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Monday, April 27, 2020

“Praying during a Pandemic” (Psalm 116)

Psalm 116:1-2 - Bible verse of the day -

Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2020

*This message will be broadcast by Facebook and Instagram Live and posted to Youtube, but will not be preached to a live audience.  We – America, the world – are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis which is causing people all over the world to avoid gathering in groups of larger than 10, and diligently maintain “social distance.”  It’s an effort to curb the rapid, worldwide spread of the Corona virus which can be deadly.

            A Christian I know, a true follower of Jesus and a good friend, posted this status update this past week.  (1) Logs onto Facebook; (2) reads back-to-back posts of everyone arguing over COVID-19, calling each other names, being hateful; (3) logs off of Facebook.  No thank you!”  The ugliness, amplified by the anonymity of social media is there all that time.  In this time of quarantining, when more people than ever are at home, more people than ever are on Facebook.  And, they aren’t using it as an opportunity to be nicer. 

Well, some people are.  We’re in a worldwide pandemic.  We’re all in this together.  Let’s cooperate and get along.  Some are taking this benevolent approach.  But others are as close-minded and mean-spirited as ever, and with more time on their hands, they are more liberal in expressing their malicious maledictions.  A lot of people are saying mean things.

            I also saw this, from the daily devotion: a line from a Switchfoot song.  “It’s OK to grieve; it’s OK to learn to fall.  It’s OK to believe, to admit you’re human after all.”[i]  Read devotionally, these words felt like permission to pray from a tired, raw place.  I feel tired.  I feel raw. 

            As I attempted to harness and control these feelings, I read the lectionary passages for this Sunday. While resurrection is the theme – it’s the season of Easter – I felt led away from the Gospels.  I read 1 Peter 1:17. “If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”  That hits!  Staying home, wearing a mask to Walmart or the gas station, hearing daily death totals – it feels like exile.  Yeah, the 1 Peter prayer can be our prayer.  We’ve already called God the Father we hope will protect and uplift us. 

            Thus, 1 Peter tells us we are to live in “reverent fear.”  This is a specific kind of fear.  We may fear catching COVID-19, or we may fear the economic collapse happening as a result of the nation being closed down, or we may fear social isolation (the loneliness, the cabin fever, the ennui).  Each is a real fear, but 1 Peter means something else.  Reverent for recognizes these things, but sees that God is bigger.  The Holy God is more fearful (more awesome) than these other things, big though they may be.  Even during this pandemic, we who are in Christ know that with God, we’re part of a bigger story.

            Living God’s story, one of the things we do is name the situation.  The singer of Psalm 116, also a lectionary reading for the third Sunday of Easter, does this very thing.  Before reciting his woes, the singer says, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice; … he inclined his ear to me” (116:1,2).  The Facebook hate Grows, news overload of horribly sad stories never ends, politicians fight instead of leading,  and the mounting death totals continue daily, but we live in the midst of it singing our song; the Lord has inclined his ear to me.

            To God, singing 1 Peter and Psalm 116 as our prayer, we sing, the snares of death encompassed me.  The pangs of Sheol laid hold on me.  Sheol is an ancient Hebrew understanding of after-death.  The soul becomes disembodied and floats in an underworld, far from God.  Rather than flames and painful damnation, this picture depicts aimless wandering.  For the Old Testament God-worshipper, shalom (peace, prosperity, and wellbeing) is the highest attainment of life.  In Sheol, shalom cannot be had. 

Naming his plight, the singer of Psalm 116 – you and I, because we pray these words as our own – sings of death and separation from God.  Imagine late-afternoon heavy eyelids, fatigue but no rest, loss without the faintest hope of recovery.  Perhaps many in our world can readily put a COVID-19 spin on this expression of sorrow.  The Psalmist sings “I suffered distress and anguish.”

But then … “I called on the name of the Lord.”  The turning point!  In naming the story, the words death, Sheol, and anguish were not the first words and will not be the last.  The Psalmist began, “I love the Lord.”  After naming the pain, the only possible next movement is “I called.”  Many people that I meet in church life ask me to pray for them.  Prayer is a pastor’s job.  Prayer is a Christian’s job.  I get the request, “Please pray for me.”  I ask, “any specific request.”  They respond, “Pray for my life.  Just pray for my life.”  So simple.  So profound.  Call on the Lord.

