Motivated by Hope

Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…[1]

This morning we find ourselves gathered for worship, following through on a number of wise, science-based precautions, while many Christians in the United States, Europe, Asia, around the world, and even in our own country are unable to worship in person because of how very easily this new virus spreads when people are close together, and because of the overwhelming strain our health system would face if even one or two percent of the population required hospitalization.  Though the World Health Organization says that most cases are mild, in our case, if even 1% of our town’s population needed oxygen to help them breathe, that would be 25 people, well beyond the beds available in our little health centre.  We’re right to be vigilant.

We gather today, following the advice of the experts in public health and disease control; experts who say that we, in our corner of the world, do not need to panic and hoard supplies, and are still low risk until cases of the virus arrive, though public events drawing large crowds with people who may have returned from infected areas out-of-town are wisely being cancelled.  We gather today knowing that, depending on how things play out, this may be our last large gathering for a while, though no matter what happens, daily prayer will continue here in God’s house, even if it means that your priest is here alone, ringing the bell to call this town to remember Almighty God, and faithfully praying for each of you on behalf of us all.

We’re right not just to be cautious, but to be concerned, and for that concern to lead us to be vigilant in caring for our families, for our neighbours, for the elders and those with health concerns, and for ourselves.  We follow the best advice and serve Christ in one another, even if it means inconveniencing the healthy for the sake of the weak. 

But, as Christians and together as the Church, there’s one thing that should not be found in our response: fear.

What’s our Motivation?

You see, as we find in scripture, sometimes our actions are simply neutral – they’re not good or bad in and of themselves.  Sometimes it’s our motivations, our intentions, our heart that makes an action right or wrong, good or bad, sinful or righteous, depending on whether not just the action, but the motivation, make us better imitators of Christ, or if they seek to protect and preserve ourselves, and thus miss the mark.

For example: we’re told to honour our parents.  But, if a child helps their aging parent because they want to protect their future inheritance, that help isn’t honouring them at all; the action of helping their parent becomes self-centered and sinful.

Or, as we heard in the Gospel on Ash Wednesday, we’re told to be generous and faithful in prayer, but if we write big cheques and come faithfully to church only to be seen by others, then those good actions are no longer faithful, and as Jesus says, “truly I tell you, they already have their reward”.[2]

And so, we must ask ourselves: as those who profess faith in Jesus, as those who know and firmly believe that trials produce endurance and endurance produces godly character, as those who know that the gates of death have been destroyed, and for those who die in faith, death itself is the start of a better, fuller life in Christ’s kingdom: what is our motivation.  What is driving our concern, our vigilance in these days?

If our actions are motivated by, and founded firmly upon wisdom, sober-mindedness, truth, and true love for the common good, then we’ll find that when faced by trials, that house built on the rock will stand firm.

But, that doesn’t come naturally.

The Problem with Fear

Rather, if we look around, and perhaps even if we look within, we find that all too often our actions aren’t built on a firm foundation, but on the shapeless constantly-shifting sand of fear.  And no matter the effort, any shelter built on shifting sand can only ever collapse, hurting those very loved ones it was meant to protect.

Fear, of course, is nothing new.  In Exodus 17 we heard once more of God’s chosen people who find themselves crippled by fear.

Of course, God had provided for their escape from slavery and had kept them safe and blessed them along the way, and God had just provided the sweet grain of manna to eat in morning and the tasty meat of quails to roast at night, but once again, they find themselves doubting and afraid.

Did they have reason to be concerned?  Yes.  They were travelling bit by bit through the desert, and now find themselves camping at an area without water.

But, did they have reason to be afraid?  No – after all, the Lord had provided everything they needed, and even more practically, it’s not like this was their destination… this was just a stop along the way.

But, as always happens with fear, rumors started to fly.  The rumors turned to mumbling, the mumbling turned to doubt, and then, like an angry mob fighting over toilet paper for fear of a lung infection, they lost their minds and were ready to stone the one person who was able to help.[3]

And, I have to be honest, there’s something in this story that I never noticed before today: of course, this lesson is about God’s provision.  But, in this case, Moses prays to God and says “what am I to do?  They’re ready to stone me!”, but God doesn’t reply with “I’ve heard your prayer” or “I’ve heard your grumbling in the wilderness… I’ll take care of you now that you’ve prayed”. 

No – remember, this wasn’t their destination; they were just stopped along the way. 

And God’s response is simply – ‘Moses… keep walking!’  Take the leaders of the people, keep walking on the path that you’re on, and you’ll find the water I’m providing for you. 

Was God leading them into the desert to die of thirst?  No!  Had he provided all that they needed, and would he provide water too?  Yes, of course.  But, what if the only reason they hadn’t found that water was because they had become bogged down, crippled by fear.

