For a while now, something has been gnawing away at me. It started a little over a year ago when I wrote an article that drew on John Calvin’s response to plague in his time. He wrote:
… if either pestilence, or famine, or war begins to rage, or if any disaster seems to threaten any district and people—then also it is the duty of the pastors to urge the church to fasting, in order that by supplication the Lord’s wrath may be averted.
Calvin saw epidemics and other disasters as wake-up calls from God. But the world is not waking up.
Calvin saw epidemics and other disasters as wake-up calls from God. Fundamental to his view was the idea that throughout the history of the Bible, that’s how God used plagues. That doesn’t mean plagues are God’s response to specific sins, as though we only have to find the one issue to address (e.g. greed, immorality, totalitarianism, racism, etc) and everything will be sorted. More often than not, the issues within Israel were multifaceted and complex. The plagues were not “judgements” targeting particular sins, they were great big signposts designed to remind the world that it is dangerously out of step with its King. In the same way, COVID-19 is a wakeup call to the world. But the world is not waking up. And I fear, the church isn’t either.
Preoccupied with the Wrong Issues
What do I mean? I mean this: when we as Christians speak with our friends and family, when we log in to our social media accounts to post our thoughts on the world, when churches and church leaders band together to address COVID, what seems to be our most urgent message? What are we talking about? Perhaps I’m wrong, but most of what I hear circles around things like the economy, tourism, overseas travel, health, death, fear of death, loneliness, suicide, vaccines, vaccine passports, church closures and family separation. And to some extent, rightly so. It’s good that Christians are speaking into the issues that the world faces. But is that the chief message of Christianity to a world plunged into a pandemic? Is that really the message we need to be banding together to communicate? Are those really the messages that should be monopolising our Twitter feeds?
This pandemic is merely a portent of much worse things that will come on those who reject the God of heaven and earth.
While the desire to speak, I think, is right; the speaking is often preoccupied with the wrong issues. It is time to speak, and to speak more forthrightly and more urgently, perhaps, than many of us have been used to. But it’s not time to speak only or even mainly about the economy, mental health, lockdowns or vaccine passports. Instead, it’s time to warn people of the very real and very distressing wrath of God. This pandemic, as terrible as it is, with all its lockdowns and miseries, is merely a portent of much worse things that will come on those who reject the God of heaven and earth. When we see that terrible reality, all those other things begin to seem so incredibly unimportant. How can we get so uptight about all those peripheral things when such a prospect looms before the majority of our nation and world? But more than that, how can we be distracted by all those peripheral things when we actually have a hope, an ultimate hope, that we can offer people. Our message is not only one of judgement, but of forgiveness for everyone who wakes up and turns to Jesus.
Such warnings and hope, offered to our friends, neighbours, leaders and fellow citizens, may not be well received. Indeed, I expect that many people will laugh us out of town. Others will simply ignore us. And that, perhaps, is to be expected anyway. For the past year these words from Revelation have been echoing in my head:
The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20–21 NIV)
But some might turn to God and find the wonderful forgiveness and love of God in Jesus. Maybe many will. But they certainly won’t if we don’t speak. After all, how can they hear unless we speak (Rom 10:14)?
A Sleeping Watchman
And therein lies another concern. In Ezekiel 3, a passage that has featured prominently in recent discussion, God commissions Ezekiel to warn God’s people about their coming judgment:
“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 3:17–18 NIV)
Ezekiel’s task was to warn people that they are wicked, opposed to God, and that the ultimate end of their way of life is death and judgement. In fact, Ezekiel’s message was so important that there were consequences for him if he remained silent about it. And while we can’t simply draw a straight line from Ezekiel’s God-given commission to us as individuals, a parallel can certainly be drawn between Ezekiel’s responsibility to warn of the judgement to come and the charge given to the Church to warn the world and call it to repentance. The prophetic task of warning the world and calling it to repentance now rests with us (e.g. Matt 28:18–20; Acts 17:30–31; 2 Cor 5:10–11).
The prophetic task of warning the world and calling it to repentance now rests with us.
But just as the broader society is not waking up, I’m deeply concerned that much of the Church is sleeping through the warning too. And I’m not just pointing the finger at others, I’m pointing the finger at myself too. While the world falls apart, we continue on our merry way, simply hoping for life to get back to normal.
Is that a sign, perhaps, that the church, too, needs to repent? We shouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case. Church history is full of moments where God’s people needed to be called back to faithfulness. Certainly, at present, many Christians (in the West, at least) seem more concerned with protecting our way of life and squabbling among ourselves over the best ways to respond to COVID than in calling the world back to God. We seem more concerned with the consequences for ourselves than we are about the fact that the world is dangerously out of step with its Maker. So, too, there seems to be a growing number of scandals within the church. High profile leaders have been exposed as bullies and hypocrites. Church leadership teams have been divided over how to respond to social justice issues.
Sure, such failures have always happened amongst God’s people, right back to the Garden of Eden. And sure, we’re probably more aware of some of those things than we were before because of modern communications. But there are enough warning signs to suggest that there ought to be far more inward reflection among Christians and churches than there currently is. Not only is the world in a mess and we need to warn them, it feels like the church is in a bit of a mess too and we need to get on our knees. As Calvin suggested, we must acknowledge our faults, grieve over them and seek God’s mercy.
Praying to Change
To be honest, I’m not really sure what the best way forward is apart from humble prayer. Certainly, there is a place for encouraging each other to remain focussed on the real issue. So while we should still hear people out on the fears they have about the impact that COVID is having on our world, we also need to keep recentering each other on the coming wrath of God and the need to call people to repentance.
We also need to keep recentering each other on the coming wrath of God.
Nevertheless, the most important thing is humble, repentant prayer—for ourselves and for our world. I have realised that as a pastor, I probably need to help lead the way by example. So, this week I cancelled my meetings with staff and we all gathered together to pray for a couple of hours for the world and the church. My next step is to gather the church, or whoever wants to come, to do the same. But the danger is that we’ll do nothing. My fear for myself is that I’ll do nothing.
For that reason, I can’t help but wonder if this is something that we really need to be in together. Not just me or you, or my church or your church, but all of us together recognising that something is not right. Perhaps a different kind of “petition” is needed—one addressed to God. But not a petition where we present our demands, but one where we acknowledge and sign up to our faults and seek God’s forgiveness; where Christians, churches and church leaders sign up to acknowledge that something is wrong and we commit to praying regularly about it and asking that God would humble us. Whether that’s on paper or just in our hearts, I don’t think it matters. The key is that we do it.
In the article I wrote last year, I finished by saying:
I fear that if we’re not careful we’ll just survive this crisis without being humbled by it. But we ought to be humbled by it. We ought to be on our knees like Daniel, fasting and praying, confessing the sins of our own hearts and lives, confessing the sins of our families, confessing the sins of our church and Australian Christianity at large, confessing the sins of our world and pleading with God to show mercy, that many might find forgiveness and grace in Jesus, pleading that many might find deliverance not just from this epidemic but from the terrible wrath to come.
I’m still praying that God will humble us; that he’ll bring us to confess our own sins and to rediscover our first love (Rev 2:4). But I’m also praying that he’ll bring us to pray with great urgency for the world around us which currently stands under the coming wrath of God. And I’m praying that before that day comes, we will begin to speak more courageously than we ever have that many might turn to the Lord Jesus and be saved.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., LCC (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 4.12.17.