In 1524, Martin Luther set about adapting, improving, and expanding a well-known medieval hymn. What resulted is the hymn, “In the Very Midst of Life.” The hymn opens with a question that seems entirely fitting for the situation we find ourselves now in 2020: “In the very midst of life snares of death surround us; who shall help us in the strife lest the foe confound us?” Our world is asking this same question right now. What do we do? Is death imminent? Is the world ending? How do we manage in the short term? How do things recover in the long term? These are uncertain times that God has spared us for some time. But now, in His wisdom, He has allowed this pandemic. God’s wisdom and ways are beyond our understanding. We know that He has promised to bring good from ill. We know that He can take what is meant for evil and use it for good. So in this time of pandemic and fear and uncertainty, we ask that question of Dr. Luther’s hymn: Who shall help us in the strife lest the foe confound us? Thou only, Lord, Thou only. The Christian response to our current situation is repentance and faith.
This is not the first time our world has faced a pestilence, a contagious infectious disease that is fast-moving and devastating. This is not the first time that pestilence has become a pandemic, a widespread illness. The Church has responded to this before in her history. So, how has she responded? Exactly the way we have so far tonight. We repent. We fall to our knees begging God for mercy. We do not repent as if we have brought about the coronavirus through a specific sin. That is not the way God works. Remember John 9 where Jesus heals the blind man. The disciples ask if the man was blind because his parents sinned or because he sinned. Jesus responds that neither the man nor his parents sinned, resulting in his blindness. Instead, we repent in general, acknowledging that God could choose to inflict a plague upon us. We are not faithful as we ought to be. Our world has not just turned a blind eye to countless sins, but even endorses so many as natural and right and good and progressive, even though they are an affront to God. Our response as individuals and as a Church have not always been faithful. We have been content to let the world go its way without sounding the alarm. So we repent for every way we have grieved our God, both by omission and commission. We have sinned and deserve far worse than coronavirus. We deserve death, both temporal and eternal. So we repent. We acknowledge our sins. We acknowledge that our current pandemic, while not the result of one specific sin, is the effect of sin on our world. This is not the way it is supposed to be. Adam and Eve grieved God by their sin. We grieve Him daily in countless ways. Tonight we acknowledge our sin and confess it, asking God for mercy, for us as individuals, as a country, and as a world.
But that takes us to the Christian’s second response to pandemic: Faith. We trust that God will protect us. We take refuge in His infinite mercy. We plead that mercy precisely because of Jesus Christ. He has died for us, forgiven our sin, and grants us eternal life. We know our repentant prayers will be met with absolution. That is our first relief. Should we perish in this pandemic, we can go confidently as all Christians have before us. We can face our death with Jesus’ cross before our eyes, the same cross on which was hung our Savior, the price of our forgiveness and eternal life. Ultimately, eternally, we have nothing to fear.
But as long as God grants us daily breath, we still walk by faith. We certainly live in a trying, confusing, and dark day. Schedules are upended. Routine is gone. Uncertainty reigns. Shortages occupy our mind. So we look to Jesus, who does not change. We trust in Him to carry us through. We trust that when Jesus said, “Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” He meant that He will provide it. He will provide toilet paper and jobs and food and everything else that we need. But this is where we must also grapple with the uncomfortable side of faith: trusting God that if we share the abundance we have, He will ensure that we have enough. We pray that our faith would be strong enough for us to be charitable in this time, to help the waitress who suddenly finds herself without a job or the senior citizen who can’t leave their home for fear of contracting disease. Christians have never responded with “each man for himself.” These kinds of troubling days are precisely when we must walk by faith and not by sight, trusting God to protect and provide as we do that for the more vulnerable among us.
But for faith to lead means that faith must be fed. In the coming weeks it may not be as easy to avail ourselves God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament. A desire to help the neighbor may lead us as a congregation to alter our service times and sizes. We may have to worship at different times, with more space between us than normal, but we must continue to meet to the best of our ability. The devil will try to use this time to weaken our faith, to drive us away from church attendance out of fear. But faith lives a life that trusts God, that is willing to live through some temporary discomfort or inconvenience to receive Word and Sacrament.
God will keep you safe. Live like you are Baptized—because you are! You were buried with Christ by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, you too might walk in newness of life. Living like you are Baptized means confidence that nothing separates you from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Laugh at the devil’s attempts to induce you to fear and dread. You do not need to fear death, because you are united to Christ! In all things, cling to Christ. Confess your sin. Receive absolution. Receive the Lord’s Supper, that pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. Jesus died for you and redeems you from every illness of soul and body.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.