This pandemic has been going on much longer than many of us ever thought possible. I remember reading early on that we need to be thinking along the lines of an ice age rather than a blizzard. At the time people could not get their minds around it, but now we must. We are six months in, and the truth is none of us know when we are going to get through this.
Increasingly I am finding some Christians confidently asserting that they have a hot line to God and that variously, this is all a tactic of the Devil to force us to have the sign of the beast or that this is God calling His people to repentance or …….. The list is exceptionally long and mostly contradictory and frankly unhelpful. This has finally provoked me to speak into the discussion and declare that we need to allow for a level of mystery. A level of humility. We must be incredibly careful when we claim to speak on behalf of God. We also need to be focusing on the right questions, not why but what should I be doing. The coronavirus seems to have provided some people with a megaphone to say, more loudly, what they were wanting to say anyway! I do not think this is at all helpful.
We need to allow for mystery.
I think this is clear in many places in the Bible. E.g. the book of Job. Any sensible reading of the book will result in us being cautious about making grand pronouncements. Job’s friends concluded that he needs to repent, it was obvious that sin was the problem. The point of the book is that may seem obvious, but it was the wrong conclusion to draw. In fact, the book of Job does not have a simple answer, no satisfactory resolution to the issue of suffering. Job gets more sons and daughters to replace the ones he lost, but does that make it all right? Of course not. God has revealed his power and might to Job, and Job realizes he cannot compete; but does even that make it all right? I think the point of the book of Job is that the issue of suffering is not easily and quickly answered. As Paul says, all creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth. It points us to God, leaves us breathless in the face of Him. It leaves us with mystery.
We need to focus not on the why but what.
A similar truth is taught in the gospels, but they go further. Jesus heals a man born blind; this is described in John 9. His disciples ask Jesus whose sin caused this man to be blind, was it his sin or that of his parents? Jesus refuses to speculate, neither he nor his parents sinned, it happened so that you might see the works of God displayed in him. Jesus is saying, stop looking back, looking for someone to blame. Jesus says, do not focus on why but focus on what God is going to do about it. God is going to demonstrate that He is the Light of the world.
We need to look at Jesus before we look at the world.
We must start with Jesus, when we start looking at the world around us and jump to conclusions about God, we will get it wrong. If we do not start with Jesus, we may come up with something that looks attractive, sounds spiritual but is wrong. Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus who is the image of the invisible God. If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.
Looking at Jesus we find the answer to what.
His death and resurrection are now the single, ultimate ‘sign’. The cross is where all the world’s sufferings and horrors have been heaped up and dealt with. The resurrection is the launch of God’s new creation, of his sovereign saving rule on earth – starting with the physical body of Jesus himself.
Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about ‘what God is saying here’ without going through the Gospel story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back. If there is One God, and if he has come in the person of his own son to unveil his rescuing purposes for the world, then there can be no other signs, no other warning events, to compare with this one. The call to repentance, the unveiling of the kingdom comes through Jesus not through wars, earthquakes, or plagues.
Looking at Jesus we see that our understanding of God’s sovereignty, his being in control, must centre around his death on the cross.
We see that God’s purpose is about restoring God’s Kingdom to how it was meant to be before the fall. The fulfilment of this will be at the end of the age when Jesus returns, then he will be seen by as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In the meantime, we work towards bringing the future into the present.
That purpose is worked out by loyal human beings serving God. We can ask why doesn’t God send a thunderbolt and put things right? Why doesn’t God just take control and stop disasters of various forms? The answer is he does get involved. His intervention is through the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the people hungry for justice. They are the way God wants to act in his world. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, people will be the answer, not to the question Why? But to the question What? What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help? Who shall we send? God works in all things with and through those who love him.
From the time of Jesus onward we see Jesus’ followers telling people about God’s kingdom, and summoning them to repent, not because of any subsequent events such as famines or plagues but because of Jesus himself. When the world is going through great convulsions as at present, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.
When we read the gospels, we expect God to be, as we might say, ‘in charge’: taking control, sorting things out, getting things done. But the God we see in Jesus is the God who wept at the tomb of his friend. The God we see in Jesus is the God-the-Spirit who groans without words. The God we see in Jesus is the one who, to demonstrate what his kind of ‘being in charge’ would look like, did the job of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet. That is what God sends us to do.
God has in fact delegated the running of many aspects of his world to human beings. In doing so, he has run the risk that they will grieve him to his heart. But when this happens, he will hold people responsible.
In conclusion the signs of God work in the world are not things like earthquakes or famines, plagues, or floods. These things are not sent to frighten people into belief or warn them of the world coming to an end. There are signs of new life, new creation around us though, signs of God at work in the world. They are signs of God coming into the ordinary and making it extraordinary. Coming to bring healing to a world of sickness. Giving bread to the hungry; sight to the blind; life to the dead. They are signs that the world was coming into a new springtime. A new beginning. We are part of that.
I think we need to stop speculating on why and focus much more on what am I called to do at this time. Allow a level of mystery. Embrace the fact that each of us is meant to be a sign of the Kingdom. What better time to do that than now?
This blog has been heavily influenced by God and the pandemic by Tom Wright. I highly recommend it.