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Covid-19. A door of hope?

The article below was first published April 2020 in the Spring 2020 issue of Village Link, in the early days of  the Covid pandemic; its summarises many of the themes I have explored in greater depth in other articles. With the ‘second-wave’ of the pandemic well underway and as England enters another national lockdown, it is time to pick up the threads of my earlier Covid-19 series.

In revisiting this article, it is noteworthy that the ‘total recalibration of our existence’ and  the ‘radical environmental, social, political and economic change’ referred to below appear to be proceeding with pace, although perhaps not in the way we might have hoped. In such a situation, the question, ‘is there any word from the Lord?’,  remains as apposite and urgent as ever.

 

Is there any word from the Lord? This was the question King Zedekiah asked the prophet Jeremiah when their nation was in profound crisis (Jeremiah 37:17).

Jeremiah’s answer was not a comforting one (Jeremiah 37:17). The crisis will not go away, he said, many will suffer, some, including the king, will die, and the people will go into exile. Like us today, they were ‘facing their own mortality’ and heading into a ‘total recalibration of their existence’.1)This is how journalist Simon Heffer described out present situation back in March, in a trenchant critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initial response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Further, Jeremiah declares, the Lord Himself is behind the crisis; the Babylonians are simply His instrument of judgement. Destruction and exile are the consequence of repeated violations of Israel’s covenant with the Lord and repeated refusals to repent (eg see Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Amos 4:6-11).

However, the over-ruling trajectory of Jeremiah’s message was one of hope. Judgement was penultimate. For the faithful remnant (Jeremiah 23:3), the ’good figs’ (Jeremiah 24), there was a ‘hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11, 31:28-29; Isaiah 54:7).

Jeremiah faced the truth of their situation head on. But he also saw beyond it. And this combination of sober realism and over-arching hope is at the heart of what I believe the Lord would say to us today.

Pandemic & lockdown
Covid-19 is a highly contagious viral disease of uncertain, and possibly questionable, origins. It has spread rapidly from its origin in China to nearly every country in the world. It causes anything from no, or mild, symptoms through to death. To date (24 April), according to WHO, there have been 2.6 million confirmed cases and 180,000 deaths.

To manage the disease, governments across the world have closed borders and imposed comprehensive lockdown regimes on their citizens. The human, social and economic costs have been phenomenal, but this may only be the beginning. All the indications are that both disease and lockdown, in some form, and their many consequences, will be with us for quite some while. The above ‘recalibration of our existence’ is well underway!

Lockdown has brought out the best and the worst in people, although most would probably feel the balance is towards the former. It has also created contrasts and divisions in society, eg between those who are at home on furlough with time on their hands and those in essential services who face heavier workloads and increased risks of infection.

Covid-19 has accentuated both the benefits and disadvantages of rural life. Rural dwellers, in general, live closer to nature and have better access to outdoors than those living in towns. But they are, on average, older and those who are isolating may feel more isolated. Poorer broadband and increased demand is impacting, for example, home schooling. Farmers are already good self-isolators and have mostly carried on as normal, but some are contending with supply-chain problems and the loss of casual migrant labour. More people are visiting nearby countryside, and there are new rural-urban tensions over access, and, especially, second homes.

Sign, warning and judgement
Christians are deeply divided over whether or not our present crisis is ‘God’s judgement’. Yet Scripture compels us to accept the possibility that in every calamity is a call to repentance (Luke 13:1-5) and a warning of the final day when God will judge all humanity by the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31).

Similarly, Christians are divided over whether or not Covid-19 is a sign of the ‘end times’ (Luke 21:11). While we should be wary of attempting to set dates that only the Father knows (Matthew 24:36), there are aspects of the current Covid-19 crisis, along with many other signs, that call for our attention in the light of Scripture. And, whether this is the eleventh hour or an eleventh hour, the imperatives are the same – understand the times (Luke 12:54-56), watch and pray (Luke 21:36), preach the Gospel (Matthew 24:14) and be ready (Matthew 25:44).

Church & mission
Covid-19 has done what two world wars, the plague of 1665 and the Black Death failed to do, namely closed our churches! But churches have been quick to ‘reinvent themselves’. Electronic communications have enabled churches not only to ‘meet’, but also to reach those on the fringes of church and, to an extent, support the needy, lonely and vulnerable. In the early days of lockdown, the Archbishop of Canterbury reported that ten times as many people were watching church online as previously attended services in church buildings. One of Village Hope’s associates recently (April 2020) reported that about five times as many people watch his live-streamed service now than attended his village chapel on Sundays. Many others tell similar stories.

Lockdown has also prompted a surge of neighbourliness and new sense of community, and has provided new opportunities for Christians to show the love of Christ in practical ways. Covid-19 has also created an openness to the Gospel by prompting people to face their own finitude and to ask fundamental questions about God, eternity and salvation.

