I remember that early on in this pandemic people kept saying that what was happening was ‘unprecedented’. I said it too. Because nothing like this has ever happened before – where I live and in my life time.
But of course, the more I look across the world or through history the more I see that this is not something quite so new after all. Looking back, I’ve been discovering some amazing stories – about terrible suffering, yes, but also about brave and wise people finding ways to live in faithfulness to God through such times.. I’ve found myself looking for examples from our history that might inspire us and encourage us –and show us how to be followers of Jesus today. And how to believe his promise that he would be with us, to the end of the age.
Three stories – from among many.
First – from the Great Plague of London – 1665. The year before the great fire of London. The Great Plague was of course only three years after the great disruption in church life in 1662 that led to the creation of our congregation in Taunton, among others. Lots of the ministers in London has been ejected from the parish churches and had set up congregations (illegal at first) of their own.. When the plague came – it is said that many government officials and other wealthy people fled to second homes in the countryside (sound familiar?) – and some of the richer clergy fled too. And it’s said that during the plague period people were just happy to receive ministry from anyone who was there – and not so worried about the divisions of the church.. So, having argued with the ‘nonconformists’ many accepted their ministry in the emergency. And they, after all, had not left…
Daniel DeFoe (he who who wrote Robinson Crusoe) penned a kind of novel about the plague based on his experiences and on his journals from the time. He was a Nonconformist – like us – and he makes some comments about the preaching that went on. He says there were lots of ministers who urged their listeners that the plague was God’s judgement on the people and that they should repent. There were sermons full of terror, and preachers who brought the people together in horror and sent them away in tears, prophesying nothing but evil tidings… He criticised ‘…those ministers that in their sermons rather sank than lifted up the hearts of their hearers. … As God himself through the whole Scriptures rather draws to Him by invitations and calls to turn to him and live, than drives us by terror and amazement, so I must confess I thought the ministers should have done also, imitating our Blessed Lord and Master in this, that his whole Gospel is full of declarations from heaven on God’s mercy… His Gospel is called the Gospel of Peace and the Gospel of Grace…
A story of a call for gracious and loving sermons.
Then – a second story – from an earlier time. Mother Julian of Norwich wrote the earliest surviving book in English by a woman. She lived in the 14th century and the Black Death was at its worst when she was a child, and continued as she got older. This was a plague that killed about half the population of England.. (just take that in). This was even more than our tragic more than 40,000. She was an anchorite. She was not a nun – but she was probably a young widow. She chose to live in a small cell, in isolation and in quiet prayer. People would come and seek her counsel – through a window. She had a cell that was attached to St Julian’s church in Norwich.. hence the name she was given.
What kind of theology – what kind of faith – can nourish anyone through her time, probably the worst time in English history?
Her most famous saying is;
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
But she also said the following;
“He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.”
“If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
“The greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”
Lots of people have been asking whether we need a new kind of theology for such a time as this one… I don’t think we do. I just think we need to take seriously the theology we actually have…
But the third story of a Christian living through a time like this one is, I think, the most moving of all.
This is the story of Martin Rinkart. He was a Lutheran minister who served in the city of Eilenburg in Saxony. The plague, as well as famine, came to Eilenburg in the 1630s. By 1637 he was the only surviving pastor in the city – four had died from the plague. At one point, he was taking 50 funerals a day. And in one year he took more than 4,000 funerals – and one of those was the funeral of his wife. And these statistics are well documented.
Martin Rinkhart was also a musician, composer, and hymn writer. And you have all sung his most famous hymn many times. Now thank we all our God.
The first verse – is simply a thanksgiving for the gift of life and love…
The second verse is a prayer that God will be near us… and guide us when perplexed… and free us from all ills… (and he knew just how perplexing and awful life could be).
The third verse – is simply a hymn of praise to God; the Holy Trinity, the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore.. for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
In Matthew’s Gospel we read, ‘I am with you, until the end of the age.’
For Martin Rinkhart it must have felt like the end of the age – and his legacy was not a destroyed faith, but a resolute, joyful and thankful faith. And faith in the God who reigns, whom earth and heaven adore and who is now and ever shall be. What astonishing and awe-inspiring faith!
In times like these – I pray for a faith as deep and wonderful as that. And I simply want to follow this Trinity of saints;
With Daniel DeFoe I want to keep preaching a Gospel of grace
With Mother Julian I want to live gladly because of the knowledge of God’s love.
With Martin Rinkhart, I will sing to the one eternal God, the Holy Trinity… Amen.