Where is God in this?

A series of four reflections written in the week after Christ Church had to close down the building and move to online services.

Firstly,  snippets from Morning Prayer this morning:
Psalm 111 – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have those who live by it; his praise endures forever”

Lord, grant us the gift of wisdom as we ponder anew all that the almighty can do.
And the refrain…”Gracious God, you are full of compassion; may we who long for your kingdom to come rejoice to do your will and acknowledge your power alone to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord”
Then, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, we hear Hannah’s prayer…

“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God”
God is unchanging. He is unique. He is the ONE Lord.  In Jesus, was incarnated …and so to Romans 5:12-21
“For just as by the one man’s disobedience (Adam) the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience (Jesus) the many will be made righteous.”

We are made right with God not by our own efforts but through the saving grace of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, who walks alongside us and speaks for us and to us, words of wisdom from the one great God. The one who does not change and is ever faithful.

Where is the unchanging God is this time of isolation?

In the first of four reflections I want to explore this question. Firstly, is this virus  a global spiritual attack and if so how should we respond?

1. Global spiritual attack
We can give the devil too much credit.  It is easy to see his hand on all things we don't like or that we fear.
His major tactic is deceit. He is the Father of all lies.

He is also a defeated foe who is battling his way to final destruction, to cause as much havoc as he can before the end.
And he does this by causing division and mistrust, spreading misinformation and encouraging rebellion, against common sense, against authority and against God.
I am not sure that the enemy has caused the virus.
But he can certainly use its effects to advance his schemes.
He can encourage greed, and selfishness, and uncertainty, spread misinformation and feed and fuel people's concerns.
He pits one against another, and loves division rather than unity.
He may not cause the illness, but he can stoke fear and hatred within it.
The Christian response is faith and the Word of God; to be found righteous - that is right with God - and to carry a gospel of peace; the sword in Ephesians 6 is the only offensive weapon, the rest are items of defensive armour. And the sword? It’s the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
As Josh shared with us in Worship Night (online) last night - the Spirit is the advocate, the parakletos , who advocates for us, comforts us, stands beside us and guides us. And convicts us of our own rebellion. He strengthens us to be righteous - right with God.
It seems that this situation we are in brings out the best in people and the worst. It seems that by Supermarkets offering special times to NHS staff, when they know they are stocked, those staff have become targets of people so desperate to get stuff that they will mug them for their NHS passes. Pray against this with bold and courageous prayers. Prayers of peace.
James speaks into this situation with signature robust instruction. May this be our witness and sustain us over the coming weeks:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. 5 Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us]? 6 But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:
God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Prov 3:34)
7 Submit yourselves, then, to God.
Resist the devil,
and he will flee from you.
8 Come near to God
and he will come near to you.
Wash your hands*,
you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.
10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
(James 4: 1-10)

Be strong in the faith. Stand on His Word. Put on the full armour of God. Encourage and build up each other. And carry hope.

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,(1 Peter 3:15)

*yes - its does say that!

Tomorrow: 2. Is God expressing his displeasure with a rebellious world?
God bless you all

This week I have been exploring the question - "Where is God in this crisis?". Yesterday we looked at whether it could be a spiritual attack. Concluding that the enemy is unlikely to have caused it but can certainly use it to sow division and confusion and fear. We get our strength from the full armour of God. If we stand firm on his word and empowered by God's Spirit the enemy will flee.
Today the question is, has God caused this crisis?

2. Is this God expressing his displeasure with a rebellious world?

Is God angry with us? Has he made this virus to punish us?
How should I respond?
There are certainly examples of plagues or pestilence in the bible where God has used illness to punish his people. Two contrasting examples come to mind:
The ten plagues on Egypt (Exodus 12) – God makes a series of disasters to land on the people of Egypt while God’s people are held under the yoke of slavery. Moses asked Pharaoh to let God’s people Go and each time Pharoah refused. It was the final deadly plague, from which the Israelites were protected by marking their doorposts and staying at home, and so the angels of the Lord “passed over”, that finally changed Pharoah’s mind. God sent plagues to persuade the Egyptians to free God’s chosen people. And the people celebrate and remember the Passover to this day.
The plague that came upon God’s people when they disobeyed (Ex 32:35) - Moses was up the mountain receiving the law.  Down below, led by Aaron, Moses’ brother, the people were breaking the second commandment and making an idol for worship in the form of a golden calf. God relented and gave Moses a second set of tablets. But he also punished the people by plague.
God is slow to anger  and compassionate. He also punishes disobedience. Often after much warning. The prophets were sent to tell the people to turn back to God. They refused, or at least simply did not hear. And so, God sent them into exile. God used the might of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians to rout and destroy first Israel in the North and then Judah in the south. They were taken away from the temple, from all they knew and made to worship in a foreign land, a task they found almost unbearable (Ps 139).
And yet, the exile did come to an end. And there was restoration to do. Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the King of Babylon. He heard of the destruction of the walls of Jerusalem and wept. And this is how he responded to the news:
4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 5 I said,
Nehemiah had a real sense of remorse for the things that were rebellion against God. It drove him to weep, to mourn, to fast and to pray. He came before God, not just for a moment, no arrow prayer for him, but for a prolonged period. He knew the desperate state of his nation. He knew that God would hear his cries.
“O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments;
 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you