At some point, however, the novelty of ‘cyber-church’ will start to wear off; people who do not use the internet and social media are, anyway, excluded. Covid-19 may well have helped ‘cast the net on the other side’. But this can only go so far. There will come a time when the crisis stands in the way of the Gospel, and we shall need to pray that the Lord brings it to an end, not for our sakes, but for the advancement of His Kingdom.

The Lord reigns
The foundation of Jeremiah’s hope was, first, the absolute sovereignty of the Lord, “who made heaven and earth”, who reigns and rules over human affairs and the entire cosmos, and for whom “nothing is too difficult” (Jeremiah 32:17; Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). The same Lord reigns and rules over our present circumstances.

Fear is more ‘viral’ than the virus  – fear of the disease itself, of the loss of money, home, job or loved ones, of the kind of world that might emerge beyond the pandemic, and ultimately of death. But, for those who acknowledge Him, He is a “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, therefore, we will not fear” (Psalm 46:1), nor be afraid of the ‘deadly pestilence’ (Psalm 91:6). He does not always spare us sorrow and suffering, but He does assure us that “whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

In the wilderness a door of hope
A second theme of hope in Jeremiah’s message is that destruction and loss will become the means of renewal and restoration; the ‘wilderness’ of exile opens a ‘door of hope’ (Hosea 2:14-23).

Lockdown has been for us a type of  ‘wilderness’, and has opened at least four ‘doors of hope’ or ‘windows of opportunity’. Each calls for our prayers, reflection and response.

First, wilderness is a place of encounter, intimacy with the Lord, and hearing His voice (Hosea 2:14-23; Exodus 34:27-28; Deuteronomy 29:5; 1 Kings 19:8). Lockdown is an opportunity to take stock and to deepen our relationship with the Lord, and seek His will for our lives and our life together.

Second, wilderness is a place of testing and trial, of refining and purifying, of confrontation with the devil (Mark 1:13), where the Lord uses adversity to discipline and purify us (Job 23:10; 1 Peter 1:6-7) so that we bear fruit (John 15:1-2; Hebrews 12:3-11). At this time, the Lord is, I believe, calling both individuals, His people as a whole, and especially Christian leaders, to humble themselves, pray, seek His face and repent (1 Chronicles 7:14; James 4:10).

Third, during His forty days in the wilderness, in a recapitulation of Eden and an anticipation of the Age to come, Jesus was close to nature – “with the animals” (Mark 1:13). Nature has not gone into lockdown, and in this time of privation many are waking up both to its joy and beauty and to the way humanity has wasted it. Humanity’s abuse of God’s creation has played a significant part in the pandemic and part of the above humbling must be to acknowledge this and to do what we can to be better stewards of His earth.2)For accounts of possible role of ‘wet markets’ and environmental destruction, see here & here.

Fourth, Jesus was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the wilderness and emerged in the ‘power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4:14). The wilderness prepared Him for three years of ministry, culminating in His death, resurrection and ascension. Other biblical wilderness experiences, such as Elijah’s, also point to the preparatory significance of wilderness. Covid-19 will eventually pass, and we need to be prepared in this time for the challenging times ahead.

A new people
The third theme of hope in Jeremiah’s message is that, in the Babylonian exile, a new people emerges, no longer centred around Temple and Monarchy, but around family and community, sabbath and synagogue, with God’s word at the centre.

In my article, Exile and Hope, I suggested that the demise of ‘Christian Britain’ should prompt a similar transition for us – from dependence on institutions of church and state, to “communities characterised by radical discipleship, loving fellowship, humble service, and reaching the lost, with close attentiveness to the word of God”.

There are signs that Covid-19 is helping speed this transition. Alongside a renewed sense of community in wider society, Christians are discovering how to have fellowship outside of church institutions, buildings and meetings, and there are indications of a new interest in the Bible.3)A recent survey revealed that 40% of people feel a stronger sense of community since the outbreak and 39% feel more in touch with friends and family.

A hope and a future
Both secular commentators and Christian leaders are already imagining a better future beyond Covid-19, with some calling for “radical environmental, social, political and economic change”. As we ponder the Covid-19 crisis, may we see that future from the Lord’s perspective and pray and work to bring it about.

Then you will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:13).

God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you are also doing (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11).

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Notes   [ + ]

1.This is how journalist Simon Heffer described out present situation back in March, in a trenchant critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initial response to the Coronavirus crisis.
2.For accounts of possible role of ‘wet markets’ and environmental destruction, see here & here.
3.A recent survey revealed that 40% of people feel a stronger sense of community since the outbreak and 39% feel more in touch with friends and family.
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