After sending last night’s Sunday letter from Jerusalem, I awoke this morning with the disappointing feeling that I hadn’t delivered the whole message.
The good news is that the Holy Spirit convicts us not to condemn us, but to teach us and to set things right. In that light please allow me to offer to our community a few more thoughts for your discernment on this Monday morning.
The headlines here this morning spoke of the panic which is gripping the earth. Israel by virtue of its calling has a unique moral and spiritual authority in this world, and actually I fear has helped spread that panic to the nations. The prime minister has warned of millions of deaths, and Western nations sinking like Titanics, “the toughest epidemic we have seen since the Middle Ages.” He is simultaneously in the most furious battle of his life for his political survival and wishes to appear indispensable. We all know how mixed our motives can be even as we’re doing what we believe to be right.
Israel was the first nation to virtually seal its borders and throttle its economy; Austria’s chancellor says what he heard from Israel is what shocked him into similar actions; and so the domino reaction has spread across the world.
Meanwhile the Centre for Evidence-based Medicine at Oxford University is among those working, as its name suggests, to sort out reality from panic. Perhaps they’re one reason the Brits were the slowest to fall in line with the worldwide consensus. The centre points out that in past outbreaks the final mortality rates have ended up drastically lower than first predicted, and that six weeks after COVID was reported in the UK, deaths from all respiratory illness are still actually lower than previous years. Despite Italy, despite China–they currently estimate that only 1 in 500 of those infected with COVID worldwide will die, the vast majority of those among the very old and those already sick. They expect the infection rate to peak soon and drop sharply, according to the time-tested bell curve. And they see evidence that the change of season which is already upon us will indeed be a help.
Time will soon tell. And even if this virus is short-lived, and not unprecedented in its effects, it is highly contagious and people are dying. Our community is taking every effort to practice hygiene and distancing as recommended.
So this letter is not a forum to speculate about areas outside our calling. But as students of the scriptures I do believe we can remember how again and again the God of Israel used panic and confusion to overthrow those people under his judgment. Incredibly, vast armies ended up destroying themselves (see for example Moses in Exodus 14, Gideon in Judges 7, Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14, and Jehosaphat in 2 Chronicles 20).
It’s always been hard for me to understand how this could happen. But looking at the world today I am becoming a believer. Generations who’ve gone before us would have prayed, rolled up their sleeves, and seen COVID-19 relegated to a footnote of history. Our evil and adulterous and brittle generation however seems to feel the end of the age is upon us, that all must radically change if we are to be saved.
And that may in fact be the sign that the end of the age is upon us: the people of this earth are ripe to exchange the truth for a lie. To the believers in Rome and in Thessalonica Paul warned that God will even “send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie.” He foretold a great falling away, so strong that Jesus added even the elect would be deceived, if that were possible. Could the whole world, as Paul said, really choose in the end to follow a man of evil who opposes God? We’re seeing before our eyes that panic makes all things possible.
So what should we (who hope to be the elect) do? A pandemic is a great time to reflect not only on our own fragility, but also the fragility of the institutions of this world in which we are tempted to trust. The power and urgency of the gospel is in the knowledge that not only are we dying, but that Jesus is returning as the judge of this world. First of all Peter then tells us to look to ourselves: “…what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day.”
And then we are entrusted to bear this life-and-death message of repentance to our neighbors. Not someday, not tomorrow. Today:
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
Yesterday in our now-tiny Jerusalem community we felt the Lord speaking the same message through Isaiah 57: “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
There are obstacles of misunderstanding on every side here in the Middle East keeping our neighbors from entering the way. (The same is true for all of us wherever we are in the world.) As God will help us, during these days of lockdown we are committing to seek training and direction and empowerment, so that we may emerge ready and focused to share the reason for the hope that is within us. The consistent message of the New Testament is that time is short. Please join with us.
Jonathan for Shevet Achim
“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).