“Sword, Famine, and Pestilence: Did God Send COVID-19?”
SWORD, PESTILENCE AND FAMINE
REV. DR. W. JOHN CARSWELL
Sword, Pestilence and Famine: Did God Send the Virus?
A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. W. John Carswell at: Cadzow Parish Church, Hamilton, Scotland and First Presbyterian Church, Georgetown.
August 2, 2020
Scripture Lessons: 1 Kings 8: 22-26, 37-40; Luke 21:1-10.
Sword, pestilence and famine, the curses of God on a disobedient nation! Is this us? Does this still apply to us today? And if so, what does it mean for us in these strange times and how can we make it right? In this eighth in our series Foundations of Truth I want to consider some of the issues we’re facing today, a war of words, a pestilence that hangs over us like a cloud and a famine that may well be coming in the months ahead.
Well, America and Britain are once again distinguishing themselves as world leading innovators. This time however it is not in the fields of technology or industry or the arts or human rights or social welfare or environmental issues or health care or scientific innovations. We are both leading the world in the measure of our respective attempts to manage the coronavirus, and there are problems for both of us.
In Britain we have the second highest mortality rate in the world. The mortality rate is the percentage of people who contract COVID-19 relative to the number of people who die from the disease. With almost 300,000 confirmed cases and over 45,000 deaths our mortality rate stands at 15%, second only to Yemen, a country that has been at war with Saudi Arabia for the last several years and is a virtual ruin. With precious health care facilities available, their mortality rate is 28%. While these numbers are at times misleading because different countries record and present different data, they cannot hide the fact that, over the last six months Britain has been one of the world’s most dangerous places to live.
Thankfully, America is well down the same list and its mortality rate is a respectable 3.5%, meaning if you contract COVID-19 you have a 97% chance of surviving. But America remains a world leader in the coronavirus pandemic and is a stand-alone both in the number of infections and in the number of deaths. As of July, there have been 4.2 million confirmed cases in America and deaths are fast approaching 150,000 and those numbers show no signs of levelling off or falling.1
If our coronavirus response weren’t enough, we’re also both facing the biggest social upheaval in 50 years, some arguing the biggest social upheaval in our respective histories and an economy that now hangs in the balance as millions of people on both sides of the pond have seen their jobs and their livelihoods vanish with the morning dew. We have said many times over the years that we live in extraordinary times, but in my lifetime, it has never been more true than it is today.
What’s happening here? Why is it that our two countries who have for the last 200 years led the world in almost every field known to humankind and with health care systems second to none are we failing so badly?
By any measure, both Britain and America are great nations that impacted the world for good in countless. We are and have for many decades, been exceptional. But these last months have pulled back the veil on that illusion2 by our management of the pandemic, the airing of our dirty laundry and our chequered past, coloured as it is by our respective contributions to the slave trade, and the worrying way in which our economic future looms over us like a black cloud.
What have we done to deserve all this and how did we end up in this position? And more importantly, where is God and what has God done or not done to put us in the position of grave vulnerability? Is God simply standing by and watching our failings as if to say, I told you so? Or is God more actively involved by allowing the pandemic to occur? Or is God incapable of dealing with this thing? Or worst of all, did God send it upon us? Is this some sort of punishment for our moral failings and if it is, then what do we need to do to get back into God’s good graces? What’s the formula here? How do we mend this holy contract?
These days, we don’t really think about these sorts of questions, but in days gone the welfare of the nation and the acts of God were not two separate spheres. They were one in the same and they prospered or suffered together, the welfare of the nation rising and falling with the relative faithfulness of God’s people.
But God seems to have been taken out of the equation today and we look in other places to explain the reasons for our failings and we do so by blaming others. We’re quick to point fingers, it was our politicians, our President our Prime Minister, it was the health secretary, the scientists, the epidemiologists, it was the World Health Organisation, it was China! It was the do-nothing Democrats or the Conservative Party.
