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Redeeming the coronavirus epidemic

Topical Scripture: Mark 1:29-31

Delivered March 1, 2020

I spoke yesterday in Little Rock to 1,400 college students from all over Arkansas. Early that morning, as I was praying for the event, I sensed the Lord giving me a message I had not considered before. Not just for the students, but for you today and for our nation as well. I amended my talk to include this word and made its message my theme for today as well.

As you know, the coronavirus is dominating global news. It is called the “coronavirus” because of the crown-like spikes on its surface. As of this morning, 88,375 people have contracted the disease; 2,996 have died.

As I will explain today, this is an unprecedented challenge to our nation and world. And it is therefore an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel.

The challenge on three levels

This virus presents a global challenge unprecedented in my lifetime, because it shows the following three facts to be true.

Financial: The stock market just finished its worst week since the Great Recession of 2008, losing $3.6 trillion in value. According to one analyst, this crash “may have created a once in a lifetime buying opportunity.” By contrast, a CDC official warned that “disruption to everyday life may be severe” as the virus spreads in the US. Think of the impact on offices, manufacturing, and retail if people are afraid to see other people.

Medical: A Harvard professor warns that “if a pandemic happens, 40 percent to 70 percent of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year.” On the other hand, some think it will burn itself out in the summer heat. A middle position is that it becomes like the seasonal flu, only with a much higher mortality rate. More than 52 percent of Chinese males ages fifteen and older are regular smokers, which may be contributing to the morbidity of the virus as it attacks their compromised lungs.

Political: The coronavirus epidemic knows no borders. It is currently in sixty-three countries; the World Health Organization warns that it could soon reach every country in the world. Countries with communist governments, Muslim leaders, and democratic republics alike are susceptible. China’s leaders are facing increased unrest over their response to the virus; if it leads to a significant economic downturn in the US, it could affect the fall election.

The opportunity for the gospel

Not in my lifetime have we seen a threat like this.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes affect specific cities and regions. Ebola was localized as well. Even the 9/11 attacks, as devastating as they were, directly affected only those on the planes, those in the buildings they struck, and the responders in the areas attacked.

So far as we know at present, this is a disease anyone can get. And it is therefore a disease everyone can get. We cannot depend on the stock market, or current medical knowledge, or political structures to protect us.

As a result, the coronavirus is showing us what we should have admitted all along: we are mortals in desperate need of God. The virus is not changing the mortality rate—it is making it more real. We need God’s protection in the present and his saving grace for eternity.

One way God wants to redeem this pandemic is by using it to turn us to himself. After 9/11, churches were filled as Americans realized our need of God’s help and hope. We can look for ways to redeem the present crisis in the same way.

How?

Four ways to model Jesus’ compassion

Our text relates the shortest miracle story in the Gospels. Mark 1 finds Jesus in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He lived here for three years in the home of Simon Peter and his family.

On one particular Sabbath, he taught in the local synagogue, where he healed a demon-possessed man (Mark 1:21–27). When the service was over, “immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John” (v. 29). In our context, he went home after Sunday services.

But there was a problem: “Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her” (v. 30). Luke the physician tells us that it was a “great fever,” distinguishing it from the milder kind that was known to their day.

I picked this story for today specifically because of this illness. It is the closest thing to the coronavirus I could find in the Gospels.

Jesus’ response was so typical of him: “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up” (v. 31a). The Greek says that he “stood over her” and took her hand, helping her out of the bed. As a result, “the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (v. 31b).

From this event we observe four relevant facts:

One: Anyone can get sick. Peter was the leader of their apostolic band following the Son of God. His family would seem to be immune from illness if anyone is. Furthermore, her service to Jesus (which he accepted) reveals her spiritual depth and servant heart.

Her illness is a reminder for these days that suffering is often not our fault. Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s prison, or Daniel in the lions’ den, or Paul in the Philippian jail, or John imprisoned on Patmos. Can you think of four more godly men? Let’s be sure not to blame those who suffer for their suffering.

Two: We need to pray for the sick. Our text tells us that “immediately they told him about her.” We do not pray for the sick so as to tell God something he doesn’t know. Rather, we pray for them so as to stand with them in solidarity and to become an answer to our prayers whenever appropriate. The coming days and weeks will constitute an urgent call to intercession.

Three: Jesus cares for every hurting person. His response here risked rejection from those who associated sickness with sin and would consider him contaminated by touching her. He touched lepers, spoke to a Samaritan woman, and loved Gentiles. There are no stigmas with him, as there should be none with us.

Four: Those whom God serves should serve others. Her immediate response was that “she began to serve them.” Not just Jesus, but all in the house. She used her restored capacities to serve God and others.

Henri Nouwen popularized the concept of the “wounded healer,” the person who helps others as he or she has been helped. God serves us so we can serve others.

Conclusion

You may not get the coronavirus and may not know anyone who does. But you have a “fever” of some kind. And you know someone who is ill as well.

This unprecedented threat is an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel. Let’s answer the call to the glory of God, out of gratitude for his grace.