2 Samuel 12:15-20
We are now completing about three months of a pause in the normal rhythms of life because of the impact of the COVID-19 virus. The most significant impact of the virus has been measured in a mixture of emotions: sadness and gratitude. Sadly, 100,000 of our fellow citizens have died from this virus and gratefully, that number was only 100,000 and not the 2 million or more deaths as initially projected. There have been an abundant number of additional lesser impacts to our life. The very fact that we are using our website and Zoom to meet is just further evidence of the existence of this virus and changes it has made in the way we interact with one another. Today, I wanted us to spend time exploring the meaning we can find for our lives amid the many challenges of COVID-19.
I wanted to start us off today with just a few thoughts to set the scene. All of us have been talking and listening to conversation about the COVID-19 virus with ever greater intensity for the last five months. We have all watched a daily press briefing by the President or the Governor as well as the seemingly endless number of “experts” sharing their predictions and insights into this virus. And despite all the words, all the charts, and all the graphs there remains for most ordinary people some simple truths that have not changed in these last 5 months. The simple truths include that a virus is circulating among us. The truth is that virus is invisible to our eye, it is odorless, and it is tasteless. The virus makes no sound at its coming and we cannot feel the virus should it be on our skin. The truth is this virus is beyond our sensory perceptions. And yet, despite our inability to sense this virus on our own, we believe it exists. We do so because of the testimony of others and the evidence of virus’ effect on others.
Because we do believe in the existence of this unsensed virus, we necessarily assign meaning to it within our life. Think about that statement for a moment. We have been assigning meaning to this virus within the context of our lives. You might be thinking, I do not think I have assigned meaning to this virus. I can assure you that we both have. Why am I so confident we have done so? I am confident because we assign meaning to everything in our life. We are always putting an interpretation onto events and the things people say to us and then we assigning meaning.
Let me offer a trivial example. Let us say we wake up in the morning and it is raining. If we were a farmer, and it was rainy, we would say, “It’s a nice day.” If we had a picnic planned for the day, we see the rain, and we would say, “It’s a lousy day.” We put an interpretation onto events and those interpretations give rise to our reactions to those events. Allow me, if you will to say that again. We interpret events in our life and our interpretations give rise to our reactions to those events. We are always interpreting, always reacting, always assigning meaning.
I have given a trivial example of a rainy day in which one person, the farmer, interpreted the experience as a nice day by seeing the rain and expressing gratitude. The other person, desiring a picnic, interpreted the same rainy day as lousy, and became sad. Same event, same circumstances, with two interpretations and two different reactions. On a most serious note, I said at the outset that our reaction to the worst news of the COVID-19 virus has been a mixture of sadness and gratitude. Why? One hundred thousand people have died, and we sense sadness and yet we are grateful that number of 100,000 was not 2 million. Same event, same circumstance, same number, with two different responses because of how we interpret that number. Neither reaction is more proper than the other and neither interpretation is more proper than the other. So, what makes the difference in our response to that number? I am glad you asked. Let us dig a little deeper.
As we consider for a moment the more serious example of COVID-19, we come to realize that our reaction to the circumstances of this virus arise from our own interpretations. Therefore, and here is the answer to your earlier question, our experience to COVID-19 is shaped by the thinking we bring into it. My experience to COVID-19, your experience, is governed by our individual thinking.
Let me illustrate. For a time, I did a fair amount of thinking about COVID-19 in the negative. I looked at the circumstances and took stock of what COVID-19 made missing in my life. Just a couple of examples might help here. Before COVID-19, my two youngest grandsons would spend one day a week with us. That ended in mid-March. My wife and I missed those kids. They were physically absent from our life. Before COVID-19, we enjoyed worship services at two churches and weekly Bible studies with our friends. That too ended in mid-March. We have missed the community worship, singing, hugs, handshakes, and knowing people in an intimate manner. Somewhat selfishly, we could no longer visit our favorite restaurants or get our hair cut and styled when we wanted. We could not plan our vacations or backyard BBQ’s. Those experiences all ended in mid-March, casualties of COVID-19. How I perceived the meaning of COVID-19 was through the negative effects. The thinking I brought into the situation was focused on my losses and absences. The thinking I brought into the circumstances gave rise to my interpretation of the experience, my reaction to those circumstances, and thus the meaning I assigned. It was most notably sadness.
