Covid-19 and the end of the world - 2 Peter 3:3-13

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from 10th May 2020.

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 Covid 19 and the End of the World - 2 Peter 3:3-13

 ‘A stick known as coronavirus has suddenly been shoved through the spokes of the world’s whirling wheel of hyperactivity and brought public life to a halt. Traffic, commerce, sports, schools, universities, day cares, public events, and even worship are now prohibited by the state. The Open Society is on lockdown, and one country after another is putting its population under house arrest…. Angst and watchful attention hang in the still air. Everyone feels it. Is the global house built on sand? Will it hold up when the storm comes? The global economic chains strain under a shutdown…… The whole world is like someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis. The cards have been reshuffled. One of these cards is black, and the Grim Reaper grins from it. Everything is uncertain. …For many, this is like looking into the abyss.’  So writes the German social critic, Gabriel Kuby. And as far as it goes that seems an accurate description of the general state of the West in the face of one of the greatest global challenges of our lifetime. But Kuby, who is a Roman Catholic, like any good diagnostician is not content to leave matters at the level of description, but also asks how we might rightfully respond to what is happening, and so she goes on, ‘What does someone do when he has been diagnosed with cancer? Away with job stress! Suddenly there is time for deeper questions to arise: How have I been living? What of my relationships where love should flow, but doesn’t? To those close to me? To God? What if I really have to die? What then?’

There is little doubt that this is a time to reflect a little more deeply about matters of consequence, and the Christian would say, matters of eternal consequence. You see, some kind of framework is needed into which brute facts can be placed to give them some kind of meaning. Just think about it: from a purely evolutionary perspective, one would have to say that in a world thrown up by Blind Chance- this kind of stuff happens, there is no rhyme or reason in terms of significance, biological material operates like this, it’s all part of the evolutionary process and it makes no more sense to complain about the virus than to object to the desert wind blasting a rocky outcrop- that’s nature for you! Learn to deal with it. But is that all there is to it?

The Bible gives us a different set of lenses through which to view things. And there are two key earthshattering events in particular which it speaks of which puts everything into their proper perspective.

The first event occurred in the past radiating forward throughout the world and throughout time- it’s called the Fall, the moment when our first parents, by their act of rebellion introduced sin into the world and unleashed a tragic chain of events which is still very much with us; not only the severe dislocation of relationships between people so you get anger, war, theft, murder, adultery and so on, but in the natural order too.
‘ Cursed is the ground because of you’, the Lord tells Adam,’ through painful toil you will eat food from it…it will produce thorns and thistles, by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken, for dust you are and to dust you will return.’ (Gn. 3:17-18). The ultimate judgement God pronounces is death- spiritual death in which the living relationship with God is severed; physical death which acts like a dark sacrament- a visual and painful expression of the severity of the separation that exists with God but which also points to eternal death, cut off from God forever. The fact is the world in which we live is literally a ‘damned’ world. It is not only ordered, but disordered in a way to bring about our ultimate demise. And now we are very conscious that we are living in the midst of all of that, as we always have been actually- but what the present pandemic has done is draw it to our attention big time.

The second event lies in the future; Peter calls it the ‘Day of the Lord’ or the ‘Day of God’-verses 10 and 12 in our passage. And the two events, what has happened and what is going to happen are, of course, linked; sin has to be judged and humans are to be called to account by their Maker for the way they have treated him, his world and each other. In other words judgement day is where we are heading as a race. 

So on the one hand the world has always been under judgement and the world is speeding towards the judgement- when wrong will be righted and everything restored to their proper place under Christ’s glorious rule, but not without some cataclysmic things also happening, which Peter describes in verse 10 ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.’ Here Peter is drawing on standard biblical imagery to describe the end times which can all be summed up in one word- dissolution.  Everything that we take to be firm and stable in the world in terms of its structures- the fabric of nature, the order of space and time, the great impressive works of human culture and achievement, its economics and politics fall into ruin, they lose their solidity and firmness, and disintegrate. Like a city hit by a devastating earthquake, there is rubble and chaos everywhere. But the important thing is not the dissolution itself, but what it points to, what happens next , namely- the coming of God. Everything has to be cleared away to make way for the coming King- the present state of things will not do for him and simply can’t stand before him in all his majestic purity.

Now picking up the imagery used here by Peter, I want to suggest that one way of looking at what is happening with the present Covid-19 crisis is that it is not only another manifestation of the Fall, but it is like a faint echo coming towards us out of the future. So while on the one hand the virus is all part and parcel of living in a world under judgement, it is also a harbinger, a mild taster, if you like, of what is yet to come at the judgement.

Let me tell you something: the basic presumption of people the world over is that everything carries on pretty much the way it always has. We see that thought expressed in verse 4, ‘Ever since our ancestors died everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ And are we not thankful that God in his mercy does govern the world so that by and large things run in an orderly and regular fashion, which is what makes science possible so that drugs and vaccines can be made and they work? That is a sign of God’s kindness and loving rule which should cause us to seek him out to thank him and worship him. The trouble is we don’t- Romans 1:20f, ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.’ We have a self-inflicted spiritual blindness. Put bluntly, sin makes us stupid.

And behind this assertion that everything is the ‘same old same old’, is the belief it will always be like this, we think there can’t possibly be any major interruption into our world like the second coming of Christ - v4, ‘They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Everything goes on as it did before…’ But as Peter reminds the scoffers and sceptics of his day, they should check out their facts a little more carefully because cataclysmic events have taken place before which are to be seen as acts of judgement- the flood for example (v6). What’s more there will be further cataclysmic events along the way until Christ returns. Jesus himself taught this, for example in Mark 13, ‘There will be earthquakes in various places and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.’ They are not the event itself- the judgement, any more than labour pains are the birth, but they are a prelude to it. 

