While many in our church family heeded the warnings to avoid the public gathering because of health concerns, we were blessed to gather for worship and provide a live stream for those at home. I’m convinced God displayed His kind providence and grace by leading us to Joel 1 as a sermon text this past Sunday. I planned this sermon series back in January, which included assigning passages to particular weeks, with no knowledge of what would happen last week. God’s word is always relevant, but the theme of our study seemed especially applicable given the unprecedented actions our government is encouraging to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
Near the end of the sermon, I asked and answered an important question related to the application of the message: Is the current coronavirus crisis like the locust plague in Joel 1? I responded, no and yes.
No, there are several key points of distinction between what was happening in Judah during Joel’s day and what is happening now. For starters, there are practical differences. To this point, our suffering from this virus is nowhere near the circumstance in Joel where wealth was destroyed and resources were depleted. A few barren shelves at the grocery store that will likely be replenished in a few days is not the same as what they faced. While we are inconvenienced by new restrictions and have lost some forms of entertainment, our subsistence hasn’t been threatened.
There are also contextual differences. The locust plague struck God’s people particularly in a way that the coronavirus is not. The effect of the illness is not focused on us. Neither the church nor America is the epicenter for the virus. And even if it was, America is not ancient Israel. We, as a nation or a people, are not in relationship to God through the Mosaic covenant that would connect us to the promises and warnings of Deuteronomy. As I said yesterday, Joel was able to interpret the significance of the locust plague through the theology of Deuteronomy in a way that would be wrong for us, both hermeneutically and theologically.
There are prophetic differences. We don’t have a fresh, special revelation accompanying our present circumstance to confirm definitively that this worldwide illness is an act of God’s direct judgment for some specific rebellion. Thus, we can’t declare that this suffering is God’s response to a particular sin. As a word of pastoral wisdom, I’d tell you to run from anyone who would declare that the coronavirus is a sure sign of God’s impending cataclysmic judgment. We very well could be near the end, but the coronavirus is not a definitive indication of it.
Because of these distinctions, it would be wrong to interpret this or any “natural disaster” or tragedy today as a 1-to-1 comparison to the situation in Joel. However, there is a sense in which every interruption or frustration we face can compare to the situation in Joel.
First, any disruption of harmony in our world is an effect of sin. Even though we’ve been reconciled to God by faith in Jesus, we’re not at perfect peace with God, one another, or creation. The disconnect shows up in millions of ways including: physical illness, relational fracture, severe weather, and insect bites. Thus, the coronavirus, like all infirmities is a result of sin, to which we have indirectly contributed.
Second, the disruption in our normal religious activity should act as a symbol of the fracture our sin causes between God and us. Unlike ancient Israel, we have direct access to God through Jesus as our High Priest, but we miss a significant means of grace when the church can’t gather normally for worship.
Third, this (and any) event or circumstance that frustrates our lives should cause us to respond in the same way Joel exhorted the people in his day to respond. Namely, we should listen, lament, and repent. Any disruption comes by God’s sovereign hand to accomplish his merciful work of conforming us to the image of Christ. Therefore, these moments drive us to deep introspection concerning our sin and lead us to reconsider the ground for our security and joy. God has so many gracious ways of exposing our idolatry and separating us from our false beds of security.
If I had preached this message 5 years ago or 5 years from now, there would be ample opportunity for each of us to apply these directives to our lives. In the face of any kind of job trouble, relational fracture, financial crisis, or personal struggle, the call to listen, lament, and repent is always needed. To paraphrase from John Piper, “When we become proud & self-confident & prayer starts to feel unnecessary, God always frustrates us.” He interrupts our sleep. He creates tensions. He brings loss. He frustrates plans. In a thousand ways, He reveals a lack of joy in Him and a dependence on ourselves and our world for our greatest pleasure.
Finally, this understanding should motivate us to winsomely and passionately warn the world that judgment is coming that will far out-pace anything we’ve seen on the earth. Something worse than a locust plague or the coronavirus is coming for all who do not belong to Christ. We refuse to panic over these temporary crises, instead, we plead with others to turn to God in faith and avoid the eternal crisis of God’s judgment and wrath.