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We look to examples of those in the scripture to learn how to have a healthy fear of death

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Ron McMullanWas Winston Churchill a prophet concerning coronavirus?

Is fear what we should fear the most?

It is no great revelation when I say that the coronavirus has spawned a great deal of fear in our world.

You can see it in the eyes above masked faces. You can note it in the unnatural silence of people who often appear reluctant to engage verbally, even through their facemasks. The fear obviously affects Christians as well as non-believers.

As a Christian meditating on the state of our coronavirus world, I asked myself four questions.

Of what are we really afraid?

Is fear necessarily either good or bad?

Are there biblical instances of similar fear, and what were their consequences?

And most importantly, does God have anything to say about these issues?

As to what we really fear relating to the virus, the situation is complicated.

I'll admit that those enlarged pictures of COVID-19 are pretty scary, but if you want to be really terrified, look at an enlargement of a dust mite (or don't). I think what we really fear is the possibility of getting ill and/or dying from the virus.

Since neither the common cold nor seasonal influenza has affected us quite so much emotionally, I am left to conclude that our real fear is being one of the 200,000-plus on the death count that seems almost ubiquitous in our media.

So, is fear in general, or the fear of death specifically, either good or bad?

I readily admit that a certain type of fear is both wise and healthy. A reasonable fear of injury or death prevents a normal person from dancing on the railroad tracks as a speeding train approaches. An unreasonable fear, however, can paralyze the same person, if he can never drive across those same tracks because of the possibility of an "unseen" locomotive. A dominating fear of death can be almost totally debilitating.

Did any of the real people in scripture perceive themselves in danger of imminent death? How did they respond? How did things work out for them?

On two different occasions (Genesis 12 and 20), Abraham, because he feared that he would be killed by someone desiring to steal his beautiful wife, convinced her to play the role of his sister, thereby putting her at great risk. In each instance, God intervened just in time to keep Sarah from being violated. However, I can't believe that Abraham's actions enhanced Sarah's estimation of his character or enriched their marriage. A further consequence was that Abraham's son, Isaac, did the same thing to his wife (Genesis 26). Abraham's response to his fear of death helped initiate a generational sin.

Jacob's fear of his brother's muttered death threat resulted in 20 years of separation from his family, in missing the last few years of his beloved mother's life, and in enduring two decades of alienation from his only sibling. God was gracious to assuage Esau's anger, and the rift was finally healed.

Moses, because of the fear of death, spent 40 years in the prime of his life tending sheep in the desert before God graciously intervened in the burning bush. Obviously, several decisions rooted primarily in the fear of death did not turn out so well.

On the other side of the aisle, when the apostle Paul was in a Roman prison facing the real possibility of execution, he wrote to his friends in Philippi, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain ... yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:21-23).

Later, when Paul wrote II Timothy, he knew that his martyrdom was imminent. His conclusion was: "The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Timothy 4:6,7).

So, what does God have to say specifically about the fear of death?

Hebrews 2:14, 15 says that one result of Jesus' death was to render powerless the devil's use of the "fear of death" and to "release those who ... were all their lifetime subject to bondage."

Concluding a lengthy chapter on the resurrection, Paul states that death no longer has any sting nor the grave any victory, since God has already made us victorious over both through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15).

Finally, Jesus made our relationship to the fear of death explicitly clear, when he said to his disciples, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

It is obvious that if a believer is not to fear even those who can kill him, then he should certainly not be immobilized by the fear of death. More importantly, this text gives a clear, positive command about whom we should fear. We should fear God. Learning to fear God is the first step toward wisdom (Proverbs 9:10), and fearing God helps immunize us against other threats (Isaiah 8:11-13).

I conclude with some personal observations. They are of infinitely less value than scripture, but they are rooted in some experience regarding the virus. I am married to a lovely woman who contracted and survived COVID-19. By the grace of God, she endured a fairly light case. I shared a salad plate and a bed with my beloved before we knew that she was infectious, but I still tested negative. Not everything is easily explainable.

Is this sermon an attempt to argue against wearing masks or social distancing? NO, IT IS NOT! I don't believe it is somehow more spiritual for a Christian to fail to exercise reasonable caution. I certainly hope you exercise it when you are driving your car toward mine on the highway. Exercise good sense when you drive, or shop, or eat in a restaurant, or ... well, you get the point.

However, don't let the fear of death dominate your life. Don't make every decision inside the grid of: "How can I manage to live one day or one year longer?"

If you do so, you face the risk of rendering yourself unfruitful in the service of God and in ministry to others. Even if we could live in a sterile bubble, death is still inevitable.

Let's use the life God gives us for His glory. Let's balance REASONABLE CAUTION with FAITHFUL COURAGE and be salt and light in an increasingly fearful and darkening world.

Ron McMullan is the pastor at Prineville Bible Church. He can be reached at 541-233-6268.

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