The singer then names God.  God is gracious.  God is righteous. God is merciful.  God is abundance.  God is all these things.  Yes, in this life, we have troubles, but God sees us, God knows and loves us, and God acts for our wellbeing and flourishing. 

The Psalmist of Psalm 116 uses these words to name God; praying 1 Peter 1, we discover the prayer speaks to our experience in relation to God.  In a sense, as pray, we tell ourselves own story.  If you will pray this, then believe it.  First Peter 1:18, “You were ransomed.”  Snared in the bonds of death, powerless to break free, God liberates us by paying ransom “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb, without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:19).  Jesus dies our death for us.  You were ransomed!

Through Jesus, 1 Peter continues in v.21, you have come to trust in God.  God raised Jesus, Jesus makes relationship with God possible, and you now walk with God, bound for resurrection yourself.  This is a long way from the sedentary plight of stay-at-home orders, from the toxic allure of hate-filled Facebook rants, and from the magnified grief we daily feel during the pandemic.  Continuing prayer through 1 Peter, we continue talking to ourselves, telling our selves our own stories.  “You have purified your souls; … you have been born anew” (1:22, 23). 

For the final portion of prayer, we again turn to Psalm 116 for our words.  This is a pledge we make to God, a response to God’s grace.  “I [will] walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (116:9).  I won’t sequester myself and become an evil internet troll whose design is to ruin others.  I will let my light, my knowledge of the risen Jesus, shine. 

Of course, this means witness, testifying.  In our heritage as people of the book, the Bible, and of the spoken word, it means we tell what God has done for us.  Our goal in telling is that God’s story be heard, and that people, upon hearing, turn to faith in Jesus.  This is what it is to walk in the land of the living in Jesus’ name.  We tell of his goodness and we do good works to help other flourish and also to invite them to turn to him in faith.

The Psalm though goes beyond just a pledge of walking in faith as response to God’s saving grace.  The singer also pledges worship.  “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.  … I will offer a thanksgiving sacrifice.  … I will call on the name of the Lord (116:14, 17).  Worship of God is a centerpiece of my life and a centering activity in my life.  Besides testimony and working to help others, in this prayer, I declare I will worship God; worship will be a normative action of my life.

Of course, if you are watching this livestream, you have already made this decision.  You’ve decided, in your home, to mark out this time as worship.  You revere the scriptures, and so when I say, we’re going to pray Psalm 116 as a healing balm, soothing the rash of negativity and loss from the Coronavirus and the quarantine it has imposed, you say, ‘OK.’  It makes sense to you to treat the Bible as authoritative and to look to God in faith. 

Did you catch, in this Psalm 116 prayer, the note of festive celebration?  God saves.  Reading from a Christian perspective, we add, “Jesus has risen.  He is risen, indeed.”  Psalm 116:13 has the singer say, “I will lift up the cup of salvation.”  We can take this in the way that it sounds.  We can raise a glass to God!  We offer a toast!  “To Jesus!”  Everyone in church raises his or her beer or wine, or Coke or coffee, and repeats, “To Jesus!’

What?  You don’t think of toasts as something done in church?  That’s only for wedding receptions?  What party is bigger than the one where we celebrate that we are saved – saved from death, saved from hate, saved from degradation?  What is more toast-worthy than that?  Maybe we should start raising the glass to Him. 

“To Jesus!”  And the people repeat, “To Jesus!  AMEN!” 

What, at the last wedding you attended, they didn’t shout “AMEN” after the toast, a “here, here?”  AMEN literally means let this be true; this is so.  It is a verification that what has been said is accurate and true.  ‘AMEN’ is not the traditional response to a toast?  Maybe it should be.

The current crisis that forces us to stream worship and has forced society to effectively shut down is bad.  People are suffering and dying.  But God saves.  God has delivered his people from death and will continue to do so.  In Jesus, risen from the grave, God has defeated death.  Even now, we can celebrate that he gives us life.

To God!  To Jesus.  Here, here.  AMEN.        

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