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When Plagues Come

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Many of us are scared. The coronavirus is killing people and it will kill more. We must take precautions. We, for example, following the latest government advice, will be moving to our Level 4 response this Sunday, only opening up for a courageous core crew to run our beta livestream. We must play our part to protect and serve the most vulnerable (the elderly, and those with medical conditions, thankfully children seem to be not too badly affected so far). And of course we must pray. We’ll be doing that as a church for 24 hours this Friday-Saturday.

However, we must also be aware that there is another virus at work that is even more contagious: fear. I feel it myself. There’d be something wrong with us if we didn’t. Corona has come against the backdrop of a nation that in my estimation has grown increasingly anxious. But allowing fear to rule our hearts is not the Christian way. Perfect love has cast out fear (1 John 4:18). Those of us in Christ can boast, “Where O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) and declare with Paul “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Whatever we think about what the right response should be, faith should be our focus, peace in the storm because Jesus is in our boat (Mark 4:35-41). In an email to Christians last week, one of the UK’s leading evangelists, J John, called the Church to sanity, stability and serenity at this time. Stand firm he says, “We who have put our faith in Christ the rock have an important role to play in these dark and troubled days. We should be those who stand firm as fixed and unshakeable points amid a chaotic sea of fearfulness.”

This is why I love being a part of Westminster Chapel. It is a church full of people of faith. Men, women and children who have stood firm together amidst cancer diagnoses, painful bereavements, financial crises, and so on. I’m so thankful that we’re a church that prioritises unity, putting Ephesians 4:3 into practice; that is accommodating and being full of love to those in need. This is not a time for criticism and judgment, looking down on others panic buying for example. We must work to *graciously* encourage each other to live by faith and not fear at this time; and make time to listen to God. He’s not promoting this suffering (he’s not the primary cause of evil) but he is, in his wisdom permitting it, lifting his hand that we must see just a little of what life is like without him, in this one area, giving only a little ‘rope’ to a single virus for a short amount of time.

We should ask ourselves, what is God doing at this time? In the world, our nation, and in me?

If you’re not a follower of Jesus, I think COVID-19 is your holy wake up call. It is as Professor CS Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and convert from atheism wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world….No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. it removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”

Plagues are meant to wake people up from their spiritual slumber and come back to God in repentance (He’s waiting with open arms of love to embrace you and welcome you home btw the moment we ‘come to our senses’, see Luke 15:20).

You could say the same, about this being a wake-up call for the Church. Is God wanting us to see death more clearly that we might savour more greatly Christ’s victory over it? Is he preparing his church for a yet more powerful witness at this time? What is God seeking to teach me, and the Church, his bride?

God has brought four things to my attention.

  1. I see more how proud and arrogant I am.
  2. I see more how inconsistent and prejudiced I am.
  3. I see more how greedy and selfish I am.
  4. I see more how anxious and fearful I am.

Which leads me to conclude just how much I need Jesus!

First, I see more how proud and arrogant I am; living, like so many, as if I am in control of when I die, or even, immortal. Yet 1 out of every 1 person dies, and 150,000 people die every day. I’ve attended and ministered at many funerals and yet death still is such a surprising and unwelcome intruder. Why is that? Because it is! This is a question I think millions of people are wrestling with right now – their mortality – as they count the death toll locally and global daily. Death is scary and terrifying and is coming for everyone and the only way out is faith in Jesus – who defeated sin’s penalty, death, and publicly rose again, and was seen by many eyewitnesses to prove it. God is teaching us humility, to see first-hand our mortal fragility; he’s teaching us to number our days that we might grow a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).

Second, I see more how inconsistent and prejudiced I am. Why am I more concerned about people dying from COVID-19 (70 per day as at 11th March) than the far greater numbers dying every day from tuberculosis (3,014)? Why didn’t I even know so many people were still dying from TB? Why am I not doing that much about the approximately 16,000 people I did know were dying every day from preventable poverty related causes? Is it a case of out of sight out of mind, or they’re different from me, so I don’t care as much? Lord forgive me. God, I believe, is reminding us of how precious every human life is with this worldwide pandemic, affecting everyone, regardless of the colour of our skin or how much money we have. We’re all equal to COVID-19. We’re all equal in the sight of God. He’s also challenging us not to despise the elderly but to serve those who are more vulnerable to this virus. I think he wants to kill off ageism, that we might listen and learn from our elders again.

Third, I see more how greedy and selfish I am. Where is this urge coming from that makes me want to stockpile, of all things, as much toilet paper as I can get my hands on? And to get hold of it before others? Why do I feel scared when I see so many empty shelves in the supermarket? Is it because I’m experiencing scarcity for the first time? Is this how developing nations feel about the (dare I say it, exploitative) stockpiling of resources Western nations like my own have been doing for decades, whilst they live more ‘hand to mouth’? Is God teaching us to learn to live without so many of our wants that we might discover again what we really need?

Fourth, I see more how anxious and fearful I am. I feel jumpy. My heart is beating a lot faster lately.  I worry whether I am making the right calls as a leader. I’m concerned about the elderly and immunocompromised people I know and serve. How will we manage as a family if schools close, or we go under complete lockdown? God, I believe, is teaching us to trust him; to let his perfect love cast out fear at this time. He’s putting iron in our blood. Our tree is being shaken so that we might feel the strength of our roots, the love from which we can never be separated.

These four things make me want to throw myself prostrate again at the feet of Christ, thankful for his love and sacrifice; that he promises with the blood he shed on the cross to forgive and cleanse me of all my sins when I confess them to him (1 John 1:9). This is a time to walk more closely with God; to let him purify our hearts, and strengthen his church for greater witness.

I’ve, like many, have been encouraged by looking back through church history and seeing how the Church has responded to plagues of the past. In 251 A.D. when 5,000 people were dying a day from a terrible epidemic Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage wrote: “How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems so horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the heart minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted…Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.”

Dionysius of Alexandria wrote around the same time: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love…Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…Many in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…” Wow. Who does that sound like? Non-Christian historian Rodney Stark cites this as one of the reasons for Christianity’s explosive growth at that time.

I could go on to talk about Martin Luther and his incredible response to plague, Puritan Pastor Thomas Brooks in the Great Plague of London, staying to serve rather than fleeing, Spurgeon and the Cholera epidemic of 1854, or mention again the courageous spirit of the congregation that continued to meet at Westminster Chapel during the Second World War (including through the Blitz). A bomb even landed very close to the Chapel whilst a service was underway, some plaster apparently fell from the ceiling. Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones is said to have looked up for a few moments only before continuing his prayer and going on to preach.

The question I ask myself is, will I stand with them? Will I be marked by sanity, stability and serenity at this time? I want to Lord, but I’m afraid. Or in the words we unpacked on Sunday, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)

God wants to move his church from a place of fear and doubt, to one of total trust in him. He is speaking. Are we listening?

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