26 July – The God of COVID-19 (II)

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Pentecost 8

Ezekiel 1:1-3
Romans 8:26-37
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In a sentence
The simple affirmation that ‘God is with us’ in difficult times like the C-19 pandemic ultimately renders God pretty irrelevant to the whole catastrophe; the biblical dynamic of judgement and grace helps us more.

The persistence of COVID-19 – perhaps more urgently now that we see more clearly that we are in this for the long haul, and the potential for suffering deepens – urges us to fresh reflection on its ‘meaning’, if indeed it means anything. To faith the question of meaning seeks after a relationship between the pandemic and God and takes a form something like, ‘Where’ is God in all this?

Connected to this is another faith-question along the lines of, Where are we in all this? Scriptural images of exile and wilderness wandering seem to have pressed forward here. We are in the wilderness, exiled in self-isolation, but surely – to answer the question of God’s whereabouts – God is with us, here in our exile.

Perhaps we are in a wilderness, and perhaps God is with us. But is God’s being with us good news or bad news? In affirming that God is with us, we seek to say something comforting to those in exile. Yet if it is a scriptural wilderness or exile within which we and God presently meet, the notion of ‘comfort’ sits uncomfortably with this borrowed image.

Ezekiel is in exile in the spiritual wilderness which is Babylon, and his calling and visions take place in that far country. Yet his commissioning as prophet is not in order to declare to the exiles that God is ‘with’ them. Or, better, this is not yet a comforting message. As part of his calling, Ezekiel is given a scroll to eat and then to speak. On the scroll are words of ‘lamentation and mourning and woe’ (2.8-10). God is with Israel, but as judge. Ezekiel is to proclaim God’s condemnation of the ‘house of rebels’ which God’s people have become (2.1ff).

What does this mean for us in our current experience of ‘exile’ or ‘wilderness’, if that is truly what it is? If we claim these scriptural images as metaphors for our present experience, do we dare to interpret our suffering as a sign of ‘judgement’?

It is surely a dangerous thing to wonder about God’s hand in particular historical events. And yet it is not therefore an impious thing. If it were, then it would be entirely impious to assert that God is with us here to ‘comfort’, for this is already to have made a judgement about God’s hand in the matter – a black-and-white ‘God good, us good, virus bad’.

If we are to take the scriptural witness seriously, the two options here are equally dangerous. On the one hand we might say that whatever happens to us, we are innocent of the causes and, so, God also is innocent but nevertheless is always there comfort us in our wilderness. On the other hand, we might maintain that the wilderness implies judgement and that God stands over against us.

In churches like our own, at least, we hesitate in relation to the latter, and for good reason. A virus is indiscriminate and we want to say that God is not. We hesitate to entertain certain things about God and the virus, for God’s sake.

Yet – if we are honest – we hesitate also for our own sakes. A week or so ago the Victorian State Premier referred to COVID-19 as “a clever, invisible enemy”. Invisible it is indeed, but ‘clever’ doesn’t quite fit. A virus worth worrying about is not clever; it is merely terribly efficient. It simply does what it is given to do. Like the Angel of Death it is ruthlessly effective by nature and not by cunning – a deadly sword in the slayer’s hand. If that analogy is confronting, we must keep in mind that that is just how the prophets interpret the armies which invade Israel in the eighth century and Judah in the sixth, with a devastation most of us can only imagine.

But if the virus were a sword in God’s hand, why are we being slashed in this way? What is the judgement which could justify this?

Your preacher today is not a prophet, and so won’t be making the direct kind of link between happenings and the action of God which the prophets of old once so boldly made and which have been secured by the Scriptures. But the average preacher ought, at least, to caution against making too easy – too comforting – a borrowing from the Scriptures in order to speak God into our time. If we are going to locate ourselves in a wilderness or an exile, then the question should also be asked, is there a judgement here? The answer to this may indeed be ‘yes’.

This is not, however, because we can now see it as punishment for this or that transgression. It is because – with this God – grace is not grace without judgement, and judgement is not judgement without grace.

We desire only the gracing presence of ‘God with us in our exile’ but grace is only grace in the setting aside of a just condemnation. We reject judgement because we cannot see grace in it but, with this God, judgement is grace‑d.

The problem with the exile metaphor as it is used for our present situation is that, while it allows God to be with us in this place, it is agnostic as to God’s role in getting us here. And, presumably, if God didn’t get us into this and didn’t prevent it in the first place, God also can’t get us out, either. We will just one day be out, and God will just continue on being-with-us.

If we are going to be faithful to the God who interacts with God’s people in the way the Scriptures portray, we need something more than a God who just hangs about, even if we can’t quite say what it is. The church does neither itself nor the wider world any favours by telling half the story of God’s dealings with us.

Even if we may not be able to say what the judgement might be in these circumstances, to be in a ‘wilderness’ or ‘exile’ in any true scriptural sense is to be involved with a God who is more intimately involved in what is unfolding around us than merely as comforting observer. The evidence of this is the old prophets themselves, and Ezekiel among them. There is not much difference between the armies of Babylon and COVID-19, so far as the prophets and the people are concerned. If God can claim the armies as God’s own, perhaps, also then the virus.

And we might ask again: is this good news, or bad news?

It is indeed a scroll of lamentation and mourning and woe which Ezekiel is given to eat. But he says of that scroll, ‘in my mouth it was as sweet as honey’. The possibility that God’s hand might somehow be active in the virus is the possibility that judgement is not all bad, indeed, that it might be ‘as sweet as honey’, that it might be grace‑d. Perhaps, if this God judges, judgement does not mean what we fear it means; it is not made to abandon in condemnation but rather to draw back together.

This will, in fact, be Ezekiel’s message, and a difficult one.

The old rabbis wondered whether Ezekiel was one of those biblical books which most thoroughly ‘defiled the hands’ of those who opened it. Curiously, they held that the holy books of Scripture made unclean those who handled them, and that any book which did not do so was unworthy of being considered Scripture (candidates for this latter included Ecclesiastes, Esther and Song of Songs).

We no longer understand how holy books were thought to do this, but the effect is clear: uncleanness ‘sets apart’ those who are defiled – they are no longer fit for normal social intercourse, and ‘social distancing’ becomes necessary if others are not to be contaminated. To borrow from elsewhere, we might recall in this connection Moses veiling his face on coming out of the tabernacle, shielding the people from God’s reflected glory.

Of course, there is something deeply ironic in describing the holy books in this way. This ‘defilement’ by exposure to the deep mystery of God is to be desired and sought, not – feared – even if it has the potential to separate us from each other, at least for a season.

To see and know about judgement and exile, grace and restoration, what Ezekiel knew about these things will likely cause us to think and say surprisingly things, even uncomfortable things.

That is hard because many are finding it uncomfortable enough as it is. But if it is this God who makes us uncomfortable, we know that it is only for our benefit and wholeness.

Let us, then, in these hard times and always, wait on the God from whose Word there is yet much more light to shine, that we might more truly know God – and ourselves.