We’ve pointed to everyone but God, but why not? When insurance agents evaluate mass destruction of property what do they call it? An act of God. Only God can do something on a global scale, only God can be behind something this big. We’re thinking it, but no one’s saying it because that’s an old idea, isn’t it? It can’t be proved with science, that God sends punishments on us in the form of the sword, pestilence and famine? And if that’s what God is like then why should we bother worshipping him?
And then look at what we’ve suggested to beat the virus. Stay home, lock down, social distance, wash your hands, work from home, don’t sing, don’t go to church or football games or restaurants or, as we say in Scotland, keep yer heid doon and yer mooth shut! And by all means, wear a mask! Now there’s something we can all agree on! If we’d all just wear a mask like the Chinese do then we could put this thing to bed.
Notice what no one is saying: repent. No one is saying the pandemic is a sign from heaven, a punishment for our sins and moral failings and certainly no one is telling us to repent.
In the bible we see a different story altogether. When there is sword, pestilence and famine there is no question where it comes from and no question about what we need to do. These are acts of God and what we need to do is repent!
When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem that his father David had always dreamed about, he prayed this prayer at the dedication ceremony.
When your people Israel have been defeated by an enemy because they have sinned against you…
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you…
When famine or plague comes to the land…whatever disaster or disease may come, when a prayer or plea is made by anyone in this place, then hear from heaven, forgive and act…
Sword, pestilence, famine. These things have come from your hand, O God, these are acts of God and they are the direct result of human sin. When they come and your people return with repentance and prayer, then hear and act, forgive and restore.
It’s a simple formula and one that was tried and true, back in the day, but it’s somehow less than satisfying today. It may get us closer to the heart of the matter, but it’s not the whole story. Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman has already written a book to address the coronavirus and in it he draws our attention to three different models of making sense of these acts of God.3
The first is what he calls the transactional model. God has entered a covenant with his people who have failed to keep their end of the bargain resulting in God’s act of retribution against them as a call to repent. Sword, pestilence and famine are the direct result of our moral failings and faithlessness. As I said, this may be part of the story, but I’m not prepared to leave it at that. The covenant was made with a particular people during a particular period of history. It was never intended, nor is it described as being universalised against the whole people of the earth. It was for Israel, but not for everyone.
A second model of sword, pestilence and famine is what he describes as a “purposeful enactment of force in order to implement a specific purpose of Yahweh.” In other words, a bit like the Ten Plagues of Egypt when God was trying to break the will of the Pharaoh that God’s people might be liberated from slavery. This might also present another piece of the puzzle. The pestilence has certainly created a fit environment for the eruption of protests against the crimes of slavery and our shoddy attempts to bury the past and gloss it over with nice talk. Perhaps God has given us a demonstration of force in order to implement a specific purpose of dealing with, as one US General said, “the long shadow of our original sin?” Britain is no less complicit and no less guilty.
Bruggeman’s third model is this. “The sheer holiness of God is such that God can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all.”
In other words, God acts how and when God chooses to act, and God frankly doesn’t have to answer to us or provide any reason at all. God does not have to justify God’s actions because God is God. We see this in the Book of Job, especially at the end where, after complaining about the injustices of his sorry predicament Job finally has his day in court and finds it a bracing experience. God asks him, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who marked out its dimensions…who shut up the sea behind its doors…who gives orders to the morning sun…have you seen the gates of death or can you comprehend the vast expanses of the earth? (Job 38-42).
And on and on for five chapters until the end in chapter 42 when Job is defeated and admits, “Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”
The final answer is that there is no answer. God doesn’t have to answer to us or explain himself or justify his actions in any way because God is God and is not accountable to us. At the end of the day all these explanations fall short, they are like every theodicy, or explanation of why things happen. They might clarify the mind, but it does nothing for the heart, and such is the case with the coronavirus. It doesn’t matter so much why it’s happened, but it matters profoundly what we’re going to do next, especially as believers who have gathered in the Temple of God in humble and hopeful expectation that God will hear our prayers and answer them.
