The Pandemic in Perspective

May 2, 2020

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

It was early March 2020. A colleague at InterVarsity Press–where I was working–was returning from a conference on the West Coast. She was flying back to O’Hare from LAX and as she travelled she was updating us on her progress on Slack.

News was beginning to trickle out of parts of China about a virulent new virus that was causing the City of Wuhan–with its population of 11M–to be ‘locked down.’ 

There were stories of people being literally shut up in their apartment buildings by soldiers who welded the doors closed. 

There were descriptions of ‘wet markets’–supposedly partially to blame for the spread of the virus–with fish, fowl, and other types of animals for sale and slaughter.

And as my friend tried to get back to Chicagoland, we heard from her about the thousands of people getting stock in O’Hare as people started to try to get back home from their trips earlier than planned in anticipation of something bad happening. Perhaps some of you were travelling around that time and experienced something similar.

People started talking about needing to wear facemasks. Restaurants started to close or offer items for pick up only. And then, around March 10 or 11 our children’s school district went to online only education–an option that those killjoys had already developed so that kids could keep learning on what used to be called ‘snow days.’ And it seemed kind of fun, at first. Didn’t it? 

What could be more fun than schooling, working, and working at home? 

Somewhere between day 180 and 365 most all of us had a pretty significant list of things that were wrong about it. 

This pandemic changed everything. 

And it changed nothing. 

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what it was like to live through the war–by which I mean the Second World War. 

My Dad was a little boy of five or six as the war came to an end. And he experienced some of the drama of living in World War 2 Britain–air raids, the blackout, rationing, and the like. 

Late in the War, Britain was being bombed periodically but not with the frequency of the early war. Every night every home had to close out every bit of light  by using thick blackout curtains so that the German bombers wouldn’t be able to identify landmarks. Rationing was strict and pretty austere.

But I imagine that most days seemed pretty dull. Marked by the regular rhythm of getting up and going to school and to work. Doing the shopping. Washing clothes. The hum drum stuff of everyday, ordinary life.

War–or so I’ve been told–is hours of monotony punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

And our war against COVID 19 — if we could call it that–has been much the same. 2020 and 2021 have to be most singularly boring period of time for most of us. Our lives shrunk down to the metes and bounds of our property and the four walls of our homes. 

Flights out of O’Hare, for example, fell by more than half between 2019 and 2020. And those of you who are in the hospitality industry have felt acutely the pain of reduced travel and eating out, etc.

Wonderful vacations, cancelled or postponed indefinitely. 

Childrens or grandchildren’s special events, missed.

Loved-ones seen only across the pixels of a computer screen or as a voice on the end of the phone line.

Funerals you were unable to attend. Weddings seen only across the internet. 

And yet, in the midst of all of this spectacular monotony, some pretty spectacularly and revolutionary things happened–as often happens, historically, during these sorts of periods of upheaval and disruption.

We saw protests–both violent and non-violent–about several important social issues. 

We saw politicians rise and fall, as they always do.

There seemed to be a never-ending stream of news coming across our Tvs and our computers and our phones, and we struggled to keep up with it. 

Opinions–even within a body of believers like our own–diverged on COVID precautions, singing, opening the building, etc., etc., etc. 

For a year with few activities actually happening, it has to be the most remarkably exhausting period of time I have ever experienced.

And because these sorts of events change everything and change nothing it can be easy to simply survive them and not pause to reflect on what, if anything, we have learned during it. After all, we’ve all spent a lot of time learning to do new things: watching worship on Facebook or Youtube, ordering grocery delivery from Instacart, and trying to figure out how, when, and where to get a vaccine.

So, how do we wrestle with the Pandemic and get some perspective on it and the impact that it has had on us and on our society?

What impact will it have on the church and on this church next week, next month, and next year? I don’t know, but I made a list in the spirit of Ecclesiastes of some of the things we’ve been able to learn or, perhaps, realized that we need to learn, in light of this season in our lives.

  1. Brought real suffering into our lives.

We tend to think of suffering as something that begins instantly and then last for a season then goes away. Perhaps we lose our job and we find, at first, that we’re distraught and then, in time, the pain lessens. 

The pandemic has offered us something rather different than this. We have experienced long term, low grade suffering. And we’re not used to that. Things might have been great for us prior to the pandemic but we pretty much knew what to expect out of life. All of that has changed and changed repeatedly–it has evolved.

