Lent 4: God’s Mercy Among Pestilence

by Rev. Brian J. Thorson
Lesson: 2 Samuel 24:15-25

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Entire Divine Service

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I would describe the last several years as an era of good feeling. Unemployment rates are very low. The economy has been booming. Most people were carrying on as if nothing will ever dramatically change. Of course, there have been ups and downs. The markets weren’t good in 2018 but 2019 more than made up for that. And 2019 greeted us with immense flooding which will likely continue.

When there’s an era of good feeling, churches suffer. Not because there isn’t enough wealth in the community to support the church, but because many find that their lives seem to plug along pretty well without the church.

Our society is experiencing a shift away from the church. Increasing dramatically in numbers are those who want little to do with Christianity. They are adopting the ways of the world and its wisdom, instead of hearing the wisdom of God. After all, things have felt pretty good with the world.

Perhaps this time of self-distancing and quarantines, rocky markets and coronavirus is bringing an end to that era of good feeling. And perhaps this isn’t so bad.

Toward the end of his reign, King David wanted to take a census. He wanted to know how great and how strong his kingdom had become under his leadership. God did not authorize his census. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a census, David’s pride was sinful. He wanted the credit for his rule, his initiatives, and his work.

God was not pleased, nor was He impressed. For nothing good would have happened under David’s rule had it not been for the blessing of God. At this point, David did not have a servant’s heart. A servant’s heart will agree with Jesus when He said, “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10).

That should have been the approach of King David. If our elected leaders today took the godly route of humility, they would not get reelected. They must brag about themselves and put down their  opponents to gain public acceptance. It’s terrible.

In his Genesis commentary, Luther writes very wisely, saying, “Everyone should learn to acknowledge his weakness humbly and to ask GOD for wisdom and counsel. For men are not summoned to govern because they should arrogate to themselves perfect knowledge of everything, but because they should be taught and learn what God is and what He does through the government and the rulers, who are the instruments of God’s works through which God rules the people. Then they become truly wise and successful in governing. But if they follow their own counsels and their own thoughts, they do nothing properly. No, then they disturb and confuse everything. Therefore one must take refuge in prayer, set forth the difficulty of the office to God, and say: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, etc., give me the wisdom that sits by Thy throne’ (Wisd. of Sol. 9:4)” (AE 5:122-123). While David normally trusted in the Lord, at this point he was trusting in himself.

Martin Luther offers similar counsel of humility to ministers. He continues, “But above all a ruler in the church should pray in this manner: ‘Lord God, Thou hast appointed me in the church as bishop and pastor. Thou seest how unfit I am to attend to such a great and difficult office, and if it had not been for Thy help, I would long since have ruined everything. Therefore I call upon Thee. Of course, I want to put my mouth and heart to use. I shall teach the people, and I myself shall learn and shall meditate diligently on Thy Word. Use me as Thy instrument. Only do not forsake me; for if I am alone, I shall easily destroy everything’” (AE 5:123).

Left to our own devises, we pastors would ruin everything. Left to their own devises, political leaders would ruin everything. Left to their own devises, parents would ruin everything. Husbands would. Wives would. Church councils would. Business leaders would.

David left out God’s counsel from his plan to take the census. And so, God announced to David a punishment. Perhaps mercifully, God gave David three choices: 1) Israel could endure 3 years of famine, 2) David could flee for 3 months and be pursued by his foes, or 3) Israel could endure 3 days of pestilence. With these 3 choices before him, David replied, saying, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man” (2 Sam 24:14). You heard the result in today’s Old Testament lesson. God brought on them the pestilence. While it was, by far, the shortest punishment, it was also severe. 70,000 men died.

The angel sent from God was then going bring havoc upon Jerusalem, but God relented. And David repented.

In this terrible time of pestilence, we, too, are called upon by God to repent. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We deserve God’s wrath and punishment for our many sins. We do not deserve peaceful times, healthy bodies, the forgiveness of sins, or the life everlasting.

And so, we repent. We do not repent by proving to God how good we feel we have been or attempting to demonstrate why we think we are better than the next person. We do not repent by telling our pastor our good works or trying to do as much good as we can when we are around church. For while good works are beneficial to the neighbor and God rejoices in them, that is not repentance or reconciliation.

Instead, repentance is admitting guilt and, guided by the Holy Spirit, amending the sinful life. You see, as our Epistle teaches, Jesus is the One who offers the sacrifice to God. He is the One who made amends for our many sins. He is the One who did all the good works necessary so that we can be righteous in God’s sight. For Jesus shed His innocent Blood to take away the world’s sin and He kept the Law.

Through Adam’s sin, all have sinned, for we have all inherited the sin of Adam. But through the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, sin is blotted out and God’s people are forgiven.

A picture of this is seen in our Old Testament lesson. David’s sin brought death to many. After God called on David to repent, he did. Then God instructed David to build an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When Araunah learned what David was going to do with it, Araunah wanted to give him everything—the threshing floor, the animals for the burnt offering, and the oxen needed to haul the wood for the offering—everything. Some would figure that it must be David’s lucky day. Most would not bypass such a free bargain. But David, humbled by God through the pestilence, would have none of that. He told Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (v 24). When David offered his sacrifice (which was a sacrifice and not free), “the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel” (v. 25).

In the same way, our Lord has made an offering for us. Jesus offered Himself. The Father laid on Him our iniquity. He made a payment that was not free on our behalf as He offered up Himself.

And what is the result of our Lord’s payment? Does it mean easy lives and good times? Does it mean freedom from plague and pestilence? No, instead it means we are set free from the condemnation we deserve for our sins. It means God’s wrath is stayed, our sins are forgiven, and eternal life belongs to us. We take credit for none of these blessings; the glory belongs to God alone.

Why are we being subjected to all this quarantining? Why has the coronavirus spread across the globe? Why are we being impacted by this? There are several reasons.

First, we live in a fallen world. King David couldn’t escape suffering, nor were God’s people. Peter’s mother-in-law couldn’t escape it, either. We won’t escape the reality of the Fall, either.

Second, God is certainly displeased with all the unbelief, immorality, and innumerable sins in which people are now comfortable. He can and does bring hardship and suffering to bring His own back to Him.

Third, God uses hardship to cause us to turn to Him and rely on Him. During times of good feeling, we tend to rely on ourselves. But in hard times, we learn that our own devices are insufficient, and we are forced to rely on the One who created us and this world.

Fourth, God sends these times to give us an opportunity to increase our prayers, improve our offerings, and spend more time in the Word.

Fifth, we learn that God oversees all things. Not even a sparrow falls from the ground apart from the will of the Father. He is with us and will get us through this. We have no reason to worry.

Sixth, just as God relented with the pestilence over Israel and just as Jesus healed those who were sick with various diseases, so also this time of pestilence will pass. We do not know if this virus will become yet another annual seasonal flu, if it will go away, or what the long-term effects will be. But we do know that God will get us through this.

And finally, our hope does not rest in the government and their stimulus plans or their efforts to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, our hope and confidence rests in Jesus. For He loves us and laid down His life for us. Salvation is ours. Jesus lives. He gives us the victory. We shall live, receiving everlasting life. This is the free gift of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen