Recently a church member asked if the Covid-19 coronavirus was a punishment sent by God upon the world. Then a friend in England wrote to me saying, “In my dreams I have been reflecting on the fires in Australia, the floods here in Blighty [Great Britain], the locusts in Ethiopia and now this world virus, is He trying to say something to us?”
What is God saying to us in this crisis? Is God punishing us for our sinfulness and for turning our backs on him? The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) contains many examples of what appear to be punishments by God for the unfaithfulness of his people. Usually these punishments are preceded by warnings from prophets to cease from worshiping false idols and return to worshiping God. Whenever the warnings go unheeded, there are dire consequences. The most calamitous example occurred in 586 BC when, ignoring the warnings of the prophets, Jerusalem was besieged and eventually overrun by the army of King Nebuchadnezzar. The Second book of Kings chapter 25 records in horrific detail what happened.
The subsequent exile of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple are seen as God’s judgment upon a rebellious people. In exile in Babylon, the people of Israel face an uncertain future, yet God does not abandon them. Through his prophet Jeremiah, God offers hope for the future. Exile from the Promised Land will not be permanent; after seventy years, God will bring his people back from Babylon.
In our current crisis, we are besieged not by a foreign army, but by an invisible enemy. In some ways, the coronavirus is similar to an earlier, more deadly virus, which ravaged the world in the Middle Ages: the Black Death – a mixture of bubonic plague and pneumonic plague. In Western Europe, by the end of the fifteenth century, it had claimed as many as 25 million lives, about a third of the population. Many people believed that God had sent the plague as a punishment, as a call to repent.
It came to Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther, who was asked to leave the town for his own safety. He replied,
“This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running… If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him…”
However, the plague was no respecter of rank or office: among priests who chose to serve the sick and those at death’s door, it is estimated that the mortality rate was 45%, higher than for the general population.
To return to our current crisis, we are lucky that we live in an age where medical science has provided cures for most of our life-threatening viruses. But is Covid-19 sent from God as a punishment? It reminds me of the question asked in the gospel of John about the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” (John 9:1) Like now, people were looking to point the finger and put the blame on someone else. Jesus refutes the premise and instead points to God’s works being revealed in the blind man being healed.
Pop Staples used to sing, “Ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.” We have to resist the temptation to blame God for the world’s ills. The current coronavirus originated in a Chinese wild animal market and it is believed that poor hygiene was a contributing factor. Unfortunately, bad events happen when bad practices are persisted with (see also SARS and avian flu.) This is a story about failing to heed the warnings of the past – a story not so very different to our Bible stories.
In Lent we are called upon to repent and change practice; in other words, to acknowledge when you have done something wrong and to amend your life accordingly. This basic rule applies equally to countries as it does to our personal lives. Since the fall of Adam, we are creatures disposed to sin, whose cure is in Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who took on the disorder which sin brought to the world, and redeemed it by his sacrifice offered once for all on the cross. It is Jesus who freed us from the bonds of sin so that we might live in the light of his resurrection. This is the story of Holy Week.
During Holy Week, we will miss our shared experience of worship, which has so much to teach us about salvation and the person who won it for us: Jesus Christ. I am providing some resources for those who would like to say Stations of the Cross at home. If you come to the car park on Sunday morning, a booklet with this service, along with meditations, will be handed out with the palms. For those who cannot make it that time, there will be copies available in the office for anyone to collect. There will also be available a small pamphlet of reflections, prayers and devotions for those who would like a copy. If you would like these aids to devotion mailed to you, please contact Beth in the office.
In the meantime, don’t forgot your Book of Common Prayer – read Psalm 31 today, which contains these words, “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” Our faith is a vital resource for us to draw upon at this time. It is in God we find our comfort and our strength, our peace and consolation. It is God who knows what we must do and his glory will be shown in the works of compassion he calls us into at this time. That means to keep in contact with neighbors and other members of the church community. Think of someone with whom you used to worship and pick up the phone and call them. They are probably at home right now! They would be delighted to receive your call.
Last week Paul Simon uploaded a video on YouTube, where he sings “American Tune.” I have attached a link below. Interestingly, the melody of this tune resembles an adaptation of the hymn “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded”, that was used by Johann Sebastian Bach four times in his Saint Matthew Passion. For days after, I found myself hearing the words, “We’re all right, we’re all right.” As a nation, we’ve been in challenging situations before and come through. With God’s help, we will do so again.
With prayers and blessings