The seasons of Passover and Easter will soon be upon us. They always bring questions about their meaning, and how or whether they’re related, but this year is different. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated other questions, among them: What do the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have to say that might be helpful?
The first thing to note is they do not promise magical answers to the difficulties of life, including the frightening threat of pandemics. Nor, contrary to what some may have heard, do they promise that right belief, or prayers said in the right way, will lead to a prosperous life of plenty free from the realities others have to endure.
From start to finish they are the stories of persevering endurance as people learned what it means to have faith in God, who is free to engage with creation as ‘he’ will, and always for its good in God’s own time. Paul, writing to the churches in Rome, tried to put it in words like these: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.” In the same letter he wrote, “God makes all things work together for good for those who love God.” He wrote those words having endured prison, beatings, ship wrecks and poverty. Yet, out of it the good news of salvation spread to a world of spiritually starving people suffering the hardest of hard lives. Paul, having experienced the fullness of God’s love, declared everything else to be trash. It was worth that much.
His experience was not an exception. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with stories of people such as Isaac, Joseph, Moses and Jeremiah. Isaac was a neer-do-well son who scammed anyone he could. Escaping the posse, he became the indentured servant of his uncle, an even bigger scam artist, whom he had to serve for over fourteen years before he could make his escape. It took him all that time to mature into the responsible patriarch from whom would come the twelve tribes of Israel.
Joseph was a teenage brat so irritating that his older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. It took a decade in an Egyptian prison for him to become the man who would rise to save Egypt, and his own family, from years of famine. In time, the Hebrews who took refuge in Egypt became an enslaved people. Four hundred years later, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s household of wealth and privilege, was exiled to the desert where he learned its ways, and came face-to-face with God. Through him,God delivered the people from slavery into new life in a promised land.
Indentured servitude, years in prison, and desert exile are not the good things of life, but through them God prepared the way of deliverance and a greater good to come for God’s people.
It didn’t always go well, largely due to human selfishness, greed, and desire to make gods into their own image. Centuries later, Jeremiah was called by God to be ‘his’ prophet when he was only a boy, a job he held until old age. He was reviled during the whole of his life for telling the people the truth about their misbehavior, warning them about what would happen if they kept it up. They didn’t listen, the worst happened, Jeremiah was blamed, and he complained bitterly to God about how he was mistreated. But through his misery and national defeat and destruction, a path was opened for the fullness of Jewish faith to develop, and with it renewed hope for better times. For we Christians, it also prepared the way for the coming of Jesus Christ, who opened an even broader path to encompass all humanity.
What Hebrew and Christian scripture offers is the story of God’s love giving strength and fullness of life for those willing to accept it. But it never promises an easy life. It’s a pattern repeated trough the ages right to our own time. This nation has struggled through wars, famine, plague, civil unrest, and corruption, always to emerge in a better place, with God’s faithful helping lead the way through, and the way forward.
The seasons of Passover and Easter that will soon be upon us recall with thanksgiving the difficult, often brutal times through which our ancestors were delivered by the abounding and steadfast love of God, the difficult times of our lives that we’ve endured by God’s grace, and the greater good that lies ahead for us, and for generations yet to come.
Ours is a curious faith. If you want magic, it’s not for you. We are called to love God and love one another, stranger and friend alike. That’s the one rule not open to debate. It’s the way to a better life, a good life, not for us only but for all. It’s true we stumble along the way, but in God’s abounding and steadfast love a path forward will always be opened.