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"God, We've Asked. Where Are You?"

What Does the Bible Say About COVID-19?  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Lamentations 5:15–22 ESV
The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! For this our heart has become sick, for these things our eyes have grown dim, for Mount Zion which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it. But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.
Lamentations 3:1–33 ESV
I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust— there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men.
           This is the third and likely final sermon of our “What does the Bible have to say about COVID-19?” series. I know there have been issues the last couple weeks for those of you who watch our services on cable TV. I apologize for that. If you have access to the internet, remember you can go to or YouTube and watch our past services. We can also make them available on disc or a flash drive; please just contact the church, and we will help get those to you.  
We’ve had this slide before with some questions people often have about the intersection of crisis and Christian faith. While I haven’t explicitly asked these questions and given simple, precise answers in the messages, we’ve dealt with a lot of them. We looked back at how God sent punishments in the Old Testament. They either came with a warning or were part of his covenants. We looked ahead, and that can include right now as well, at the days leading up to Christ’s return. There is wrath prophesied in different parts of the Bible. We’ve placed a high stock on God’s sovereignty, not only in God doing what he wants, but doing what he wills with the intent that more people would be drawn to him for salvation. We’ve considered sin—when we come across harmful things, distressing crises, these can be present because they are part of the effects of sin.
           A question people always want answers to, though—it’s not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic—is: “If God can do something, why hasn’t he?” It’s one of the questions when a loved one has had a tragic accident or is hospitalized due to some significant or chronic ailment. It’s the question when a spouse or a parent is suddenly noticed to have dementia or has been struggling for several years and their body, speech, and memory are diminishing. It’s a question when something that seems good and honoring to God is cancelled or broken apart.
If God is real and in control, why doesn’t he do something? Jesus even said in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7 verses 7 through 11, “‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’” So, God, we’ve asked. Where are you?
We’re reading from a book sandwiched in the prophets, Lamentations—a book authored by someone who was not afraid to go to God with these kinds of questions. Before we read the first half of chapter 3 and the end of chapter 5, I’m going to read from some of the introduction notes from the English Standard Version, or ESV, Study Bible: “As its title indicates, the book of Lamentations is a collection of laments, or melancholy dirges, for a ruined society. The poems in the book could also be termed elegies or funeral orations, in which the author expresses deep personal and communal grief for the dead and for all of the suffering that surrounds their loss…Lamentations is not an emotional outburst but a formal expression of grief in a high literary style. However, each lament moves rapidly from one topic to the next, revealing that the writer’s soul is still in turmoil.” These words are sad, depressing, even difficult, but they are for our good.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, back in 2012, Christian singer-songwriter Matthew West released a song called “Do Something.” There’s quite an inspiring story behind it—a young woman named Andrea went to Uganda to study abroad as a college student, and ended up staying there to help abused children. She worked with their government and ended up opening and running a new orphanage. Matthew West’s song talks about looking at the trouble in our world and asking God, “Why don’t you do something?” He gives a response from God, “I did…I created you.” So, the message of the song is when we see things that disgust us, that cause people pain, we shouldn’t be apathetic and do nothing; rather, we should take initiative to do something.
In many ways, that’s difficult to argue with. God calls his people to care for others. James 1:27 puts it clearly, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” It’s a basic Christian practice that we are to put love into action and to be unselfish. Picking up Matthew 7 again, in verse 12, Jesus said, “‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you…’” In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes that God “gave us the ministry of reconciliation…We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” We can read that verse to certainly mean reconciliation in the preaching of the gospel, speaking explicitly about the grace of Jesus by his sacrifice, but ministry and reconciliation can also be actively shown.
We begin today in a bit of a different spot than Lamentations chapters 3 and 5. We’re taking up the question what are you doing or what can you do in times of crisis? If we look at our daily lives, I think most of us here in Baldwin, Wisconsin and our region are hoping optimistically that in another three weeks, the COVID-19 prohibitions will be removed or greatly relaxed. Like many places around the world, over the last 6 or so weeks, many have stayed at home more than usual, maybe you wear a mask if you go out to a store or are around others, and there have just been a lot of limitations. Yet encouraging acts of service have also happened. Some of you have made masks and ran errands for others. Focused on our communities, maybe you’ve been intentional about buying local or supporting agriculture and other industries that are hurting. Some of us have made cards for or called those who can’t be visited but who may be lonely.