And part of the suffering is keeping up with the changes in guidance and opinion. It’s trying to sort the truth from the lies, the prudence from the folly. That takes time and it takes emotional energy. And so don’t be surprised if you cannot remember a time when you’ve felt quite so exhausted from doing so very little. 

  1. Exploded the myth of control.

This isn’t the first disease that has affected life in the US. When our daughter Eliza was born in 2010 the H1N1 strain of the flu meant that our son couldn’t come and meet his baby sister in the hospital because of the precautions that were being taken.

We’ve seen swine flu and avian flu, but none of them seem to have been able to cause such a great disruption to the entire globe as COVID-19 has done. It’s been like a giant wave of misery rolling around the globe.

Early on, I felt pretty sure that things would be back to normal in about a month. Wrong. They’re still not normal. And we’ve lost–or perhaps we’re losing–the illusion that we’re in control and that we can do what we like when we like and how we like. 

The amount of control we have over ourselves, our destiny, the created order–you name it–is actually significantly less than we like to think. 

  1. Revealed some of our presuppositions about life.

The pandemic has also exposed some of the things that we assume or take for granted in our outlook on the world–our presuppositions.

The biggest of these is autonomy. We don’t usually say autonomy, we tend to say “freedom.” That’s why there have been protests about face coverings and restaurant closings and church gathering limitations. 

At the end of the day, it’s because we believe that we have the right to do precisely as we wish. We believe that we should be able to follow our desires without respect to the impact that those actions might have upon others.

And this is, at least to me, a profoundly un-Christian way to think. The New Testament repeatedly counsels to consider the needs of others as more significant, not less, than our own needs. 

To my mind, wearing a mask or getting the vaccine today, is like digging for victory in WW2. It’s something we can do to serve the greater good.

  1. Speeded some changes in our congregation like using technology, for example.

Some things have sped up during the pandemic. Like, for example, the use of technology in worship. And I’m incredibly grateful for the hard work over a long season that our tech team has put in so that we can share worship with those who are prevented from joining us here in the sanctuary.

It’s not really clear, long term, what the impact of virtual worship will be on church life in the USA. In his book Technopolpy, the social critic Neil Postman suggests that the power of technology is its ability to make all that came before it irrelevant. 

You invent the telephone and, almost immediately, the telegraph is dead in the water. 

You invent the car and the need for horses goes away.

In other words, technology tends to kill its rivals. And so that’s why noone–at least under a certain age, which I will not disclose–uses the Yellow Pages or the White Pages. It’s quicker and easier to Google.

Broadcasting services across the internet will surely have an impact on Christianity, but it remains to be seen exactly what that will be. 

And it’s my conviction that our digital ministry should always be something that supports our in-person worship rather than the other way around. 

  1. Slowed down other changes, like forming a PNC. 

A year and a half ago I would have expected you to be close to getting a permanent pastor by now. But the pandemic slowed that down. 

I’m not sure that that’s good or bad, but it just is. And it’s often true that God works in ways that baffle us.

Congregations are always tempted–and understandably so–to rush to get another installed pastor. We tend to want to get back to normal as soon as possible. 

But, ironically, there are as many versions of “normal” as there are people in the room.

It takes time to switch gears from “getting back to normal” to “discerning a vision” for God’s future for us. 

Normal is overrated. 

  1. Reminded us that we need one another.

Across these months we’ve cared for one another, supported one another, and, from time to time, griped at one another. That’s normal and natural, but not particularly fun.

In the end, however, we need one another.

  1. Helped us to be more dependent on God.

I’d like to say all of this has helped us to be more dependent on God. But, I’m not sure that it has. At least, not yet. It remains to be seen whether it will or not.

We can’t take it for granted, but we can pray to God that he would use it in our lives to make us lean on him in ever increasing measure.

Pandemic Lessons

When the name COVID-19 came into the popular lexicon I associated it with other infectious diseases that had touched the shores of our nation during my lifetime. Swine Flu, H1N1, Avian Flu. All of these diseases caused brief interruptions in our common life and then quickly faded into the background.

Like many, I assumed that in a month or two life would return to normal. How wrong I was.

Indeed, the only reason I remember H1N1 is because restrictions on entering our local hospital meant that 2 year old Nathan couldn’t come and see his newLike many, I assumed that in a month or two life would return to normal. How wrong I was.born sister while. Otherwise, my memory of these events is foggy at best. Like many, I assumed that in a month or two life would return to normal. How wrong I was.

The COVID pandemic has changed life in so many ways and for so many people. It remains to be seen precisely how many of these changes are permanent. My sense is that it will be more of them than perhaps we realize.

