Sunday, November 15, 2020


“The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Because of our First Parents’ sin, and because of our own sin, all our lives will end in death – period. As Jim Morrison of The Doors put it, “No one here gets out alive.” And so, there is inherent risk in living. Literally anything can kill you, and something inevitably will. Why is it then that we do not lock ourselves indoors, stay in bed, and hide away from all potential threats and dangers? Because life is a wonderful gift, and living it is literally worth the risk of losing it. In fact, it is impossible to live without taking risks, and locking yourself in your home isn’t living and neither will it keep you from death, and moreover it is not God’s will for you and for your life.

It is a significant risk for a baby bird to jump out the nest in its first attempt at flight. Tragically, some don’t make it. But, if they don’t take that risk they most certainly will not live, so out of the nest they go. Getting married is risky. Opening a business is risky. Getting behind the wheel of a car is risky. Having a baby is fraught with risk. Going to school, going to church, going to Wal-Mart is risky. The Garden of Eden was a risky place too, having a tree that brought death and a deadly deceiving serpent. Life is full of risks. Life is risk, and we all, consciously or unconsciously assess our risk-load in every decision we make and in everything we do. The same was true then as it is now: While there are many things in this life and world that are fearful and dangerous, we are called to fear, love, and trust in God above all else.

Let’s address the elephant in the room: COVID-19 is a serious virus and it needs to be taken seriously. I believe that the vast majority of people do indeed take it very seriously. What we see is individual persons and families assessing their personal risk-load and making decisions accordingly. Now, this is NOT a political column, but a religious column, a Christian column, and I am speaking from the Word of God. God has quite a lot to say about what we should fear and what we should not, and how we should live. His first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). In his Small Catechism Martin Luther explains this commandment saying, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” We worship what we fear most, and what we’re most afraid of losing tells us who or what we worship, where we place our fear, love, and trust. Ultimately, we don’t fear a virus, but what we fear most is losing imaginary control over our lives, and that fear keeps us locked up, looking inward to ourselves and our own safety instead of outward toward others as the rest of God’s commandments direct us to do (Matthew 22:37-40).

Asked in a letter how to respond during the Plague, Martin Luther replied: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God” (Luther’s Works 43:132).

If we replace the threat of the atomic bomb with the coronavirus, C.S. Lewis also chides fear and exhorts Christians to live their lives and serve their neighbors: “It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty. […] If we are all going to be destroyed by [the coronavirus], let that [virus] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about [viruses]. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds” (“On Living in an Atomic Age”).

St. Paul wrote to young Timothy, and to us all, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Our Lord Jesus exhorts us, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). That “him” is the LORD, and no other.

There is no such thing as zero-risk faith. We are to fear the LORD and serve Him, loving no one and no thing more than Him, not even our lives, but loving all with the love with which He loves us. Taking reasonable precautions is not fearful idolatry, but it is faithful stewardship of God’s gift of reason and intellect. However, fearful paralysis that keeps us from receiving the Lord’s gifts and loving and serving our neighbor may well be fearful idolatry. Jesus was the perfect example of faithful fear and love, reaching out to unclean lepers, prostitutes, and the dead and serving them with love, mercy, compassion, and grace.

Is fear keeping you locked up, turned in on yourself? Is fear keeping you from receiving the Lord’s gifts in your house of worship? Is fear keeping you from reaching out to others in faithful love and service of your neighbor to the glory of God? What is it that you truly fear, truly love, and truly trust in? The LORD invites you to fear no man, no thing in heaven or on earth, but to fear God and find in Him freedom from all fear. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10), and the wisdom of God is Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30). The fear of God leads to trust and trust bears the fruit of the Spirit, for a harvest of blessings for ourselves and for others. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Rev. Jon M. Ellingworth

Pastor, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church – Waverly, IA

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