He knew the faithfulness of God. He knew how far away his people had drifted. He petitioned God to listen. He praised him for his steadfastness. He assures God that he knows that we need to return to his commandments. He prays.
 day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.
And this is the key to Nehemiah’s prayer. It is for himself and for others. It is a “we” prayer not just an “I” prayer.
Not everyone feels comfortable praying for others. They don’t want to assume the responsibility. But we are called to cry out to God in remorse not only for our sins but for those of the whole world. To repent of what others have done or omitted to do as much as what we know ourselves to be guilty of. To accept those sins,  or condone them,  is tantamount to committing them. So Nehemiah prays for the whole people of Israel. Heartfelt and prolonged.
7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.

Do we think that God is satisfied with the world right now? Do you think he looks at the world and smiles at its obedience and faithfulness to the things that he has ordained and the commandments he has given to make us righteous, right with him, and holy, set apart for him?
8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; 9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’

Nehemiah knows and remembers God’s promises. “Return to me”. The words of the prophets. “But”. That situation transforming word. This is the world BUT God changes things, if you return to me. And this is a corporate prayer. If you all return to me. Or at least all you who return to me, will see transformation. For Nehemiah this meant walls rebuilt and the city of God restored and a people returning home. And he faced opposition, as we always will.
10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand. 11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!” (Neh 1:4-11)

Remember your history. Otherwise you are destined to repeat it. Nehemiah remembers what God has done. Remembering past deliverance. He prays for a new time of deliverance.
I do not get a sense that this virus is God’s will. That this is a punishment from God. I have no sense that this is the end times plagues we see in Revelation. Speculation would be useless anyway for only the Father knows the time of Jesus second coming.
But Jesus also said, be watchmen.
There is a sense in which we do not wait for God’s wrath to repent of the ills of the world.
We do it now.
If we see it falls short, we repent of it, corporately, on behalf of others.
And we do it now.
We honour God’s faithfulness by remembering that he is slow to anger. That he is compassionate. We also honour that faithfulness by calling out and repenting of rebellion, now.
Don’t feel guilty. Pray repentance. Pray it now. Before the judgement comes.
And praise him for his faithfulness, love, protection, sacrifice through his son and his saving grace, freely offered to all. For he is good. We are not. But he receives our repentance anyway. Pray it now.
God bless you all

This week I have been exploring the question - "Where is God in this crisis?". Looking first at the opportunism of the enemy in the chaos draws us to strengthen in the word of God and the power of his Holy Spirit, putting on the full armour of God. The prospect that God may be dis-satisfied with his world led us to repentance, not only for our own sake but on behalf of the whole rebellious world.
Today the question is, if not the enemy and not from God, is this just the ongoing effects of the fall?

3. Is this just a result of being in a broken world?
Hi Doug,
…I’m of the opinion that whatever the cause, whether man-made accident, natural occurrence, God’s call to repent or whatever - the question as to ‘Why is this happening?’ is not half as important as the question, ’Seeing as this is happening, what is God doing within it and what is He asking me to do with Him?’ 

Yes - definitely it has led me to pray for repentance for the world (usually at around 1:30am at the moment - darn insomnia!) but also, to pray for people to turn to Him and to recognise that God is mighty and loving.  
It is also leading to the most incredible conversations and as we have already said - there is a definite feeling of God being on the move.  
Therefore a call to pray for repentance is absolutely right and proper, but to dwell and spend too much time on the ‘Why?’ rather than ’So what is God calling us to?’ Would be to miss the opportunity to join God as he continues to bring a broken world back to Him.
And so there endeth my sermon!” (E-mail from a friend)