Here is my list of lessons learned.

We have to acknowledge that the world has changed, and we need to keep acknowledging it.

  • Change is hard. We all know that change is challenging. What we’re learning again is that multiple changes–in how we work, how we shop, where we eat, what we wear or can’t wear–exponentially increase the pressure and the stress of transition.
  • Continual change is exhausting. We live with information paralysis. There is so much information available to us that we no longer have good tools to help us discern what is true, accurate, helpful, and current. With infiormation changing hourly, we have a difficult time keeping up with it. This leads to exhaustion.
  • Selfcare is essential. You’re not much good to anyone else if you’re falling apart. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others.
  • Family is key. Nuclear and extended family has become the focal point of my life over the last year. I would have always said it was number one or two on my priority list, but in the midst of chaos we all need to know that our loved ones are okay.
  • It’s okay to pivot. I made a number of decisions last year based on the assumption that 2020 would look virtually the same as 2019. Some of those decisions have to be revisited in light of this new reality. That’s okay.
  • Naming reality is important. I remain convinced that few people have accurately captured the depth and extent of the stress and trauma that COVID 19 has put on the world population. Some of that’s because we’ve been focusing on major issues of justice, voting, etc. We have to acknowledge that the world has changed, and we need to keep acknowledging it.

What lessons have you learned over the last year?

Christians and the Old Testament

Christians and the Law
Matthew 5:13-20

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Some of you may know that I grew up on the south coast of England. And one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to go to the Southsea Arcade. The Arcade was an outdoor theme park, of sorts, not too far from where we lived. 

If I think about it now, it was sort of more like a county fair than a theme park. You could get cotton candy and fish and chips. There were games that you could play if you bought tokens.

I used to love driving the “bumper cars” with my sister. Actually they were called “dodgems” or “dodgem cars” and my Dad used to remind me that this meant the point of the game was avoid people rather than hitting them as hard as you could, a lesson that I never learned. 

Somehow giving and getting whiplash seemed much more like fun to me than scraping through a near miss.

One of the other  attractions there was the house of mirrors. Perhaps you’ve been to one or heard of them.

One of the features of the attraction are mirrors that distort your reflection. The mirrors are either converse or concave and the shape of the mirror alters the reflection of yourself that you see. 

Part of the attraction is seeing yourself as unusual and confusing reflections–some humorous and others frightening.

Let’s face it, we all have an image of ourselves–what we think we look like, what we think we sound like, how we think we come across to others. 

That’s what makes it so hard to see a video of yourself or listen to an audio recording of your voice. Inevitably the camera will show you an angle on yourself that you’ve never seen before and you’ll think, do I really look like that? Or, you’ll hear a recording of your voice and think do I really sound like that?

In fact, it wasn’t until last year that I regularly saw video recordings of myself preaching. Before COVID I had precisely one video recording of a sermon, now I have more than 40! 

And it’s hard to get used to seeing yourself on video–it changes how you see yourself. As Jesus discusses the law here, we begin to see that the law, is among other things, a mirror that shows us who we are. 

Without the law–that is, without an objective standard of morality outside of ourselves–we often find ourselves standing in front of a mirror that makes us look good. And when we gaze on ourselves in this mirror we find ourselves thinking things like: 

“I’m not that bad.” 

“I’m not like so-and-so.” 

“There are worse sins.”   

In other words it’s a mirror that shows us only favorable comparisons and reduces the law to something manageable like not being a mass murderer.

We’re going to see that Jesus’ use of the law points us to the absolute grace of God in rescuing us from ourselves and also points to our powerlessness to keep the law in a way that pleases God.

The law is, in other words,

(1) a window that shows what God requires of us 

(2) it is a mirror that shows how short we fall, 

(2) a scale that distinguishes right from wrong, and 

(3) a compass that shows us how we ought to live.

There are two sections of the Scripture and I’d like to take them in reverse order:

So, we’ll begin by looking at verses 17-20 where Jesus talks about his relationship with the law. 

Then we’ll look at verses 13-16–where Jesus describes what a community that keeps the law looks like.

“The Law and the Prophets”

First, we need to explore what Jesus means when he describes his relationship to the law. Or, put another way, how do we relate to the law now that Jesus has come into the world?

Jesus is pretty direct when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” 

Does this mean that things like observing the Sabbath on a Saturday or not eating a calf that has been boiled in its mother’s milk or shellfish, etc, are still binding on us as Christians today? Should we keep kosher? 

I don’t think it means that.

