This piece was featured by Baptist News Global and delivered as a sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church on January 2, 2022.
Due to the recent spike in COVID infections in New York City, our church has returned, once again, to virtual-only services. It was the right thing to do. It was the smart thing to do. But it was also the thing that finally broke my spirit and released all the anger that has been brewing in my heart — rage even — directed at those who refuse to take actions to bring this killer under control.
On this Epiphany Sunday and New Year’s weekend, I want to look to the Biblical story of the wise men for strength and wisdom during this difficult time.
We all know what happened when the wise men came to Jerusalem in search of the Messiah. They approached King Herod, the ruler at the time, and asked where they could find him. Based on the prophesy of the book of Micah, Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem to find the Messiah, then return to tell him where he was so that that Herod could “come and worship Him also.” The wise men went to Bethlehem and found the Messiah, but afterwards, thanks to a warning in a dream, they protected the baby Jesus by going home another way instead of returning to Herod.
It’s a short story, and we don’t have a lot of detail about these characters, but even so, there are two relevant lessons for us at the dawn of 2022:
Follow what is true, and do what is right.
The wise men followed what was true. In the story, they followed a star and trusted a dream. They weren’t swayed by Herod’s disingenuous comments (aka his lies). There was a bigger power guiding them, for God spoke to them in a dream and warned them that Herod intended to harm the baby Jesus. In their hearts, they knew what was true, and because of that, they did what was right.
In this world, we have so many opportunities to do what is right. But apropos of our frustration around the status of our pandemic-ridden world, I want to focus on just one opportunity. In my mind, THE most important opportunity that we have to do right today is the opportunity to get vaccinated.
Friends, as of now, over 815K Americans have died of COVID-19. That’s 1 in 500 of us.
The studies are crystal clear: vaccines are safe, stop the spread of COVID, and drastically reduce the severity of the virus and the mortality rate. In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 160,000 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented in the last six months by vaccination.
The harm is manifestly clear. Yet, 30% of adults in this country have not taken the vaccine. And let’s not pull any punches here—many of our fellow citizens have refused vaccines because of what our modern day “Herods” have said.
The voices of the power structure are not our ultimate source of truth. In fact, many times, they are the opposite. The late Bishop Desmond Tutu cut through the noise and highlighted what is truly important: “Our maturity will be judged by how well we are able to agree to disagree and yet continue to love one another, to care for one another, and cherish one another and seek the greater good of the other.”
Consider this: Jesus spent the bulk of his life’s work performing physical healing—healing the blind, the deaf, the sick, the lame, the lepers, the deformed, the speechless. Are we not followers of his ministry? If we refuse the opportunity to heal ourselves and others, how is that not a sin?
Let me put it in legal terms. Let’s say that even being aware of the harm you could inflict, you choose not to be vaccinated. You then become infected with COVID, and before your symptoms show, you go to a social gathering and infect another person, who then dies.
In Christianity, that would be considered a sin.
In jurisprudence, that could well be considered involuntary manslaughter.
Does this sound harsh to you? Well, it needs to be. Let me quote President Joe Biden: “I’m using every power I have as President of the United States to put us on a war footing to beat this virus. It sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it: a war footing.”
Friends, we are in a war right now. We can choose to fight each other over politics and religion and claims of personal freedoms, and COVID will win. As Galatians 5:15 warns, “[I]f you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”
Option B: We can choose to pull together and fight the true enemy at hand—the COVID virus.
On this new year’s weekend, let me share a vision of what can be if we follow what is true and do what is right. Appropriately, it’s a vision based on a war tactic. It is an ancient military formation called a phalanx dating back to the Greeks. Soldiers would line up shoulder-to-shoulder in a tight formation, and when an attack was imminent, they would raise their shields and form a continuous, impenetrable defense. Each shield didn’t just protect the warrior holding it; it overlapped with the shield of the next soldier and provided him protection as well. However, it would work only if the entire army stood in solidarity and raised their shields.
We need to form a 21st-century phalanx and stand tightly, side-by-side, to face down our mutual enemy in solidarity. When the virus and its variants come, we will raise our collective shields, protecting ourselves and our comrades in battle.
This is the start of a new year, a new beginning, a second chance. Let us stop fighting each other. Let us stop listening to voices that lead us astray, voices that spout ideas and urgings from places of fear and an insatiable need for power.
Follow what is true. Do what is right. Get your vaccine. Remember that the baby in the manger is reflected in the eyes of every child of God on this earth. And as the wise men protected him, let us raise our shields and protect one another.