Interpreting the present time

Bruce Murray

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Luke 12:56)

None of us has a God’s-eye view on all that’s happening in the time and context we live in, or a God’s-mind knowledge of all that it means, but Jesus thought his contemporaries had enough God-granted understanding to make reliable sense both of what was signified by weather patterns, and of what God was doing through Jesus’ words and actions.

In addition, one of God’s gifts to his people is prophecy, which may be related to the future but more fundamentally is an understanding of what God is doing or the response he calls for in the present. Some people are granted greater prophetic insight, such as the people of the tribe of Issachar singled out in 1 Chronicles 12:32 who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, or the various people designated as prophets in Old and New Testaments. But the expectation in 1 Corinthians 14 is that insight into what God is saying and doing is given in some measure to all followers of Jesus, and that prayerful, discerning, mutual listening is the best way to test the accuracy of the insights offered.

Jesus’ words in Luke 12:56 were preceded by a rebuke to his hearers: You hypocrites! – which suggests that he saw their difficulty in correctly interpreting the present time not as one of intelligence but rather of will, their reluctance to face up to reality.

It’s hardly surprising that during the current pandemic and resultant lockdown there has been a constant focus on trying to make sense of what is happening, to read the scientific and other information correctly, to understand and interpret the present time. And, of course, to know what to do in response. Interpretations and recommendations have varied from the outset and changed as time has gone on.

There is a looking to the specific insights of experts (the secular prophets), and there are some more generally shared interpretations – especially about the need or inevitability of ‘new normals’ in relation to working patterns, social behaviours and the environment. There are also questions about the reliability of interpretations and recommendations, and the degree to which people are willing to face up to reality and the responses it calls for.

In addition to all this, followers of Jesus have a particular desire to discern what God might be saying and doing during this time, and to know how best to respond. If we are to know how to interpret the present time, it would be helpful to listen prayerfully and discerningly to what God in saying to our own hearts, through one another and through those granted particular wisdom and insight, and to weight this carefully together.

In the early days of the pandemic, many people were speaking of an opportunity to pause and reflect; but a lot of energy has also been given to coping practically and emotionally with the demands of alternative, increasingly online, arrangements. And perhaps there is a weariness with the whole thing, and how it has dominated the last six months. As people increasingly look to the resumption of post-lockdown life, it could be a sadly missed opportunity if we have not in fact done the prayerful reflection and discerning listening needed to know how to respond now and into the future.

Four well-known Christian leaders have written short books about the pandemic that have been publicised during the last few months:

Walter Brueggemann: Virus as a Summons to Faith

Brueggemann, an Old Testament theologian, reflects on OT texts (from Law, Psalms and Prophets) that explore how God may be at work, and how those who trust in God, may pray and respond during times of ‘pestilence’, which, along with war and famine, is one of the characteristic consequences that follow human disregard of God’s will for life in the world he has created.

He encourages us to hold together the holy and mysterious ‘otherness’ of God and the unfailing faithful love of God, such that we avoid responses of denial, despair, or simplistic dogmatism, and instead embrace an honest, humble hope.

This hope may discern God’s mercy alongside his judgment, and enable us both to recognise and to participate in changes for the good, such as generous neighbourly compassion and more responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources.

Hope in God directs our prayer, not just for the ending of the virus and the healing of those affected, but in such a way that our focus shifts from fearful self-concern and self-reliance to a God-centred openness to a different future which God may bring about, and a renewed commitment to the priority of the rule of God.

This, in turn, calls for a renewed trust and open imagination to the ‘new thing’ (or ‘new normal’) that God is doing, and the willingness to accept the cost and vulnerability of relinquishing (rather than seeking to restore) the failed old order of things.

John Lennox: Where is God in a Coronavirus World?

Lennox, an Oxford Mathematician and Christian apologist, identifies the need to make sense of the suffering caused by the virus intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, and to find hope in the face of such a devastating situation.

He argues that a Christian worldview makes better sense, and offers greater hope, than the alternatives, and addresses the question how the coronavirus (like any other ‘natural’ evil) can be reconciled with the existence of a loving God.

In doing so, he refers to philosophical and theological questions about the kind of world that is possible given the properties of the physical world, the moral freedom of human beings, and the impact of human behaviour on the created order. He also points to Jesus as the suffering and redeeming God, whose death and resurrection give reliable hope of ultimate righting of wrongs and eternal life for those who trust in him.

He concludes with some suggestions for responding as Christians to the virus, including neighbour-love that involves social distancing to protect others and social engagement to help the vulnerable, and an eternal perspective that helps us to live with greater peace and godly purpose, without fearful preoccupation with personal vulnerability.

John Piper: Coronavirus and Christ

Piper, a pastor and author, grounds what he writes about the virus on the solid foundation of the sovereignty of God, who is holy, righteous, good and wise, and can be trusted to work for the good of those who love him even in such bitter providences as a global pandemic. He argues that ‘the same sovereignty that could stop the coronavirus, yet doesn’t, is the very sovereignty that sustains the soul in it’.

While recognising the limits of our understanding, he makes connections with several biblical teachings in order to offer six answers to the question, ‘What is God doing through the coronavirus?’ These are:

• God is giving the world a physical picture of the moral horror and spiritual ugliness of God-belittling sin.
• Some people will be infected as a specific judgment from God because of their sinful attitudes and actions.
• The virus is a God-given wake-up call to be ready for the second coming of Christ.
• It is God’s call for all of us to repent and align our lives with the infinite worth of Christ.
• It is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy to do the good works of love that glorify God.
• God is loosening the roots of settled Christians to make them free for something new and radical, and to send them with the gospel of Christ to the unreached peoples of the world.

