In a time of rampant viral infection with as yet no inoculation against that infection, Christians may be tempted to flout the instructions to self-isolate to retard the communication and spread of the corona virus. After all, are we not people of faith? Do we take our direction from government or from Christ? Should we cower in fear of a measly virus too tiny to see when our ancestors in the faith stood up against ruthless emperors and vicious barbarians alike?
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
(Psalm 91:1-10 NRSV)
There are preachers challenging their congregations to just that – to come out to services, hug each other, and so disdain the threat of viral infection. What a great show of faith in Jesus Christ, right! No, wrong. Very, very wrong.
Our ancestors in the faith did not seek out the questionable glory of facing lions or gladiators in the Roman arena. Later, it is true, some did long for and seek martyrdom so they could attain that questionable glory; some even appealed to the churches not to intervene on their behalf with the authorities. But we are not called to seek our own glory; neither are we summoned to seek death. The apostle Paul has a word for such glory seeking:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1Corinthians 13:3 RSV)
The gospels of Matthew and Luke give us an extended look into the temptations of Jesus related to his own identity and ministry. Did he not believe in his calling? Did he not trust in God, his Father? Was he afraid or ashamed to stand up and show his faith? Would he play it safe? Did he not believe who he was? Was his success not the most important thing of all?
The voice of temptation, identified as the devil in the gospels, challenges him to assert himself, to step forward in courage and confidence, and to leave no doubt about his special relationship with God that would surely both protect him from harm and prosper him in his messianic destiny to power and glory. From that very same Psalm 91, the tempter quotes to persuade Jesus.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” (Matthew 4:5,6 NRSV quoting from Psalm 91)
Jesus rejects the temptation for what it is. True faith neither seeks out danger for the sake of self-glorification nor displays its trust in God for show. Faith does not try to put God into the position of having to tag along behind religious self-promotion that pretends to glorify God while actually taking the lead and expecting God to follow rather than be shamed by failure to deliver the flaunted protection.
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” (Matthew 4:5-7 NRSV)
No, Jesus would take the hard path of empathy with the people, humble trust in God, compassion for the suffering and sinful, and openness to God’s will for the future of his messiahship (which would be the shameful and torturous nightmare of Roman crucifixion for our sake). Let us not listen to the preachers of power and glory whose way is not Jesus’ way. The corona virus is an enemy from which we can protect those we love as well as the many God loves though we ourselves do not know. Let us not care less about God’s children than those who spurn God and disdain the name of Jesus Christ. We are not called to put on a display of our faith (and so dare God not to keep us safe despite our irresponsibility and ridiculous self-assertion). Let us not put our God to the test.
The science of the viral infection is real. Let us follow the instructions and pray for their success in flattening the curve of the virus’s spread so our hospitals and health care workers will not be overwhelmed. Yes, indeed, we pray for the people we know and love, but let us not pray for them without caring about the many, many people of this nation and world we do not know and cannot name but may very well infect, lest we belie our prayers with selfishness and deny God’s love for all the world’s people. We are not called to show how very, very special we are, how much more important than the rest of the world’s people. We are called to serve God’s love for all people and to do so in the way of the Servant Christ.