First, we see that Jesus spoke of “the Law and the Prophets” as not being abolished. What did he mean by this phrase? 

The “Law and the Prophets” was a regular expression Jews of Jesus’ day used to refer to the entire Old Testament. (See Matthew 7:12; 22:40; Acts 24:14; 28:23; Romans 3:21.) 

In Romans 3:21 the Apostle Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—”

In defending himself against his accusers in Acts 24:14 Paul said: “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets…”

The Old Testament comprises the Holy Scriptures or the sacred writings of the Jewish faith. It was through these writings that Jews thought they could understand the will of God and have eternal life (John 5:39, 45).

What Jesus said, then, was the Old Testament as a body of “God-breathed” literature would not be set aside or abolished. His concern was not specifically the Sabbath or the Ten Commandments. It was the entire Old Testament.

The Old Testament is God-breathed and useful just as is the New Testament. And so when someone like Andy Stanley questions whether we need the Old Testament or not, you should take note. To say that the Old Testament is somehow deficient or out-of-date expressly disagrees with what Jesus himself said on the matter, as we have just noted.

Jesus says that he has not come to do away with the law and the prophets–the Old Testament–but, rather, to fulfill them.

We should notice that Jesus did not tell Christians to “fulfill” these Scriptures down to the smallest letter and least stroke of a pen. 

He said he came to fulfill the Holy Scriptures.

What did he mean by this? The Greek word for “fulfill” Gk., isplerosai

According to Greek scholars, the nuance and meaning of this word is difficult to express in English, and several possibilities have been offered. 

  1. Jesus came to accomplish or obey the Holy Scriptures,
  1. to bring out the full meaning of the Holy Scriptures,
  1. to bring those Scriptures to their intended completion,
  1. to emphasize that the Scriptures point to him as Messiah and are fulfilled in his salvation work.

The Expositor’s Commentary on Matthew concludes (143): 

“The best interpretation of these difficult verses says that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point to him, and he is their fulfillment. The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill.’”

It is certainly a proper understanding of Jesus’ intent to say that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in himself—in his life and salvation work, and that the Scriptures pointed to him.

Remember, the book of Matthew was written to prove from the Jewish Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled the requirements of messiahship. 

Matthew often said Jesus acted “to fulfill” what was said through one prophet or another (Matthew 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17, etc.). 

You can read through the book of Matthew and note all the times that a reference is made to the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus.

Jesus said in Matthew 3:15 that “all righteousness” should be fulfilled in his actions.

 Luke 24:25-27, 44-45 and John 5:39-47 are also instructive on this point. 

These verses show that Jesus was interested in showing how the Hebrew Scriptures had himself as their object. He was the Messiah of whom all the Jewish holy writings had spoken of.

So the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus as the Messiah and as the one who fulfills all of the requirements of the law.

The law then becomes a mirror to show us who we are–both in Christ and apart from Christ.

The law shows us what God requires of us and it shows us that it is impossible, beyond our ability, to keep it perfectly. 

That’s why Jesus says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In other words, he takes as an example the group of people most commonly associated with keeping the law at the time: the pharisees. 

It’s like saying, “Unless your popularity surpasses the Kardashians” or “Unless your wealth surpasses Jeff Bezos” — it’s a way of showing just how impossible the task of keeping the law actually is. Take the people most thought of it as keeping the law and then exceed them and you’ll still fall short!

So, the law shows us the scope and the immensity of God’s holiness. And it also shows us how desperately short we fall in the attempt to fulfill it. 

It’s important to note that we don’t “keep” or “obey” the law in order to earn God’s favor or to make God like us. If we did, the would truly be the worst possible news because it would be a sentence handed down on us telling us that we could never be in fellowship with God.

Our attempts to live by the law are simply attempts–not to earn God’s favor–but to live the way of life that God has given to us. 

This is where the first part of the Scripture passage comes in:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Keeping the law–in Jesus’ view–is a revolutionary way of life that marks us as Jesus’ disciples, the church. It is the outward evidence that points to an inward reality of grace in our lives. 

In her book Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Imes puts it like this: 

“The law envisions a different kind of life, characterized by self-discipline and self-giving love. Imagine a community where every member actively worked to love and protect their neighbor!” 

In a sense, as Jesus points out, the law and the prophets can be summarized 

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mt 22.37-39). 

It is pithy and to the point. 

Classic Jesus.

Embracing the law of God helps us discover our true selves as the people of God. Deuteronomy says, “What does the Lord require of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you this day for your good?”  

