March 15th Sermon Outline
This week felt like a tidal wave crashed down around us. One moment everything is fine, the next moment you look up and it felt like everything changed. That moment, for me, was when I was watching basketball with Susan and Wednesday evening. We caught the last few seconds of a game and the announcers came on and said the second game to be played that night was being suspended. A player from the Utah Jazz was diagnosed with the coronavirus. This changed everything. For the NBA, when one of their own was infected, it suddenly felt real. The rest of the sports world has also fallen into line. The NCAA Tournament was cancelled. NHL has suspended their games. The PGA has cancelled all of their tournaments for the next few weeks. As I saw this cascade of sporting events being cancelled, I knew that we were looking at something bigger at play. If team owners and league commissioners are willing to suspend (or outright cancel) major events, something has changed.
We also saw the beginning of state governments taking steps to ensure the welfare of our population. The city of Chicago, along with the State of Illinois have asked that all large-scale events of 1,000 or more people be postponed. They have also encouraged that local gatherings of 250 or more be postponed until May 1. And here is where the state guidelines begin to affect us. For events less than 250 people, residents should closely consider who is likely to attend the event and, if it includes vulnerable populations, strongly consider canceling.
We are here this week, but I am not sure what the upcoming weeks hold. And I’m ok with that. But it also means that I have been given a challenge—what can I say to our church body to strengthen and encourage them in times like these? Today is not business as usual, but that’s not a bad thing. Today is our chance to reflect on what this moment means for our church and our community. And in good preacher form, I have three passages that have informed my thinking this week about how we should respond to this moment.
God is in control. James 4:13-15.
First, I want to remind us that God is in control. This moment did not surprise him like it surprised me. In fact, this moment simply reveals what has always been true—I am not in control of my life, but I know the one who is. Turn with me to James 4:13-15. In this passage, James is talking to a group of Christians who have begun boasting. They think they are big and mighty. They think they have it all together. And James lays it out for them—they aren’t in control! In fact their pride is a problem. They are proud of their knowledge, they are proud of their independence, there are proud of their ability.
This week we have been stripped of this pride. We have been stripped of the pretense that we know what the future holds. I think this is actually a good thing! Look at verse 14—James reminds us that we DO NOT KNOW what will happen tomorrow. Amen? Christians—right now is our moment to fall humbly before our Lord and confess that we have been driven by a pride of knowledge. You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow, that’s what James tells us. Did you know at the beginning of the week that people would begin to stockpile toilet paper? I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow.
Verse 14 also forces us to confront our frailty. James calls our lives a mist, a vapor. It is here today, gone tomorrow. This is not to say we are insignificant, but it should put things in perspective. The Lord has appointed our days. Job 14:5 says “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.” We trust that he has given us this day, so let’s use the days that we know he has given us.
This moment reminds us, perhaps a little harshly, that God alone knows the future. God alone is in control. It reminds us that we are utterly dependent on him. “If the Lord wills…” is a comfort and reassurance for us all. That saying reminds us that God is in control ad that God deeply cares for us. He DOES have a plan. He DOES think about us. We can trust him with our very lives.
Christians, here is our message to the world right now: Life is uncertain. It has always been uncertain. But Jesus Christ died for us so that we could have eternal life. Without feeding fear, we can say we understand why people are worried about tomorrow. We can say we understand that life is fleeting. And if tomorrow is the last of my days on earth, what am I leaning on? I trust in Jesus. I trust that he came to earth. That he died for me. That he paid the cost. That I can be with him in heaven. Not because of anything that I have done, but entirely because of what he did for me. Do you want to trust in Jesus today as well? Do you want to have certainty about eternity? Some people have prepared by buying lots of toilet paper or hand sanitizer. I have prepared for this moment by trusting in Jesus. How are you preparing?
Even in the midst of a pandemic. So the first thing I want to tell you this morning is simply a word of encouragement—God is in control. Will you trust him?
We are being sent. (Acts 8:1-4)
But I want to do more than just encourage us this week. I would really like to challenge us to think about how we might view this moment as an opportunity for the church to do something special. Turn with me to Acts 8:1. This text is remarkable. For the first 7 chapters in Acts, the church gathers together. We might think of it primarily as the gathered church. After Jesus’ resurrection, they start off as a scared mess. But through the faithful proclamation of the word of God, they become a growing fellowship of believers. There was only one problem. Despite Jesus words in Acts 1:8, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” the early church gathered almost exclusively in Jerusalem. They put down roots and seemed hesitant to move. The gathered church is becomes the stuck church.
That all changes in one moment. In Acts 7, Stephen gives an impassioned speech and becomes the first Christian martyr. Stephen proclaimed the gospel. And then what he said so enraged the religious leadership that they picked up stones to kill Stephen, and then their hatred boiled over to all other Christians as well. And we get to Acts 8:1 where a great persecution breaks out against all the churches in Jerusalem. And notice what happens. They are pushed out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. The stuck church become the scattered church. Like a mother bird pushing her nestling out of the nest, the church must reach out in faith or die. There are no other options.
But that’s when something REALLY interesting happens. In Acts 8:4, the scattered church dusts off their sandals, gather up their courage, and begin preaching the good news of Jesus “wherever they went.” And in this moment, they remembered their purpose—they are a part of the SENT church. From this point on, the book of Acts is a record of the incredible breakthroughs that the church has throughout the Mediterranean world. Judea is evangelized. The Samaritans are evangelized. And then their eyes turn to the Gentiles, who are evangelized. We are here this morning because the church was able to realize their true mission. They were not meant to stay confined in Jerusalem, but have been given a task to reach the whole world for Jesus.
