Preached from the field this past Sunday, March 15, 2020:
Martin Luther wrote the following, titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”:
“What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: ‘Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt [or test] God.”
Luther lived amidst a plague that, when it came to town, didn’t send 5% of the population to the hospital, it sent 60% to the grave. Yet here he offers a reasoned response in the face of death. It is, on the one hand, to not despair – our days are in the Lord’s hands, every one of them, and each hair on our head is in His care – but on the other hand, to not put the Lord to the test by high-fiving everyone in town as if the Lord only works outside of His normal means. And so, when the plague came to town, he stayed behind to serve as pastor. We, likewise, exercise Christian freedom and charity as people make their decisions to come to church or stay home.
Regardless, let us be of good courage. Most of us are aware of Martin Luther’s Hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It was written in 1529 during, you guessed it, the plague. It was a hymn based on Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (vv. 1-3).
And Luther writes in the final verse that, though we lose everything, “goods, home, child, and wife,” he reminds us that the “Kingdom ours remaineth.” So in Luther we see a pastor who thought about the risk but bravely faced the plague confident of God’s salvation. He stood in the middle, between foolhardiness and panic.
May we do the same. May we stand in the middle, on brave but reasoned ground. We know this isn’t as dire as the plague, but at the same time recognize there are people at risk. We are confident God is still the King and in control, but we lift up the fourth commandment to honor the authorities. We are confident of our Lord’s salvation, but lift up the fifth commandment that says we ought to care for those around us. We know God’s truth in His word, but want to be aware of some of the, albeit imperfect, reporting on the subject. We walk the middle ground, brave and reasoned.
So perhaps in this crazy time, when we try to walk this middle road, we can put things in perspective. Our Lord has told us in Mathew 6:25-33:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
What do you NEED? What do you HAVE to have? The Kingdom of God and His righteousness! If you have that, given in Jesus, you have all you need. Because then you have eternal life! And let us not forget the startling reality that we all, unless the Lord comes back first, will die someday—Coronavirus or not. So, why should this virus, one of a million other ways we might die in this broken world, cause us to panic? When the fear of death grips us, it is we, the Christians, who, being reasonable and cautious, can ultimately say, “We need not be afraid.” Because we know the One who conquers the grave.
We have the Kingdom, brothers and sisters. What’s the worst case scenario for us? St. Paul says, “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). We either recover and continue in the ways God has given us to serve, or we die and go to the feast! We win either way, because our Lord is victorious. So what do we really need? The toilet paper, for some crazy reason? No. We need Jesus.
In our Gospel lesson [John 4:5-30, 39-42] there is a woman in need. She needs water, so she is at a well. She needs love, because she sure doesn’t have it at home as she has been burned by so many husbands before while her current man will sleep with her but not marry her—what a gentleman! But then she finds what she really needs: the Savior. The One who will die to wash her clean, who, in that same death, will show her unconditional love, and who will, as He promises, give her the water of life—sustenance forever.
In a world that looks for love in all the wrong places, that looks for security in Walmart or WinCo, we are reminded today of where we find love, value, security, and sustenance: in Jesus. You find it in His Word, in the Sacraments, which we cling to at home or away, and are distributed here. Which is why we will continue to offer it as long as it reasonable.
And we will stand and confess the First Article of the Creed. “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” God gives us the blessings of His creations. We have brains, we have elbows to cough in, we have soap. Diligent use of such things is a blessing and a blessing to your neighbor. And so as long as those gifts give us good reason to gather, we will do so. Acknowledging, like Luther did in his letter, that some who are at risk may reasonably withdraw.
But in either case, may we uplift the message of what is needful, what is confessed in that Second and Third Article of the Creed about Jesus and His gifts: forgiveness from a cross, resurrection from a tomb, and the Good News of a resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. And with those certain promises we can be confident and brave whether here, at home, or even in the hospital.
One more quote from Luther: he describes an idol as something you “fear and trust in” more than God. And there is a whole lot of fear out there these days. Let us repent, for we know something bigger, stronger, and scarier than this virus. Our Lord is holy and mighty. But He has used His power to save us, in that He came to this broken world that we might be forgiven, washed clean, and receive His Kingdom and righteousness. So we need not fear Him at all. What hope is ours!
Yes, we see in these wild days that creation groans. There are plagues, pestilences, wars, and rumors of war. These should not surprise us, as our Lord said Himself they will come. It is an evil, broken world, riling, rebelling and being judged by a holy God. And here we are caught in the middle of it. May we use our reason, but not be overcome with fear, because we know the One who has overcome the world and death itself. Let us trust that the Lord has seen His Church and people through worse; truly the gates of hell will not overcome us, because we have the one thing needful: a Savior. That is our confidence.
Rev. Garen Pay
Hope Lutheran Church, Idaho Falls, ID
[The full letter from Martin Luther to Rev. Dr. Johann Hess on “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague” can be found by clicking here. ]