Tom Wright: God and the Pandemic

Wright, an Anglican bishop and New testament theologian, takes a different view of God’s sovereignty, one in which God shares our shock and grief at disastrous events that occur in this world, whose running has been delegated in many ways to human beings, and into which evil intrudes beyond our ability to comprehend. The rule of God is expressed primarily in the self-giving love of Jesus, and as that is embodied in the lives of his people through whom he works for good in the world.

Therefore, Wright has little interest in questions of why the pandemic has occurred, and even less patience with attempts to explain it in terms of God’s judgment, call to repentance, opportunity for evangelism, signs of the end of the world, and so on. Instead, his focus is on what a Christian response should be, including prayer, lament, not offering easy answers or jumping to solutions, and expressing the self-giving love of Jesus in acts of hope and healing.

In practice this might mean running foodbanks or working in homeless shelters; protecting the vulnerable and offering physical and spiritual care to the sick and dying; working with others to regenerate old systems (whether political, social or economic) and invent better ones; promoting justice for the poor and holding leaders to account.

Wright’s book is written with lively tone and challenging content, and described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘utterly Bible based’. One wonders, though, whether it is a bit ‘selectively Bible based’, and stronger on what it affirms than what it denies. He does acknowledge that ‘solutions’ may come to the questions raised by the pandemic; that there may be significant lessons to be learned; that God can do whatever he wants on special occasions for certain purposes; that events (like the crucifixion of Jesus) may be planned by God as well as wickedly chosen by human beings. But none of these are developed in ways that might helpfully explore the legitimate questions people do have about the character and providence of God in relation to issues raised by a pandemic.

And while Wright understandably warns against a Christian withdrawal into world-rejecting spirituality, or a jump into opportunist evangelism, and advocates instead a humble reticence in our words and a focus instead on loving actions, there is little emphasis in the responses he commends on addressing the spiritual needs of our society, and the priority of eternal salvation for those whose faith is not in Jesus.

Exile

One theme which both Brueggemann and Wright refer to is the experience of exile of the Old Testament people of God. Brueggemann says ‘the proper practice of hope for newness in the Old Testament … is the exile. Exile – the brokenness of things past – is the context for such hope.’ Wright suggests we might ‘recognize the present moment as a time of exile’ and ‘urgently … think and pray through what can and should be said.’

Similarly, theology professor C. C. Pecknold has suggested that ‘Like many Christians today, the ancient Israelites in Babylon were overwhelmed with a … fear that all the boundaries had been shifted, that the centre no longer held, that there was no ground beneath their feet, nor sacred canopy above their heads.’ But ‘It’s out of this exilic despair that the prophets showed Israel that their God was not like other gods… He was the God who made not only the land beneath their feet, but everything seen and unseen. God made everything in heaven and on earth. God was the solid ground beneath them, as well as their shelter… God has created the world, and he governs the world. This is the faith that breaks through Babylonian darkness and the fear of apocalypse.’

The people of God who emerged from the Babylonian exile, and returned to Judah to rebuild their spiritual community in a political, social and environmental context that had changed dramatically, faced a particular challenge and vocation. This was to avoid both the denial that they could simply pick up life as it had been before the exile, and the despair that their way of life could be restored at all. They also had to avoid the danger of assimilating to the dominant culture. What was called for in their time was to find new forms and expressions of life together as God’s people that were deeply faithful to their spiritual identity and tradition, and significantly adapted to fit their deeply changed context.

Pioneer missioner Paul Bradbury recently (2019) wrote ‘Home by Another Route’, in which he reflects on the exilic text of Ezekiel 37 (the vision of dry bones restored to life), and suggests that the Babylonian exile ‘is a powerful metaphor for the church, particularly the Western church’. The exile was a time of profound difficulty requiring a relinquishing (indeed a death) of the old, but which led into a tremendous revitalisation of God’s people theologically and practically.

Bradbury explains how ‘exile invites us to … the nurturing of dissident communities of life, characterised by the presence of God, the authentic expression of gospel-oriented lives and an attitude of open-hearted servanthood to those around us.’ He commends Ezekiel as ‘a model of the kind of … leader who knows how to participate in the work of the Spirit, leading from the edge more than the front, allowing the new to emerge and unfold, stage by stage … who refuses to entertain the soothing image of restoration or a master plan of the future, but instead urges the church into a new participative relationship with the Spirit.’ He concludes that this ‘will come when the church, with the encouragement and humility of discerning leaders, takes up the invitation to participate in the Spirit’s leading towards a refounded church.’

Bradbury wrote this before the onset of the pandemic but, as Brueggemann and Wright suggest, there is now an even greater pertinence to the significance of the biblical theme of exile. It could guide our interpretation of, and response to, our own present time, leading us through lament to hope, through theological reflection to relinquishment and revitalisation, through repentance to compassionate justice, from fear to faith, from cultural assimilation to prophetic witness.

What if we were to be asked the same question that Jesus put to his contemporaries in Luke 12: why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Could it be that – amid all the other pressures, concerns, adjustments and responses we are dealing with – we are not listening sufficiently to what God is saying through Scripture and through each other, or not talking together about what we are hearing? Could it be that we need to focus again on pausing, prayerfully reflecting, and listening together, and looking to God for his ‘new normal’?

These seven essays were written, in this order, between March and September 2020. Inevitably, a few of the facts and figures will be out of date by the end of the year.