers of new cases of COVID-19 or the stories about who has died of it, I admit, but hearing how many people have lost their jobs did it. And that’s when I realized: only the Cross makes sense. We want God to solve this for us, to send a vaccine or make the virus magically go away; and some religious charlatans say that is what would happen if we had enough faith. I don’t believe it. I believe that we need to keep fighting our instinct to herd together, to continue vigilant despite the yahoos storming State capitols demanding what they consider freedom, and to do what we can to encourage good medical research into vaccines and treatment. That battle is ours.
To go back to the story: even though God caused the invaders to fall on each other, King Jehoshaphat’s troops were ready to do what was needed. It turned out that all that was needed was to sing praise and gather the plunder from the fallen. But they were ready. The battle is God’s, but we have our part to play.
The Cross is what makes sense of it for me. God has made clear that the way God deals with suffering is to become part of it. God suffers with us. When you weep over your loved one who is hospitalized with COVID-19 and you cannot be with them, God weeps. When I weep over the millions who are out of work, God weeps. Maybe you want the magical power that makes everything better; God has chosen the Cross. God deals with suffering by suffering; deals with death by dying. It is the only way to resurrection.
The way God joins the battle with suffering is not to make suffering go away; God becomes part of the suffering as Jesus dies on the Cross, and God redeems suffering by raising Jesus from the dead. What good will come from this terrible period we are experiencing? Too many of you are already breathing a sigh of relief; we’re not through this yet. We have a long way to go. But I live with the confidence that God will bring something good from this. That is how redemption works: not by making suffering go away, but by suffering through it to the new day of resurrection beyond it. That battle is not yours or mine, but God’s. Even so, we have our part to play.
By the grace of God and human sweat and tears and careful thought, something good will come of all this; some of us will even live to see the good things that come of it. You and I can be part of that, and that is where I will try to pick up this thread in next week’s message. In the meantime, remember that the battle is God’s, and that God has engaged in the battle by the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is on the Cross that God becomes one with us in suffering and dying, so that we may become one with God in living. Only the Cross makes sense to me.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master