The question is beginning to be asked: what should we learn from the coronavirus pandemic? There are wise answers around- we need to be better prepared for such eventualities. More profoundly we need to reflect on how we value certain groups. The vital individuals over the last few weeks have been cleaners, hospital porters, carers and others that haven’t been traditionally appreciated in our culture. But significant as those issues are the key question that hasn’t been asked a great deal is this- what does our Creator want us to learn from this pandemic?
There does seem to be a consistent answer throughout the Bible. Such times are a call to repent- a challenge to turn from living for ourselves to living for God. It is there throughout the Old Testament. The invasion of locusts in Joel prompts the Lord to declare, “Return to me with all your heart.” In Amos 4 God’s people are rebuked for not heeding the warnings of natural disasters- “I sent plagues among you…yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord. These natural phenomenon were sent by God in order to awake His people from their spiritual slumber so that they might examine themselves and repent.
It could be countered, though, that our present situation is different. After all, no nation is God’s people like Old Testament Israel and the pandemic was not preceded by warnings from God’s prophets explaining what was happening. That’s true enough. But it is worth noting that Jesus- whose teaching is always more punchy than the popular image- regarded incidents of mass suffering as motivators to repentance. In Luke 13 He speaks of the massacre of Galileans by Pilate and those crushed by the fall of the tower of Siloam. Were those who died more guilty of sin? Not according to Jesus- just as today coronavirus doesn’t take the most heinous sinners. Rather Jesus says there is a message for all of us- “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” To use the imagery of CS Lewis, these events are megaphones- announcing to all the seriousness of life and death and the urgent need to be ready to meet our God.
An extra dimension is added when you consider Revelation 9. The imagery is complex but the sounding of the sixth trumpet in that chapter unleashes plagues that kill a section of the world. We then see the impact on those who remain- “The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent.” The point being made is that these disasters should have made human beings reflect on the world and what had gone wrong. But it didn’t- they still did not repent. This feels profoundly relevant to our time. There are encouraging signs that more people are tuning in to virtual services than would normally attend a church gathering. Sadly, though, there isn’t much sign of a widespread turning to God. Indeed the absence of any reference to God is striking in virtually all public discourse.
At these times we need a range of truths from the Bible. That’s why I have preached for instance on the comfort of having God as our refuge or the hope of a new creation brought in through Jesus’ death on the cross. And we need that sort of good news. Pastoral sensitivity means that I want to major on those themes when I know that people are distressed. And yet I’m convinced that we are not being true to Scripture if we fail to sound the repeated note of the Bible at times like this: this is a reminder that the world has a serious problem and needs to repent. In the end that is why I preached as I did on Easter Sunday from Acts 17- God commands all people to repent because He will judge the world through the man He raised from the dead. Actually the chief application of both the resurrection and the pandemic is that everybody must turn from their sins to God.
That’s true for the non-Christian world. But maybe it is also true for us as Christians- perhaps there is a call to repentance for us at the moment as well. John Stevens of FIEC has a list of potential lessons for us. Here are some areas where I wonder whether repentance is necessary:
We have over-inflated our abilities as human beings and ignored our need of God. This is a crushing reminder of our limits. It should humble us so that we repent of our pride and recognise our dependence on God.
We have sought satisfaction in a whole heap of entertainment and activities that have now been stripped away. And we are being called to come back to the One who is he source of all good things.
My generation that has never lived through conflict has tended to view life as a kind of game. We are being taught by God that life, death and eternity are a serious business.
We have taken for granted the opportunity to gather as a church family and not made it is a priority. God is reminding us through its absence what a privilege that is.
As we have seen, the Bible warns me not to expect wholesale repentance to emerge from this pandemic. But perhaps it might yield that in some. Maybe even some reading this will hear God speaking through the pandemic- “You need to change. You need to turn to me.”