I heard thunder for the first time last week just as I was getting ready to go to bed and the storm rolled in. The thunder was a reminder to me that storm season, more importantly, tornado season, is just around the corner for Oklahoma. If you have lived in Oklahoma for any amount of time then you are on a first name basis with our weather people. Mike Morgan, David “Tornado” Payne, and Damon Lane all feel like part of our families don’t they? We may lose touch with them from time-to-time, during the quiet times of the year, but when the air is heavy and the skies grow dark we reconnect in a hurry.
Why do we listen so intently to the weather people when storms are predicted for our city? Well, we don’t know what’s happening up there in the atmosphere. We may go outside, look up at the sky, and tell everybody in the house that we don’t see a thing. You learn, when you live in Oklahoma, that just because you don’t see a thing that doesn’t mean that a “thing’ isn’t coming.
We need to pay attention to the boys because they have devoted their lives to understanding weather patterns, atmospheric disturbances, and what conditions make for deadly weather. You don’t have to heed their warnings, you can dismiss what they have to say, but you do so at the peril of losing your life. And so it is with the current situation we are in right now.
We’re getting updates on a daily, if not hourly basis about what is happening in our city, around our nation, and all across the world. They are not simply giving us updates about how many are infected or those who have died, but they are telling us what we can and should do to lower our own risk of becoming infected. We are hearing from an endless string of local, state, and national political leaders as well as our top medical advisers and people are glued to their television sets, phones, and computers to find out the latest.
Why are so many locked-in and listening to those who are speaking to us every day? Well, it’s for the same reasons we pay such close attention to our weather guys, isn’t it? We don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know a thing about epidemiology, virology, or infectious diseases. I want to pay attention to those who have devoted their lives to understanding viruses and how they spread. Now, make no mistake about it, just like those who dismiss the advice of the weather guys, there are those who are dismissing the advice and direction we are receiving from Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and others, but that’s not a good idea.
I’ve shared all of this with you this morning to point out that we are listening, we’re paying attention, and well we should. This morning I want to encourage us, I want to urge us to listen to another voice, a voice that you won’t hear on the evening news, any of the 24 hour news channels, or any of the politician’s press conferences–we need to listen intently to what God has to say about our current situation. Are we listening to what God has to say?
In the first century, following Pentecost, a great number of people became followers of Jesus. Not too long after Pentecost, persecution broke out against the followers of Jesus and those who had called Jerusalem “home,” were scattered. The ignition point of the persecution was the killing of one of Jesus’ followers, a man named Stephen. Here’s what I want us to pay special attention to: When persecution broke out and the lives of Jesus’ followers were threatened, how did they respond? We can read about it in Acts 8:1, 4.
1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his (Stephen’s) death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:1; 4 NIVO)
Their lives, their businesses, their neighbors, everything they had known and loved was taken from them when they had to flee their homes in Jerusalem. You and I haven’t had to flee Oklahoma City, but our lives have certainly been disrupted. Think of all of the things that have been taken from us over these past three weeks. You and I can’t go to the mall, buy some popcorn and a drink, and watch a movie. Sports, and you know how important sports are to so many of us, sports are no more. You can’t watch a basketball game, baseball game, or any other game any longer. You can’t even look forward to the Olympics this summer. About one week before everything changed, Connie and some of our family went to Chesapeake Arena to see Lauren Daigle in concert. That’s out. We can’t go to concerts, take in a play, or experience the Arts Festival. They are all gone. All of these are things we enjoy, but there are those in our city and across the world who have lost so much more, they’ve lost loved ones and jobs.
Like those early followers of Jesus, our lives have been radically disrupted, but we need to listen and learn from those who have gone before us. Did you notice verse 4?
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Acts 8:4 NIVO)
How was that, sharing the good news of Jesus, even on the radar for those who were under the threat of death? That’s a great question and I’ve got an answer for you. The good news was so much better than the bad news, that the bad news couldn’t distract them from telling everybody the good news of Jesus. Jesus had changed their lives, He had given them a new way to see life and the troubles they were presently facing. They had to tell others the good news!
