“The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak may be another “ONCE-IN-A-CENTURY EVENT” (The ATLANTIC) as it captures the world’s attention. Globally, to fight the deadly contagion, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is giving daily updates and advisories to nations. Far worse than the 2003 SARS, whereas the impact was mainly felt in the financial sector, today’s global pandemic is hitting every sector of the nation and economy. No sphere of life is left unaffected. Indeed, life comes to a halt, from closure of shopping malls, restaurants, theatres, airports to national borders, and even mass gatherings of religious worship. Economically, it is said that we are already on the brink of a GLOBAL DEPRESSION. “Extraordinary times require extraordinary action” says the head of the European Central Bank.
We are indeed, living in unparalleled times.
How then do we as God’s people discern such extraordinary times? What is God’s message to us in the midst of this Global pandemic?
It brings to mind another parallel, in biblical times of Joel, where the plague of calamitous locusts ravaged, destroyed and devastated his homeland on an unprecedented scale. Similarly, the Lord’s message to Joel son of Pethuel can become a modern day warning call and teaching moment for future generations.
“Hear this, you leaders of the people. Listen, all who live in the land.
In all your history, has anything like this happened before? Tell your children about it in the years to come, and let your children tell their children.
Pass the story down from generation to generation.
After the cutting locusts finished eating the crops, the swarming locusts took what was left!
After them came the hopping locusts, and then the stripping locusts, too!” (Joel 1:1-4)
The warning call is to awake from our “drunkenness” (1:15). Although we may not be drunk with wine, but we can be drunk with the wine of materialism and intoxicated by our prosperity and successes. In doing so, we are obsessively influenced by worldly values and opinions. Unknowingly, we become controlled by the world’s definition of the “good life”. Indeed, we have lost the sense of what is the “GOD-LIFE”.
Joel calls for three awakenings.
A. First, We Need To Be Awakened to God’s Judgement
After describing the scale of the damages caused by the locusts (1:1-12), Joel named the source as the Almighty. For the LORD HIMSELF is the Command-in-Chief of the locusts and leading the charge!
“Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.” (1:15)
“The Lord utters his voice, before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?” (2:11)
John Calvin gave this pointed and blunt commentary on Joel:
“God often punishes men and it behoves them to be attentive as soon as he raises his finger. But common punishments are inclined to be unheeded. Men soon forget those punishments to which they have been accustomed. God has, however, treated you in an unusual manner, having openly as it were put forth his hand from heaven and brought upon you punishments nothing less than miraculous. You must be more than stupid if you perceive not that you are smitten by God’s hand”. (emphasis mine)
Rather than seeing such pandemics as random interruptions, we need to recognize them as Kingdom intrusions. “God accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will”. (Eph 1:11). When we recognize God’s hand in the present pandemic, it will change the way we pray. We do well by reflecting deeply on the doctrine of God’s Providence.
“God's providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.” (Heidelberg Catechism, 1563)
Avoidance of pain and “difficult times” is a natural expected reaction from all of us. Philip Yancey was asked once to the effect: “What have you learned, bottom line, from the three books you wrote on pain?. The three primary lessons Yancey gave were that: “Pain was either Good or Bad and Pain can be Redeemed.” “… some things are more awful to God than the pain of God’s children … and furthermore, there are more important things to God, than a suffering-free life for even His most loyal followers.”
Are we unknowingly praying away the “pain” and missing the “more important things” and lessons that the LORD wants us to lay hold of? What could these “more important things” be?
B. Secondly, We Need To Be Awakened to Godly Sorrow
In the 19 imperatives found in Joel 1:1-14, nine of them have to do with sorrowful remorse including wailing, mourning, being clothed in sackcloth and grieving.
Our instinctive reaction to the current outbreak of the respiratory virus 2020 is to pray for it to be eliminated instantly. Of course it is not wrong to pray for its instant cessation or elimination. However, in the process we may miss what God is saying about the need to enter into a season of remorseful soul-searching. Remorse is not just about feeling bad about our sin. It is feeling the pain of our sin that is more important to God. This is something most of us probably fail to experience.
Why then is there such a significant emphasis on wailing, lamenting and mourning? Why such drastic action of rending and ripping your heart? It has to do with the revelation of our God as the Jealous God and Lover (Joel 2:18). God is the heart-broken Lover wooing His lover back. Wailing and mourning is associated with the death and loss of someone we love. It is the dying and death of a love relationship with God that should break our hearts. Christ felt the same pain when he rebuked the church in Ephesus, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love” (Rev 2:4).
God’s desired response from his people during such a crisis is a “heart-felt repentance” – “returning to the LORD with all our hearts, rend your heart, and return… with fasting.” It’s a call to “wholeheartedness” and “brokenheartedness”. J.I. Packer in his book, “Keep In Step With The Spirit”, sees revival as a time when “God is stirring the hearts of his people, when conviction of sin becomes intolerable, repentance goes deep.”
Godly sorrow is not meant to be a kill-joy regime meant only for ascetics and monks. It is for all of us to come alive to God’s call and purpose. “Joel gives us an opportunity for “deathbed repentance” before we die, while we still have time and space for a lot of good living for the glory of God”.( E.H. Peterson)
C. Thirdly, We Need To Be Awakened To God’s Mercy
While the judgement is real and severe, there is also a gracious invitation to lay hold of His severe mercy with a responsive and penitent heart.
“Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? (Joel 2:12-14)
Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people.” (Joel 2:18)
John Piper reminds us that, “Destructive calamities in this world mingle judgment and mercy.” The most powerful demonstration of this truth is the death of Jesus. “It was both judgment and mercy. It was judgment on Jesus because he bore our sins (not his own), and it was mercy toward us who trust him to bear our punishment and be our righteousness.”
YAHWEH is GOD
Joel’s name captures and embodies for us a robust and comprehensive theology that can sustain us in times of crisis and disasters. May we have the same GOD-centric response as we face the onslaught of calamities and sicknesses in our time.
Rev Keith Lai, Senior Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church has been with this church since his conversion in 1974. He served as an OM missionary with LOGOS for 4 years. Later he returned to serve as Youth pastor and in 1982, before becoming the Senior Pastor in 1989. He studied at missionary training College (Tasmania), Singapore Bible College and Regent College (Vancouver). He just started his 2-yr-term as SYNOD Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore. Rev Lai is married to Mui Fong who also serves as Pastor of Family Life ministries in Covenant. He has 2 young adult sons, Caleb (28) and Josiah (26).