Resurrection Hope

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Credit: Burne Jones, 1890 / Picture by Martin Beek / Flickr

Christ is risen! These words are needed now more than ever in our world. As the death toll continues to climb from COVID-19 and the virus continues to spread, although thankfully at a slower pace than it has, we need to be reminded that no affliction or adversity, no trial or torture can put Christ back in the grave. The grave is empty and, because it is, our hope is secure.

In one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, the apostle Paul speaks about the hope we have because of Easter:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, those who have died or will die in Christ have the assurance that they too will one day be raised to live with Christ forever. Christ’s resurrection on Easter is a preview of our easters when He returns.

Martin Luther, in a series of seventeen sermons he preached in 1533 on 1 Corinthians 15, offers these comments on Paul’s words:

Because Christ is risen and gives us His resurrection against our sin, death, and hell, we must advance to where we also learn to say: “O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55] although we at present see only the reverse, namely, that we have nothing but the perishable hanging about our neck, that we lead a wretched filthy life, that we are subject to all sorts of distress and danger, and that nothing but death awaits us in the end.

But the faith that clings to Christ is able to engender far different thoughts. It can envisage a new existence.  It can form an image and gain sight of a condition where this perishable, wretched form is erased entirely and replaced by a pure and celestial essence.  For since faith is certain of this doctrine that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, it must follow that this resurrection is just as effective in us as it was for Him – except that He is a different person, namely, true God.  And faith must bring it about that this body’s frail and mortal being is discarded and removed and a different, immortal being is put on, with a body that can no longer be touched by filth, sickness, mishap, misery, or death but is perfectly pure, healthy, strong, and beautiful …

God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live.  But the devil inflicted so much shameful filth and so many blemishes on nature that man must bear so much sickness, stench, and misfortune about his neck because he sinned.  But now that sin is removed through Christ, we shall be rid of all of that too.  All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on earth. (AE 28 202-203)

Luther’s final words beautifully summarize the hope of Easter: “All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on the earth.” As we continue to struggle through these evil and loathsome days of pandemic, I’m looking forward to that day!

Christ is risen! Nothing can change that and no pandemic can outlast that.

April 13, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Holy Week for Unholy Times

art-cathedral-christ-christian-208216.jpgThis week is the beginning of what is, in the history and tradition of the Christian Church, called Holy Week. It is a commemoration of the final week of Jesus’ life before His death on a cross in anticipation of His victory over death on Easter.

Yesterday, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey while crowds hail His arrival by laying palm fronds at His feet (John 12:13). Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. On Palm Sunday, the crowds are hoping that, just as their Greek oppressors were taken down almost two centuries earlier, Jesus will be the revolutionary who takes down their Roman oppressors.

Then, this Thursday, we will observe Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a derivative of the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” On this night, Jesus gives His disciples two commands. This first command is one of love:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

The second is a command given when Jesus institutes a supper, which we now call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instructs His disciples:

Do this in remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19)

Thus, on Maundy Thursday, Christians across the world will partake in the Lord’s Supper – not just to obey a command, but to receive what Jesus promises in this holy meal: “the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

The day after Maundy Thursday is Good Friday – the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything good about it. Jesus is arrested by His enemies and condemned to die not because He has committed a crime, but because the religious elites of His day hate His popularity among the crowds in Jerusalem. Even the man who condemns Jesus to death on a cross, Pontius Pilate, knows that it is “out of envy that they had delivered Him up” (Matthew 27:18). This is a dark, unholy moment. As Jesus says to His accusers when they arrest Him: “This is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). And yet, even in this dark, unholy moment, holiness cannot and will not be defeated. Righteousness will reign. For even though Jesus’ enemies commit an unholy crime against Him, He is giving His life for them. His sacrifice is what makes Holy Week truly “holy.”

The times in which we are living right now feel dark and unholy. “Stay-at-home” restrictions are getting stricter. The curve of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is rising steeper. For millions of people, life is getting harder. And yet, this week – Holy Week – can remind us that holiness is found in the most unholy of places. After all, an ancient instrument of torture and execution – the cross – has now become a worldwide symbol of consolation and hope. And so, even if this week feels unholy, this week can still be a Holy Week – not because we live in a holy world, but because we have hope in a Holy One.

April 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Sheltering-In-Place

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Credit: Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

As COVID-19 continues to sweep through our nation, infections are increasing, some hospitals are being overwhelmed, doctors and nurses are working exhaustingly extended shifts, and a good portion of our nation has been ordered to “shelter-in-place” to try to stymie the spread of the virus.

