Love in the Time of COVID-19
Love in the Time of Cholera is a 1980's Spanish novel of a 50-year love story. Never read the book or seen the 2014 movie, but always liked the title. In this period of uncertainty and fearmongering with heads full of movies about Zombies, virus outbreaks, and dystopian futures, the real worry is love. You're worried about your loved ones; your kids, your elderly parents or grandparents, your spouse, your friend, and if you're really honest: yourself. Yes, my self-love looms largest of all in this time where fear seems encouraged, fed, and normalized. The only love not talked about and if thought about is marginalized is God's love for us.
God's love in the time of COVID-19 says, "Wait for the Lord" and in case you didn't get that the Holy Spirit repeats Himself, "wait for the Lord." You're not waiting on men, medicine, statistics, or government, but on the Lord. The One who promises to provide, protect, and above all redeem. The last one is the big one. COVID-19 threatens you with the First Death, the One the Lord promises no one can avoid. We began Lent with ashes on our heads and God's word to Adam the first sinner in our ears: "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," Have you forgotten that? When COVID-19 or fearmongers shriek, "We're all going to die", the Christian can say, "Duh, that's what my pastor has always said." The First Death can't be avoided. In fact, the Lord drove the First Sinner out of Paradise specifically so he couldn't live forever. Hear for yourself: "And the Lord God said, The man has now become like one of Us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and so live forever'" (Gen. 3:22 ).
The Second Death is the spiritual death that Adam and Eve died the instant they broke God's commandment. This Second Death too has been past to all humans. The moment you were conceived in the womb you weren't just a human you were a sinful human as Psalm 51 says, "I was sinful when my mother conceived me." You were alive biologically but stone-cold dead spiritually. Your mother gave birth to you in pain indicating to all that this birth was unto death not life. But God's love didn't leave you there. He sent His only beloved Son, Jesus, from heaven into the womb of a virgin named Mary, and right then and there Jesus obligated Himself to keep the Law perfectly. After living the perfect life you and I can't even imagine, the Father handed Him over to sin, Death, and Devil to suffer the punishments you deserve. And He did. He suffered not only earthly sicknesses and pain but the eternal pains of hell. And on Good Friday Jesus says, "It is finished," and on Easter morning God the Father said, "Yes it is. I see not one Law that needs to be kept, not one sin that needs to be paid for." So, Death and Devil had nothing to hold Jesus in the grave with, and out He rose.
The one who rose victorious over the Sin, the Death, the Devil that chase you with the First and Second Death is none other than Yahweh, the Lord who says, "Wait for Me. You can be strong and take heart, not because you see it, feel it, but because I say so." When a paralyzed man is bought to Jesus for healing from the First Death what does Jesus say? The same thing as David does: "Take heart your sins are forgiven you." What? He was bought to the Lord for physical healing and all Jesus gave him was the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting using "mere: words. Many of you can't wait to be tested for COVID-19, and I'm not discouraging that. I know, how much comfort I would take from the words of a man saying, You tested negative'. Or even more so, "You already had COVID-19; now you're immune." How I would skip out of that doctor's office! Science, medicine, and technology have spoken through the mouth of a man, and I can be sure I'm safe.
Yup, you won't die of COVID-19, but you will die. "Remember you are dust and to dust you will return." What you need not die is the Second Death, the eternal one. Jesus redeemed you, bought you back at the price of His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. And this One says to you in Baptism, "Just as I was raised from the dead through the Father's glory, you too walk about in a new life." This One says to you in the Absolution, "I forgive you all your sins." This One gives to you His Body as Bread and His Blood as Wine and says, "Eat, drink; live forever."
At the start of the First Gulf War an Airforce unit unloaded in a parking garage in Kuwait. Suddenly a SCUD missile strikes and the cry, "Gas, gas, gas" sounds. They instantly put on their gas masks as they've been trained to do, but they start to smell something. They think, "The masks don't work." Or, "Are these masks somehow poisoning us?" They broke out into profuse sweat, had difficulty swallowing, and hearts hammered. Then someone realizes they had cleaned their masks right before leaving. Normally a month would go by after cleaning before they put them on again. What they were smelling was the chemicals used to clean their masks. Their own fears were poisoning them. What if they had concluded their gas mask were poisoned and it had been a real gas attack? They would've ripped their masks off only to suck in death. No, don't think yourself into COVID-19 and don't abandon the protection you have in Christ from the Second Death because you're so afraid of the First which is absolutely unavoidable.
