‘I will build my church’ (Even during a pandemic?)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

“And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” (Genesis 45:5)

The story of Joseph, which takes up a quarter of the book of Genesis, is remarkable for its foreshadowing of Christ. It’s a personal favorite of mine, probably because of the many ways it has resonated with the course of my life over the past 30 years.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” he told his anxious—and no doubt expecting retribution–brothers (Gen 50:20), a clear allusion to the treachery of the men who crucified Jesus and thereby facilitated the salvation of mankind.

But the story of Joseph also illustrates the sometimes-topsy-turvy nature of the kingdom. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa 55:8).

In the end, Joseph’s two dreams of personal prominence among his brothers were fulfilled, but not before Joseph was “transformed by the renewing of [his] mind” (Rom 12:2). The Gentile rulers “lord it over them,” Jesus taught, “Not so with you . . . whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mk 10:42-44), which is precisely what Joseph became over a period of several years.

I doubt if there is a single reader of the previous paragraphs who doesn’t assent to the truths revealed in these passages. But there may be many who are currently perplexed, and possibly distressed, at the effect of this pandemic on the life of the church.

I am 63, and I cannot recall anything in my lifetime that compares with the drastic changes wrought in this country (and most of the world) in the past six months by something invisible to the naked eye. Businesses have gone under. Churches are empty or sparsely attended. In a recent interview, David Kinnaman of the Barna Group said that “as many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.”

When things are slowing, shrinking, canceled, curtailed, postponed, no longer function as usual or otherwise seem to have come to a dead stop, how can we continue to believe the declaration of Jesus, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt 16:18)?

Based on my experience, I believe it starts with the non-negotiable recognition that his thoughts and ways may not be yours.

From the moment they left Egypt, the people of God were thrust into a wilderness experience that was, as much as anything else, meant to change the way they think. This parallels what I’ve already quoted in part from Paul:

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world [i.e., such as they knew in Egypt], but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:2).

At the end of his ordeal, Joseph knew the “good, pleasing and perfect will” of God—and he declared that to his erstwhile treacherous brothers. But as a callow 17-year-old who naively told his brothers about his dreams, perhaps thinking they might be as pleased as he was–hey guys, guess what the Lord showed me–you can be sure he knew nothing about the ways of God that he learned over the next decade or so. If he was like any 17-year-old I’ve ever known–including me–he was doing some dreaming of his own, about the perks of prominence.

It’s worth recalling the ways of God in dealing with his people in the wilderness, because they confound a lot of the ways that even believers have embraced in bits of conventional wisdom that are out of step with God’s wisdom:

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:2-3).

It is not the pandemic that has put us in a hard place, but God, who is “sending us ahead” that we might be the instruments of deliverance for many others.

With the rhythms and routines of church, and perhaps personal devotional life, disrupted, we are in many ways living day-by-day in figuring out how to cope and reconfigure our lives. Which is exactly how often the Israelites gathered manna.

We have been humbled, but in that he has “caused us to hunger,” and that’s a good thing. But the next step of obedience is to be content with God’s provision, which neither you nor your fathers had known.

This is all new to most of us. And remember, manna means What is it? (note: Ex 16:31) Neither the Israelites nor their fathers knew what this was; neither do we know exactly how we are to adapt or why God has us in our present circumstances. At least not yet.

But even if we’re brought to the place of struggling to put one foot in front of another, we must keep moving forward, we must keep “gathering manna.” It may not seem like we’re gathering much, or making much progress, but it will be sufficient for the day (see Ex 16:17-18).

I have been in this place many times. In the next post, I’ll relate some personal experiences to assure you that this is not entirely new; others have felt what you are feeling today, and on the other side of this testing is a harvest of righteousness and peace.

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