In 1 Samuel 22:1, a young man named David is being pursued by Saul, who is the king of Israel. Saul has become jealous of David who has proven himself a valiant warrior by killing a nemesis of the nation of Israel, a giant named Goliath. When King Saul realizes his own nation respects this young warrior more than they do him, he becomes inflamed with jealousy and makes repeated attempts to kill David, but to no avail. He escapes each time. David, fearing for his life, is eventually reduced to hiding out in a cave called Adullam. While in this cave, David pens the words of Psalm 57, which opens:

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in You I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of Your wings until the disaster has passed.

David is sheltering-in-place in a cave, trying to avoid the disaster of Saul’s jealousy. It had to be hard. But David knows something. David knows that, ultimately, it is not a cave that is his shelter. It is the Lord. He is David’s refuge. And He will be with David through and beyond his disaster. His disaster will pass. The Lord’s presence, however, will never pass away.

During this disaster of COVID-19, remember that – even as you shelter-in-place and, perhaps, go a little stir crazy because you’re itching to get out – your shelter, ultimately, is not in where you’re sheltering. It is in who your shelter is. Your shelter and your refuge are in the Lord. And He will be with you through and beyond this disaster. This disaster will pass – hopefully, soon. The Lord’s presence, however, will never pass away.

And that’s great news.

March 30, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Coronavirus Comfort

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Credit: Pixabay

It’s been another tough week in our nation. I keep wondering where the peak of the coronavirus’s spread is on the one hand and where the bottom of our economy is on the other. The number of people becoming infected is increasing – exponentially. And the economy is collapsing. Goldman Sachs is forecasting a 24% decline in our GDP in the second quarter while J.P. Morgan predicts a more “modest” decline of 14%. Families are trying to stay healthy by sheltering-in-place while businesses are trying to figure out how to stay afloat. And no one seems to know quite how or when all this will end.

At times like these, the words of Martin Luther’s famed hymn seem especially poignant:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.

This moment in our history is certainly filled with “mortal ills.” And yet, God is stronger than any illness. God is bigger than our own mortality.

This is why Luther concludes his hymn:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Even if coronavirus can quarantine a society, it cannot quell God’s presence. And even if coronavirus kills a body, it cannot conquer God’s kingdom. His kingdom is forever. Coronavirus is not.

Let’s try to remember that during these long days.

March 23, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Coronavirus Concern Sweeps the Nation

Arlington National Cemetery is one of the many public spaces that has been closed in the wake of the spread of COVID-19.
Credit: National Guard

As I write about COVID-19 for the third time now on this blog, I must admit that I never expected to devote this much attention and concern to a virus that first emerged halfway across the world. But the state and spread of this virus is shifting so quickly, it’s nearly impossible not to be riveted by what is unfolding. So much has happened this week.

The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The NBA, the NHL, and MLB have all suspended their seasons.

The NCAA has cancelled March Madness.

Public spaces across the nation – including places like Disneyland – are closing.

The financial markets are suffering from whiplash.

Air travel to and from Europe has been suspended.

And we’re still having trouble slowing the virus’s spread.

Many of these actions above are the result of an abundance of caution, which is good. But along with much caution, there is also much fear. After all, there’s still so much we do not know about this virus. Its mortality rate continues to be elusive to us. The actual number of infections remains unclear. Testing for the virus remains limited. And, of course, treatment options are nearly non-existent.

Fear like this at a situation like this can lead to all sorts of panicked responses. Stories of stores selling out of staples like bottled water and toilet paper abound. But panic does not equal prevention. The continued calls to wash your hands, wipe down surfaces, and practice social distancing are the things that are necessary to stymie the spread of this virus.

In 1519, the city of Zurich, Switzerland was overrun by the Black Death. It claimed the lives of a third of the city’s population. There was a famous reformer of the Church who lived in Zurich at this time, Ulrich Zwingli. As he cared for those who were ill, he himself contracted the disease. In what seems like a near miracle, he did not die. But while he was in the throes of his sickness, he composed a poem:

My pains increase;
Haste to console;
For fear and woe
Seize body and soul.

Death is at hand.
My senses fail.
My tongue is dumb;
Now, Christ, prevail. 

Lo! Satan strains
To snatch his prey;
I feel his grasp;
Must I give way?

He harms me not,
I fear no loss,
For here I lie
Beneath Thy cross.

Whether in sickness or in health, whether in times of prosperity or pandemic, we lie beneath the cross. And because of this, even as we are cautious, we are not afraid. If a cross could not overcome Christ, a pandemic cannot conquer His promises to us.

