The empire of humanity has grasped for much in the past century. With Apollo 11, we touched the heavens. With advances in communication technology, transportation, and Google Translate, we’ve shrunk the globe. With the Internet, we are busily growing our own tree of knowledge (of good and evil). With advances in medical technology and treatment, we’re reaching for immortality. Despite the good in much of this, churches across the same ‘developed world’ are dwindling. Babel is alive and well.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has revealed this empire to be, if not completely naked, quite threadbare. A virus measured in nanometers (there are some 25 billion nanometers in an inch) has effortlessly marched through border controls and TSA X-ray machines, into our homes and workplaces. It is an unknown assailant; its origins are unknown, its ultimate effects still unclear, and perhaps most concerning, its particular genetic signature unfamiliar to our collective immune system.
Doctors are concerned that the destruction triggered by this virus comes by a cytokine storm—an immune system overreaction that causes more harm than the infection itself. Here in the U.S., our national immune system seems to be marked by the same problem. We are coming close to economic self-annihilation, and with this the loss of more life, liberty and happiness. Bond markets scream for relief from cascading defaults resulting from sudden unemployment. Unbelieving fears are amplified by a toxic media feedback loop and new waves of restrictions. Our day has no shortage of bad actors eager for a global redistribution of power. We are living on the edge of profound danger.
But, as in Jonah's day, divine judgment can also bring new sobriety and national repentance. The Lord knows.
There are real people caught up in all of this, with real problems. I pray for our frontline health care workers, used to orderly hospitals and good outcomes. Some are now facing a nightmarish wave of decisions and deaths, and themselves falling ill for our sakes. I pray for God’s protecting mercies for the elderly, and the vulnerable. I pray for small business owners, many of whom are losing everything. And I pray for our children, and our children’s children, and think about how our present decisions will shape their future.
How Should the Church Think About This?
SARS-CoV-2 is powerless against the Church, for Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world” and “cannot be shaken.” Heaven remains gloriously untouched, and the rule of the King not mitigated but revealed in our current plague. Christ judges the nations, but He also disciplines those whom He loves. In His broader judgments, He has specific purposes for the household of faith, the Church (cf. I Peter 4:17-19).
Allow me to list some indisputable facts: The Church (from the Greek work for "assembly") is the spiritual ER of the nation, the nation is in an existential crisis by the sovereign hand of God, and our front doors and websites are currently plastered with “No Assembly” signs.
A good case can be made for social distancing, and I am thankful for the technology that distributes the Word while we live under these strange clouds. But something deep within me remains profoundly unsettled about our sudden capitulation to our new strictures. Public worship is the place where the earthly and the heavenly meet in a unique way—in the exercise of the ordinances of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Preaching is the voice of God to His people, and to a nation. The special public intercessory prayers of the Church are desperately needed now—prayers that our Savior brings to the Father as He ever lives to make intercession for us.
The waters of baptism promise cleansing from sin and everlasting life—the streambed is currently dry. Christ promises His special presence at His Table. This isn’t the imaginary presence of an imaginary Christ, but the real presence of the God-man, who with human intelligence and divine wisdom has only brushed by this world with SARS-CoV-2. He is God; before Him goes pestilence and fever follows at His feet (Hab. 3:5). He is the possessor of the scroll, and the opener of the seals. He is the regnant, unstoppable, mediatorial King of the universe. As things stand, He has for a time suspended tens of thousands from His Table. He has acted; we, for the moment, are living in exile.
Abundant grace remains for God’s people—He never forsakes His own—but surely our present distance from its "ordinary means" should prompt sober self-reflection.
A Call to Repentance and Faith
Are we surprised by all of this? Here’s a question: What in the world is a "Superbowl Sunday," where worship is supplanted by pigskin follies? (Note that the King of kings has singlehandedly shut down our games.) We laud charlatans, like Stephen Furtick and Joel Osteen. Many will follow them, the apostle Peter said, and many have. Our Savior cannot be impressed. Getting off track, am I the only one seeing a missed opportunity for Benny Hinn? There are still healing opportunities in New York City, and Washington clearly needs money.
What Christ has done is no surprise. Our own divorces, pornography addictions, drunken fornicating teenagers (and parents), binge-watching habits, abuse scandals, and wretched music choices profoundly shame the Cross. So do our hatred and anger, laziness, prayerlessness, lack of love for the lost, social gospel, shallow worship, woke pastors, and Revoice conferences.
The world wasn’t exiled from gathered public worship; the Church was.
We need to repent. Christian leaders need to lead the church in sober reflection and repentance. Without holiness, no one will see the Lord. As Job said, "these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?" (Job 26:14).
Here lies our fundamental problem. The Father so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son; the Son walked on this earth, revealed the Father, embodied the love of God, suffered the shameful death of the Cross, and rose in triumphant death-defying victory; He ascended, and Father and Son gave the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet so much of humanity still doesn’t seem to care.
Christians need to listen and live like we care. Changed lives, with fruits in keeping with repentance, will shine in this darkness. As you witness the march of COVID-19, get on your knees today and pray: "Lord, what needs to change in me? Search me, O God, know my heart; try me and know my thoughts, and see if there is any wicked way in me. Lord, lead me in the way everlasting. Amen." Pray like this, and live like you pray. Angels will rejoice, and the world will glorify your Father in heaven.
Make no mistake—the Father will exalt His Son, and these are early rumblings of vindicatory exaltation. The apostle Peter said in plain terms that the end game has God tearing this whole world up, burning it with fire. He intends to purge the virus called sin, and present His Son again to the world.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, Jesus gently said to us in the quiet voice of the Word made flesh. He spoke to us with his feet in the dust of our COVID-19 infested globe: "Come to Me, all you weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Whoever believes in me shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Take up your cross, and follow me. I am the resurrection and the life."
May God grant us the grace to hear.
Peter Van Doodewaard is the pastor of Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Greenville, South Carolina.
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Editor's Note: Image provided in part by Vecteezy.