So, what are we seeing? First, of all, we are seeing the sword. While we are not yet experiencing outright warfare, will anyone argue that we are not at war with one another? We are a nation, both of us, that is so bitterly divided that we can hardly think of ourselves as a nation. We have become like an unhappy marriage where husband and wife no longer share the same bed and refuse to talk to each other. We have developed irreconcilable differences and, just as we did in 1862, we are making the case for divorce. Thanks be to God that shots have not been fired, yet, but I ask you, why would anyone find it necessary to bring a deer rifle to an otherwise peaceful protest? Why has there been a spike in gun sales here in America? Did you know there were 3.9 million background checks conducted in June? This is, of course, a measure of gun sales and Americans are stocking up.4
In Britain, at the outset of the pandemic, there was a run on toilet paper. In Amsterdam, there was a run on marijuana, but in America people were lined up, down the street, to buy guns and ammo. My God, my God, my beloved country, what are you doing to each other?
When will the first shot be fired? What day will go down in American history as your Sunday, bloody Sunday?5
So, we have seen the sword, we are seeing it even now; and we have seen the pestilence, the plague, the virus. We have seen our hospitals fill with the sick, our nursing homes shot through with this disease, our mortuaries overflowing, and refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals. We have seen mass graves. We no longer shake hands or greet strangers as friends and we no longer gather in groups or sing or pray of have coffee together. We have seen the pestilence friends, and we’ve not seen the last of it.
And we have seen and are seeing the famine, but only the beginning. You see, one follows on the other. What else could come after warfare and pestilence but famine?
There have been many businesses that have suffered economically in this pandemic and it remains to be seen which ones will survive. Some have of course prospered, not only Amazon and Tesla and Phizer and Raytheon, but the food banks of our respective nations are seeing a booming business and with unemployment and the end of government subsidies to families, hunger is close at hand. In America, the wealthiest nation on the planet, there are food lines literally miles long.6 People are going hungry, right here, right now.
But that’s only a small part of what is coming. You see famine is not just a shortage of food, famine often occurs in places where there’s enough food, it’s just that people lack the means to pay for it. There was plenty to eat during the Irish potato famine, people just didn’t have the money to buy it. In the days ahead, that’s what we’re going to see in the global south, famine and the forced migration of millions of people.
For the last several years Europe has experienced the greatest migration of people since World War II with millions of people arriving on the Southern shores of the continent.7 They’re coming from Africa and the Middle East and from God only knows where. They’re fleeing warfare and drought and the heinous effects of climate change. Did you know that in Eastern Africa and Western Saudi Arabia they are experience plagues of locusts that can only be described as having biblical proportions?8 Swarms of locusts are devouring everything in sight and the people are helpless to prevent it. What are they going to do? They will do as people have always done when food runs short: they will move, and they will move towards Europe and Britain and America because they’ve heard that life is better in our countries.
They’re coming to Europe, but they’re also coming to Texas and to California and to Arizona and Nevada. They have of course, always come, but now they will come by their millions to escape either the lack of food or the lack of means to buy food. They’re coming and they will keep coming because they too have experienced the sword and the pestilence and the famine.
Did God send the virus? I think that’s the wrong question to ask because whether God sent the virus or not, we are still stuck with it and we may never know the “reason” if there is such a thing. Instead I want to add a category to Bruggeman’s three.
And that is that God is suffering as well. This is the Christ model, the God with us model, the suffering servant model, that as the world suffers, God suffers with us and we in turn are called to suffer with the world.
Christ suffering for the world and with the world was redemptive. It was not an empty, meaningless suffering; it was not a humiliation for humiliation’s sake; it was not simply a life snuffed out for no reason. God was suffering with and for us, for our sake and for our salvation and I suggest to you that God is suffering with us even now, as if God himself has been infected with the virus.
As God’s suffering in Jesus was a redemptive, holy suffering, so will ours be. Like a father, agonising over the welfare of his children, God is also the victim of the sword, pestilence and famine for God is God with us. Knowing that leaves us with some decisions to make.