There’s no doubt with the nicer weather more people have been out and about. If you’ve followed the news, you know that leaders in several states have started opening more things up. Some places have citizens protesting for more. However we feel, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer that I or anyone can tell every person, “This is what you should or must be doing.” We do, though, have values found in God’s word, which can shape our decisions and actions in crises.
Our World Belongs to God has a section that summarizes biblical teachings for life today pertaining to “The Mission of God’s People.” A few paragraphs stand out, especially in a time like this. In standing with the pro-life stance of the Christian tradition, paragraphs 44 and 50 state, “Life is a gift from God’s hand, who created all things. Receiving this gift thankfully, with reverence for the Creator, we protest and resist all that harms, abuses, or diminishes the gift of life…Because it is a sacred trust, we treat all life with awe and respect, especially when it is most vulnerable—whether growing in the womb, touched by disability or disease, or drawing a last breath. When forced to make decisions at life’s raw edges, we seek wisdom in community, guided by God’s Word and Spirit.” “Grateful for advances in science and technology, we participate in their development…We welcome discoveries that prevent or cure diseases and that help support healthy lives…” As each of us thinks about our choices, our actions, how you adhere to guidelines that different leaders have put in place, valuing life isn’t just about stopping actions that have the intended purpose to kill—think of abortion or murder or suicide. A pro-life stance should also not want to jeopardize, but rather to protect and help those who are alive as we’re able to.
In paragraphs 52 and 53, we confess, “We obey God first; we respect the authorities that rule, for they are established by God: we pray for our rulers, and we work to influence governments—resisting them only when Christ and conscience demand…” “We call on all governments to do public justice and to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals, groups, and institutions so that each may do their tasks. We urge governments and pledge ourselves…to promote the freedom to speak, work, worship, and associate.” Maybe you feel the tension there—that certain things seem to lean the direction of one political party and then it seems to lean toward another. This document, a contemporary testimony, captures a well-rounded look at how to live respecting our government’s decisions even when politicians do things we may disagree with. It reminds us that to be Christian cannot be perfectly or even nicely fit into a single political outlook.
If the COVID-19 pandemic and its widespread effects and brings us to a point of wondering what God might want us to do, in addition to what I’ve covered the last two weeks, we can love others well. Our calling is not just to fight for policies that are pleasing to us, but to love the healthy, love the sick, and love the vulnerable. We should love the government leaders we like and those we don’t like and who we may go back and forth with. We ought to love farmers and gardeners, meat processors and those who bring us food, as well as first responders, hospital workers, and custodians. It’s easy, I say it for myself, to get frustrated by what I’m not able to do, where I’m not able to go, and yet part our pursuit as Christians in times of crisis is to live selflessly.
We have this burden to live with love, which is an expression of gratitude to God. Yet while we can “do something” as the song says, we must remember that God is not disconnected from this world, his world. He’s not deaf or blind to our pleas and prayers; there’s not poor service or a lack of reception; God’s hands are not tied so that he can’t do something. Thinking about the GEMS theme then, if God loves us, how do we understand him when we have pain, suffering, poverty or when life just seems upside down?
 In his love, God welcomes our laments. One of the most difficult aspects of honesty for many Christians today is a willingness to talk about not feeling okay. We find it difficult to express when we’re in distress, when we can’t figure out what God is doing, or when it feels like he isn’t on our side. Maybe we tend to gloss over difficult circumstances or we try to fix or expect a fix that will instantly make us feel better if we do share. We assume we always must put on a happy face or just because someone somewhere has it worse than us, then we shouldn’t feel that bad. We also have the prosperity gospel, certain pastors who just preach health and wealth if you do all the right things. They bring a message that “God wouldn’t have his people suffer.” While that feels good, it misses the mark on the reality that we can have trials and life can be hard. If you experience poverty or persecution, it’s not necessarily because you’re disobedient to God.
