Preaching in the midst of a pandemic is new for most of us, and it is difficult to guess what circumstances might face us in the coming days, weeks, and months. It must be our prayer that COVID-19 will eventually pass, because whatever Christian benefits we might point to in the midst of this thorough reminder of our mortality, it remains a manifestation of evil and death from which we, children of life and light, ask God to deliver us. For the moment, however, it sets the context in which we preach, and it does that certainly far more pervasively than anything this preacher has previously experienced.
Since I cannot speak to this preaching context from any kind of experience, I am just going to try in this article to think through some of different ways the preacher might address his people in a time like this. I will do this mostly according to the Law and sin, because it is sin the pandemic especially evokes in our hearers. It will never bring the Gospel – that is our job.
I am assuming in all this the preacher cannot ignore the situation. The people should find their lives in your sermon, and no one’s life is unaffected by the coronavirus right now. It is the very fact that I can make such a blanket statement, free of all caveats, which makes it so necessary for us to preach on it.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic is an example of sin.
This is a very legitimate sermon approach right now, but we should be aware: It is not really a sermon about life during a pandemic. Instead, it is about the depth of the threat of sin to the lives of all people. The parallels between COVID-19 and the problem of sin are easy to find: No one is immune, some will die from the disease, the fact that someone is infected does not mean it is visible on the surface. But it is useful to think of the contrasts as well, especially these two ideas. First, unlike COVID-19, sin does not spare children. Second, unlike COVID-19, sin already has a cure in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The pandemic may go on for a long time though, and in that scenario, you will need a lot of sermons. On the one hand, that will mean preaching “normal” sermons, like this one would be. But on the other, it will also mean you need to especially address Christian life and faith during the pandemic. So, from here I want to move right into what will be the subject of the real pandemic sermons.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic will be used by the Devil to erode faith.
This is the ultimate reality you will need to be dealing with. God, who promises every good thing, has allowed a deadly virus to sweep through every country in the world. An invisible threat lurks on every door handle and in every cough. Grocery stores are emptying, and jobs are disappearing. A general feeling of uncertainty abounds, and anxiety is going to be on the rise. It is a playground for the Devil in his main task: The destruction of faith in Jesus Christ.
This is where you come in, the bearer of certainty and assurance. The promise of the Gospel is one that is unchanging, and it has the potential to shine especially brightly in the contrast available to it right now. Practically everything people have normally turned to as an anchor in a stormy life is disappearing. Or to put it differently, the noise is quieting down, and the voice of Christ can be heard even more clearly. There is something immovable. There is someone whose promise remains unaffected. There is a message which stands, no matter where the Coronavirus spreads. And, in fact(!), the Jesus Christ whom we proclaim knew sickness and death first-hand, so that he could be with us in our time of trial. He is not an anchor just for calm waters. He stands firm no matter how much the waves thrash.
The Jesus Christ whom we proclaim knew sickness and death first-hand, so that he could be with us in our time of trial.
The effort, as always, is in connecting the dots. That they are experiencing anxiety and doubt does not mean they will recognize the refuge of Jesus Christ. On the contrary: One of the likely tasks right now is teaching people that even and especially in this crisis, Jesus is their solid rock. This is what the broad understanding of “original sin as unbelief” allows you to know as you prepare: Jesus’s saving death and resurrection brings the solution not only for their 5th Commandment sin of harming the neighbor, but also for their 1st Commandment sin of thinking themselves forsaken in time of need.
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is its own special opportunity for sin.
I hesitate to seem to ignore the others, but one might especially expect the 4th and 5th Commandments to be the most fruitful mirrors right now. On the one hand, there will be angry criticism of the authorities as they manage the difficult task, given them by God, of leading people safely through a pandemic. On the other, their specific instruction (4th commandment) has been to limit contact with other people to protect them from infection (5th commandment). Transgression of either commandment warrants rebuke: Neither are the authorities to be maligned, derided, or ignored, nor is a behavior which disregards the risk of infecting others permissible.
But especially the latter lays out the challenge of the Christian life that is not just the challenge of preaching, but the very need for preaching. Your people must buy enough groceries to feed their families, even though what they take may leave someone later empty-handed. When they go to the grocery store, they are not always able to keep the proper distance from others, and so risk passing on an infection. Ultimately, they will also choose to come to church despite what may be good medical counsel, or to stay home, temporarily distancing themselves from the fellowship of believers, the pronouncement of absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (I will say nothing against the live-streamed sermon in these circumstances).
An earnest person can be torn apart by these decisions. A less concerned person may be flippant in their care for the neighbor or respect for the God-given authorities. Fortunately, the sermon makes both of these types of people into Christians, who seek a clear conscience not in their own wisdom and self-confidence nor in distraction and avoidance of scrutiny, but in the forgiveness of sins won for them by Jesus Christ on the cross and applied to them in your Gospel preaching.
All this may go on for a while. Although it will never be something to rejoice about, the pandemic, in some ways, makes your preaching easier. There is little doubt what is going on in people’s lives. In the midst of that, and certainly as its influence dulls, either because it passes or because everyone discovers ways for life to go on, your original task will remain: Preach the full counsel of God, applying the Word of the Lord to the hearts and minds and souls of His children in all situations. So, as a final note, it remains to recommend the Lectionary. Preach repentance during Lent, the Passion of Christ on Good Friday, and proclaim the victory of the resurrection of the Son of Man and Son of God on Easter morning to a people learning perhaps for the first time what it means to live in darkness.
May the Lord bring us through this with faith.