I’ll start with a word of comfort and of truth that came out of the mouths of babes. One of our children at Christ Church, when she found out that her school would be closed for even longer than expected, said to her mom, “The world is closing down, but that’s ok. God’s arms are always open.” Her mom said, “I love it when my kids preach the gospel to me.”
We are in a particular moment now when we all need someone to preach the gospel to us, including me. Which, ironically enough, will be me preaching to me when I tune in for worship on Sunday! It is true, as Dave said in his sermon last week, that we are in uncharted territory. However, it is important to remember that this is not uncharted territory for God. And while our generation may not have gone through something like this, it can be helpful to remember the words from Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
C.S. Lewis named this, in fact, in an address to college students during WWII. He said, “The war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”
In a letter to a friend during the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The streets are empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it is very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.
The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and Lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.”
Four takeaways from that snippet. 1) Of course Hemingway didn’t wash his hands! In his view, hand washing must have been for the women and the weak. 2) I feel comforted that Fitzgerald’s list of “necessities” is longer than my own (I mean, who needs absinthe?) 3) We’ve been here before – how apt is his description of the streets and the felt need now more than ever to be with people and 4) we too are in need of prayer.
We are all in need of prayer, and thankfully God answers prayer and God’s arms are always open. We see this in our gospel reading for today – the 4th Sunday in Lent. “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth…. He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed, and came back able to see.”
God’s arms are always open. Such a good insight from that child. Thinking about God’s arms – what do arms do? Arms touch, arms hug, arms gather in, arms embrace. And, as the children’s song reminds us, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” He is holding the world, cupping with world, cradling the world, securing the world. It kind of takes on new meaning, doesn’t it?
There is one meme going around now of an update of the Michelangelo masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It’s the Creation of Adam in which God famously reaches out His hand to touch Adam’s hand. Their fingers are almost connect. In the updated version, God is holding a bottle of hand sanitizer for them to use before their hands touch!
In a video message on Mockingbird earlier this week, Dave Zahl reminded us that Jesus doesn’t do social distancing. Right now, we do – and we must. In fact, that is the way to love our neighbor. That Jesus didn’t social distancing is not license for us to do the same: as if we need another reminder, we are not Jesus.
But, we do need a reminder that Jesus doesn’t distance Himself from people. And, we need a reminder that current realities are nothing new to Him. Disease has been around since Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was a diseased world into which Jesus came. Disease, however, did not stop Him from coming. And disease does not stop Him from coming.
Lepers, He hugged. When Peter’s mother in law was sick with a fever, Jesus laid hands on her and healed her. He touched the face and ears of a deaf man and restored his hearing. And, in the case of our reading today -this man born blind, He not only violated all the social distancing rules, but he also infringed upon all the commonsense personal space barriers in place during “normal” life. He spit, made some mud, and rubbed it on the man’s eyes. And lo and behold, it turned out to be healing salve. The man once was blind, but now he could see! To the ritually and physically unclean, Jesus came, traversing the distance between Himself and those in need.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus still comes to us who are in need. Those who cry, “Please, pray for us!” There is an interesting article in the Atlantic this week about Francis Collins, who is the director of the NIH. Obviously, he has been in high demand. Collins, who is graduated from UVa, was asked about his source of strength during this time of need. He said his only religious instruction growing up was being sent to a local episcopal church choir to learn the music. He said I was “instructed by my dad to ignore the rest, which I did.” (!)
But as a med student in his late 20’s, sitting by the bedsides of hurting and dying people, he realized he needed something, someone much greater than himself to make sense of the world, and to personally get through each day. After reading Mere Christianity, which, by the way, came out of C.S. Lewis’ wartime lectures, Collins became a Christian.
Now in his 60’s he was asked about his faith. He said, “I think I’ve arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life’s struggles. It took me awhile, I think—that sense that God is sufficient and that I don’t have to be strong in every circumstance.”
“One of my great puzzles when I first became a Christian is that verse, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness. That was so completely upside down for me. Weakness? And now I embrace that with the fullness of everything around me when I’m realizing that my strength is inadequate, whether it’s coronavirus or some family crisis, God’s strength is always sufficient. That is a such a great comfort.”
When Jesus touched the sick and healed them, there was a cost. Not to us, but to Him. In each healing, He began to take the sickness and disease of the world into Himself. Each episode was a harbinger, or a microcosm of what was to come on the hill of Calvary. God’s arms are always open. We can say that with supreme confidence now because He opened His arms to the world on the cross. As we will pray in just a few minutes, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”
Everyone means everyone. And everyone means you. God’s strength is always sufficient and God’s arms are always open.