The first day of spring, and I know what to expect, at least for a while: the first herald of coming color is the tiny crocus (already arrived). Soon after come the daffodils. Tulips follow them. And then the PJM rhododendrons break out with loud purple voice. Then…? Well, my recall of the blooming sequence abruptly stops after the rhodos; but still, for a city boy I’ve a decent grasp on what happens when in spring.
Beyond some knowhow of the seasons, though, it seems we’re supposed to know a little something of how to interpret the present moment spiritually.
As the coronavirus spreads, just about the whole world is experiencing unusual hardship, of kinds ranging from inconvenience to fear to the arrival of death. But how should Christians interpret the coming of coronavirus?
Jesus’ brothers and sisters should employ some nuance. They should interpret this hardship as having three distinct messages to three categories of people. Detailing these three will require three e-mails.
#1: For the person that is outside of Christ, the coronavirus (and its entail) acts something like the crocus: the harbinger of the whole scene that will be coming after it.
The thing that is similar to the coronavirus that is coming after the coronavirus but will have a much wider scope and devastating impact is the poured-out wrath of God.
To use another image: for the man or woman who doesn’t believe God in Christ, the coronavirus is like a solar flare that has come forward into the present to acquaint him/her with the great conflagration at the end of the journey. Coronavirus is a warning of the real scary stuff yet to come.
You’re probably uncomfortable reading that analysis and I’m uncomfortable giving it.
In the Gospel of Luke (the one with the Christmas story) there’s similar discomfort in the air as Jesus is given the report of a brutal crackdown: In order to display the government’s power, as cruel theater Pilate mingled the human blood of some executed unfortunates with the animal blood of pagan sacrifices.
We wait to hear what Jesus will do with this reportage. Expressions of shock or outrage? Consoling words?
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In other words, Jesus interprets this recent violent act as one stop toward a wider ferocity down the road. And the only way off this gloomy path is repentance.
Now let’s think about this. Jesus’ sentence, that comes across as tone-deaf and comfortless, was actually the most humanitarian word to be said. The people were on a path toward judgment. Handled properly, the current terror could be a “severe mercy,” providing the unrepentant with motivation to exit their doomed path.
So the hard interpretation of the current terror was also the compassionate one. It’s the only interpretation that, if heeded, allows things to end well. Most importantly, it’s the only true interpretation for the unrepentant.
So here’s the grim and compassionate thesis: for the man outside of Christ, the coronavirus is a forerunner of the wrath to come. We dare even to say: It is God’s grim messenger of “severe mercy,” meant to arrest those who are heading to hell.
The above is NOT the interpretation of calamity at which unbelievers normally arrive. Actually, there are a few typical responses when disaster arrives:
- Bravado: Things like this have happened before, we’ve gotten through them, we’ll get through them again. Now we don’t want to look down on real, legitimate courage: courage is almost always better than cowardice, unless actually it is grace “teaching your heart to fear.”
- Fear: A deep paralyzing fear sets in until the moment the corner is turned and things start to go back to normal. Then, something astounding: the narrative changes instantly from we were all scared as *^%#*! to slogans like “Watertown Strong.” Big Papi talks big before the baseball game. And Elton John gets played.
- Dipping the toes into religion and spirituality, but always without the crucial move of repentance: that is, turning away from not hearing God, to hearing God.
With all this in mind, in relations to the unbelieving world, Christians have a tricky assignment when calamity arrives. On the path of being a faithful witness to the Resurrected Christ who is also a Conquering Warrior, there are ditches on either side.
On the one side: we don’t want to join in the general chorus of bravado. We want, but we can’t, offer a false assurance of comfort. We can’t afford to murmur in agreement and smile sweetly when the world talks vaguely of ‘thoughts and prayers.’
Just because its uncomfortable, the anguished truth of men and women perishing shouldn’t be pushed out of our mind by vague positivity and empathy. There’s a line in some creed: “The most sobering reality in the world today is that people are dying and going to hell today.”
Christians know, and need to remember, that they’ve become privy to an awful truth. The two witnesses who preach the will of God to the last inhabitants of this age are “clothed in sackcloth.” In light of the coming fiery wrath of God, stubborn sadness is appropriate.
On the other hand, the following words disclose the heart of our Savior when he considers those coming into judgment, and should steer us away from any grim triumphalism or arrogant aloofness. This is what He said, this is what Jesus Christ said:
How often I’ve longed to gather your children,
gather your children like a hen,
Her brood safe under her wings—
but you refused and turned away!