You’ll not be surprised that I’m keen to use this letter to write about Covid-19. It’s front and centre constantly. It affects every person, fills every news bulletin, and features in just about every conversation that we have.
It’s so pressing and prominent an issue, however, and one whose practical repercussions have such a far-reaching and frightening effect, that it’s easy in our thinking to succumb to the paradigms of this world: when it was never more important that we viewed and addressed the situation in a thoroughly biblical way.
It’s as if a blizzard has hit the world. And you know what happens: when the snow of wintry blizzards have covered the land, the roads across the moorlands simply lose their definition, and it’s all too easy to go off track and come a cropper. Which is why such roads will generally have those ‘marker poles’ to keep all those who are out on the roads .. well, to keep them on the road.
It’s a bit like that: it’s as if a rather different blizzard has hit the world, covering our customary landscapes with a steady, persistent ‘snowfall’ of news and information about the CoronaVirus, and spreading across our nation’s life a monochrome blanket of guidelines, restrictions and lock-downs, until the world as we once had known it is well-nigh unrecognizable, and we find ourselves now looking out on a rather bleak scenario with which none of us is familiar.
So I want to try and plant in the ground of our thinking, therefore, some basic biblical ‘markers’ to keep us all on track as we seek to navigate our way across the contours of the present situation. And, of course, the metaphorical ‘snow’ keeps falling, creating more and more a very shapeless landscape – and increasingly, too, therefore, the need for these biblical ‘marker poles’ along the road.
1. Perspective. Covid-19 is not the end of the world. The way that it’s covered, the prominence it’s given, the heat that it’s managed to generate – all of these may sometimes leave you feeling that the world itself is coming to an end. The world, as we’ve previously known it, quite probably is coming to an end (and any such change is certainly far from comfortable). And yes, of course, it’s always true that the world itself may indeed be coming to an end: but we knew that anyway, and even if it is the end of the world, then that’s cause not for panic but for praise.
We need to have a biblical perspective on the thing. There are other big issues confronting the world, and other big issues impacting the lives of countless different individuals, here in our land and all over planet earth. And this is not, by any means, the first time that there’s been a devastating plague upon the surface of the earth, spreading out its dark and deadly tentacles to sweep away huge swathes of human populace, left powerless to stop its seemingly relentless flow.
We keep the thing in perspective. Covid-19 is a serious matter, for sure: the radical repercussions of the strategy adopted in response brings major deprivations in its wake; no doubt about it. But … sin, we do well to remember, is a far more lethal virus. And an eternity spent in wretched isolation from the living God and at odds with those around us is a far more solemn prospect than a mere few months of government restrictions.
2. Prayer. Our primary calling as the people of God – indeed our primary responsibility – is to pray. From day 1 of the life of the church, when Peter picked up on the words of the prophet Joel, it’s clear that we are as God’s people in a very real sense a ‘prophetic people’: “I will pour out My Spirit in those days and they will prophesy” (Acts 2.17-18).
And what do prophets do? They pray. The very first time that the word ‘prophet’ is used in Scripture, that’s what we find the guy doing. Praying. “He is a prophet,” God said to the king of Gerar about Abraham: “he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live” (Gen.20.7).
Let’s never lose sight of that calling. A prophet. He’ll pray: you’ll live.
Our primary calling is not to be throwing in our tuppence-worth as to the rights and wrongs of what we should be doing in these days: not to be up in arms about who knows just what, but down on our knees in prayer.
There are all sorts of ways in which all sorts of people can play their part in securing the common good at a time like this. But who has access to the King? Who can draw near to the One who alone can save and plead the cause of a nation? Who (as the Lord Himself once asked through His servant, the prophet Ezekiel) will build up the wall and stand in the gap on behalf of the land? That’s our privileged calling as the people of God. Prophets who’ll pray; and others will live.
That’s what the well-known passage in 2 Chronicles 7.14 is on about. Most Christians know the verse as the “If My people ..” verse: we’re perhaps not quite as familiar with the context, which has everything to do with the present crisis – “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain (it’s the Lord who is speaking) or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people …” .
That’s the context in which this well-known verse kicks in: “If My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” And you’ll see it’s not just an exhortation to make sure we’re saying our prayers. It’s prayer characterized by our humbling ourselves, by our seeking God’s face, and by our turning from our wicked ways.
If I write most fully on this, it’s because it’s surely the most important ‘marker’ of all. Scientific ‘modelling’ is doubtless very helpful: but the Lord is well able to stop a plague in its tracks. We’re called to be ‘prophets’. We’re to pray, that others may live. May God yet come in healing grace and power.
