God’s Sovereign Will and Covid19
Luke 22.39-46 : ‘Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you will not fall into temptation.’ He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.‘Why are you sleeping?’ he asked them. ‘Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.’’
In this sombre season that we’re in, what can we say that measures up to what we’re experiencing? None of us have been this way before. I have never experienced social distancing or lock down before. I have never experienced so many people I know becoming infected and dying from a disease in such a short period as is happening now. It is quite dramatic, and for those currently sick, those who have lost loved ones, it is much more than distressing. Life is fragile at the best of times, but when there is an airborne virus around,we are all vulnerable and that feeling of vulnerability is based on the hard fact of the people we know, families and friends, who have died and those suffering from infection of coronavirus, Covid19. I offer my sincere condolences to you listening who have lost loved ones, and I pray for those who are sick, for restoration to full health by the mercies and will of God.
Tonight I want to shine a light on a thought echoed in song by US Gospel group the Clark Sisters who sing, ‘the safest place in the whole wide world is in the will of God.’ There is another well-known song by Charlotte Elliott, the first verse of which goes: ‘My God and Father while I stray, Far from my home in life’s rough way. Oh! Teach me from my heart to say, Thy will be done! Thy will be done!’ As believers in a sovereign God, the one in whom all things exist, we are called to the knowledge that no matter how bad things look, no matter how bad things get, God has everything under divine control in his will. This includes Covid19.
The word ‘will’ as used in our Luke text, and elsewhere, speaks of choice, purpose and plan. God has chosen, God has purposed. God has a plan. Commentators speak of God’s will in several dimensions such as intentional, permissive, circumstantial, sovereign and ultimate. These are interesting concepts, their meanings much contested, and each of them could be the topic a sermon. Broadly speaking, to speak of God’s will, refers to God having created the cosmos with a purpose and a plan for it; so we who believe in God should not entertain the thought that the world has become rudderless because of apparent adverse or hostile circumstances. Another challenge for us is to align our will with the will of God because God chose to create us with a will of our own.
Our text gives us an example of the challenge the will of God poses for us. The background to Luke’s version of Jesus’ agonising prayer before his betrayal, denial, arrest, miscarriage of justice, scourging, and death on a cross differs from the accounts of the other synoptic Gospels – Matthew and Mark. Luke’s is shorter, and whereas the other two place the event at Gethsemane, Luke places it on the Mount of Olives. To get a rounded understanding of this occasion we need to read all three accounts. I want to highlight two main things: Jesus agonising reconciliation with the Father’s will,and the disciples challenge to deal with it.
Approaching his death by crucifixion, the anguish that lay ahead seems overwhelming. Jesus prayed often to his Father,but on that night his prayer reflected the enormity of the moment. He took some disciples with him, then left them to pray alone, kneeling not standing, with his eyes raised to heaven. So intense was this prayer, that his sweat became as great drops of blood falling to the ground. One commentator notes that it is unlikely to have been fear of death that so preoccupied Jesus; but rather the kind of death; one in which he was made to become sin for humanity.
Luke helpfully summarises the long and arduous prayer and in so doing shows what was at the heart of the encounter between Father and Son: ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ Bringing human will in line with divine will requires the winning of the battle of wills. The drinking of the bitter cup of anguish, pain, of betrayal, denial, false accusation, miscarriage of justice, crucifixion has to happen in the spirit before it happens literally. Jesus prayed through to victory in that fight of the will, turned his over to the Father’s will, and the Father dispatched an angel to confirm God’s approval.
The second matter for consideration is that having prayed through, Jesus returned to his disciples, and found them asleep, because of sorrow; ‘worn out by grief’. The business of reconciling our will with God’s will can be painful, disturbing and unsettling even for onlookers. Don’t be surprised if your closest friends and confidants fall asleep, can’t bear to look, can’t bear to hear, perplexed, perturbed, don’t understand. Jesus asked them, ‘could you not watch with me for one hour?’ Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial. Their time would surely come when they would also face the dilemma of winning the battle of wills; when they too would need to pray as Jesus prayed, ‘Father, not my will, your will be done.
God’s will and Covid19
So, what has God’s will to do with coronavirus, Covid19? Well, everything. Why? Because nothing happens that is beyond or outside what God either determines or permits, and nothing thwarts God’s will and plan for the world, including God’s will for us. Many Christians have died to Covid19 or related health issues. Many Christians have lost loved ones, and many are alive but infected by the virus. Some families have been hit double and triple. It is tough, and it’s not over yet. We mourn with those who mourn, we support those who are within reach, while this grim reaper seems to know no bounds.
Some Christians have got caught up in speculation and conspiracy theories about the mark of the beast, 666 being transmitted through vaccines, some believe the coronavirus is linked to 5G radiation transmission, and lots of other theories about the deep state, the illuminate, and how they plan to manipulate us in the end times. One commentator writes, ‘People who feel dis-empowered and marginalised, which describes many of us, are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. However bizarre or contradictory the evidence, the idea that everything is being manipulated by mysterious, dark forces gives some sense of coherence in troubling times’ (John Kurt). I cannot tell you what if any of these theories, speculations, apprehensions are true or false.
It may help for us to know that disease outbreaks have ravaged humanity from the dawn of time. I came across a list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics the world has known. They range from a prehistoric epidemic 5,000 years ago around 3000 B.C. It is believed to have wiped out a whole village in China; to the Black Death around 1346-1353 that killed over half of Europe’s population; to the Flu pandemic of 1889-1890 that killed 1 million people; to the Spanish Flu of 1917-19 that killed an estimated 50 million people; to the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic around 2009-2010; to Ebola 2014-2016; to Covid19. What am I saying? I am saying we have been here before, probably with the exception of the lock-down. And the God of the universe remained sovereign over all.
I leave you with a challenge. In light of Covid19, do we all need to re-examine our attitudes to the will of God? Might some of us have discarded the idea of the sovereignty of God’s will and have instead got sucked into a worldly Utopian view of human expectation in which God’s will and plan has no place. The scriptures say, it is appointed to man once to die, afterwards come the judgement. Those who die in the Lord await the coming of the Lord Jesus who will raise them up with glorious new bodies, fit for eternity.
So even as we observe the guidelines and maintain social distancing, wash our hands often, and stay in lock down, we do so in the knowledge that our will, our plan, our hopes and wishes must give way to God’s will because God holds us in himself in life as in death. Let us practice to pray until we can truly pray like Jesus prayed, ‘not my will, your will be done’. May we awake from asleep to the divine will in any and all situations we face. I know that nothing takes away human pain of sickness and bereavement, but knowing you are in the will of God,comes what may, makes all the difference. The safest place in the whole wide world right now is in the will of God.