As the Corona crisis reached its first peak, the observation was often voiced that sermons online during the struggles of individuals and nations with this pandemic often exceeded the usual sermons of the pastor. All agreed that, in general terms and in principle, it is easier to listen to our pastors in the physical proximity of the live congregation. But somehow words from the mouth of the preacher seem to hit home more in times filled with the stress of emergencies or disasters. The difference seems to lie in both the content and the impact of the words being proclaimed.
Perhaps the explanation lies with the hearers: We were simply listening more closely. Or, it could be that the immediate experience of a common disruption to usual routines makes the preacher more conversational in the pulpit than when the exposition and application of a text aims at more general situations in the lives of the hearers.
But a more likely explanation lies in the fact that more immediate, clear threats of our little worlds breaking apart and our own feelings of distress and vulnerability lead to very concrete presentations of the word from God’s Law. For in the crisis it has become once again clear we have not been depending on Him with total fear, love, and trust. Crisis experiences make that clearer to most as they face their anxieties and apprehensions. This shape of the Law, therefore, leads to very concrete presentations of the presence and promises of God in Christ. Despite appearances and our feelings of treading uncertain and potentially dangerous ground never before visited, our Lord does come alongside us, and we seem to notice He is there more in times like these. He enters our disquieted worlds through the proclaimed Word.
For in the crisis it has become once again clear we have not been depending on Him with total fear, love, and trust.
The crisis—in the sense of its Greek root, “judgment,”—has made us hearers more sensitive than ever before to sermons that bring Christ’s presence and His promise that He will be our rescuer in every time of need. He made this promise aware of the fact that His people’s lives are plagued by challenges of various kinds. Luther’s plan for the study of Scripture involved not only reading the text and chewing on it in the midst of our prayers. It included the, “Anfechtungen,” the spiritual assaults and temptations to doubt the Word of the Lord and despair of His presence. In the face of virus inspired Anfechtungen, God’s pledge of His being here for us now has taken on a fresh and ever more penetrating tone. It somehow makes us more careful, more concentrated listeners to the proclamation of His perpetual and patient care for us.
The clarity and vigor of both Law and Gospel are intensified by times of crisis. We dare not too quickly assign causes for this experience of the judgment in the form of current crises we experience when the cracks in our “normal” routines make themselves felt. Such cracks heighten our sense of how vulnerable human life is no matter what kinds of Towers of Babel our health care expectations or our nation’s military prowess or our burgeoning bank accounts have erected for us. There are enough causes in the normal course of things in a sinful world to cry out for God’s intervention that we can, at best, only render a blurred and abstruse opinion regarding the thinking behind His judgment in any particular case. But it is clear that what we see as a crisis does reveal our own exposure to the vengeance that God-ordained structures for His world and His humanity take on for those who violate what God has established as the Edenic normal for humankind. Whatever or whoever brought on the crisis, it is aimed at producing our repentance.
Therefore, it is important to remember when experiencing judgment in times of stress that assessing blame for the crisis stretches us beyond our ability to read the mind of God. The roots or origins of the call of judgment, whatever they may be, serve to call us to turn back to Him and direct our lives toward His Word. They do not invite our assessing blame. God’s goal in all this is that His call to repentance impacts our lives by turning us to find peace and joy in Christ. It is His death and resurrection alone that place us, ultimately, beyond the reach of the evil in our own hearts or in the hearts of others around us in the life-securing hand of our God. We can only thank Him for His dramatic clarification of His displeasure with the spectrum of abuses of the gifts of His creatures, human and non-human, which we along with those around us commit in so many different ways day-in and day-out.
The roots or origins of the call of judgment, whatever they may be, serve to call us to turn back to Him and direct our lives toward His Word.
Sermons in this time of crisis have found their tone in clear confrontations with the fears and dreads that the inability to resist disease and to immediately solve the threat posed by new diseases has aroused. Such exposure to one aspect of the results of our trying to live doubting and ignoring God’s Word while fashioning our own rules for life awakens us to our need for someone stronger than we are to stand by us. Sermons in a time of crisis proclaim and enact Christ’s presence in the lives of hearers and deposit in their thinking the promise that He will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
To be sure, His is the presence of the Crucified One, whose way into and through the human experience knew suffering well. Jesus’ presence spelled trouble for His disciples precisely in those days when He was no longer physically graspable in their midst in the weeks after His Ascension. His disciples quickly perceived how His presence in His Word brings hope of a future freed from all evil, but it does not create a present freed from combat with evils of all kinds. Yet, they remained defiantly confident in their trust that He would be with them to the ends of the age, even if they had seen Him on the mount of Ascension leaving them behind (Acts 1:9-11). They found firm ground on which to stand despite persecution in those post-Ascension days (Acts 4-8).
The crisis of 2020 first plunged us into the Lenten season with the penitential reminder that it is not good for Adam or any other human creature to be alone. It prepared us for celebrating the Lord’s resurrection at social distances that contradicted the drawing power of His rising from the dead to bring together those who had been separated from each other as well as God Himself by their sinfulness. The crisis of 2020 correlated with the ecclesiastical calendar in ways that highlight where our current discomfort and distress is placed in the larger scene of the life which began anew in our baptisms and will end with our last dying to sin under the baptismal promise and our final resurrection that completes this baptismal promise.
This promise is not only a promise of a future life without viruses and plagues. It is, to be sure, the promise that pertains ultimately in its fullness to the future fulfillment. But the promises of God haul that future reality into our thinking today and make His life-affirming presence real even during plague. The risen Lord Jesus stands by us amid our fears of going out into a wider public and our distress at, “Staying home and staying well.” For we know that neither virus nor social distance or nearness or any other factor apart from the risen Jesus determines who we are and the ultimate course of our lives, even when it threatens to bring us illness and even death (Romans 8:38-39).
Especially in such a time as pandemic, sensing His presence provides the contrast in which we can clearly see that our fall into sin dented the very physical apparatus with which He created us and opened us up to suffering the breakdown of His order in disease and death. Nonetheless, especially in the midst of plague, His presence cuts through the fog of our fears and worries, our loneliness and suspicion, to give us the glow of His steadfast lovingkindness. Upon Him and Him alone depend the peace that, beyond all our understanding, sets minds and hearts to rest even in time of plague.