And a great sermon it is.
 “Is the virus just part of being in a broken world”.
 My answer is “I think so”.
Yet the God who lives,  works in it, and with us.
Epidemics and pandemics are not new. They don’t happen often but they are not new. Evidence stretches back as far as 3000 BC with examples in the “top 20” * in 4th C BC, 2nd C, 3rd C, 6th C, 14th, C 16th C, 17th C, 18th C, 19th C, 20th C and in our own century.
Adam and Eve lived in a perfect paradise. They were given everything they could need and they were given the task of stewarding it for God. God himself walked with them and all was perfect. And then they rebelled in the mistaken belief that there would be no consequences.
There was no illness in that perfect place. Yet having eaten the fruit that was not there’s to consume they now knew they were naked and felt shame. God said to Eve “What is this that you have done?” God knew the consequences. Adam, Eve and all who came after them were to find out the consequences. Banished, thrown out of this paradise.  If they looked back they would have seen the way to the tree of life protected from their rebellious hands. A flaming sword flashing back and forth.
So, into the broken world they went and made the best of what they could. Toiling and making the most of the command to steward the earth they spawned generation after generation. God chose a people who were sometimes faithful and often rebellious. Centuries passed. God incarnated in his Son and sent his Spirit. And many believed and prayed and worshipped. And many gained power and science and technology. The toil of the land became less. The fruit from labour became more.
There have been many “Golden Ages”. Humanity has gradually increased its mastery of the soil and the resources, advanced the technology and used God given wisdom to develop machines and widgets and chemicals that make ever increasing progress. We can control things and do things that we could never have imagined possible. And the speed of advancement has been exponential. The increases in potential immense and mind-boggling.
And humanity gradually believed that it did not need God. That God did not exist. Because look at what we as humans can do. Look at the natural laws we can think up. Justice is our invention and freedom is ours to give and to protect. “Greed is good” was the cry 30 years ago. Each one for themselves is the best way of getting the best result for all.
And then, one day, a bat came into contact with a chicken in the heart of the vast expanse known as China. And a chain reaction of a new infection, for which science had no vaccine and which humanity could not yet control, was unleashed. Humanity was about to be shaken in the belief that we are in control. That we have all the answers. That there is nothing bigger than us. That the broken world is indeed broken.
Where is God in this?

Everlasting God the years go by but you're unchanging
In this fragile world You are the only firm foundation
Always loving, always true
Always merciful and good, so good

Yesterday today and forever
You are the same, You never change
Yesterday today and forever
You are faithful and we will trust in You

Uncreated one You have no end and no beginning
Earthly powers fade but there is no end to Your kingdom
You are faithful and we will trust in You

These are the words of the song Yesterday, Today and Forever  by Vicky Beeching. They capture this moment. God is everlasting, unchanging and this world is, as we are being reminded, fragile. God is the only firm foundation. The man who built his house upon the sand got washed away. The man who built his house upon the rock, we know was saved. And the rock is Jesus! Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three in one.
Always loving, true, merciful and good. Yesterday, today and forever. Note the one in the middle. ...Today.
Today, God is loving, true, merciful and good. So, so good.
Wherever you are. Whatever you face. Today, tomorrow and every day.
God is loving, true, merciful and good.
And we can trust him.
Earthly powers fade, humanity is struggling in this broken world. But his kingdom is now and forever.
Not every Christian believer will be delivered from struggle and danger. It would be foolhardy for me to promise you that type of prosperity Gospel. It would also not be what the bible says.
BUT Jesus did make two concrete promises.
Life in all its fullness (John 10:10)
Even in the midst of struggle and inconvenience, despair and bereavement – Jesus walks with us. He can change and transform situations. He also walks with us in them and makes them as full as they can be. Because we are made to be with him and in him.
Life eternal (John 3:16)
Whatever this life has for us. The ups and the downs. Through his death on the cross and the power that resurrected him form the dead we too will be resurrected, for those who believe. And that resurrected life will be with God in the perfect paradise to be made anew. Where there will be no pain, tears or even death. Life eternal. As we were made. To worship God in paradise forever.

What may this mean for Christ Church?
In the last week I have been sent the same picture of God at this time. I would like to sign off with this picture in the hope that it is a comfort. I will also return to it tomorrow for the final part of this short series of reflections on where is God in all this?
The first person wrote to me last Saturday including these words:
"How encouraged I was in reading once again Psalm 91 “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1) and we can claim as the psalmist did, claiming “we will not fear the terror of night . . . nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday”. I realise I’m not telling you something you don’t already know but I just felt how this psalm lifted my spirit."
It seems to echo the sentiments of the angel to Joshua and to Mary “Do not be afraid…for I am with you”.
Then on Wednesday I received this:
“…just now I felt drawn to look at Isaiah 51. My sense was that verses 1- 16 may be of particular relevance for us at this time. I am still pondering it but I was struck by verse 16 " I have put my words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of my hand..." 

