Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon for the Thanksgiving for the End of the Pandemic on 7/4/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 9:30am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: July4 Bulletin
The texts for the sermon were the day’s gospel and Old Testament lessons. To read the Bible texts for today’s Day of Thanksgiving, click here.
In Isaiah 19, God promised a terrible judgment upon Egypt. He would stir up a civil war. He would hand them over to surrounding nations. He would bring about drought and crush their economy.
All this so that they would repent of their idolatry, cease to exalt their own wisdom, and turn instead to the same LORD who once plagued them to deliver His people from bondage.
This is within His purview. The LORD is God over all the earth, and sits in judgment on every people, whether they know it not or like it not.
The oracle against Egypt, along with their repentance, is an example for the church to heed. When God brings about calamity, whether it is war or famine, sickness or recession, it is to the end that we repent and call upon Him.
And so, it is fitting that today we also call upon God in thanksgiving and praise for His mercy. We thank God that He has delivered us safely through this pandemic. And we ask that He give strength to our repentance, zeal to our prayer, and courage to carry on.
You might think that this is premature. There are countries where COVID is still raging; some states with infection rates not as low as ours; some people still at risk; and, sadly, a few who have not yet returned to worship here in church.
But just as we cannot delay repentance for a moment, neither can we delay praising and thanking God for His mercy; especially when we recognize that God rarely doles out judgment and mercy all at once.
God’s judgment of Israel in Isaiah 19, for example, didn’t happen in a single day. It could have taken place under Piankhi of Ethiopia, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, or even all of them over time. Likewise, Israel was chastened for forty years in the wilderness. And it took almost a century for the exiles to return from captivity in Babylon, and 46 years to rebuild the temple. Repentance and praise, however, are to be rehearsed daily.
As we praise God for his deliverance, it’s worth paying attention to how God saves. God’s miracles occur in the natural world, which He has made. God works through means, through the stuff of His creation: through people, through processes, and through time.
Consider the bondage in Egypt and the exodus. Though Pharaoh oppressed God’s people, it was the LORD who raised up Pharaoh for this purpose: that God’s power be made manifest, and His name proclaimed in all the earth. (Romans 9:17)
Likewise, though God miraculously parted the Red Sea, still, He required Moses to stretch out his hand over it, opening it for God’s people and closing it in on Pharaoh.
And though God again brought judgment upon Egypt years later, He did so through the conquest of surrounding nations and rulers.
This should help us calibrate how we consider God’s modes of working in His world. Though the present pandemic is being withdrawn, and though we who are here have been delivered through it, this has not happened apart from God’s providence.
He has given us immune systems, modern medicine, and logical ways of working with them. He has given us the ability to communicate, to reason, and to govern. All of this is pure mercy. Thanks be to God.
Not only has God had mercy upon us, He has given us plenteous occasions to give thanks, and, wait for it… to receive yet more grace from Him.
Psalm 92, the opening verses of which were sung in our Gradual, is the only Psalm in the entire Psalter that is specifically written for the Sabbath. While we frequently think about the Lord’s Day in terms of what is not done, the Psalmist declares instead what is to be done; namely, the praise and celebration of God’s great works.
There is no greater work of God that the salvation He has won for us in Christ Jesus. Here we have all of God’s judgment and all of God’s mercy raised up before our eyes. There is no greater judgment than the sins of the world heaped upon Jesus at the cross. There is no greater mercy than the blood and water that flow forth from His side. There is no greater grace than to have that mercy applied to you at font, pulpit, and altar. And there is no greater praise than to receive these things again and again and again. That’s what worship is, and that is why you are here.
But there is another response to God’s mercy. We see it in the Gospel from St. Luke.
Simon’s, i.e. Peter’s, mother-in-law was gravely ill, and they begged Jesus to heal her. He was happy to do so, and the moment He did, immediately she arose and began to serve them.
Having received God’s mercy, she began to serve. Of course, she worshiped, as well. Of course, she happily received God’s mercy her whole life and called upon Him in prayer and praise. But Luke doesn’t describe that for us here.
The word that Luke uses to describe her rising up is the same word used of the resurrection. Jesus has given her new life, new joy, and new purpose. So, how will she spend her resurrection? She will start by serving.
And this is still how Jesus works through His creation. Jesus pours out love and mercy to heal and to save, and the church responds in prayer, praise, and service.
This is what God has done here at First Lutheran over the last year. You have been baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, and this is how you have been spending your new life even in the midst of a pandemic:
Meal deliveries to shut-ins;
Sunday School for children and families;
Prayer for the lost and the languishing;
Visits to the lonely and the frightened;
And the continual reception of God’s mercy here in Word and Sacrament.
You have the same Jesus as Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law. This Jesus is in control over life and death. He can raise up Pharaoh, and He can cast him into the depths of the sea. He can bring a plague, and He can put it away. But even when He does, this alone does not bring the Kingdom of God.
That’s why Jesus does not only come to heal and relieve burdens. Jesus concludes this event by saying that He must preach the Good News, i.e., the Gospel of the kingdom of God in other places as well. Because He was sent for this purpose.
This Kingdom of God certainly comes without our prayer, but we pray that this Kingdom may come to us also. God’s Kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity. Luther’s Small Catechism
This is what God has in mind even when He renders judgment on Egypt. Just before our OT reading picks up, Isaiah declares there will be an altar and a pillar established in the midst of the land of Egypt, for worship and as a sign and witness to the LORD.
Concerning this, Luther writes that before the birth of Christ no other place was to be established for the worship of God beside Jerusalem. Therefore, what Isaiah prophecies is ultimately fulfilled in the spread of the Gospel (AE 16:164). This becomes even clearer when we see the incorporation of Assyria and Egypt into Israel’s worship.
The end of all these things is thanksgiving to God: for His Law, for His discipline, and for His grace and countless mercies which are in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
To Him be all thanksgiving, glory, laud, and honor, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.