This exhortation is based on Luke 21 and was given a few days after gatherings of more than ten people were banned in Australia to curb the spread of coronavirus.

How are we all feeling this morning? We may be meeting alone for the first time and feeling the loss of our usual warm fellowship, which in retrospect was a blessing we unknowingly took for granted. We are grateful for the technology that lets us join together online in worship and remembrance, and also for the skill set of our members who have facilitated this switch at such short notice. Even though we remain thankful for, and confident in, the saving work of our God and the hope we hold firm to, if you are like me you are probably feeling a bit jangled and uncertain at the sweeping changes we have experienced this last week.

As travail upon a woman with child

However we may feel, I hope our hearts aren’t failing us for fear. The familiar words of our Lord in his Olivet prophecy are an accurate picture of what we are witnessing in the world around us today. The powers of heaven are indeed shaking! “Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken” (v26).

What we are currently witnessing can’t yet truly be characterised as “trouble such as never was,” for history has born witness to more devastating pandemics than this one. For example, in 1346-53 the Bubonic Plague caused somewhere between 75-200 million deaths; in 1918 the Spanish Flu caused 20-50 million deaths and in 1956-58 the Asian Flu caused two million deaths. Even though the future direction COVID will take is unknown to us, the events we see in the world today must surely be contributing to the labour that will bring us to the birth of a new world order, pangs which will only increase as we draw nearer to the event: “For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape” (1 Thess 5:2-3).

Lives versus lifestyle

Proud nations are being shaken to their core and humbled by a microscopic organism. The virus resembles a crown (Latin corona) and at 50-200 nano-metres in diameter, is about 1000th the diameter of a human hair—and yet it has set in motion worldwide devastation and fear. In this we sense the power of our Creator. We can see around us its effect on the world; everyone is being brought to accept the gravity of the situation we face with regard to both health and the economy, as well as the ramifications for the future. Mankind is found to be vulnerable, for despite the amazing advances in medical care and research, these are limited in scope and unable to cope in the face of a new pestilence sent from God.

Doctors are left with impossible choices to make and the economies of prosperous nations are under threat, the like of which we haven’t seen for generations. Governments face a moral dilemma as they seek to balance a functioning national economy with saving the lives of vulnerable citizens. The enforced shutdown of many of the institutions which our society relies on has resulted in social dislocation and dysfunction, and a rising mental health crisis as we socially isolate from each other.

Those things which are coming

We can but watch and wait to see if this pandemic will usher in any long-term changes, but there is potential for them to be significant. What will the economic effects be for the nations? How will they recover? The USA now has the largest number of cases of any country; what will this mean for them and the rest of the world? We cannot be certain, but in all of this, the vulnerability and weakness of mankind and his rulership is exposed. It is yet another of the things that Christ spoke of as coming on the earth in Luke 21:25-27.

A righteous ruler coming with power and great glory eclipsing all that has gone before him is a stark contrast to what we see in our world today. Mankind has been brought very low. While we are concerned about what we see around us, it is in another sense an exciting time, because most of the signs of the times which we have spoken about until now have been observed from afar. But now we are in the middle of it. We are not just observers but participants, albeit reluctant ones.

Time to refocus

The coronavirus experience is making us realise anew how much we rely on God for our daily bread, our health and safety and our very existence. For so long now throughout the developed world we have lived in relative ease and comfort and been free to follow our own plans and pursuits, which things can preoccupy us. The ramifications of the global pandemic have forced us to refocus on what is important. For while people the world over are reassessing priorities, we have even more cause to do so, for we have always known our lives are as transient as vapours, in contrast to the Word of God, which stands forever (Isa 40:6-8). We are thankful to know our Creator, His power and purpose, to have His eternal Word as the foundation of our lives, and must be comforted we aren’t reliant on flesh for our deliverance.

Reason to rejoice – our Saviour is coming

Beyond this we have great reason to rejoice, for while men’s hearts are failing them for fear as they look at what is coming on the earth we are told to “look up and lift up our heads” because our redemption is drawing nigh (Luke 21:28). To look up is the Greek word, anakuptō, which means to unbend, that is, rise; figuratively it is used to be elated. While we can’t be certain of when that looked-for day will dawn, or even how this present crisis will unfold, we do know that our redemption is coming and our Lord is nigh.