There is a sense that God may be saying that he wants to cover believers with his shadow. A place of rest. A place of protection. A place in which his words will be protected to be sent forth and they will not come back empty (Isa 55:11).
More of that tomorrow when we look at the fourth answer to the question “Where is God in this?”  which was “There is no God, the gospel is a lie and this life is all that there is.”
Father God, cover us with the protection of the shadow of your hand, the power of the cloud of your presence and help us to listen to your Son, for with him you are pleased, and we should listen to him alone. (Mark 9:7)
Bless you all

* https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html

This is the last of a series of four reflections looking at the question Where is God in all this?

4. There is no God, the gospel is a lie, this is all there is.
For many people this is how they would have entered this virus enforced lockdown.
Or possibly more accurately, “What is the gospel? And why does it have anything to do with me?”
The Bible Society recently did research into this. Interviewing 20,000 people in the UK (see https://lumino.bible/ ) they found the following:
Christian faith                   40%
Other faiths                       10%
No religious faith             50%
Further insights include:
Within that, there's a gender gap: 45 per cent of women identified as Christian versus 36 per cent of men.
Younger people are far less likely to believe than older generations. Among 18 to 34-year-olds, 22 per cent said they were Christian. This proportion increases in older age groups: it's 36 per cent among 35 to 54-year-olds and 58 per cent of over-55s, including 65 per cent of those aged over 75. 
One implication of this is that religion of one kind or another is more normal than we might sometimes imagine.
Many people of no faith will have done good things to help others. It is a decent thing to do. It is not a Christian distinctive to want to help others. The motivation to do so is, because our Lord commanded us to “Love one another” and that it is God’s commandment to care for the “widow, the alien and the orphan” which means those who for whatever reason cannot help themselves.
Many will have questions.
Many will blame the God who got no credit for when things were going well. For the beauty of creation, for the wonders of science and for the glory of his greatest creation, that which is in his image…us.
And God is ok with that. He is no greater or lesser for our worship or our criticism.
But he is faithful. He is love. And he is waiting for more of his people, his creation, to return to him.
And that is where we are commissioned and tasked.

1 Peter 3:15
Matt 28:16-19
Acts 1:8

In the last three reflections I have been looking at the question Where is God in this? My conclusions, and sense (and it is just mine), is that its cause is neither the work of the enemy nor the wrath of God. The enemy has used it to sow division and feed the basest of human weakness, but in no sense caused it. This time has brought out the best and the worst in people.
God, while not causing the crisis,  is I am sure using it to remind people , to convict them, of the fragility of the human condition and our need of him. It is also a reminder to believers in particular that luke-warm religion is of no use to us or his Kingdom and that we are called to more.
No, my conclusion has been that this is an extreme outworking of the broken world we live in. For now. Perfection is to come, but this existence is far from perfect, and this crisis shows us by how far it falls short or what God has for us when Jesus comes again.
So, what is the Christian distinctive in the lockdown and more crucially afterwards?
Everyone will have a story. It may be of frustration. It may be of sorrow. But everyone will have a story.
I was reminded this week by an obscure song by Genesis from the album A Lamb lies down on Braodway called Chamber of 32 doors.  Rael is the hero of the story and he finds himself at the top of a stairs amongst a crowd of people shouting. There are 32 doors but only one takes you out of this place. There are shouts of frustration.

I'm so alone with my fear,
With everything that I hear.
And every single door, that I've walked through
Brings me back here again,
There seems no escape from the fear and the shouting and the panic.
Rael’s refrain is this:
I need someone to believe in, someone to trust.
I need someone to believe in, someone to trust.
And that will be the refrain for many in this difficult time where all the certainties have been taken away. We all need someone to believe in, someone to trust.

When asked, what did you do during the lockdown we can say  “Spent time with someone I believe in and someone I trust.
I drew near to his presence. I was reminded of how I don’t control my life but I know someone bigger than the virus or anything else in the world. I know someone who was with me throughout and who offers hope. And I carry that hope. It’s a sure and certain hope, not a gamble”.

Then the Holy Spirit may prompt you further. “Do you want to know this hope? Let me introduce you to the name that sustains me. His name is Jesus. Let me tell you about him….”

God is on the move.

“They say Aslan is on the move- perhaps has already landed."
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different.
CS Lewis, The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe.

Phil Knox wrote recently about the current situation, and concluded with these words:

“Paul prays from prison in Colossians 4 that God would open a door for our message. I pray that prayer regularly. What if this is it? As a major broadcaster reported with enthusiasm that in some churches, attendance doubled at the weekend, could we be on the edge of something where the gospel message spreads faster than this virus. If it does, it will be through us. Let’s not miss the moment.”*
Let us all be ready when our moment comes.
 * https://www.eauk.org/news-and-views/three-reasons-why-right-now-is-the-best-time-to-share-your-faith

Doug McHardie, 10/04/2020