NOTE: This post is the sermon of the first Sunday after COVID-19 caused a global shut down.
One of the most memorable events in my childhood was living through the New Madrid Earthquake of March 1976 in Memphis, Tennessee. While not as well-known as the San Andreas Fault, the New Madrid seismic zone extends 150 miles south from Cairo, Illinois, through New Madrid, Missouri, to Marked Tree, Arkansas. It reaches into Kentucky and Tennessee and crosses the Mississippi River in three places.
During the winter of 1811–12, the fault produced quake so massive that it not only permanently re-routed the Mississippi River, but also caused it to temporarily flow backward!
While folks in California would call the 5.0 quake I experienced as a seven-year-old a mild tremor, it stands out as one of the most memorable events in my childhood.
I was sitting on a stool in my grandmother’s kitchen helping her mix the batter for a chocolate cake. As the house began to shake, I was thrown from the stool onto the floor, along with pots, pans, plates, and cups that fell off the counter and out of the cabinets. I had never experienced anything like it — nor have I since.
Until possibly this past week, which has felt like an emotional earthquake — as if the world is falling apart.
In the wake of COVID-19 fears, we’ve seen (and emotionally felt) the stock market begin to crash. Then as reports of professional athletes contracting the coronavirus spread, the dominoes began to fall with the indefinite suspension of professional sports followed by the cancelation of the NCAA basketball tournament. March Madness, overnight, had turned into March Sadness. Universities started closing campuses and going online for the rest of the school year. Holiday parades and community festivals have been canceled. Even Disney World is closed.
If you are not suffering from fear and feeling emotionally disoriented, you probably are experiencing a sense of loss and disappointment.
My son, who is a senior in college, received an email over spring break notifying him to clear out his dorm room, as all classes have been moved online. But what about Spring Formal? What about hanging out with best friends making memories during the last eight weeks of their senior year. Without the chance to regroup, they have all been sent back to places like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and California. So many plans ripped out from under him that can’t just be postponed.
As I read his face upon receiving the news, I was overcome by the depth of grief I felt for his loss.
Like being knocked off my stool in Granny’s kitchen in 1976, it feels like the world is falling apart. People are not only canceling vacation reservations; people are dying. While the mortality threat for healthy adults remains low, those who are older and have compromised immune systems or underlying health conditions are at a much higher risk.
This is why so many churches are meeting online today and possibly for several weeks to come. We want to love others well by helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread by limiting human exposure to the virus until a vaccine or some other treatment is available.
For our generation, with such widespread, global distancing practices being implemented, we are in uncharted water. But we are not the first to experience the cultural turmoil and uncertainty. Quakes like this have been taking place since the first tremor in the garden when the pandemic of sin was released upon the world.
Where can we go in times like these when the pots and pans have fallen out of the pantry and are all over the floor?
I want to take us to Psalm 46. Written by the sons of Korah, this Psalm is a song to be sung by God’s people in times of tumult and uncertainty, fear, stress, and anxiety.
We don’t know what the pressing crisis was when the psalm was originally written, but we can assume it was at least a national crisis, possibly even global in scope, as the song addresses the nations.
While there are several themes in this psalm, the one upon which I want us to focus is surrender.
If we can learn to sing this psalm as a song of surrender, we will discover that when we surrender control of our lives, we may be filled with peace and hope and are able to rest, even in the midst of the storm.
1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. 8 Come and see what the LORD has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. 10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Remember, the purpose of this passage is to help us surrender control of our lives to God, so that we can be filled with peace and hope and be able to rest — even when the waters roar and mountains quake. But how do we do this? Let me suggest three things from the text.
Honestly Confess Your Fears
I admit that the author of Psalm 46 appears more confident than I am. Although the world is falling apart, he remains steadfast, declaring in verse 2, “We will not fear.” Maybe his refusal to fear is a reminder declaration, preaching the truth to himself because he needs to re-believe that “God is our refuge and strength and an ever-present help in trouble.” The Lord Almighty is not a faraway God, he is “ever-present.” The implication is that believers have no reason to fear or live with anxious thoughts.
But we still do fear. I still struggle with anxieties.
Last week, in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, pastor and author, Scotty Smith, posted a prayer on his blog, where he confesses what I need to confess, which is my own idolatry of control. Maybe you can relate as he confesses,
“COVID-19 is throwing a giant LED-spotlight on a heart idol that still roams inside of me. Father, I so want to be in control over things you don’t give us control over. I’m not afraid to die; but while I live, I crave control over the health and welfare of those I love. I want economic predictability; and no more major surprises, loses, and pains in life. On a one-to-ten stress meter, I don’t want the dial to register above six.”
Scotty goes on to ask how he should steward his confession. One way is to move on to the second step on the path of surrender from Psalm 46, which is to…
Consciously Embrace God’s Sovereign Reign
I am using the word consciously on purpose. It is one thing to affirm something with my intellect. It is something else to embrace it with my heart, where I personalize it to the degree that it actually gets in my spiritual bloodstream and influences my life deeply.
