I fear we have missed the point of the plague.
We are currently experiencing a national, even a global, disaster. Whether you think that COVID is a great plague that is ravaging our world, or that government overreach is a great plague that is devastating our world — or if you think that both of these things are creating a disaster — we can all agree on the fact that we are in a catastrophe.
In the Bible it is clear that suffering and trials are sent by God (Amos 3:6). One purpose of these trials is to produce repentance (Luke 13:4-5, Hebrews 12:7). Jesus’ words from Luke are worth quoting to make this point:
“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
The book of Joel was written to the people of God to instruct them on what to do about a locust plague that was about to come upon them. This locust plague was going to be devastating. It would take away all the pleasures of life (Joel 1:5-8). Work would be taken away (Joel 1:11-12). Even the ability to worship would be removed (Joel 1:9-10, 13).
Can you imagine what it would have been like? No cinemas, no hairdressers, no parties, no work, no worship. Can you imagine?
Joel’s instructions to the people of God in this situation should not surprise us. They are standard instructions to people whenever trouble and trials come. The only difference in Joel is that the disaster has come upon the whole nation. Everyone is suffering under this plague. So, what were they to do about it?
“Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth for the bridegroom of her youth.” (Joel 1:8)
“Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers.” (Joel 1:11)
“Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests; wail, O ministers of the altar.” (Joel 1:13)
“Consecrate a fast … cry out to the LORD.” (Joel 1:14)
“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13)
The Scriptures also tell us that “judgement begins at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). At a time when we are seeing God’s judgement poured out on our nation and across the globe, I believe we are yet to see the church, on the whole, seeking to respond in repentance and mourning.
I am not saying this from my high horse; I need to learn this lesson myself.
This disaster has not driven me to mourn over my sin like I should have. I have not sought to repent like I should have. I haven’t asked the Lord to “search me … and know my heart … see if there is any offensive way in me.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
As a church in Australia, have we been proclaiming this truth as the right response to this disaster?
Some of us have been preoccupied with telling everyone to get vaccinated and to love our neighbour by obeying health orders. I would suggest the health crisis should be driving us to mourn and repent, because sickness and death comes from our sinfulness.
Some of us have been preoccupied with warnings about government overreach. John Calvin once said that “they who rule unjustly and incompetently have been raised up by Him to punish the wickedness of the people.” Even those concerned by the government response should be driven to repentance and mourning.
I am not against discussing these two areas, and I believe the Bible speaks to both of them. What I am saying is that we need to be mourning and repenting, and calling the church and this nation to do the same.
This disaster is a perfect opportunity for the church to point people to their mortality and call them to consider eternity.
This catastrophe is a perfect opportunity for the church to be reminding people that the kingdoms of this world are not where our hope is found, and that we preach a kingdom that is coming and has come: the kingdom of God with Jesus on the throne. In this kingdom there is perfect rule, and when it comes into its fullness, there will be no more sickness or corruption.
As Theodore Beza said in his Learned Treatise on the Plague:
“This especially must be agreed upon, that as our sins are the chief and true cause of the plague, so that this is the only proper remedy against the same; if the ministers … by their life and doctrine stir up the people to earnest repentance, and love, and charity one towards another.”