The good news, for those who love Jesus, those who have been changed by Jesus, is so much better than the bad news that you and I are receiving every day. And those who have had their lives changed by Jesus are sharing the good news in all kinds of powerful ways right now. I could spend the rest of our time telling you stories of how people I know are serving others, caring for others, blessing others, and sharing Jesus’ love with others while bad news is all around us. How are these people able to see so many opportunities instead of being blinded by the crisis? Now that’s a great question. I want you to turn to Philippians 2 with me and let’s read together verses 1-4.
1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4 NIVO)
Those of us who have been encouraged and comforted by the love of Jesus and by the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, we are to consider others as better than ourselves, we are to look out for the interests of others. In the middle of a crisis we see opportunities to care for and serve others. This has been true for Jesus’ followers throughout history. Let me give you just a couple of examples.
There’s nothing new about pandemics. History shows us that pandemics have always had a devastating impact on societies. Rodney Stark, in his book “The Rise of Christianity,” shows us how Christianity spread faster than the diseases during the plagues that impacted the Roman Empire. What was it that attracted so many people to Jesus during the crisis of the Antonine smallpox plague of the second century? The plague lasted for 15 years and killed up to 25% of the citizens of the Roman Empire. In 250 A.D. another plague broke out in the Roman Empire that lasted 20 years. Once again, huge numbers of people became followers of Jesus. Why is this? How did that happen? It wasn’t theology, high profile preachers, or elaborate cathedrals that drew people to Jesus, but it was the way Jesus’ people cared for the sick and dying.
Folks in the Roman Empire weren’t known for caring for others, but the Christians on the other hand, risked their lives to care for the sick and to take care of those who were dying. Years later Roman Emperor Julian complained in a letter that Christians “would care even for non-Christian sick people.”
In 1527, the bubonic plague came to Wittenberg, Germany and everyone who could get out of the city, did so. People left their sick loved ones behind in order to save their own lives. The shops were closed. Doctors refused to see patients and priests refused to administer the last rites. And then there was Martin Luther. Luther and his pregnant wife, Katherine, opened their home to those who were sick and dying and cared for them. Luther wrote to the followers of Jesus in Wittenberg,
We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: it turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die. (Martin Luther)
And this same story can be told over and over again my friends. We, you and me, all of the followers of Jesus, have been called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus said,
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13 NIVO)
The followers of Jesus throughout time have taken this verse literally. In the same way that Jesus has loved us–we are to love others. When pandemics break out the vast majority of people turn inward to try and find a way to survive, but the followers of Jesus turn outward and look for ways to care for and serve others.
Somebody is thinking, “So are you saying we should open our homes to care for the sick like Luther did?” I’m not saying that at all, unless the Lord is leading you to take someone in who is ill and needing your care. What I am saying is this, we should not be so consumed with our own welfare that we forget those who need our care and support. There are a myriad of ways to do this.
This past week some of our high school kids came together and put 200 care packages together for our seniors. We did drive-bys and left them on the front porch so that our friends would know we are willing to help in any way they need help. A lady in our church sewed masks for one of our doctors who would be spending the week caring for people in the hospital. People have gone grocery shopping for our seniors who shouldn’t get out. Another lady in our church bought lunch for all of the staff at a local nursing home to let them know we are praying for them and we appreciate them caring for those under their care. The list goes on and on.
The key for you and me is this: What will we focus on when times of trouble, crisis, break out? Will we focus on the threat or on the opportunity? Left to our own thinking there’s no doubt where we will focus–we’ll be like those in the Roman Empire and Wittenberg–we’ll see the threat and take care of ourselves. But those who have been transformed by the love of Jesus, the hope that only Jesus can bring, will see trials, even pandemics, as an opportunity to grow strong in our dependence on the Lord and an opportunity to serve others. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Turn with me to James 1.
1 This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”– Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! 2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. 5 If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. 6 But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. 7 Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. (James 1:1-8 NLT)
Did you notice that James was writing to Jewish followers of Jesus who were scattered abroad? These were troubling times for the followers of Jesus because of persecution, but James tells them to consider their troubles as an opportunity for great joy! How in the world could James see life-threatening troubles as an opportunity for joy?
