OMICRON: God’s Mercy? | Steve Berman

Christmas has a way of bringing me back to the reality of God’s world. It is God’s world, after all, if you believe in that kind of thing. As Christians (and Jews, also) part of our beliefs is that God has a historical arc, a plan for the world that includes His ultimate will. 

In his wonderful book “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis penned one of the most memorable truths about how Christians relate to reality. 

Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.

When we’re faced with an implacable foe like a virus, sickness, or the bottomless evil of other humans, it’s easy to forget that God has made some fairly specific and unbreakable promises, that act as both the source of and the test of our faith. In the book of Hebrews, an entire chapter is devoted to an exposition on faith. The central theme is verse 6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Regarding the coronavirus, Christian takes and opinions have been all over the map, some of them quite idiotic, exposing the immaturity and biblical illiteracy of those expressing them. Others have exposed a lack of faith in God by supposedly elevated and educated theologians. I’ve heard stories of pastors who are refusing to allow unvaccinated children into their churches, while schools have not been so selective. To be sure, if a pastor feels so uncomfortable meeting in a building with the unvaccinated, then don’t have meetings. It seems a fear of man is bolstered by a financial motivation—many families don’t give if they don’t go. It’s not faith to act in fear.

There are, more shockingly, plenty of stories about pastors who believe they have some kind of prophetic knowledge about the end times that the rest of us don’t find in Scripture. One “plandemic pastor” cut off funds from a missionary because the missionary got vaccinated. This pastor not only should know better as the shepherd of a spiritual flock, but also claims to have some formal training in the medical field. Again, it’s one thing to personally decide you don’t want to get the vaccine; it’s quite another to tell your congregation that they should quit their jobs instead of comply with a vaccination requirement. That’s not faith; it’s foolishness.

It’s not faith to claim that God will save you from COVID-19 when you refuse to take reasonable countermeasures. Most Americans have already been inoculated with a genetically engineered vaccine, which have been around for decades. Claims like the coronavirus vaccines contain trackers or molecular technology to enable the rise of the anti-Christ are silly fantasy. Claims that the vaccines cause widespread severe side effects like swollen gonads are easily debunked, and are almost always second-hand “I know someone” stories because those can’t be verified. It’s much more honest to tell people, and to tell God, “I won’t take the vaccine because I’m scared,” than it is to make up elaborate tales.

The reality is that over 800,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 or other comorbidity conditions related to the virus. It’s a tough pill to swallow that we’ve lost nearly the entire population of San Francisco (873,965 in the 2020 census), and the world has lost 5.4 million lives from this one pandemic. How Christians process this reality, in the light of God’s promises and faith in Him is a measure of our spiritual maturity. There is a Biblical example for how this pandemic unfolded, and how God offers hope, and I want to offer a case for mercy and faith.

God does not originate plagues

In the Bible, God sent plagues on his enemies, but the plagues were always the result of sin. In the book of Exodus, God sent 10 plagues against the Egyptians, which were progressively worse, but were because Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened against the Hebrews, and against God. God did harden Pharaoh’s heart against Moses pleas, but Pharaoh had already decided he wasn’t going to let the slaves go free. The demonstration of God’s power was as much for the faith of the Hebrews, who God knew would be severely tested in their journey, as it was punishment for the Egyptians. During the Jewish Seder service, we are instructed to spill wine for each plague, because a full cup is a symbol of complete joy, and God took no joy in sending plagues.

In 1 Chronicles chapter 21, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” David gave in to the devil and ordered a census, when God had clearly ordered David to trust in Him, not in military might. Further, David’s commander, Joab, found the command repulsive, and did not report accurate results, leaving out the tribes of Levi and Benjamin.

Joab reported the number of the fighting men to David: In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who could handle a sword, including four hundred and seventy thousand in Judah. —1 Chronicles 21:5

God gave David a choice of three punishments: three years of famine, three months of military disaster, or three days of plague. David chose plague, replying to Gad the seer, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”

God did not decide that a plague would afflict Israel, David did, and it was offered as a way to atone for the sin of pride in human efforts.

I don’t need to paint a picture here of where our spiritual lives sit in the hands of a jealous God. We have placed politics, power, desire for money, recognition, and our own comfort about God’s commands. We have ignored and demonized our neighbors and mistreated strangers and countrymen alike. We are as bad as the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan, sneering and avoiding those who have fallen into misfortune. We’d rather shout about how robbers fill the streets than deal with the real problems that cause it. We’d rather feud with other Christians over race relations and history than to love our neighbor.

We don’t live in ancient times, under a king who gets to decide the form of punishment for sin, and we Christians enjoy the total acceptance, mercy, and grace of our Savior. But when we Christians ignore that mercy and profane that grace, God’s presence turns to the warning Ichabod, “the glory has departed,” from 1 Samuel chapter 4.

God did not send coronavirus, but the world’s dimming of His presence has allowed it, and once released, only His mercy will stop it.