With the Psalms being a shadow of the coming of Jesus as King, in verses 6 and 9, the psalmist writes of the absolute reign of Christ, saying, “6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts… 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.”
Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nations rise and fall at his command according to his purposes. But even as the kingdoms of man fall, the kingdom of God remains. This is what the Psalmist means in verses 4–5, saying,
“4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.”
It is as if there is a secret river, like an underground aqueduct to the city that sustains God’s people, even in times when a drought of hope afflicts the globe, where fear takes hold and incites panic (and the hoarding of toilet paper!).
Written in 1563 during the Protestant Reformation, the Heidelberg Catechism helps us tap into God’s secret aqueduct. Question #1 of the catechism asks, “What is your only hope in life and death?” The answer is as beautiful as it is biblical:
That I am not my own,but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.He also watches over me in such a waythat not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven;in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal lifeand makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Isn’t that so good? I love how it dovetails with Question 27, which asks:What do you understand by the providence of God?
Providence is the almighty and ever present power of Godby which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures,and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact, come to us not by chancebut by his fatherly hand.
Once we confess our fears and consciously embrace the sovereign reign of Jesus, we press into a posture of surrender to God by…
Intentionally Pausing to Meditate
While eastern styles of meditation instruct you to empty your mind, biblical meditation is about filling your mind and heart with the truth. This doesn’t happen passively. Our minds and hearts are going to be filled. The question is, with what? This is why mediation must be an intentional practice.
The Lord gives us a clear and simple guide for how to meditate in verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Do you see the unexpected silver lining in the opportunity we have been given with COVID-19? With the cancellation of practically every group gathering and social activity imaginable, we have space in life to be quiet and still. We could fill the air with more distraction. I suppose Netflix stocks will be one of those to go up while others go down. Netflix and Charmin.
Or we could take the time to be intentional about meditation. Not all day, but at some point in the day as a means of grace. Stop. Sit. Be quiet and still and know. Really know as you’ve never known before. Press into the reality of God as a sovereign Father. As good, kind, merciful, loving… and purposeful. His ways are not our ways nor his thoughts our thoughts. His ways are higher and wiser than ours. History is his story. We are players on the stage — sons and daughters of God who long for the glory of God’s grace in Jesus to be exalted among the nations, whatever may come.
The Old Man, His Horse, and His Son
There is a story about an old man in a Chinese village who was very poor, but even wealthy kings were jealous of his beautiful white horse. These kings offered fabulous prices, but the old man loved the horse as a friend and refused to sell.
One morning, the old man discovered that the horse was not in the stable. The village gathered and called the man a fool for not selling the horse when he could have. They called the loss of his horse a terrible misfortune and lost opportunity.
But the old man said, “Who knows. It could be a misfortune. It could be a blessing. Only God knows.”
The people thought the old man had gone mad. He hadn’t gone mad. He had just surrendered.
After fifteen days, the horse suddenly returned. It had not been stolen but had escaped to the wilderness. Not only did the horse come back, he brought a dozen wild horses with him into the poor man’s stable. Again, the people gathered and said, “You were right. It wasn’t a misfortune; the loss of the horse was a blessing after all.”
The old man replied, “Who knows. It could be a blessing. Maybe not. Only God knows.”
The old man had a young son who started to train the wild horses. Just a week later he was thrown from a horse and both his legs were badly broken.
The people gathered again, saying, “You were right. The return of your horse was not a blessing after all. It was a terrible misfortune. Your only son has lost his legs, and in your old age he was your only support. Now you are poorer than ever.”
The old man said,“Who knows. It could be a misfortune. Or it could be a blessing. Only God knows.”
A few weeks later, the country went to war, and all the young men of the town were forcibly taken to serve in the military where they all died in a dreadful battle. Because he was lame, the only one not taken was the old man’s son.
There are many lessons in this story, chief among them the peace experienced through surrendering our judgment and our sense of control.
The Surrender of Jesus
When the apostles witnessed Jesus being crucified, they must have thought it the greatest calamity imaginable. Yet God used that horrific injustice to accomplish the greatest good imaginable. What they beheld in watching Jesus die was surrender, where the Savior as a substitute absorbed into himself the pandemic of our sin, protecting us from the eternal consequences of its curse.
As the psalm beckons us, “Come see what the Lord has done!” Look upon the King of Kings with nail-scarred hands and feet. He has desolated our sins and conquered our great enemy of sin and death!
Come and see — look and believe!
Paul tells us in Phil 2:8, that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” Jesus was not forced into crucifixion but voluntarily submitted to the plan of the Father, praying the night before, “Not my will but yours be done.”
What if that could become my prayer. “Not my will, Father, but yours be done. Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
That is surrender, which involves putting down my idols of control, moral superiority, physical comfort, health, and financial security. If you are willing to put them down at the cross, I believe you will discover the secret portal of living water that will begin to flow, washing away fear with the grace and peace of God.
Remember, our surrender is not to the whims of fate, but a surrender of control to the one who has saved us by his surrender upon a cross and who rose again, showing us that giving up control is not the path of losing one’s life but is the path to experiencing the fullness of life.
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