I was studying for Sunday’s sermon on the next New Testament book in our Pressure Cooker series, First John, and I came across this provocative passage:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
I noticed that in the verses just before this teaching, John had alluded to how succeeding generations of believers experience God’s salvation: adults (“fathers”), young children and teenagers (verses 7-14). It was as if he was thinking about Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z: they seem so different, but ultimately, they all face the same spiritual challenges in life. As I was reflecting on how generations come and go, John’s statement in verse 17 hit me hard: The world and its desire are passing away. “Passing away” — things that used to turn us on don’t have the same effect anymore; things that once motivated us to action now make us doze off. In their place, we experience more troubles and trials, more aches and pains as the years go by. And then we ourselves pass away.
Living in the COVID-19 Pressure Cooker, we think more about death than we usually have. We read the alarming statistics, and we see how stubbornly resistant this disease is. For some of us, death has come right to our doorstep, robbing us of a beloved family member. As hard as we try, it doesn’t seem we will ever be able to fill that empty place. And all the words of remembrance, the beautiful obituary and service, the grandest grave-marker — all of these can’t begin to capture the unique person who is gone from our life.
We may also imagine ourselves going through a COVID-related death: the increasing shortness of breath, gasping for air, weakness and utter fatigue. At some point, our sickness may require hospitalization, with the no-visitors restriction. Even our care-givers, the medical staff, will be covered by masks, gloves, gowns and other protections, which further isolates us from human contact. If we have to be intubated with a breathing device, we will probably feel totally helpless, as the likelihood of death, our own passing away, will settle heavily on us.
That’s when a word of Christian faith and hope can come to the rescue. Such as The 23rd Psalm’s,
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4)
Or the wonderful spiritual song,
“His eye Is on the sparrow, so I know he watches me.”
I checked that one out. Where does “His eye is on the sparrow” come from? It’s from a teaching by Jesus when he first called his twelve disciples to follow him. He warns them that what they’re getting into may cost them their reputation, their opportunity to have a family, even life itself (Matthew 10:16-27). Then he adds:
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (verses 28-31)
Now, why did people in Jesus’ day buy sparrows? I know we want to romanticize this and see a little bird singing happily in a cage in a first-century living room. But the truth is, sparrows were sold for food. They were a cheap source of protein that poor people could afford.
Reflecting on Jesus’ words, I can see how this more bleak image of a dead sparrow can be especially meaningful to a person facing death because of COVID-19. Jesus is saying that God cares so much about every living creature — a tiny sparrow, for instance — that even in its dying, he loves and values it, his “eye” is on it. This little bird has sung its last, will raise no more chicks, will no longer fly into the skies, but it is still valuable in the Creator’s eyes. As food, it will contribute to the well-being of another of God’s wonderful creations, a human person, who is made uniquely in his image. This is a high calling for the little sparrow.
When I come to my moment of death, I will certainly be comforted by the assurance of eternal life Jesus gives those who trust him. However, I think I will also be reassured by the confidence that my death itself is noticed by God because it’s part of a bigger plan he has for his created universe. The sparrow couldn’t see how its death could contribute to God’s design for other living things. Similarly, I can’t see what greater drama will be advanced by my dying. My life and death, like the life and death of the sparrow, is just one small example of the glory of the Life Force God created. It’s bigger than any single creature, whether a sparrow trapped for food or a human snared by COVID-19.
Possibly only Ty “the Nature Guy” will understand me right now, but some day the rest of you all will see. It may be on your death bed. In that moment, I hope you’ll remember, when you sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” that the Lord Jesus is embracing a dead sparrow. Let him wrap his arms around you.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his faithful ones. (Psalm 116:15)