I need to point something out for us this morning. The followers of Jesus and the people of the world think differently. The people of the world are fixated on happiness. We just want to be happy and the way to be happy is to alleviate all of our problems. If I could just get rid of my problems, then I would finally be happy. God’s Word teaches the followers of Jesus not to pursue happiness, but to focus on joy. Joy is altogether different from happiness. Happiness is directly tied to our circumstances, but joy is derived from a different source. Paul wrote to the people of Philippi and he told them,
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4 NIVO)
We rejoice not in our circumstances, but in the Lord. Our circumstance right now is like everybody else’s circumstance. The news is not good, we have no idea when this will be over, but I do not have to allow my circumstance to dictate my mental, spiritual, physical, and psychological disposition. My disposition can be joyful if I choose to rejoice in the Lord. Now, what does that mean? It means that I focus on the fact that Jesus knows me, He loves me, He has redeemed me, He has made a way for me to be reconciled to God the Father, and He is with me. If I focus on these truths and not on my circumstance then I can rejoice!
Let’s go back to James for a moment. James said that our trials are an opportunity for great joy and then he wrote,
3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4 NIVO)
For the followers of Jesus, the focus of our trials shouldn’t be to simply get to the other side, but to understand our trials as an opportunity to grow stronger in our dependence, our reliance, our trust in the Lord. We say we trust God, but when trials come do we really trust Him? Do the pressures of life weigh us down or press us into Him? James says our trials, the testing of our faith, can build our endurance. See the word, “endurance?” The Greek word is “???????” (hupomone) and it means, “steadfastness, endurance, or constancy.” The word describes a person who is not swerved from his deliberate purpose by even the greatest trials of life.
You and I are subject to all of the problems of life that everyone else on the face of the planet experiences. Just because we are followers of Jesus doesn’t mean we get a pass, but we don’t have to allow our problems to rob us of the joy that is found in Jesus. Does that sound like something you desire for your own life? Are you tired of being tossed back and forth by every trouble that comes your way? I’m not a gambler but if I was I would bet that this current trial, the coronavirus, is only one of a long list of problems that has rocked our world and kept us up at night. Our faith will grow, our dependence and trust in the Lord will sustain us, and joy will fill us, if we will see our trials first and foremost as an opportunity and not a threat.
Habakkuk was a man of God who was living in uncertain times, the nation was falling apart at the seams and Habakkuk had so many questions. Habakkuk recognized that the worst was yet to come and yet he wrote,
17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIVO)
Hard times. Rejoice in the Lord. Uncertain times. Rejoice in the Lord. With the stories of death all around us. Rejoice in the Lord. Our joy is in the Lord.
The followers of Jesus who had experienced such great fellowship in Jerusalem found themselves scattered, but they were united as one. They had one mission and that was to share the good news in any and every way possible. James wrote to the scattered Jewish followers of Jesus, but he knew they were united as one. They had one mission and that was to share the good news in any and every way possible. Now it’s our turn. We are scattered. We are so accustomed to coming together throughout the week for prayer, Bible study, and worship, but for the past two weeks we’ve been scattered all over Oklahoma City. There is no question that we are scattered, but are we united as one? Is our main ambition, our singular mission at this time in our lives to share the good news in as many ways as possible?
A virus can’t stop us from sharing the good news of Jesus if we will stay focused on Him. Isolation can’t stop us from sharing the good news of Jesus if we will stay focused on Him. Sickness can’t stop us from sharing the good news of Jesus if we will stay focused on Him. If the economy collapses and we lose our jobs, even that won’t stop us from sharing the good news of Jesus…if we will stay focused on Him. Last of all, if our churches never opened their doors again, not even that would stop us from sharing the good news of our King if we will simply stay united, one people, with one heart, with burning passion. It doesn’t matter how bad the bad news becomes, the good news is so much better. We must tell them.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
March 29, 2020