July 24, 2020
When the pandemic hit in full force back in March, I shared five Scripture passages that might be helpful for pastors to consider preaching from in our current context. It is now July, and the pandemic rages on, more fiercely than ever in many areas. The end is not in sight, and churches, individuals, schools, and organizations continue to navigate challenging and ever-evolving conditions. As I’ve continued to think about what it means to read Scripture right now, here are five more passages that come to mind that may speak powerfully and hopefully to our current situation:
- Psalm 13, or a number of other “lament” texts.
This is an appropriate season for lament. In fact, in N.T. Wright’s new book God and the Pandemic, he encourages Christians and churches to begin their response to the pandemic in this way. The world is not as it should be, and so many are experiencing acute suffering: whether because of sickness and death, job loss, isolation, or any number of ways that the pandemic is impacting lives. It is wholly appropriate to cry and complain to God. There are good examples of this throughout Scripture.
The opening of Psalm 13 stands out as an example of lament and may resonate powerfully with many readers and hearers: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” None of us could have predicted that the pandemic would persist in the ways that it has. Weeks have turned into months, with few signs of an end in sight. How long, indeed? How long will this last? How long can we last?
The Psalmist, like other voices in Scripture, complains to God and begs for intervention. “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death” (v. 3). And yet this lament, like so many, ends with a hopeful note, recalling God’s enduring love and anticipating divine deliverance (v. 5).
Other lament texts come to mind: Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and the book of Lamentations are also good examples. In this difficult season, it’s okay for worship to reflect the sincere cries of our hearts.
- Psalm 23.
This psalm comes to mind for me often these days. It may be comforting for many to read and re-read this familiar psalm as a word of solace and encouragement. The psalm offers a good entry point for preaching during this time, too. Many of us feel as though we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death these days. Fear and uncertainty are rampant. And yet the psalm speaks to God’s enduring presence and sure protection: “you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (v. 4). The pastoral imagery (“green pastures” and “still waters”; v. 2) invite calmness, rest, and peace. Even in the midst of trials, the psalmist testifies with confidence that “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” (v. 6). This psalm offers words of comfort and reassurances of God’s presence to those who desperately need a word of encouragement and hope.
- Ezekiel 37: 1–14 (“Valley of dry bones”).
I have been surprised at the ways in which partisan politics have flared up in the midst of the pandemic (though perhaps I should not have been). Rather than a “we are all in this together” mentality, the pandemic has reinforced partisan lines of conflict. Entrenched ideologies have not yielded to what should have been a unifying crisis. It has been disappointing and disheartening to see this development.
The United States has been humbled by the pandemic and poor leadership; as I write this, we rank among the top ten for worst outbreaks in the world. Many countries have blacklisted American travelers because our infection rates have surged while they have brought the pandemic under control. I, for one, wish that the United States could have helped lead the international response to the pandemic and made this a unifying moment for the world.
Ezekiel 37 speaks to a nation that has been humbled and entirely undone: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” Conquest and exile have rendered Israel a shadow of its former self. And yet, God asks the prophet a loaded question: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (As a humorous aside, Ezekiel’s response is an outstanding example for how to respond if God ever asks you a trick question: “O Lord GOD, you know”; v. 3) Sure enough, as Ezekiel watches, the dusty bones scattered throughout the valley reconnect to one another, become covered with sinews and skin, and ultimately receive God’s life-giving breath. Ezekiel envisions the renewal of the nation of Israel following the crisis of exile.
I wonder if this passage might speak to those of us who bear deeply conflicted feelings about our own nation these days? I wonder if it might offer a word of hope about the possibility of national (and perhaps international) renewal on the other side of crisis? I wonder if it might even offer a word of challenge to Christians: we are invited to partner with God in this work of re-connection, reconciliation, and renewal. We are invited to “stand in the gap” created by partisan politics and speak words of peace, kindness, and unity. One cautionary note, however: pastors should be careful to avoid elevating the United States to some special, divinely anointed status, but rather speak to the hope that God will see us through this crisis, that redemption and reconciliation is possible, and that better days lie ahead.
We are living in an apocalyptic moment. “Apocalypses” like the book of Revelation don’t simply anticipate the end of the world, they also reveal the way the world really is right now. The global pandemic has “revealed” numerous things about our society and our churches. For example, it has revealed the ways in which we oftentimes idolize the economy at the expense of lives and safety. We have also seen how the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated racial disparities in our country, as persons of color have been impacted more severely than white Americans. As an apocalyptic text, Revelation offers an intriguing point of departure for sermons that might explore what the pandemic is revealing about ourselves, our churches, and our society right now. Moreover: it offers a compelling challenge for Christians to “witness” and to participate in God’s work in the world.
Revelation is a book that is both feared and often misinterpreted. It is not, properly understood, a text about “the end times.” Nor is it a book that is all “doom and gloom.” Rather, it is a profoundly hopeful and encouraging book. It opens with a vision of Jesus standing in the midst of seven lamp stands: an image that suggests Christ’s faithful presence in the lives of churches and Christians who are struggling to make sense of the world (Rev 1:12–20). Following letters of encouragement and challenge to seven churches (chs. 2–3), Revelation offers a vision of the heavenly throne room. It reveals that, all appearances to the contrary, God is in control of the world (chs. 4 and 5).
Revelation 21 has a powerful resonance in our present moment: the author offers a hopeful vision of God’s immediate presence with humanity, and an end to tears, suffering, and death. Visions such as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” (6:1–8) and others offer tantalizing imagery in the midst of pandemic, as well. Even for pastors who are familiar with Revelation, it will be helpful to have a “guide” to interpreting the book. Brian Blount (New Testament Library) and Mitchell Reddish (Smyth & Helwys series) have splendid commentaries on Revelation. Warren Carter’s What Does Revelation Reveal? and Craig Koester’s Revelation and the End of All Things are accessible introductions to this final book of the New Testament.
- Philippians (perhaps especially 4:1–13).
Philippians is perhaps Paul’s most joyful letter. In his opening, he tells the Philippian Christians that he is “constantly praying with joy” for them (1:3); as he begins to wind down the letter, he encourages them to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). This is all the more remarkable when we remember that Paul was writing to them from prison. For this reason, the letter may resonate with pastors and congregations who cannot physically be together during this time. The letter offers words of joy, gratitude, and sincere affection even in while separated.
Philippians also presents readers with a call to humility and unity (especially, for example, the Christ Hymn in ch. 2). When churches are struggling with how to be church together, and are conflicted over differing opinions about whether to meet in person or continue online, this letter offers gentle reminders for us to seek to imitate Christ.
Furthermore, Philippians offers a word of perseverance, based on Paul’s own experience in prison: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (4:11–13). For those who are confined to their own homes, struggling with social distancing and isolation, and feeling like the world has become much smaller lately, these words can encourage them to carry on. We can do hard things, and we can find joy even in the midst of suffering.
This joyful letter feels rather timely in so many ways. If it has been a while since you’ve opened Philippians, I’d encourage you to read it in its entirety. It might even be a good option for a sermon series!
There you go—five passages to consider as the pandemic continues to unfold. I would love to hear what you think. Also: What other ideas do you have, and what passages are you planning to preach from in the weeks ahead? Please share your comments, thoughts, and questions below!