I have been asked by various preachers, what I would preach in light of what governments world-wide have been doing in the previous week to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Here are some of my thoughts.
I would work from Romans 8:18-39.
This has been a “go-to” text for me at other times of uncertainty, upheaval, or disaster (fires and earthquakes in California, typhoons and revolution in Manila, going to war in Iraq, 9/11, going to war in Afghanistan, etc.). For in it we are reminded that creation, and therefore, humanity, is not what it is suppose to be, and that creation, and therefore, humanity “groans” in all kinds of ways for healing. I think today of that phrase in Andrew Peterson’s powerful song, “Is He Worthy?”—“Do you wish you could see it all made new?”
So, I would focus on 8:28: “For we know that God causes all thing to work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purposes.” In the midst of all the various forms of “groaning,” God is working out his “good purposes.”
So … what is ‘the good’ God doing with and in what we are experiencing?
1. God is letting us realize just how vulnerable we humans are in a broken world. Indeed, were it not for God’s “regular mercies,” we would experience even more deadly threats to our existence. The world is not what God intended it to be; it is broken, because of our sin, and we, apart from his mercies, so very vulnerable.
2. God is letting us experience just how much we are not in control of our existence. We tend to think that we can make plans, work the plans, and the plans will all lead to the goal, the future, we ourselves have imagined for ourselves. It simply does not work that way. And God is letting us experience the fact.
Periodically I take a month or so to pray with “A Diary of Private Prayer,” by the 20th century theologian John Baillie. In the prayer for last Tuesday morning, March 9th, he prays: “For it is little that I have power to do or to ordain. Not of my own will am I here, not of my own will shall I soon pass hence. Of all that shall come to me this day, very little will be such as I have chosen for myself.” A hard word for a control-freak like me! Thankfully Baillie goes on to pray: “It is Thou who dost keep in Thy grasp the threads of this day’s life and who alone knowest what lies before me to do or to suffer. But because Thou art my Father, I am not afraid.” The sooner we learn we are not in control of everything the better it goes for our souls!
3. God is using the common crisis to minimize our divisions and divisiveness. The last few years have witnessed communities and nations being torn apart. The spreading of the Coronavirus is bringing us together to face a common threat. I believe God is using it to help people experience again what it “feels like” to work together for the common good.
4. God is, on the heals of this, showing us (again) that when we all begin to look out for others, life is richer. Even if we are still motivated by self-interest, the mutual co-operation of self-interested people can make for more tasting of the Shalom God wills for the world. Hoarding all the toilet paper at Wal-Mart is self-defeating, for it only makes it harder for others to be healthy, thus endangering the hoarder. So people are learning to think of the consequences for the whole. Just think if we could learn to look out for the whole community in non-crisis times what a better world this would be?
5. God is, again in mercy, bringing us to the place to cry out for healing. This crisis is all way beyond what our outstanding medical systems can handle. We need help from beyond the systems! And people who ordinarily do not think of praying are praying big time!
6. God is, at a deeper level, at least for those who are being attentive, helping us realize (again) that it only works—life on this planet only works—when we call out to and depend upon the Creator and Redeemer.
The Vancouver Sun ran an article with the title, “The Great Awakening.” It caught my eye, because I believe we are on the verge of, and may well be into, the greatest spiritual awakening the world has ever seen. The article was not about what I am thinking about, but it did talk about how this is all “waking us up to” the realities we are avoiding.
God has made the world to work in certain ways—“grooves” in the fabric of creation and humanity—and is using this spreading virus to call us back into those ways, chiefly learning again to depend on and obey our Maker and Savior.
7. God is, awakening us to the “groaning” of creation. Creation is at times smarter than we are. Creation recognizes that this is not “the best of all possible worlds,” and groans for the truly “best world.” As the apostle Paul puts it, creation is groaning to be “set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21). When we groan within ourselves for the healing of the planet, we are joining the planet itself, in sensitivity to the planet’s Creator, crying out for healing.
8. And in it all, and through it all, God is using it all for the greater “good”—“in all things toward the good”—of being “conformed to the image of his Son” (8;29). God is using it all to make us more like the One True Human, Jesus of Nazareth, who lives by giving himself away for the good of others.
These things are a few of what I see God doing in the midst of the spread of this awful virus.
Call to Worship and Benediction
As a “Call to Worship,” I would probably use one of Psalm 96-98, both affirming that “our God reigns!,” and then expressing the longing for God to “come and judge the world.” “Judge” in this context does not mean, “come and bring us into judgment,” but, “come and put things right again.” So I would, in quoting one of the Psalms, put it: “For he is coming; he is coming to re-align the earth; he will re-align the world in right-relationship, and the peoples in his truth” (96:13, etc.).
I would use as a Benediction texts like 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17—“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.” Or, 2 Thessalonians 3:16—“Now may the Lord of peace himself continually grant you peace in very circumstance. The Lord be with you all.
Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.