They were journeying, then rumors started to fly, then murmuring, then a mob-mentality took over, and the only thing that was accomplished by fear was stopping them from reaching the spring of water from the rock that was just up ahead on their path. 

If only they had kept walking, not slowed down by fear, God would have revealed it – but, motivated by fear, they expended a whole lot of energy accomplishing nothing of any benefit whatsoever. 

The same is true with us. 

Yes, fear is a natural response, but what hero has ever accomplished anything of any benefit with fear as the motivation?  No, we’re called to overcome fear, and as those baptized and commissioned to be the mouth, hands, and feet of Christ in a confused world, we’re called to act as those whose faith is built upon the solid rock, the source of all wisdom and truth, as we must believe and proclaim that even the most recent medical advice – if it’s true in any sense – is built upon the one source of truth that is Jesus Christ our Lord.

And we must be vigilant, because fear is contagious.  And worse still, fear is addictive.  Once we’ve become fearful, we become addicts, who can’t get enough.  You only have to watch the news: it becomes all we can talk about, all we want to talk about, and suddenly we’re committed to finding new things to be afraid of under every rock and in every dark corner.

At times like these, we are to take to heart the words of St. Paul to Timothy during a time of great difficulty and confusion: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God … for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love, and self-control.”[4]

Not fear.  No, be not afraid.  Even in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. 

So, then, what does it look like not to be motivated by fear in times like these?

The Christian Alternative

Well, God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.

With wisdom and truth as our motivation, our concern and vigilance in this pandemic will be confident.  We don’t worry about tomorrow because we know the one who holds tomorrow in his hand. Does that mean we don’t take preparation seriously?  No – the opposite; we prepare as those who know that God is with us, to strengthen, to guide, and to comfort, no matter what happens, even when the day comes that each of us will breathe our last and meet him face to face.

And, in that confidence, we have hope.  Our epistle from Romans 5 said it perfectly: we’re not crippled by fear; rather, we can even “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.”[5]  God is in control, so much that, in spite of our rebellion and sin, before you were even born, he sent his Son to redeem not just the world, but you, personally.  God will see us through… but, if we’re stuck mumbling and fighting on the path, we’ll miss out on the great provision God has for us just up ahead.

And, fundamentally, in times like these, a Christian response, motivated by wisdom and truth, is one that is not self-serving. 

And that looks different depending on where we are on our journey.

The best wisdom that we’re receiving from medical professionals – by the grace of God, I’ll add – is that, once the risk of infection becomes moderate or high, there are further precautions we must take, not just for ourselves, but for the common good.  And the Christian response is to serve the common good, to serve God in all persons, even when it limits ourselves.

Those who are 70 and older, or who have health issues or weakened immune systems will be told to stay at home at some point.  We should do that.  Not out of fear, but out of wisdom, as even those of us who think we’re strong need to heed the truth, for the sake of those who might need a hospital bed or oxygen tank.

Those who are low risk, for whom the symptoms wouldn’t be much more than the common cold, might also be told to stay home.  We should do that, not out of fear, but because if just being angry and holding a grudge is, in God’s eyes, equivalent to murder, how much worse is it if, by our stubbornness, the vulnerable in our community become infected and die.

For all of us Christians, this is a time of sacrifice.  The time may come when this congregation sets up a phone tree to check on those living alone; the time may come when those who are healthy and low-risk are called to pick up groceries and do errands for those who, for the common good, must stay home even if they are well.  We’re all called to sacrifice: those older or at higher risk will sacrifice their pride and independence, while those who are younger will be called to sacrifice their time and strength. 

This is the Church’s moment.  This is when, each of us, in our actions as appropriate to our place in life, acts in such a unified way that the world around us says, “see how they love one another”.

And, finally, if we live as those who turn from fear and walk in truth, who live in the confidence and hope of a sure and certain faith, together with confidence and hope, we’ll be faithful.  Faith overcomes fear.  Turn off the news, and pray.  Lay down your phone, and pray.  When the virus reaches our community, pray.  When your friend becomes infected, pray.  If a state of emergency is declared, pray.  When the first death is recorded, even in the isolated North, pray.  And pray not as those who have no faith; but pray that our wills would be conformed to the image and likeness of Christ, so that each of us will be at peace, and will have the grace to do what is best not for ourselves, but for this Body of which we are all members, and for the world which we are called to serve.

Endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  Amen.

[1] Romans 5:4-5

[2] Matthew 6

[3] Exodus 17:1-7

[4] 2 Timothy 1:4-7

[5] Romans 5:1-11

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