Over the past number of weeks, our lives have been upended in unprecedented ways. Unprecedented — I’m not sure I’ve heard the word used as much in my entire lifetime as I have in the past couple of weeks. From governments and health authorities around the world to media outlets and our leaders in the church, at work, school, and beyond — the word is rightly being used to describe what we’re all experiencing in light of this pandemic.
Unprecedented is defined as ‘something never done or known before.’ For most of us, the COVID-19 virus and its effects certainly fit that definition. We didn’t see this coming and the way in which it has touched our lives has been significant, to say the least. For many of us, it has brought about waves of fear, anxiety, and even panic, while others experience anger, frustration, and judgment.
As Christians, we are not immune to these very human responses. Have you felt anxiety in the face of a layoff or panic at the sight of emptying grocery shelves? Have you wrestled with anger watching your well-laid plans jeopardized or judgment toward someone whose reaction to all this has been much different than your own? You are not alone! This unprecedented situation is squeezing us all and we’re wise to pay attention to what’s coming out as we’re squeezed.
I find it interesting that all this is happening during Lent. Lent is a season of 40 days during which many in the church prepare themselves for Easter by presenting themselves to God for ‘squeezing’, in a way. In Lent, we join our prayers with the psalmist who prayed: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Psalm 138.23-24 ESV
If you’re like me, this has been a Lent like no other! What I’ve experienced lends itself well to Lent, but it has also caused me to wonder — what does all this mean for Easter? What does it look like to move from the themes of Lent to the celebration of Easter in the midst of a pandemic — now that’s unprecedented…or is it?
2 Corinthians 4 speaks to us over and over again of the incredible ‘good news’ of Easter. Paul reminds us that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 4.6 Read that verse over again…slowly this time. We have so much to celebrate, and yet the question still remains: What does it look like to celebrate authentically when we feel so acutely the ‘not so good’ news of this pandemic and its effect on our hearts and lives?
The answer is found in this, that we humbly accept that “we have this treasure [the gospel of the glory of Christ] in jars of clay.” 4.7 I was at a pastors’ retreat a few years ago where Bruce Milne explained to us that these jars of clay were like the plastic shopping bags of Paul’s day. They were temporary, designed to be used and discarded. Like a plastic shopping bag, they would quickly wear down and develop cracks. Paul is using this image to help us understand what Bruce so poetically referred to as our own humanity, our ‘plastic baggery’ if you will.
Has this situation revealed your ‘plastic baggery’? It certainly has mine, and again I would like to suggest we’re not alone. Here’s the good news: Paul tells us our plastic baggery is perfectly designed “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” 4.7 The difference between a life marked by the gospel and one that hasn’t been, isn’t that the individual is untouched by unprecedented and troubling circumstances. The difference lies in the way the gospel transforms and shapes us when we do.
For the Christian, the negative effects of this world — feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, etc. — don’t need to defeat us. When Lent reminds us of our ‘plastic baggery’, it also connects us in a real way to the need we all have for resurrection life. Easter reminds us that God is able to transform places of human limitation into the very places where the gospel is most effectively seen! Paul put it this way:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” 2 Corinthians 4.8-10
This is the story of Easter, a story of death turned to resurrection life! This incredible gospel is our story right here in the midst of all we’re facing. Unprecedented? For you and I maybe, but this has always been the full story of Easter. So celebrate, and let your celebration be marked by both the humble and honest acknowledgment of your humanity and the glorious good news of how Jesus has brought resurrection life to bear upon it. This Easter, celebrate the fact that we have a God whose joy it is to set precedent in unprecedented places!
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4.16-18