God’s Mercy is exactly placed

14 So the Lord sent a plague on Israel, and seventy thousand men of Israel fell dead. 15 And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem. But as the angel was doing so, the Lord saw it and relented concerning the disaster and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough! Withdraw your hand.” The angel of the Lord was then standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. — 1 Chronicles 21:14-15

Angels do as the Lord commands, without hesitation, or questioning. They act according to His Word, which is His will. John chapter 1 starts “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem, and 70,000 men died in three days. God could have allowed the plague to kill every person in Jerusalem, his city, but he relented out of mercy.

The exact moment when God ordered the angel to relent, he was standing at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. That threshing floor is the place David chose to honor the Lord by building an altar. He bought the property from Araunah, who would have given it for nothing, but David said he would not take it for less than the full price, because he would not sacrifice a burnt offering “that costs me nothing.”

It costs nothing to throw unlearned opinions around the Internet. It costs nothing to side with the political opinions of men, but it costs a lot to truly side with God. Frequently that means going against your own friends and colleagues. It means offering grace and mercy to those considered your political or policy enemies. It means extending friendship to those who have meant for you to fail or fall into harm’s way. It means laying down power and recognition at the hands of people to gain favor in the eyes of God.

David could have accepted Araunah’s offer for the threshing floor, but God had better plans for that location. God had selected that site with exacting knowledge. It was to be the site of the Holy Temple, and God timed the release of His mercy with the location of the angel.

God’s word does not return void

God ordered His angel to send a plague on Israel and to destroy Jerusalem. He allowed David and the elders of Israel to see the angel with an outstretched sword over the land. They repented in sackcloth.

David approached Araunah who was threshing when he and his sons saw the angel. Araunah received 600 gold shekels in exchange for the threshing floor, which was a great fortune in those days. Why should he have profited for the plague inflicted upon Israel? Because God’s people would not accept a sacrifice that cost nothing. Those of us Christians who now live seeing the carnage of COVID-19 can count the cost, personal, economic, psychological, and emotional, of the plague we’ve seen sweep our nation.

Some companies profited from the pandemic, and many local businesses barely survived, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, or are already gone. But each individual person who believes in the Lord’s promises (again, I’m addressing Christians here) should remember the promise God made in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God sent His Word to the angel in 1 Chronicles 21, and the angel put his sword back into its sheath. David saw this act of mercy, and the world was never the same. We still mark the site of Solomon’s Temple, and the rebuilt Temple; Jews still worship at the Western Wall, which was a retaining wall of the temple complex. Jesus walked through those same streets and halls, flipping tables of the vendors in anger, and worshiping with the faithful.

God’s Word is sent with purpose, and does not return to him void, as the prophet Isaiah wrote.

Omicron is God’s mercy, and our test

I am not so bold as to state the above heading unequivocally. But all evidence is pointing to this, and I believe it, until I know differently. Omicron has more than 50 genetic mutations that make it different and much more easily spread than prior COVID-19 variants, according to the New York Times. Medical experts recommend getting a booster shot, whether you’ve had COVID-19, or had a “full vaccination” shot or shots before (there are some specific guidelines here, so please read the whole article first).

Omicron is causing COVID-19 case positivity spikes around the world. But the normally expected follow-on of jammed ICU wards and deaths so far has not materialized. Research into the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has found that viruses tend to mutate from a more deadly to a more transmissible but less deadly form, which is what pivots the pandemic into an endemic seasonal affliction. That’s the expected end to COVID-19, and many experts acknowledge this expected progression.

It appears, again from the data collected, that omicron is exactly what we’ve been waiting for. If it is, then glory to God, for it’s His mercy that provided something mild to “burn out” the pandemic, versus a more virulent form of the virus.

Our test is one of faith. I don’t believe God cares if we get a shot or don’t get a shot. God isn’t interested in testing our faith as one of medical treatment. If I have a heart attack, I won’t consider that a test of faith whether I accept someone giving me CPR, or using an AED to revive me. If I am in a car accident, I won’t consider it a test of faith to have the firefighters use the jaws of life to retrieve me from the wreckage. Perhaps God wants to miraculously extract me, but it’s more likely that God would move the hand of the other driver to miss me entirely.

I’ve heard stories over the years of missionaries who’ve had shots fired at them and the bullets physically appeared to pass through them without effect, ricocheting on the other side of their bodies. But it’s more likely that God blinded the eyes of their enemies not to see them in the first place than to do something so dramatic. When God does something dramatic, He is looking for a dramatic result.

Nothing, aside from some planetary cataclysm, could be so dramatic as a worldwide pandemic that kills multiplied millions. God would not leave such a thing in our hands with no value in His economy. But God would not require something as foolish as refusal to get an injection as a sign of faith, especially when the price of compliance is to denigrate, punish, and heap dispersion on fellow believers who received the injection.

The real test of our faith, and the form of this test is courage, is to treat each other, and non-believers, with mercy, grace, and kindness. God has sent his Word to the angel standing with an outstretched sword. Will we react like Araunah’s sons, hiding in fear, or will we act like David, and turn the place where God’s mercy overtook his judgment into a permanent monument to His glory?

Omicron is here, and it is sweeping the world. It could be the end of the pandemic, though we don’t yet know for sure. The world will forget and move on to the next story after the pandemic is over. Will Christians move on like the world, or will we show our faith, and move the world to God?

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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