With some addition thinking, I have come to realize that I cannot turn off the COVID-19 virus and the impact it has had on my life. The simple truth is, I cannot alter this experience. And neither can you. But my experience is not just what I am experiencing. My experience includes what I am doing with the experience and that is something I can change. I am not trapped in this experience and therefore, I can be radically different in the middle of the circumstances.
I found it helpful to reshape my thinking by placing my experience into context by looking at the account in the Old Testament of David’s reaction to the death of his first child with Bathsheba. The child was conceived through an illicit relationship David forced upon Bathsheba that also ended with the murder of Bathsheba’s husband. There are many examples and illustrations that we could derive from the David and Bathsheba story, but today I want us to focus specifically on the circumstances following the birth of David’s first child. The child had become serious ill. This was not a surprise as the prophet Nathan had previously told David that David’s sinful nature would lead to the child’s illness. The Scriptures tell us, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He [David] fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. 17 The elders of his [David’s] household stood beside him [David] to get him up from the ground, but he [David] refused, and he [David] would not eat any food with them. 18 On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him [David] that the child was dead, for they thought, ‘While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.’ [The attendants were concerned about how David would interpret and respond to the child’s death.] 19 David noticed that his attendants were whispering among themselves, and he [David] realized the child was dead. ‘Is the child dead?’ he [David] asked. ‘Yes,’ they replied, ‘he is dead.’ 20 Then David got up from the ground. After he [David] had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he [David] went into the house of the Lord and worshiped” (2 Samuel 12:16-20).
David experienced one of life’s most fearsome circumstances in the death of his child. Some of you listening today live David’s experience. The rest of us hope never to do so. What we all realize in this passage is that David could not alter the experience. David’s son had died. David himself could not change that fact. David’s son was absent from him. But in David’s response we see that David’s experience was not just what he experienced but it included what David did with the experience. Amid this most difficult experience, David made a choice. David took his sadness with him and he chose to worship God and express gratitude. David brought sadness and gratitude together. David reshaped his experience by the thinking he brought into it. David was unquestionably sad at the death of his son and yet he was grateful that God was present in the middle of David’s experience.
David could not see, hear, taste, smell, or touch the invisible God, but David believed God existed. David saw that God, his Lord, was worthy of worship. David related to God with an accurate picture of what he was experiencing, who God is, his trust that God is good, and that God was for him. David sought the invisible God and made God visible through worship and gratitude even amid the challenges of deep sadness. To make God visible by our interpretation of events and our expression of gratitude is the highest honor we can have in this life. I want to pause there for just a moment so we can consider that statement. To make God visible is the highest honor we can have in this life. Think about David’s witness to his elders. David’s elders were concerned that when David learned of the news of his son’s death, David might do something desperate, such as taking his own life. Instead of something desperate and self-destructive, David worshipped God before others. I can only imagine the profound impression David left on his elders as David made the invisible God visible. When we worship before others, even now online, but particularly when we are together on Sunday mornings we are saying to others, “I believe in the presence of the invisible God and I am grateful for His presence in my life, for the love He makes evident in my life.” When we worship, we are changing whatever our experience is by including in our experience how we respond. David focused not solely on the absence in his life but on the permanent and unremovable presence of God in his life. David blended sadness and gratitude from the same event into a different experience that made visible the invisible God, our highest honor in life.
Centuries later, the Apostle Paul observed a similar sentiment in his letter to the Christians in Rome. Paul wrote, “31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39, selected). Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus Christ, God with us, achieved the highest honor by making visible the invisible God through the entirety of his days on earth. And in Jesus’ death, the sadness of his death, Jesus gave us eternal access to the invisible God. Paul was saying in the sadness of the cross express your gratitude for the unquenchable and unbreakable love of Jesus.
David and Paul give us insight that our experience with hardship of the invisible virus pales in comparison to the steadfast love of God for us. They invite us to interpret our circumstances not through the circumstances of our temporary losses but instead to find the better meaning in recognizing the permanent unshakable love of the invisible God. We too can relate to God with an accurate picture of what we are experiencing, who God is, our trust that God is good, and that God was for us. David and Paul’s words encourage us to respond to sadness of our experience, reshape the thinking we bring into it, and respond in a way that makes that God’s love real and visible. Let us be the source of testimony of others and the evidence of God’s effect on our lives that they too may come and believe. Amen and Amen.