The thing is this: we naturally resist the thought that human life and history might be broken off, that things might get severely disrupted, even blown apart. However, the Bible makes it clear that we are to order our thinking and our lives both as individuals and societies in the light of God’s coming. And maybe, just maybe, we need the occasional jolt of global proportions like we have at the moment to remind us of that- that such a Day is coming and this is what it is going to feel like but on a much, much grander scale. 

One writer puts our problem like this: ‘..…communities which build their political lives around an idea of invulnerability, which assume that the earth and the works on it will remain for ever, are in the end idolatrous.’   That’s right. When Christ returns, he will sweep away all idolatries, all those things we have put our trust in and lived for because he cannot tolerate any rivals. Idols-God-substitutes-only deceive us, promising things they can never deliver- lasting happiness, fulfilment, satisfaction; but which  ultimately destroy us by keeping us away from the true God in Jesus Christ who alone can give these things. And now with so much being taken away from us which we have looked to in order to give us a point for living or to distract us- our sport, our films, our work-we are meant to realise how hollow they really are and are no substitute for the one for whom we were made-God.

And so, what is going to happen in the future, is, in some small measure, brought forward as it were, into the present by a crisis such as this so that we not only re-evaluate what actually matters but have a reality check, that we are mortal after all and not gods and that there is a great God who is sovereign over all and we know him as Jesus Christ who one day we are all going to meet and need to be prepared for that. 

Think of it like this: the doctor who gives his diagnosis that we are seriously sick isn’t being cruel, but kind, because then there is at least the prospect of undergoing treatment and getting cured. So it is in judgement- God’s diagnosis, things happen so we can come to him for the cure, which is the Gospel. While Covid-19 doesn’t necessarily mark the end of the world, it is a sign and taster of what the end of the world will be like when God returns- dissolution. Do you see?

So what should our response be to the future judgement which comes into the present even as a faint echo?

First, the church’s response.

It has to be said that the response of some of our national church leaders to the crisis has been underwhelming to the point of being agonisingly embarrassing. The Archbishop of York elect, Stephen Cottrell, said on Premier radio that God can bring good out of the pandemic. What might those good be? Here are the three he mentioned: that our world will be more environmentally friendly  with people making fewer journeys, it will be less stressful - people will work fewer hours, more from home, and it will be more socially just, with greater appreciation for the low paid. Hardly distinctively Christian thoughts, but you are reduced to such banalities if you have lost confidence in the Gospel. 

But it has not always been so. The social critic Philip Rieff said that in the past people didn’t go to church to be made happy; they went to have their misery explained to them. That is partly because in the past life was incredibly hard with disease being rife and mortality rates high, as it is still the case in many parts of the world. The Gospel explains why we experience misery and suffer death. A pandemic or a war forces us to face up to the reality we would prefer to deny- that we are mortal. Death casts its long shadow over everything. Knowing our time is limited can create anxiety which some have described as the great problem of the 20th century. People do find it difficult to know how to live life in the face of death because the wider framework of eternity and God’s relationship to his world has been dismantled. 

But the church shouldn’t be helping with this dismantling as it is doing at present, it should be confident in challenging the world of its emptiness and presenting the breathtaking alternative - that there is a great and gracious God and we need to be put right with him and this comes through faith in Jesus Christ. The writer Carl Trueman has put it like this, ‘The church is certainly to help people to live, but to live in the shadow of mortality. She must set this earthly realm in the greater context of eternity. She is to prepare people through her preaching, her liturgy, her psalmody, and her sacraments to realise that death is, yes, a terrible, terrifying reality we must all someday face, but that the suffering in the world-or indeed, this passing superficial prosperity many of us enjoy- are but light and momentary ephemera compared to the eternal weight of glory that is to come.’ 

And let me say that if you are watching this and you want to make sense not only of what is happening now, but your life in general, why you are here and what you were made for- then there is only one you are to come to in order to find the answer- and that is the God-man, Jesus Christ who 2,000 years ago came as rescuer by dying on a cross for your sins, and who will come again to judge us and make everything new. Have you ever wondered why he hasn’t come back yet after all that time? The apostle Peter tells us in v9, ‘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.’ God is being patient with you, giving you a brief window of time so that you can get right with him, embrace his tender love and receive the gift of eternal life. And he is inviting you to do that now before it is too late. 

Secondly, there is the response of the Christian, v11, ‘Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?’ The answer? ‘You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.’ And then verse 14, ‘since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.’ 

Of all people Christians should be active in doing good and being different- that’s what Peter is saying. The coming of Christ is not meant to paralyse us into inactivity but to galvanise us into making our lives count for something, to start living the kind of lives which will characterise the new world which Christ will bring with him, v 13,  a place ‘where righteousness dwells.’  Of course Christians will be helping to fight this pandemic and alleviate all the suffering and difficulty it is causing, assisting those who are isolated, working hard as health workers, and sharing the Gospel which alone makes sense of life and offers hope for the future. That is what Christians do.  And so it is also a time for us as Christians to re-assess our lives in the light of what is happening and repent where we have allowed our affections to take us away from our first love which is Christ, where we have been absorbed with the trivial at the expense of the vital. And we can do all of this  joyfully because we know Christ is reigning and will reign, we know that whatever is going on in the world, it’s not out of his control or beyond his care and what lies at the end  of it all is a new creation in which righteousness dwells. 

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