March 16, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Temporary Peace and Perfect Peace

In a story that has largely flown under the radar, a week ago Saturday, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban that begins the process of ending the war in Afghanistan. The process of withdrawing our troops will be a protracted one, and the end of this war is anything but certain. Mujib Mashal reports for The New York Times:

The agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, which followed more than a year of stop-and-start negotiations and conspicuously excluded the American-backed Afghanistan government, is not a final peace deal, is filled with ambiguity, and could still unravel … 

The withdrawal of American troops – about 12,000 are still in Afghanistan – is dependent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of major commitments that have been obstacles for years, including its severance of ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. 

The agreement also hinges on more difficult negotiations to come between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s future. Officials hope those talks will produce a power-sharing arrangement and lasting cease-fire, but both ideas have been anathema to the Taliban in the past.

This war may finally end – but only maybe. What’s more, the lack of American presence in the region could lead to the re-oppression of historically marginalized groups there:

The United States, which struggled to help secure better rights for women and minorities and instill a democratic system and institutions in Afghanistan, has struck a deal with an insurgency that has never clearly renounced its desire for a government and justice system rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam.

Though the Taliban get their primary wish under this agreement – the withdrawal of American troops – they have remained vague in commitments to protect the civil rights that they had brutally repressed when in power.

In short, the peace agreement that is being forged in this region is a very tenuous one and comes with a price that include the loss of some civil rights.

The prophet Isaiah famously prophesies the coming of the Messiah as One who will be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). What is sometimes missed in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, however, is how this Prince of Peace will establish His peace:

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

The Prince of Peace will bring His peace by establishing “justice and righteousness.” An enduring peace cannot be accomplished by overlooking injustice and righteousness – by looking past sin – but only by dealing directly with sin. This is why human peace treaties – no matter how noble – always seem to be temporary. For as long as there is sin in this world, there can be no perfect peace.

Thus, though we may wait expectantly for and even celebrate a peace treaty for Afghanistan, we rest assuredly in the perfect peace our Prince of Peace will bring on the Last Day when He will:

…judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

That’s perfect peace. And it’s coming – no matter what happens in Afghanistan.

March 9, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Coronavirus Continues to Spread

The coronavirus outbreak continues to spread – rapidly. Yesterday’s update from the Washington Post is worth citing:

A northwest Oregon resident has tested positive for coronavirus with no known history of travel to countries severely affected by the outbreak and no known contact with infected individuals, state health officials said Friday.

The case, in Washington County, marks the third case of unknown origin in the United States and indicates that the virus is spreading. It is also the first coronavirus case in Oregon …

Earlier Friday, health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., said a 65-year-old resident also had a case of coronavirus with unknown origin – becoming the second U.S. case of community transmission. The nation’s first community-transmission patient was a woman in Solano County, about 90 miles away.

The World Health Organization on Friday raised its risk assessment of the coronavirus to “very high,” citing the risk of spread and impact. WHO officials said their assessment – the highest level short of declaring a global pandemic – doesn’t change the approach countries should take to combat the virus but should serve as a “wake up” and “reality check” for countries to hurry their preparations.

The U.S. stock market fell for the seventh straight day amid fears of global economic damage from the escalating outbreak, and the Federal Reserve took the unusual step of issuing a statement to reassure Americans.

“The fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain strong. However, the coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity,” Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell said. “The Fed is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy.”

It is sobering to realize that despite all our modern medical advances and all our yeoman’s efforts at containment, the world still stands relatively defenseless against a virus that carries with it a startling mortality rate of, at present, 2.3% – a rate that far outpaces the mortality rate of the seasonal flu, which sits at around .1%.

This past Wednesday, the Christian Church began its observance of the liturgical season of Lent, which kicked off with Ash Wednesday. In churches across the world, the words God once spoke to Adam after he fell into sin were repeated to the faithful: “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). These grim words are meant to call us to reflect on our own mortality. Death is inescapable. The mortality rate associated with the coronavirus may be at 2.3%. The mortality rate of humanity itself sits at 100%. As President Kennedy said in a famous speech at American University in 1963, “We are all mortal.” Our problem, it turns out, is bigger than any virus. Our problem is our very selves.

I am deeply grateful that scientists and medical professionals across the world are working tirelessly to quickly identify, contain, and develop a vaccine against the deadly coronavirus. I am thankful that governments are taking the needed – and often ambitious – steps to combat the virus’s spread. But the coronavirus epidemic should serve as yet another reminder of just how fragile life really is. The culmination of Lent into Easter, however, is a promise of just how powerful Jesus’ life really was. A deadly disease is just no match for an empty tomb. And in a world where the headlines smack of death, that’s the kind of life we need.

March 2, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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