Folks, we may be facing our scattering moment. Some churches in our country already have. But that does not stop the mission. In fact, it may give us impetus to be reminded of why we gather in the first place. We gather to proclaim the word of God, even to the ends of the earth.
We are being scattered. It may not even be an option, government agencies are already weighing in. But we can make this an opportunity to be the SENT church instead. If we get to red, that is an invitation to become something special. Let’s look at this as a time for us to be sent out into the world.
And the world needs your message about Jesus now more than ever. Listen to me here. Our world is hurting right now. They are confused. They are upset. Some are panicking, but others are just trying to figure out what they need to do to survive. This is where we come in. I want you to be the sent church to everyone out there who is hurt, to everyone who is confused, to everyone who is in need.
So I want to encourage you that God is still in control (from James 4). I want to challenge you to be the Sent Church (from Acts 8). Finally, I want to persuade you to lay down your rights for others during this time.
Lay down our rights. (Romans 14:19-21)
In Romans 14, Paul is having a discussion about food sacrificed to idols. That’s not a thing we struggle with today, but it was a very real concern in the first century (in fact, Paul also talks about it in 1 Corinthians). What’s interesting is that for Paul, he recognizes that not everyone is going to be one the same page. he knows that some think they have freedom to eat that meat, and others have a guilty conscience. And here is how he wraps up his argument in Romans 14. His concluding statement in Romans 14:21 is this: “it is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” Here’s the principle he’s making—I would rather surrender all the rights and freedoms I have and see people united than insist on my rights to do these things.
In the upcoming weeks we may have to make a decision to stop meeting. I think it is a real possibility, and perhaps sooner than we think. If this week taught us one thing, it is that the situation here on the ground is changing rapidly. But perhaps some of us are thinking—why should we stop gathering together? If I feel perfectly fine, and you feel perfectly fine, what threat could there be? I think at this point in our conversation we need to talk about what it might mean to lay down our rights for the good of our community. To what extent am I willing to lay down my RIGHT to gather in a church in order to help my entire community?
And this is where I really wrestled this week. Am I willing to look foolish in order to protect someone in our community that may never know the steps I took to protect them? If we cancel our church services in the upcoming weeks, I will not do it because I think it will protect me. But I would do it in a heartbeat if I thought it would protect the vulnerable in our church and in our community, even if the impact I make is only a part of a ripple effect. If limiting even one gathering could save someone’s life, would I be willing to forsake my right to gather in order to do that? And as they like to say in sports—that’s something that will never show up on the stat sheet. We may never know in what way we helped. In fact, we may look foolish doing it, but it would be worth it.
I have a second chart for us to consider this morning. I’m sure many of you have seen. It depicts two curves. One is a sharp incline, meant to represent what would happen if we took no major preventive steps in isolating this virus. It is trying to show us that a lot of people may get the virus, and if they all get it at one time, it may overtax our healthcare systems.
The second curve is a flattened curve. The same amount of people may get this virus, but it is spread out because we have taken preventative steps to impact how rapidly it is transmitted in our community. In essence, our healthcare systems may be stretched, but they will not break. It is the difference between everyone in this room getting sick at once (which would be TERRRIBLE), and everyone in this room getting sick over the course of a few weeks. Which would be bad, but the impact would be less severe because it is spread instead of in a bottleneck.
This chart, calling for us to flatten the curve, is why I think we have taken the measures we have already implemented, as well as inform us on why we may take additional measures in the near future. We surrender our Christian liberty to gather in order to meet a need in our community. Can I be frank with you, this may be the best way that we can love some people during this period of time. By slowing the spike in transmission, we give hospitals and healthcare workers time to navigate the urgent cases. In perhaps one of the strangest of ironies, loving your neighbor at this time may be simply staying away from large public gatherings.
But this may mean that we have an opportunity to love our neighbors in a different way. We can still love them by reaching out with open hands. Let’s give with open hands to those in need. Let’s think practically—as we go into these upcoming weeks if you know about people who maybe can’t go out to the store—can you drop off food or supplies for them? For the next few weeks kids are going to be out of school, and in some low-income areas, and even in rural areas like ours, this may mean that families are struggling to feed their kids because they normally get a meal from the school. Are you able to donate to the local food pantries to help with those needs? There are a number in our area, find one in your community. A number of people in our church have connections to the food pantries. Who might they be able to see?
But perhaps the biggest thing we may see is that people are going to be isolated from one another. I am already talking to our church leaders about how we can connect to this whole church body during this time, but I would encourage you as the BODY to touch base with one another. Call, text, IM, Facebook, whatever it is you do to communicate, send a message of encouragement to others in our church body, but also to your friends and neighbors at this time. Remind them of the goodness of Jesus. Remind them that they are loved. Remind them that people are thinking about them. Remind them that people are praying for them. Let’s be the church body that is SENT into the world to love them with the love of Christ.
I know this is a lot to process. I have been thinking about this response most of the week, and I know that many of you have been taking in the download of information along with me in a similarly short period of time. I do not know if this is the last time we will gather for an extended period of time. But if it is, I hope that you take away these three things.
Remember that God is in control. This has not surprised him on bit. We do not know what tomorrow brings, but we can trust in him.
We are the sent church. Our world is hurting and needs the gospel message of Jesus Christ right now. Jesus saves.
Finally, we are called to love our neighbors, and this may mean laying down our Christian liberties in order to love them well. Let us be willing to lay down our Christian rights for their lives during this time.