Here we see that the law of God is a gift of  grace that is the foundation of human flourishing. 

It is not “busywork” assigned just to please the arbitrary whims of a capricious deity. The law of God simply shows us what human beings were built to do—to worship God alone, to love their neighbors as themselves, to tell the truth, keep their promises, forgive everything, act with justice.

When we move against these laws we move against our own natures and happiness. Disobedience to God sets up strains in the fabric of reality that can only lead to break down.

We can sum all of this up by saying that the law is a mirror, a window, a scale and a compass as I said at the start of our time together:

(1) a window that shows what God requires of us 

(2) it is a mirror that shows how short we fall, 

(2) a scale that distinguishes right from wrong, and 

(3) a compass that shows us how we ought to live.

And for those reasons it’s not something we can leave behind, but it is not something that we ultimately trust to deliver us from our sins.

Our deliverance comes from Christ alone.

Let’s pray.

The Great Reversal

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor  …

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11 NIV

In Plato’s Republic, the famous philosopher writes about the allegory of the cave. In the allegory, a man lives in a cave. He’s shackled there so that he cannot move about in the darkness and he cannot turn to the left or to the right, all he can do is look at the cave wall directly ahead of him. 

Behind him is a fire. It’s light casts shadows upon the portion of the wall that the prisoner can see. So, at best, the prisoner can merely see the shadows of people moving around or the shadows of what they are carrying. Plato says that, to the prisoner, these shadows–as limited as they are–are reality. 

After all, it’s all the prisoner has ever known. The prisoner is completely ignorant of all of all that lies beyond the cave. He has never experienced direct sunlight. He doesn’t know the sensation of a cool breeze on a warm afternoon. He hasn’t experienced snowflakes melting on the warmth of his skin or the steam of warm breath on a cold winter morning. All he knows is that sliver of reality that is directly in front of him and all he sees is a shadow of a real thing rather than the thing itself. He is a prisoner, a captive both of his cave and of his ignorance.

Then, Plato supposes that one of the prisoners is released. He climbs up and out of the cave. As he emerges, he is confronted by the scorching sun and the biting wind. He hears all sorts of sounds that he has never experienced before. 

He’s told that this, rather than the cave, is reality. What would he do? Plato surmises that he would immediately retreat to the cave. It is, after all, the only reality he has ever known. And the real reality beyond the cave would be too much for him. Even if he wanted to, the prisoner would find the real world beyond belief.

Plato wasn’t a Christian, but he was onto something. 

You see, the message of the Christian faith is that we all begin life in a cave. And we all naturally experience a reality that is limited. 

We can’t rescue ourselves from the cave because, after all, we don’t know we’re in a cave to begin with. 

For the Christian, salvation from the cave of sin and death can only come through the power of God who, by the working of his grace, liberates us from our bondage to sin.

This is a message that stands at odds with the dominant message that our culture communicates to us. Our culture tells us that we know ourselves perfectly and that we need only be true to ourselves in order to have the best life possible. 

Our culture assumes that our self-knowledge is complete and accurate. We’re told that in order to be free we need to be autonomous–self-governing and making decisions with respect only to our own inner compass. Even among Christians the god we proclaim is often one who simply blesses our opinions and prejudices rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The gospel of John tells us: 

“This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”

John 3:19-20

But, you say, I find myself wanting to do the good and the right–imperfectly, obviously. That’s good! Every time we find ourselves wanting to do the good and the right, it is the grace of God at work in us. 

The Christian message is, according to Paul,

“…is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

1 Corinthians 2:6-8

He continues, in verses 13 and following,

“We impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

We are all, apart from God’s activity in our hearts, “natural men and women” who are about as inclined and as capable to escape sin and death as the man in Plato’s cave. 

We need liberation.

And it is this liberation–from sin, self, and death–that Jesus accomplished for His people on the Cross. 

The Heidelberg Catechism asks:

Question. What…benefit to we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?

Answer: That by His power our old man–that is the natural man, the enslaved man, the guy in the cave–is with [Christ] crucified, slain and buried; that so the evil lusts of the flesh many no more reign in us, but that we might may offer ourselves unto [Christ] a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Q/A 43

It is this liberation that Christ accomplished during his passion, his death, and in his resurrection and his ascension.

Again, The Heidelberg Catechism asks:

Question. What benefit do we receive from the resurrection of Christ?

Q/A 45

This is the “so what” of Easter:

Answer: First, by his resurrection He has overcome death, that He might make us partakers of the righteousness which by His death He has obtained for us. Secondly, we also are now by His power raised to a new life. Thirdly, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.”