3. Planning. It’s important to plan. Even if the plans we put in place require a constant revision. We’re taught in the Scriptures to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom.13.1) as an expression of our submitting to the Lordship of Jesus: we recognize that they are there to fulfill their weighty responsibilities as part of the way God wisely orders His world; and we therefore gladly submit to their guidance as to what should be at any given time the right thing for us to do.
At least, we seek to do so as long as that doesn’t impinge on the revealed will of the God who established the authorities in the first place. We plan accordingly, seeking always the wisdom of God to discern, in the face of ever changing restrictions, how best His purposes are furthered, how His people are best nourished and sustained, and how His Son is best honoured and exalted through these days.
We make our plans flexibly, very aware that with the rapidly changing guidelines which the government provides there’s a need to adapt what we’ve planned, and re-configure what we’re seeking to do, to the very different context which prevails. And we make our plans humbly, too, quick to recognize the truth of the proverb – “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Prov.19.21).
That’s our comfort and our peace, of course, in the midst of all the turmoil of these present days. God Himself has His plans, His own eternal purpose, good and perfect in ways far beyond our comprehension, which even now He is sovereignly carrying out. His purpose will prevail. We rest in that assurance.
4. Protection. Loving the Lord our God is tied closely to loving our neighbour as ourselves. We may not ever simply look out for, and look after, merely ourselves. We live in community, and we have responsibilities towards those who are around us. Indeed James in his letter puts the thing very starkly indeed – “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (Ja.1.27).
He means by that, we’re to look after, to protect and help, the most vulnerable in our society. It’s one of the features of the Old Testament regulations that provision was always made for the most vulnerable, those least able to cope with the range of adversities which life in this world throws up. We have to apply such a concern to the needs and circumstances of this present day, where to a very considerable extent those most vulnerable in the face of the CoronaVirus and the restrictions which have been imposed as a result, are those least able to use the resources of technology to which most of us resort.
And quite apart from the dangers to physical health which this virus brings, there are the equally real, and potentially far more damaging dangers which an enforced and prolonged isolation will bring.
It is not good, the Lord Himself observes, that we should be alone, isolated, separate. It is not good that we should be deprived of the weekly opportunity to gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ and direct our hearts and minds together to the Lord. How graphic a picture of sin this virus is! For sin is an essentially separating power: and that’s precisely what we’re seeing. We find ourselves now being obliged to live separately: and there is always the danger that that physical separation is matched as well by a relational separation, as tensions creep in, frustrations burst out, and relational breakdown ensues.
How careful we must be to protect ourselves against all that this virus is bringing!
5. Provision. ‘The Lord will provide’ is a truth which lies right at the heart of the Bible’s message. We’re keen, therefore, to give expression to that in every way we can.
Practically, that means we’ll seek to ensure that the needs of those around us are being adequately and appropriately met. And we include in that the very real spiritual needs which we have as a people who self-define as a congregation, that’s to say a people who at the very core of our living ‘gather together’ with a view to the worship of God.
How do we make provision for that when we’re precluded from meeting together? We seek to be creative and adaptable, and will keep going the extra metaphorical mile to ensure that this very basic human need is also met.
6. Poverty. You may think that an odd heading (although not so odd, I guess, when you think of how many millions are being, and will be, hugely impoverished by the effects of the virus).
But I mean, rather, we make sure we are thinking and living in gospel categories. Sometimes we’re so familiar with the grace of the gospel that we lose sight of the fact that we’ve entered, and now live in, the world of grace. You know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, that “though He was rich yet for sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor.8.9).
At the heart of the gospel is the incarnation. Putting it bluntly, as Paul elsewhere in that letter did, Jesus in His incarnation became infected with the virus. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5.21). What will it mean for us to be such gospel people in these days?
7. Proclamation. We dare not lose sight of this. The prophets of God very regularly (and rightly) saw the events of their day as a means by which the Lord was speaking both to His people and to His world: and that surely remains our calling as well today.
The people of God, like the rest of society, may well now be largely confined: but the Word of God is not bound, cannot be bound, and must not be bound.
Perhaps more than ever, there’s a pressing need for the Word of God to be sounded out by every means available: for the gravity of our plight as men and women infected with the virus of sin to be highlighted, stated and stressed: for the urgent summons to repentance and faith to be sounded out, loud and clear, to a society which has hopelessly lost its way: for the message of grace and hope in Jesus Christ to be proclaimed: and for the great, enduring bottom-line reality about our world, that the Lord is on His throne, to be declared.
God grant us grace to rise to the challenging opportunities of these days.
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,