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A Mighty Fortress During COVID-19

Suddenly, it appears, coronavirus has changed the world. I’ve learned new terms, like “social distancing” and “community spread;” rarely-heard words like “quarantine” and “closures” fill up our conversation. We hand-wash while mentally singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Happy Birthday to You,” twice. The irony of singing “Happy Birthday” while the news fills up with statistics on the sick and dying around the world probably isn’t lost on you. People are stock-piling food, toilet paper, water. Fear, as well as sickness, is on the rise. That fear is starkly contrasted against the comfort of the hope in Christ, who told us “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). That fear threatens to nibble away at my “taking heart,” I’ll confess; maybe it does for you, too.

This new world we face, though, isn’t new at all. From 1347 to 1350, for example, the plague swept from China to the Crimea and into Europe and killed one-fourth of the population of Europe. In 1527, that same Black Death struck Wittenberg, where Martin Luther was ordered to leave along with his fellow university professors. Instead, he stayed to minister to the sick and frightened in the city, taking the sick into his own home with his son and his own pregnant wife. Johann Hess, the Reformation leader in Silesia, wrote to Luther asking him his advice on staying where he was or leaving as the plague spread, especially in light of rumors that the Wittenbergers had run away from the plague. His answer, in "Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague" (1527), was an encouragement to Hess to stay and minister if he could and had the opportunity, but to also take safety precautions for himself and those to whom he ministered. Luther responds:

“Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire, which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body?” Then Luther tells Hess how to consider his own situation as a minister of the gospel. This, says Luther, is what you should say to yourself:

“… By God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore 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 infect 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… See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” 

For Luther, staying safe (hand-washing and social distancing, in today’s parlance) enables one to boldly participate in putting out “the burning city” and help his neighbor who “needs me.” It was this confidence in the Providence and goodness of God during that pandemic which led to Luther’s penning of those words (1527-1529) that God’s people still sing today:

A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing
Our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth is his name,
From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

Our ancient foe does still seek to work us woe! And it is still not in our own strength, or smarts, or preparedness, or stocked shelves, or hand sanitizer or anything but Christ Jesus on our side that will bring us safely through today’s craft and power of the enemy. We wash our hands and social distance and decline non-essential travel to stay safe, enabling us to help our neighbor who needs our help and to hear and see the hope of the gospel. Today’s cononavirus is “novel” only in that the virus itself is new; however, the wiles of the enemy and the call to God’s people to hide themselves in the love and strength of Christ and minister that hope to others is not new at all.

May our hope in Christ lead us to shine the hope of the gospel brightly to a world that is sick and is gripped by fear. May our God keep and protect us as we do. But “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me …. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.”

May the Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be yours today. Amen.

Cartee Bales is MTW's senior director of field operations.

Cartee Bales Mar 24, 2020
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