Can we confront the sword? Can we be peacemakers? Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Can we be peacemakers by building bridges instead of walls? Can we be peacemakers by listening and listening before we speak? Can we peacemakers by pressing the mute button on all the rhetoric and simply learning to discern again the leading of the Holy Spirit in all our affairs local and national?
Can we confront the pestilence? Can we pray that God would heal our nation? Can we pray and act for the healing, both physical and healing, of those afflicted by the virus? Can we love our neighbours by considering their needs before our own? Can we love our neighbours by the simple act of staying home or minding social distance or, dare I say, wearing a mask? Never before have such simple actions, or their absence, had the power to save life and preserve community. It is a small thing to ask and only for a short period of time.
Can we prepare ourselves for the coming famine? Can we open our hearts and yes, maybe even our homes to the hungry? Can we separate what we want from what we actually need? Can we donate our excess? Can we serve, can we go, can we be present?
We have a choice, you know. We could finish building the wall. We could close ourselves off from our Southern neighbours. We could do that, we have the resources, we have the technology. We can protect ourselves from being infected with their suffering.
But know this, doing so will come at the cost of hardening our hearts. We cannot build a physical wall without also building an emotional and psychological wall as well. We’ll have to dehumanise people, give in to the temptation to put ourselves first, we’ll have to settle for selfishness. We’ll have to become mean and stingy and the trouble with that is that you can’t choose who you’re mean and stingy to. When you’re mean and stingy to one people, you can’t be nice and generous with another. When you’re mean and stingy to one people, you’re just mean and stingy and, in the words of Taylor Swift, “all you’ll ever be is mean.”9
What do you do with people who have felt the sword, the pestilence and the famine? What do you do with hungry people? Do you remember what it says on the Statue of Liberty? Do I need to remind you?
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,10
This, this is America and America will not be great again until we remember this foundation of compassion, for this is the sentiment of the fourth option: the suffering Christ, and when we embrace the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, we embrace Christ himself.
They’re coming, no doubt about it, they’re coming, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. They used to come from Britain and France and Germany, but now they’re coming from Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras and El Salvador. And Britain? They’re coming from Syria and Somalia and Sudan and Eritrea and Djibouti. Some of them will be rapists and murderers and drug dealers and human traffickers, probably no more than the rapists, murderers, drug dealers and human traffickers that already count themselves as American or British. Most of the people coming will have one thing in common: they’re hungry because they’ve seen the sword, they’ve seen the pestilence and now they’re seeing the famine. They’re coming and Christ is coming with them.
Friends, we’ve seen the sword and we may see more of it. We’ve seen the pestilence and we may see more of that, too. But we’ve seen only the beginnings of the famine. Let us prepare our hearts and homes and may God have mercy on us all, AMEN.
1 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1105914/coronavirus-death-rates-worldwide/ [Accessed 28 July ‘20]
2 Blow, C.M., 2011. “The Decline of American Exceptionalism.” New York Times, November 18, 2011 [Accessed 27 July 2020].
3 Bruggeman, Walter, 2020. Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief and Uncertainty. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, pp. 2-10, Kindle Edition.
4 Nass, Daniel, 2020. “Gun Background Checks Surged to New High in June.” The Trace July 1, 2020, online at: https://www.thetrace.org/2020/07/gun-background-checks-june-record/ [Accessed 27 July 2020].
5 BBC News, 2019. “Bloody Sunday: What happened in Sunday 30 January 1972.” Online at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-foyle-west-47433319 [Accessed 28 July 2020]
6 Zhou, Li, Amaria, Kainaz, 2020. “The current hunger crisis in the US, in photos.” Vox, May 9, 2020. Online edition, available at: https://www.vox.com/2020/5/9/21251895/food-banks-lines-pandemic [Accessed 28 July 2020].
9 Swift, Taylor. “Mean” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYa1eI1hpDE
10 Lazarus, Emma, 1883. https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/colossus.htm#:~:text=%22Give%20me%20your%20tired%2C%20your,refuse%20of%20your%20teeming%20shore.