(This series of articles were written at the beginning of the first lockdown in March/April 2020)
We have all been through a bitter experience, the Covid-19 pandemic, and many of us would be hard pressed to find a positive angle to it. Around 588BC the Kingdom of Judah also went through a bitter experience, the exile from their land and into Babylonian captivity. In contrast to the disparities in current thinking about the cause of the current virus, the cause of the Babylonian exile was quite clear, disobedience and idolatry:
The Lord said through his servants the prophets: “Manasseh king of Judah has committed these detestable sins. He has done more evil than the Amorites who preceded him and has led Judah into sin with his idols. Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and give them into the hands of enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their enemies; they have done evil in my eyes and have aroused my anger from the day their ancestors came out of Egypt until this day.” (2 Kings 21:10-15)
The exile may have been a well-deserved punishment, but it wasn’t the end of the story. Jeremiah, the chief prophet of the day, sent a letter to the exiles:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 29:4-9)
God clearly wanted them to thrive, despite their punishment. He intended them not just to learn from the experience, but to flourish. I believe that this is what the Church should have learnt. The lockdown of 2020 represented their “exile”. Two questions beg to be answered; what bad thing could have led to it and what good thing could come out of it? Then a third question also suggests itself; the pandemic has hit the World, not just the Church, why are we focussing on just the Church?
This third question really needs to be dealt with first, as it brings up some key theological issues. After all, if God has an issue with the Church, why drag others into it? Well, let’s first remind us of the foundational Scripture of these articles:
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24:1)
God does what God does, for His reasons and, as difficult as this may be to accept, we simply don’t have the right to query Him or the capacity to understand Him. In terms of why He drags others into His disputes with His covenanted people (whether Israel in the Hebrew Scripture or the Church in the New testament), there’s one obvious trusted source to set a precedent, the Word of God, The Bible itself.
The Scriptures are chiefly the story of God’s dealings with His covenanted people, a people living among other people. These dealings are often going to be wide-ranging, affecting these other people. To understand this, let’s consider an important Scripture:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)
This is Joseph reassuring his brothers, whose attempts to do away with him resulted in blessings for many. The chain of events triggered by them slinging him into that pit involved a cast of characters from the world outside the ‘covenanted people’, including the Midianite traders, Potiphar (and his saucy wife), the prison keeper, other prisoners including the butler and the baker, Pharaoh and a cast of thousands during his career as General Overseer. Then there was the famine that God allowed to hit the region, in order to fulfil His purposes. It cemented Joseph’s reputation, it saved his family and reconciled them to him, thus protecting the messianic line of succession. It also led to four centuries of captivity under a later Pharaoh, leading to God’s Mighty Hand being demonstrated in the plagues (directed towards the ‘others’), a sacred meeting with Moses at the burning bush and the subsequent forging of a Nation and the giving of the Ten Commandments and the rest to the Hebrews. Although the result of these events was the saving of many lives, there were, as you saw, many other far-reaching consequences for the Egyptian world as well as the Israelites. The famine affected everyone, as did the consequences of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness.
Let’s return to the present. Covid-19 has been a plague for everyone to endure and, without delving into theological speculation, God has allowed it to happen. If, as I suggest, this is God’s plan for His Church, we have to enter the mindset that allows us to consider that the God of the Bible is the same God Who acts today. A startling thought for many of us yet, I suspect, many Christians take issue with this, as a result of a liberal theology that insists that God is some sort of defender of human rights. To them this is so unfair, how hundreds of thousands have been despatched into an uncertain fate, just because God had something to say to His Church. To unbelievers of course this is unfair, but then life without God is always going to be unfair, the Kingdom of the World is not a fair, nice place. The only place of hope and safety is the Kingdom of Heaven and if God has used the virus to reform His Church into reaching more people more effectively for Christ, then the Scripture quoted earlier has great significance … but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20).
There are still the two questions to answer; what bad thing could have led to the Exile/Flockdown and what good thing could come out of it?
We will look at these next week …
This is an extract from the book, Flockdown: Is the Church out for the count?, available for £5 at https://www.sppublishing.com/flockdown-263-p.asp
What is the relevance of the pandemic to the Church?