Q/A 45

So, in Christ’s death and resurrection we get three specific spiritual benefits: 

(1) Christ conquers death, and Christ makes us beneficiaries of this victory

(2) Christ gives us a new life, a new heart–one that is free from the cave of sin and sees spiritual things more clearly.

(3) Christ promises--gives a pledge, that is, a down payment or earnest money, if you will–to guarantee our resurrection.

And here’s where we connect with Isaiah 61. 

This passage from Isaiah is the passage of Scripture that Jesus chose to speak on when he started his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus’ reading stops at the very beginning of verse 2 of Isaiah 61. And I’ll tell you why: because the resurrection of Jesus Christ–and our resurrection life with him–begins now! 

This isn’t some far off, ethereal hope that one day we will be sitting in the heavens strumming a harp and enjoying the sun.

No, resurrection begins now. 

It begins with a changed heart–inward transformation. In the deepest parts of ourselves, salvation involves the reorientation of the compass of our lives. 

You see, we are by nature born with a compass that deviates from “true north.” And unless that inner compass is renewed, reoriented, aligned to true north, it will always and ever lead us astray and away from the true source of all delights, even Jesus our Lord.

What’s remarkable about the Christian message is that God himself–God the Son, Jesus–intentionally enters the cave of our sin and of our guilt and takes apart the shackles that bind us there. He takes us in his arms and he leads us up and out of the darkness, the dankness, the squalor of the cave and he leads us to freedom.

There we are able to breathe deeply the fresh air of grace. He binds our wounds. He takes the filthy, tattered rags of our own righteousness and, having washed and cleaned us, gives us new clothes–the clothes of his righteousness that cover over the multitude of our offenses. 

It is, in short, the greatest of reversals. Rags to riches. Death to life. And it starts now. Here. In this world, broken as it is. 

We are to live the resurrection. And it is the resurrection life that Jesus gives us that allows us to be the church that Jesus wants us to be, and the people who Jesus wants us to be.

You see, the church is not a building although the buildings that host our worship ought to be beautiful and tasteful pointing to the holiness of God. 

The church is a people. In a recent letter to the editor, theologian and Anglical Bishop N.T. Wright put it like this:

“The earliest Christian writings insist that in the Messiah ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’. The book of Revelation envisages Jesus’s followers as an uncountable family from every nation, tribe, people, and language. At the climax of his greatest letter, St. Paul urges Christians to ‘welcome one another’ across all social and ethnic barriers, insisting that the church will thereby function as the advance sign of God’s coming renewal of all creation.”

N. T. Wright, Letter to the Editor

It is the character and the life of the church as the people of God that makes the gospel plausible to a society that is, quite frankly–and perhaps understandably–not all that interested in what we have to say.

Isaiah puts it like this:

“For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”

As we reflect on the power of God that caused Christ to be raised from death, and the new life he gives to Christ’s followers, let’s remind ourselves, too, that the power of the resurrection must produce the fruit of change in our life and in our life together.

We are, in a sense, the change that God would see in the world.

So, let’s get started.


The importance of idleness

It turns out that idleness is central to creative work. Perhaps I should put it differently. Incubation is central to creative work.

And by incubation, I mean a period of time in which you spend your energy on an unrelated and undemanding task. It could be taking a walk, doing some laundry, working in the garden, or even taking a shower or brushing your teeth.

This article from the BBC goes into more detail.

It’s long been recognized that writers have unique rituals and habits that facilitate their creative work. Mason Curry details some in his book Daily Rituals. What ties most of these writers together is that each made room for intentional idleness. Few are the writers who can sit at their desk for twelve hours of continual composition.

It occurs to me that modern workplaces–at least before COVID–are designed for linear attention and sedentary work at a desk. In my mind, this makes offices more like prisons than studios.

Few offices, for example, have windows that open, taking away the pleasant sensation of a cool breeze on a spring morning or the sound of birds nestling in trees–the things that make for periods of productive daydreaming during the work day.

Fewer still have gardens or lounges or other amenities designed to offer third spaces for the sort of activites associated with incubation. Is it any wonder that American workers are miserable?

For this reason, many find the office to be their least valuable space–it’s great for low-level work, but virtually useless for any significant deep or creative work.

It’s time to rehumanize our work environments. It’s time to realize that homo sapiens aren’t brains on sticks. We are whole people who need whole environments that offer more than a place to sit while we crank out widgets.