My former love of mathematics came in handy the other day.
I was in a clergy meeting, and we were talking about the delta variant of the coronavirus. And I remembered using the “delta” sign in math equations. It’s a triangle: ∆. Whenever you’re taking the delta of something, you’re finding the difference, or the amount of change.
So the delta between 5 and 3 is 5 – 3, or two. ∆x (“delta x”) is the change of a variable, x.
Delta is change. It’s difference.
As I came out of this math flashback, I spoke up in this clergy meeting, talking about how the delta variant, this change in the trend of coronavirus cases, surely means a change—again—for how we do church, for how we are the church. It’s like “Delta Church” now.
This felt like a deep insight, until I said it out loud, when I saw a bunch of other pastors staring back at me on Zoom, as if to say, “Uh, yeah, Pastor Abram. We already knew that delta means change.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What we don’t know is what kind of changes this new wave of coronavirus cases may require from us. More patience, for sure. More trust, yes. More caution? You bet. A vaccine booster, even after you’ve had two shots? Yes, that, too. A vaccine as soon as it’s available, if you’re younger? Yes, please.
Delta is all about change. It’s about things being different. And here we finally thought things were done being different, with the cases dropping a few months ago and vaccinations on the rise. It seems we’re back into an unclear present. And it’s hard to keep perspective, when we don’t even know where we are anymore!
At end of the book of Joshua, Israel’s great leader sees the end of his life approaching.
He leads the people of Israel in a covenant renewal at Shechem in Joshua 24. Joshua seems to sense that, as faithful as this group of people wants to be, they are only a generation away from abandoning the LORD.
So before he leads them in a declaration of trust in God, in the uncertain present moment, he has them look back.
They reflect on God’s faithfulness in the past, to remind themselves that God is a faithful God, not just in the past, but also in the present, and that God will be faithful in the future. God provided for the people in the past. He’s going to do it again today, and he’ll do it again tomorrow!
Think about your own life—whatever kind of moment you’re in, however uncertain you feel, however scared this new delta variant has you, whatever the rest of your life feels like right now… think about your past, and how God has been present to you. Think about how God has healed you, how God has provided for you, how God has shown up to you.
Joshua walks through this important act of remembering with his people.
He recaps the history of this people in the presence of all the leaders and judges and officials and tribes. He begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then goes on to Moses, Aaron, and how God parted the Red Sea and brought the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt. All praise be to our liberating God! Other nations fought Israel, but through God they prevailed. God says through Joshua in verse 13, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”
In other words: I, the LORD, gave you what you have.
Even so, Joshua presents the people with a choice, in verse 15: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.”
Will a faithful, loving, generous God in the past be enough for God’s people today, and well into tomorrow?
Yes, God gave us water from the rock, but… can he do it again? Yeah, God has literally defied the laws of physics to save us, but… what if he forgets how to do it again? Sure, God has done miracles in our past, made a way where there is now way, but what if God gets stuck this time?
It’s not going to happen. There is no delta with God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God is good… not some of the time, not off and on, but God is good… all the time!
That doesn’t mean God is unmoved by our challenges. He weeps with those who weep, and he knows what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer. God knows what it feels like to be swept up by a storm at sea, or surrounded by contagious sickness.
But there is no delta with God, no change. No such thing as a God who is here today but gone tomorrow. With God, it’s not just faithfulness and provision up to a certain point. God is who God is yesterday, today, and forever.
Joshua leads the way in recommitting to this changeless God: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Mater the Tow Truck
In an uncertain moment, in a season of drought, or in-between-ness, it can be tempting to say, “Well, everything is kind of on hold right now, so there’s nothing we can do. Let’s wait till things resolve, and get back to it then.”
As a pastor—the pastor of a church living through almost two years of transition now, as the pastor of a church without a meeting space, without a church office, and at the mercy of the elements for if we can meet in person or not—I confess that this temptation is real for me, too. It’s the temptation to say, “Let’s just survive and get through this so we can go back to being the church, for real.”
But we are the body of Jesus Christ in the city of Boston right now. Do we need a building to be the body? In some ways, yeah, it really helps! Do we need to be able to attend large gatherings without masks and be back to where we were two years ago, before any of these changes came? That would be awesome! I would love that.
But that’s not our reality. Reality has changed.
Who we are in Christ Jesus has not changed.
We are still the congregation, the people, God has called us to be.
The same God who has led us “where (we’ve) been” is going ahead of us into a future we cannot see. This future is crystal clear to God. Muddy for us, totally in focus for God.
Consider Mater the Tow Truck, from Pixar’s Cars movie. Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.”
He shows the race car Lightning McQueen his skills. He uses his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. To an amazed Lightning McQueen, Mater says, “Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”
“Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”
And that’s a good thing, because, ask me what I know about the present? Ask me what I know about next week or next month? Shrug of the shoulders.
But that doesn’t mean we’re on hold. God’s Spirit is living and active among us, and we get to be the body of Christ in the city right now in a world where everybody else is feeling anxious about all of the delta changes ahead. Do we know where we’re going? We’ll still make plans, but no, we don’t really know where we’re going. But do we know where we’ve been, how God has walked with us? You bet!
What if this tough, in-between time is vital work God is doing in is right now to shape us into the church he needs us to be for the future?
What if our building-less summer and fall means we’re an even more public witness to the city, as we worship in full view of the public at the park?
What if we were like Joshua, and led the way in helping our friends, families, and neighbors remember a good God who has always been faithful? What if we said to others, I believe that this loving and generous God is not going to give up now!
What if our faith and trust in God, even in this “delta” season, inspired others to trust God, too?
Friends, let’s say with Joshua, loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, “But as for (us) and (our) household, we will serve the LORD!”
I adapted the above from a sermon I recently preached.