The other day I was in a meeting with the Superintendent of the Rockwood School District, and like every other conversation right now, the Coronavirus was a key topic. He said that we are dealing with two issues. The first is the science and medicine about the disease. Like them, we as a church need to take necessary precautions to do all we can to keep the spread of this disease at a minimum. The second issue, though, is psychology, as we are entering a type of panic that comes when we are involved in massive issues that we cannot control yet have significant implications. I realized yesterday the depth of the craze as I shopped at one of our area Sam’s Clubs. After hearing that there was a sort of craze, I figured I’d pick up some toilet paper just to have a little bit of a stock. To my surprise, they were completely out. Not a square to spare anywhere (OK, for those who don’t know it, that is my daily Seinfeld reference).
Every news cast begins and ends, and fills out most of the middle of their broadcast with information about the virus, its implications, and the things we need to do to protect ourselves. While we should not and cannot ignore these things. Yet, I am also struggling with the reality that no precautions can stop this, and the implications reach everywhere. There is a sense of helplessness and fear that is probably gripping all of us. These sort of “plagues” are not new to humanity, but this is something new in our lifetimes.
This morning in my Bible reading I read Numbers 21, which includes the story of a plague that broke out among the Hebrews during their wandering in the Middle East. They continued to grumble against God, despising His gracious gift of their deliverance from Egypt and His blessed provisions of food in the form of Manna in the wilderness. In the story, God sent a plague of venomous serpents into the camp resulting in the death of a lot of people. The interesting thing about snakes (and viruses) is that they are no respecter of persons, it didn’t matter how rich or poor, religious or irreligious a person. The snakes were and the virus is a real threat. In their distress the people came to Moses confessing their sin and crying out for deliverance. God told Moses to put an image of a bronze serpent on a pole, and then promised healing to people who would act in faith if they were bitten by just looking at the serpent as it was lifted up in the middle of the camp. It seems a strange remedy to a a cursed plague, but God healed them physically and spiritually in this moment if they trusted the Word of the Lord and looked to the lifted up serpent. God choose to lift up the image of the curse to break the curse. More on this in a minute.
As I read this my heart struggled to make sense of this in our moment. The main thing that wrecked me is wondering how we should respond in this moment, specifically, how should we pray. Like the Hebrews in the camp, when things like this take place it strikes feelings of fear and helplessness. We know there is nothing we can do to stop it and guarantee our own safety and that of those we love. We feel uncertain and get into a sort of panic. And we begin to wonder if God is aware or even cares about the things that are happening. Beyond that, we may even begin wondering if this is the judgment of God. Of course, we are afraid to say that out loud, but the question is there. And as people who believe the truth found in Scripture, we affirm the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, knowing that God is accomplishing His purpose in the world and in our lives through the events that take place in the world. While we need to be careful of using language calling this virus the judgment of God, we also need to be careful affirming any ideas that makes it appear God is off somewhere having coffee at Starbucks and is unaware or helpless to deal with the events in the world. The Westminster Confession states the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in this way, “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The Scriptures are not unclear about God’s sovereignty and purpose in the world, and in numerous prophetic passages we are reminded that human tragedy and crisis, including pestilence (the Bible’s word for mass disease) will be part of living in a Fallen world (see Luke 21:11, Ezekiel 14:21, Habakkuk 3:5). Furthermore, God is sovereign over those and accomplishing the purpose of His will in the moment as history moves toward the Last Day.
Here’s the thing. The more these things are immanent, the more they remind us of human inability to control their lives and our helplessness to save ourselves. It reminds us of our own mortality and that we do not choose the day or the mode of our death. We are struck with the brevity and fragility of life. For this we have a message, one of hope. As I was reading and feeling all of these emotions about our moment, I was warmed with the thought that this for us could be a moment of awakening and revival. Maybe, God in His providence is allowing this virus to shake the world of its hardness to Him and self reliance that permeates our culture. I began to pray and cry out for this sort of revival and awakening in this moment. If we must go through lack of toilet paper and the fear of a brutal disease, we as believers in Jesus can ask God to use this in our world to bring people to the end of themselves, and hope that they like the Hebrews in the wilderness will see their sin and need for God’s grace. We can pray that people will begin to see all of God’s wonderful gifts and the precious gift of life that they have in this moment. We can pray that God would cause those of us who know Jesus to, in a much greater way, remember that our days are short and the message we have is vital.
I do not believe that God has given us any word that tells us we can promise physical healing. But we have something greater. The story in Numbers 21 is referenced in a very important story about Jesus. In John 3, Jesus is talking to a religious leader named Nicodemus and tells him that in order to enter the Kingdom of God a person must be born again. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).” The healing of the people in the wilderness was a precursor to a greater healing, a greater deliverance. Moses put the object of the curse on a pole and lifted it up in the camp for all to see. They had to look at the serpent, the very thing that was killing them in an act of faith to be healed. But any plague is just a reminder of the greater curse, that of sin and death that has already reached and ruined every one of us. We already have this virus, and there is no human remedy that can heal. This one will get all of us. As He speaks to Nicodemus, Jesus knows that one day he will be lifted up on a pole as well, crucified on a Roman cross. This will happen publicly, in the middle of the camp. On that day Jesus became the curse, the object of shame and ridicule. He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf, and took on the whole of this curse as He was lifted up. While we may not have a remedy for Coronavirus, we do have a hope for those in fear, for those who feel helpless, for those who are looking in to their own mortality. In this time of chaos, we should be praying and working to make sure people know that God sent His Son who was lifted up. If people will just look to Christ on the cross, will believe in Him, they can find ultimate deliverance and healing. Herein lies our remedy, our hope, and the purpose for this moment. We should pray that doctors and scientists find a cure for this virus. But we can also pray that God’s purpose for this is the softening of hearts so that people will turn and look to the cursed Christ lifted up on the cross and be rescued eternally from the greater disease. To this end we should be diligent to pray for awakening and revival in our day. May God do it! May we be a part!