We have this great comfort and a sense of hopeful expectation and joy because for us the beginning is now. We are seeing these things beginning to come to pass and hence we must not cast our eyes earthward, as those who look with perplexity at what they see coming on the earth. Our focus needs to be different. What we are looking for is coming from heaven, so we must unbend, or lift up our heads, so that with rejoicing hearts we may see our Redeemer come.

Despite our sure hope, it is challenging not to let the cares of this life overcome us in this current situation. As God’s servants we are not immune to the troubles He brings upon the earth; the Hebrews in Egypt were affected by the first three plagues and the first century believers were forced to leave their homes because of the judgment God rained on their city and nation that culminated in AD70. Our hearts could also be failing us for fear, whether it be of contracting the virus, especially if we are vulnerable; of financial insecurity brought about by under-employment as hours are cut; of the likelihood or reality of unemployment; of the inability to provide for our families; of a breakdown in society; or for brothers and sisters, family and friends who work in the health services.

Beware of escapism and preoccupation

At the very least our own plans are upended, our choices curtailed, and a sense of uncertainty has crept in. Our Lord warned us to “take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares” (v34). In the context of the current situation, we see that this verse presents us with two different challenges to avoid: escapism and preoccupation. Surfeiting, or overindulgence, and drunkenness are both forms of escapism; while the phrase cares of this life carries with it an underlying sense of distraction and preoccupation. It is possible that even in these significant times we might resort to indulging the flesh or entertaining ourselves in unhelpful ways while we are isolated. Dangerous forms of escapism are available to us.

On the other hand we can become preoccupied with the real and pressing cares of this life, which Christ addresses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:31-34), where he encourages us to first seek the Kingdom of God and not to take anxious or all-consuming thought of how we are going to provide for tomorrow. While it is a scriptural principle to provide for our needs as we are able and to have an active involvement in providing for ourselves (Ruth 2:17-18; 2 Thess 3:10), we must not allow our concerns about daily provisions to shift our primary focus away from the kingdom. It is true that in times of plenty or times of trouble it can be challenging to lift our earth-bound minds into the heavenlies, but we must endeavour to do it.

Requirement to prepare

In Matthew’s account of the Olivet prophecy, he speaks further of our preparation by exhorting us to watch—look up or lift up our heads—and be alert and ready for that hour of his return, for when Christ does come again the servant who is found watching will be truly blessed (24:42-46). We should translate the same sense of urgency we felt for preparing for a lockdown into preparing for eternal life. Part of this readiness is to be found as faithful and wise servants who seek to provide meat in due season for their fellow servants. How can we provide meat in due season? Through physical, emotional and spiritual encouragement of our brothers and sisters.

An opportunity to serve

We certainly can’t afford to waste the time that remains before our Lord’s return and we may find that our change of circumstance, for however long it lasts, will provide us with new and unforeseen opportunities to sustain our fellow pilgrims. For the present, we aren’t going to be able to rely on ecclesial meetings to provide face-to-face fellowship, conversations and smiles, or handshakes and hugs—even though these things are probably needed even more right now.

There are those who live alone, who will be isolated in their own homes and missing social interaction; how can we address this? We are so blessed to have access to each other through phone calls, texts, emails and social media, all of which can be used to good effect. I have already experienced the joy, comfort and encouragement of others through all of these means over the last week, including from a sister who lives in isolation and is finding solace that we are now able to empathise more with her weekly circumstances—so maybe our time of isolation will cultivate us to be more alert to the needs of others who don’t enjoy the degree of fellowship we have enjoyed until now. We can’t afford to miss the opportunity we have been given to make changes for the better.

Look to the eternal

Paul says, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18). Let us keep renewing the inward man each day and help others do the same. The emblems demonstrate that the flesh is rightly related to death and that our lives are to be given to God, so let us deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow our Lord.