God's love in Christ in the time of COVID-19 says: ask me anything. I conclude we can because David the writer of the Introit was born in sin, committed adultery and murder, despaired in soul (Ps. 43:5), yet he could pray: "Remove Thy plague from me" (Ps. 39:5). But note the main thing he prayed, "that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to seek Him in His temple." You probably shouldn't watch the 1992 movie "The Plague" now, but the height of the plague is depicted in the movie by panning to the confessional and seeing a penitent kneeling in his side but the priest's side empty. The Lord promises to never leave you or forsake you. In Confessional Lutheranism you're never going to find the Lord's temple vacant. A Christian can forgive sins the same way a pastor or a priest can, in Jesus' name, by His command, by His promise. No matter how "bad" COVID-19 gets if Jesus promises, and He does, that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church", then no virus can.
God's love for you in Jesus' name says keep on the gas mask of My Word and Sacraments and breathe normally. Sinful, forgiven David concludes, "In the day of trouble He will keep me safe in His dwelling, He will hide me in the shelter of His tabernacle, and set me high upon a rock" (Ps. 27:5). Don't read your Bible with asterisks. There are done. David doesn't conclude His Lord, will keep Him safe in His dwelling, hide him, and set him on a rock, * except in the case of a new virus; except when the CDC says otherwise; except when every bone, blood vessel, and synapse is telling you to panic.
But what Tabernacle does David expect to be sheltered in? Who but Jesus? Jn. 1:14 says, "God's Word became flesh and dwelled, literally tabernacled, among us." There is shelter for you, always under any circumstance, in the nail holes of His feet and hands, and what a large hole is in the crucified Christ's side. Surely, that's for you. Surely, in there is refuge from the sins that haunt your conscience, the Death that hounds your heels, and the Devil of 10,000 worries. And what rock do you think He sets you on? What is that rock that David prays to be lead to in Ps. 61:2? "When my heart is overwhelmed within me, lead me to the Rock that is higher than me"? Paul says in 1 Cor. 10 of the Rock that followed the OT Church through the wilderness providing for the needs of 2 million people "and the Rock was Christ" (4).
Ah, but you want to know when this will end? Pestilence, famine, and war are alike: men can start them, but only God can end them. So the Lord says, "Look to the Rock from which you were hewn" (Is. 51:1). Jesus birthed you in Baptism. Took you who were dead in your trespasses and sins and made you alive. You've been cut from the Rock of Ages, so look to this Rock who David says "is near to the brokenhearted and saves all those crushed in spirit" (Ps. 34:18). That would be me every time I hear, read, or watch the news. Look to the Lord Jesus, who assures you, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous i.e. those in Christ but the Lord delivers him out of them all" (Ibid. 19). Remember no asterisks.
Christ your Rock and Righteousness communicates with you by His Holy Word and Sacraments. You communicate with Him by prayer. When pestilence is sent upon David's kingdom in consequence not in payment for his sins what Christian would deny that our collective and individual sins deserve the consequence of COVID-19 or worse David is convicted of his sin and offers a sacrifice on the place where the temple would be built, which is where Abraham offered Isaac. Both of those events pointed to the only wrath-removing sacrifice ever, that of Jesus on the cross. The Lord accepted this appeal to Jesus "and commanded the angel, and he put his sword back in his sheath" (1 Chron. 21:27). When Rome was nearly depopulated by pestilence in the 6th century, Gregory the Great, led a procession through the streets of the city praying the Great Litany. For three days they did this. Then Gregory beheld the archangel Michael landing on top of Hadrian's tomb and sheathing his blood stained sword. The plague was stopped and a church was built on this site. The tomb of Hadrian has sense been knowns as "Cast of Sant'Angelo" "Castle of the Holy Angel."
I don't know if our Lord Jesus will send an angel to stop COVID-19 but I know He can do it, and I know that as great as your love for your loved ones is, far greater is His love for them and you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (20200322); Psalm 27: 14; 4-5, 6b (Introit)