How does God want us to gather?
This from the Los Angeles Times on March 29.
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. —
With the coronavirus quickly spreading in Washington state in early March, leaders of the Skagit Valley Chorale debated whether to go ahead with weekly rehearsal.
The virus was already killing people in the Seattle area, about an hour’s drive to the south.
But Skagit County hadn’t reported any cases, schools and businesses remained open, and prohibitions on large gatherings had yet to be announced.
On March 6, Adam Burdick, the choir’s conductor, informed the 121 members in an email that amid the “stress and strain of concerns about the virus,” practice would proceed as scheduled at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.
“I’m planning on being there this Tuesday March 10, and hoping many of you will be, too,” he wrote.
Sixty singers showed up. A greeter offered hand sanitizer at the door, and members refrained from the usual hugs and handshakes.
“It seemed like a normal rehearsal, except that choirs are huggy places,” Burdick recalled. “We were making music and trying to keep a certain distance between each other.”
After 2½ hours, the singers parted ways at 9 p.m.
Nearly three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead.
There are similar stories elsewhere.
This is the COVID-19 pandemic.
The way we are living our lives is much different.
We are subject to stark limitations on our daily lives.
We feel we have lost control and freedom.
In an effort to prevent rampant spread of the virus, we have “sheltered in place”, exercised “safe social distancing”, “self-quarantined”, and “stayed at home”.
All non-essential business and services have been closed.
Many are not working.
Those who are working are at risk for infection.
We are wearing masks.
Many are sick.
More are getting sick.
Many have died.
We can debate whether we are overreacting, underreacting or just right reacting, but the civil authorities and medical experts are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.
We won’t know if we did it right for some time, if we ever know at all.
But for now, we want it to end.
We want to go back to work.
We want to go to the stores.
We want to get together with friends.
We want our sports back.
We want our freedom back.
And many of you have expressed a strong desire to get back to church.
A place where we can have fellowship and worship and peace.
But we are impatient.
We want our lives back to – NOW!
Many of us are saying that we should just get on with our lives and trust God to keep us safe.
Such a point of view can be tempting for those of us who are at the end of our ropes.
We want to gather back together in our busy and interactive world.
As Disciples of Jesus, what do we do?
Well, Jesus was tempted.
What did he do?
Luke 4: 1-13
4Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ 8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
This is a story about temptation and testing.
And what Jesus does when he is tempted and tested.
Let’s set the stage.
Jesus has been baptized by John.
The Holy Spirit descended on him and God proclaimed, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
It was time for Jesus to get started with his ministry.
What was that ministry?
As we heard last week, to proclaim that:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
I suspect that Jesus wanted to hit the road running.
But that is not what happened.
The Holy Spirit that was upon Jesus, took Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting.
And then Jesus was tempted.
Turn stones into bread and you won’t be hungry.
Worship me instead of God and you will rule over all the earth.
Jump from the highest wall in Jerusalem and let the angels catch you.
What was going on here?
In the wilderness, Jesus is hungry, helpless and human.
The devil, whatever you understand the devil to be, makes a few suggestions that will satisfy these “deficiencies”.
Take over the world.
Be equal to God.
The temptations are all about Jesus.
But Jesus did not come for his own comfort.
He came for the comfort of everyone else.
The temptation was that Jesus be selfish.
But the mission was that he would selfless.
The temptation was to disregard God’s authority.
But the mission was to proclaim God’s kingdom.
The temptation was to test God.
But the mission was to obey God.
And Jesus does what you would expect him to do.
He recites a bit of the Torah.
4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
All from Deuteronomy, by the way.
Matt likes it when I talk about the Old Testament.
Taken together, all three demonstrate Jesus’ faith that God would use him to complete the mission of bringing the people into God’s kingdom.
And we want to be like Jesus, right?
Whatever the circumstances, we want to take people into God’s Kingdom.
But if we are to do that, we need to act like Jesus.
He was not reckless.
He was methodical.
His healed, fed and taught those who would follow him.
And he did that almost always away from the danger of those who could cause his people harm.
So, now we are in a wilderness.
We are hungry for our normal lives.
We are feeling powerless.
We want a miracle.
These all generate temptation.
We need to be like Jesus.
We cannot gather dangerously, taking risks rational people would avoid if possible.
And as disciples of Jesus, we certainly don’t want to be the source of danger to others.
There are circumstances that might require some to risk themselves to care for the rest of us.
They are the ones still working.
We should pray for them and honor them and thank them.
But we should not make their circumstances riskier than they already are.
God has given us what we need.
All the necessary safeguards available to protect ourselves and others.
God has given us people who can tell us what we need to do stop the spread of the virus.
We should not disregard their expertise.
And we should not test God.
We should not claim that God will protect us with some kind of miracle.
When that does not happen, it pushes people away from God’s kingdom.
If we are disciples of Jesus, we should do what is best for our neighbors.
We can help each other economically and physically and emotionally, but we cannot do that while risking the lives of others we are supposed to love.
How does God want us to gather?
And that is what we are doing now at JMPC.
We are gathering safely.
While we are not in close physical proximity, we are in close spiritual proximity.
With God and with each other.
Even though it is virtually.
And we must continue to do so until we can be as sure as we can that no one will be harmed by worshiping in our sanctuary.
We don’t want to succumb to the temptation to ignore risks and refuse minor inconveniences that reduce risks.
Tolkien in his book, The Lord of the Rings, offers this conversation between Frodo, the one chosen to destroy the evil ring, and Gandalf, his mentor.
It takes place in the wilderness during the long and dangerous journey to the place where the ring is to be destroyed.
“Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
That is what we must do.
Decide what to do with the time we that is given us.
To live the Jesus way.