“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”John 4:19-26
This scripture fits with where the church is in our days. A day is coming and has come where how we worship is changed. God is forcing us out of our old patterns to remember again what it means to worship him. It is a sign we need to pray about. The Spirit is calling our attention to a change.
A number of people have mentioned how the covid-19 pandemic has reminded them of the plagues in Revelation. I thought it might be good to talk about this because maybe it has been going through your mind too. While covid-19 isn’t the first disease to affect the world, it is the first time that the world has attempted to shelter in place in an effort to avoid the deadly consequences of a pandemic.
My assumption is that when people talk about Revelation and plagues they are thinking that Jesus is returning soon. I will say that no one knows the day of Jesus’ return. Even the first disciples waited expecting Jesus to return at any moment and that was almost 2000 years ago. In 1st John 2, John says that we are living in the “last hour”. Today, we are still living in this “last hour”. And the Apostle Peter reminds us when he answered questions about Jesus’ delayed return:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.2 Peter 3:8-9
I think that Peter’s words about God’s patience with humanity is important. God waits for us to change because God doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally. Peter reminds us to wait patiently for Jesus for the sake of our friends and neighbors.
Every generation faces wars and disease and it is a constant reminder of our broken world which the book of Revelation describes. The purpose of Revelation is to encourage the church to continue to remain faithful to Jesus despite the sufferings that we face in the world, whether it is war, disease or natural disaster. At the time Revelation was written, the Roman Empire was actively persecuting Christians and many believers were giving up their faith to avoid suffering. The message of hope in Revelation to the church was two fold: (1) As the church suffers like Jesus suffered, people will see the goodness of Jesus and they will change their hearts and believe in Jesus (2) God will vindicate our faith in Jesus at Jesus’ return when God judges the evil spiritual forces and the unjust systems of our world and the people that choose to rebel against God who give power to the evil in our world.
The plagues described in Revelation fall into different categories like disease, war and natural disaster. The plagues are released in 3 sets of 7. There are the 7 seals of a scroll and breaking the 7th seal starts the 7 trumpets and at the sounding of the 7th trumpet, the 7 bowls of wrath are emptied. The plagues are devastating. It is easy to get lost in the meaning of the plagues, but it might be helpful to know that the plagues, in a general way, point back to the 10 plagues in Egypt when God rescued the Israelite people from slavery thousands of years earlier. Many of the same reasons for the plagues in Revelation match the reasons for the plagues in Exodus.
In the book of Genesis, Israel’s family of about 70 moves to Egypt because of a famine that affected a number of countries. Egypt is also suffering from the same famine, but they are prepared to weather the disaster because of Joseph one of Israel’s sons who was sold by his brothers to Egyptian slave traders years earlier. The Pharaoh is given two dreams by God and Joseph interprets the dreams for him. The whole land will have 7 years of abundance followed by 7 years of famine so severe that it will ruin the land completely. Joseph recommends they store up during the years of plenty to survive the famine. The Pharaoh recognizes God working through Joseph so he humbles himself and puts Joseph who is a slave that was in prison in charge of all of Egypt to manage this coming disaster. A surprise move, but it saved everyone. The Israelites and Egyptians survive the famine and they live peacefully for a number of generations before Exodus chapter 1.
In Exodus 1, the current Pharaoh has become afraid of the Israelite neighbors because that small family of 70 is now hundreds of thousands of people covering a vast territory. The Egyptians are afraid that Israelite people will join their enemies in a war and then leave the country. They are afraid of the Israelites yet they depend on them for their economy. So they enslave the Israelite people. The Pharaoh’s primary concern is about military and economic power and by oppressing the Israelite people he secures both wealth and reduces the military threat. The Israelites continue to grow and again the Pharaoh is scared so he orders the murder of all the newborn Israelite baby boys. To the Egyptians, this is good military and economic policy. This is a big change from the Pharaoh in Joseph’s days.
The disaster this time is caused by Pharaoh’s fear and arrogance. God sends Moses and Aaron to free the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery and bring them to the land he promised their ancestors. Moses is instructed to speak to Pharaoh and persuade him to stop and let his people go or else face disaster at the hand of plagues sent by God. Pharaoh doesn’t believe in God and refuses to listen. Each time Moses sends a plague, the Pharaoh appears to humble himself and then the Pharaoh becomes arrogant again and refuses to believe that God is greater than his own gods. Most of the plagues sent by God are designed to confront the false gods of the Egyptians. For example, the Egyptians worshiped the Nile river, they thought it was holy, and so God turned the water to blood. The Egyptians also worshiped the sun as a god and God sent a plague of darkness.
The Pharaoh, in the end, doesn’t humble himself and it costs him dearly, but many Egyptians do repent. In fact, some Egyptians leave Egypt with the Israelites. All of Pharaoh’s fears are realized, his military cannot fight God and the Israelites leave with God and the economy of Egypt is devastated even more than if the Pharaoh had let the Israelites go before the first plague.
Is there a message in our current pandemic? Yeah, and it is like the message in the plagues of Egypt and the plagues of Revelation: Our world is full of disease and death because of the fall of humanity. Our ability to deal with disaster is hindered by humanity’s distrust of others, lust for power and arrogance.
The message of the pandemic is for the church and also for the world around us. God continues to challenge the world’s false gods. God also challenges the church’s reliance on our institutions and buildings to represent Jesus. There is only one thing for everyone to do at a time like this: be humble and ask God for help. When disaster strikes it is important to ask God what he is telling both the church and world in the disaster.
For the church, a time was coming and is now come where we cannot worship in our building in our regular services. How is the church prepared to represent Jesus to the world around us and to help our sisters and brothers and our neighbors to weather this disaster with wisdom like Joseph helped Egypt and his own family?
It is a message to the world because it challenges two of the greatest systems of the nations: military might and economic power. Most nations worship their military and economic power, but we cannot fight a virus with guns and this pandemic has brought the worlds economic power to a stand still. And now the world stands at a crucial question: Do we risk people dying so we can escape economic ruin?
We are humbled and it is in our humbled state that God lifts us out of disaster.
Heavenly Father, we thank you for what you have given us to survive this disaster because many of us still have work, and we are sorry for the ways that we were not prepared to respond to this covid-19 pandemic. We are surprised by losing our Sunday morning worship in our church building. We are surprised by the sudden unemployment and economic collapse in our country. Have mercy on us and give us wisdom as a church to respond with blessing to our church family and to our neighbors.
We are humbled because we think that we are in control and that we can live as we please and when a pandemic comes along we see how weak we are and how fear grips us. Renew in us your perspective. We pray for healing from this pandemic. Heal the sick and protect the people working on the front lines of this disaster.
In the grace given to us by Jesus we pray. Amen.