Honesty isn’t just needed in our person-to-person conversations and relationships; we can and should also take all of ourselves to God in prayer. All the times in Lamentations 3 that the author uses the word “he,” it refers to God. If you look back to Lamentations 1, you can see that this was written around the time when God had sent his people’s enemies to invade them and break down their cities. Those who were left had either been carried off, knowing their homeland was destroyed, or they were surrounded by devastation. The author describes how he feels like God has destroyed everything in them and for them as well. Hear the pain again in verse 16, “He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.”
On one hand, I’m guessing for most of us the last six weeks probably hasn’t amounted to that level of anguish, and yet maybe for some it has. If this feels like a terrible, horrible time for you—if your livelihood is on the rocks, if you’re struggling to make it financially, if your marriage or relationships with your parents or kids or others are in turmoil, if those burdens are heavy on you, even causing depression or thoughts of wanting to leave this all behind—and you feel God is to blame because he hasn’t yet removed these from you, share that with God. Ask him to make his love visible and tangible in your life. Seek out a friend who will listen to you and uphold you.
Brothers and sisters, God does love us. His love is deep enough and secure enough for you, for us to confess every struggle we have. We, believers, hold onto the promise that God will never leave us or forsake us—he won’t! Yet things happen that may cause us to feel, as Lamentations 5:20 says, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us for so long?”
All these laments, whether they’re written or yelled or cried out to God, came from someone who still believes in God. They come with the understanding captured in Question and Answer 28 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us? We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love…” You can hear the echo there of Romans 8. Patience doesn’t necessarily have to mean a peaceful calm; patience is a trust that there is more.
What’s coming through in Lamentations 3 and the rest of the book comes from a place of knowing God, knowing he has authority, and yet because we know and believe in God, when hard things happen, when crises strike, when loved ones die, when friends let us down—we know there is no one greater to turn to than God. He is there. He will listen to you. He will continue to speak from his word with the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
That brings us to our last point: God has daily mercies and forever restoration in store. Hear these beautiful words of comfort and joy amid all the doom and gloom, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” And then in chapter 5, “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old…”
There is hope, brothers and sisters, whether we recognize it today or in 3 weeks or whenever everything reopens, and we forget about social distancing and masks and we shake hands and hug. There is hope that what we’re experiencing now, and what we experience in every crisis, in every hardship, in every time when we battle against people or problems in our lives, God is still with us by his love, showing mercy daily and forever. I don’t say that to minimize or gloss over painful times, but to recognize that in the midst of painful times, not everything is painful.
           What is the love of God all about, particularly in times of crisis? The love written of in chapter 3 verses 22 and 32 is the Hebrew word “hesed.” Professor John McKay writes in a commentary, “Hesed,” steadfast, unfailing, covenant love, “denotes the quality of the relationship between two parties as being one of goodwill and mutual concern by which a favourable inner disposition reveals itself in practical acts of assistance and support for the other party. This frame of mind and its complementary actions are not one-off displays of kindness, but constitute an enduring bond of fidelity. The hesed relationship may be initiated by the action of one party, but it inherently requires a reciprocal response.”
           There’s a lot there, I know, but I want to draw our focus towards the end, “[Hesed] constitutes an enduring bond of fidelity…initiated by the action of one party, but it inherently requires a reciprocal response.” That we consider not just a god, but the God of the Christian faith, the God who put on flesh and came into this world and endured tragic suffering on our behalf speaks to the love God has for us. Difficult things may be happening right now and may affect us at other points in our lives, but they never erase the love that he has shown in the past and what his love has accomplished for the future.
           Again, we hold onto the understanding that sickness, shortness of breath, fevers, fatigue, and death are all in this world because of sin. God didn’t decide, “I think it’d be great, just peachy that X number of people get this virus at this specific point.” No, but we do know he is doing something. Even when we’re in the middle of everything, and we can’t see readily it, we live by faith. God gives us good mercies each day, giving us more and more a glimpse of the glorious life to come—maybe the mercy is even helping us understand that something like this won’t ever be in his kingdom; it can’t be!
So, where is God? He’s still with us. What is he doing? He’s hearing the cries and laments, the groanings of world that has experienced the pain of life astray from him. Yet he continues to show mercies! If we’ve given our lives to him, we can know that we will one day be with him. Our identity, our comfort, and our destiny are secure because God loves us. Period. Amen. 
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