COVID-19 has made an impact on lives around the world. For those who have been diagnosed with it and their families, even if the patients have recovered, stress levels have increased mightily. For those who knew those who died, an often unexpected time of grieving has accompanied adjusting to new normal of social distancing, a reordering of daily schedules, and the economic fallout of the disease or the measures put in place to mitigate its damage to society.
Fear and grieving have accompanied the disease. Throughout the world, prayers have increased in number and intensity both among those who feared the disease and those who feared more its economic impact or endangerment of valued freedom. In times of fear and grieving, we draw comfort and strength from the presence of people who love us or share our values. In this instance, that ministry of presence often has been restricted or displaced by measures to control the spread of the virus. Religious assemblies, support groups, and team sports have had to find new ways to function. Celebrations accompanying holidays like St. Patrick’s Day or Easter and milestones like anniversaries or birthdays have had to be cancelled or revised. I have realized that I may be more of an extrovert than I or the Myer-Briggs Personality Inventory had thought. We have had to evaluate what we do and why we do it. Our world has changed.
In Zechariah 7, political change has made an impact as well. Persian rulers have ended the deportation of Jews to Babylon and other locations. After returning to Palestine, Jews have rebuilt the temple. Zechariah and others among the returnees have begun to prophesy and explain the theological meaning of the return. During the captivity, new rituals had emerged among the worshippers of God, both those in captivity and those (whom I think we sometimes forget) who had remained in Palestine. Zechariah and the priests at the newly rebuilt temple get a request for information (RFI) from the town of Bethel: “Should I mourn and fast in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
Zechariah responds with a message from God that challenges the people and their practices. God wants to know whether they had been fasting and mourning for him, if they had been celebrating religious feasts as worship, or if their “religious” activities had simply been done for themselves.
In our own time, stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations have caused churches and other religious organizations to cancel assemblies. People have responded in a variety of ways. Some have cancelled meeting in person and replaced it with video presentations on YouTube or Facebook Live. Others have used telephone conference calls or radio broadcasts. Still others have assembled in cars in parking lots as if at a drive-in movie theater. Still others have insisted on meeting as usual (sometimes, but not always, employing social distancing, masks, and/or gloves). Some of those who continued to meet as usual have criticized those who did not. They also have lamented that constitutional rights are being violated, and have gone to court to protect their assemblies. As in the time of Zechariah, we need to ask, “Why are we doing this?”
Zechariah’s contemporaries and their parents had mourned and fasted about the destruction of the temple; they now longer could meet there for the major feasts of worship or offer sacrifices. They prayed for a return to normal. As seventy years had passed, their response to an emergency had become religious ritual. Now that the reason for their mourning and fasting had ceased, they still wondered if they need to continue mourning and fasting. So, again, why are we meeting? Are we doing it for God, or to make ourselves feel good? Admittedly, a major reason for Christian assembly is to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). But in our assemblies, we also sing praises to God, pray, give, partake of the Lord’s Supper, and hear a message from the Lord. Are we doing these for God or just functioning as social work organization? When we pray, are we arguing with God as part of our relationship with him or just engaging in self-talk? Perhaps more importantly, what difference is it making in how we act, think, or relate? That is what God was asking through Zechariah.
God’s answer does not seem to answer the question from Bethel. He doesn’t address fasting or mourning or praying. Instead we read this,
“This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other” (Zechariah 7:9-10).
As we consider the challenges to our rituals and routines during this pandemic, we also need to hear this word from God through Zechariah. Why are we upset about changes? Are we thinking about pleasing God or pleasing ourselves? During this time of upheaval, what is happening to those on the fringes of society? To the weak, the vulnerable, and the elderly? To immigrants and tourists stranded away from home? To workers who have lost their jobs? While angry people have protested for re-opening of society, some have hoisted signs that acknowledged that the weak would die or that the elderly might suffer and seemed to argue that such was acceptable loss. Frankly, to me that attitude seems more Darwinian (survival of the fittest) than biblical. As God said through Zechariah, “Do not plot evil against one another.”
Zechariah’s contemporaries didn’t want to hear his message: “They …would not listen to the law or to the words that the LORD Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets” (Zechariah 7:12). The consequence was damage to themselves and to the land in which they lived. As we navigate through a time of change and upheaval, let’s act with love for God and for other people. Let’s find a way to help those who are losing jobs or facing medical bills they had not anticipated. Let’s think of the real suffering being experienced by people who were traveling and now find it difficult, if at all possible, to return home. We may have to wear masks (which I really don’t like), or refrain from hugs, handshakes, and kisses, or sit farther apart when we return to meeting together to worship. We may even have to stream our assemblies or study the Bible together by online conferencing video. Lets act and pray that justice and health may prevail, that people will remember after this crisis how the “people of God” acted to achieve good rather than just insisting on their rights.
When we pray, we ask for ourselves. That is not what prayer is all about. We also praise God in our prayers. We pray for justice, for health, and for prosperity for others. We pray that our prayers will result in our actions being godly so that our land will be beautiful, and not desolate. Pray hard, my friends.
* Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
O God: Turmoil in our times from the fear and the reality of disease causes us stress. We worry whether we will survive individually. We fear that our businesses will fail or that we will lose our jobs. We fear that those walking near us will infect us or otherwise harm us. We also want to do your will. We want to obey you. In times like these, we face confusing choices as we try to be faithful. Give us wisdom. Fill our hearts with compassion. Drive cynicism and hatred from our minds. When we examine our hearts to discern our motives, help us to evaluate with brutal honesty. Open our eyes that we may see opportunities to be your hands to help those around us. Give us courage, that we may continue to move forward. Help us to know the difference between ritual and relationship. In Jesus’ name, amen.