flickr / Barry

In December my fiancée and I were planning an April wedding in Sydney. More than 30 guests were coming from overseas. We’ve just had to call it off because of travel bans and fear of contagion everywhere. We’ll have to settle for a simple ceremony in a few weeks’ time.

We are living in a different world to the one we were in a week ago, a world of toilet paper hoarding and empty streets. 

In December 2019, a pneumonia outbreak was detected in the city of Wuhan, China. It was soon traced to a new strain of coronavirus—but not before infected travellers had crossed international borders in every direction.

A few months on and the virus has spread to over 160 countries and resulted in over 7,000 deaths. While something like 98 percent of people who contract COVID-19 recover, the elderly and those with chronic health problems are most at risk. Governments the world over are deeply concerned that their national hospital systems will collapse.

Because of this, and because a vaccine is still a year away, the world is being turned upside down. Borders are closing and streets are emptying as governments shut down schools, restaurants, bars, and countless large gatherings. Everything is cancelled is the new normal.

“Social distancing” is an odd new phrase on our lips as we work out how to do business, trade and relationships in this new, eerie set of circumstances.

It’s hard to believe that this is real life—it feels more like the movies. But as you check your phone again or see the blanket news coverage of coronavirus on a TV screen or broadsheet, you realise once more that this is happening in real time.

Fortunately in Australia, we haven’t had the same contagion rates as other parts of the world. God willing, it stays this way. But in terms of social upheaval at least, what’s happening now in Europe and increasingly the USA may be what we can expect here in the days and weeks to come.

So where is God in this midst of it all?

A few days ago, Eternity published an article called “Should a Christian flee the plague?” Martin Luther was asked. I’ve always loved the Reformers. But a few months back, I couldn’t have imagined that medieval advice on the bubonic plague would become relevant again in 2020.

As new and strange as the coronavirus seems, the only thing genuinely new about this plague is its all-pervasive disruption of our globalised lives. Pestilence itself is as old as the hills, and it’s mentioned countless times in the Bible.

Pestilence appears in the story of the Exodus as one of the ten plagues. It was a common threat to ancient Israel, especially during their periods of disobedience.

More curiously, Jesus said that the growing threat of pestilence—among many other events—would be a sure sign that his return is drawing near.

I am convinced that many Bibles will be dusted off and cracked open again as a result of this year’s events. Maybe even Christians will start reading chapters they may have avoided or neglected in the past (Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 spring to mind).

But I would also hope that we recapture what it means to “love your neighbour” in a crisis like this. Jesus speaks in sombre tones of Judgment Day, but his heart is always turned towards the vulnerable.

Our elderly neighbours and relatives are going to need our help. And they are going to need it in a very odd way.

We have to slow the spread of this virus down. As strange as it sounds, our personal hygiene and our contact with others is going to have real-world effects on how many of the sick and vulnerable survive the coming months.

Those we know in these high-risk categories may also need some of the groceries we have stocked in our pantries, and a phone call every now and then to know they’re not forgotten.

Now that globalism has screeched to a halt, “love your neighbour” has a more local and literal meaning than ever.

For decades, we Christians have been saying that the church isn’t a building or a program, but a group of people.

As the new limitations on numbers allowed at gatherings take effect in the Western world, we’re about to find out if these were just catchy sermon lines or if we truly believe it.

Some have speculated that after the coronavirus threat passes, many will have adjusted to staying at home, and they’ll stop attending church altogether.

I’m more hopeful than that. I think this pandemic is a wake-up call. Too many of us have let church become defined by the world of consumerism. This is our opportunity to bring it back to the basics. As we feel our way forward, we have much to learn from the underground church in places like China and Iran.

Now that sermons can’t be served on a platter once a week, we will need to be proactive in our pursuit of God. It’s time for every heart now to seek him.

Reading Scripture in our homes just became far more necessary—as did praying alone and as a family, if that isn’t our habit. Fellowship and breaking bread will look different, but it’s going to be more important than ever. And if your church can’t live-stream, there are many that can, and billions of hours of sermons online.

When life is so radically reshaped, we soon work out what’s really important, and where we have been placing our faith. We’re living in strange times—but it is an exciting time to be the church.

God is shaking the nations. There is simply no other way to put it.

With the stock market tumbling, weddings being cancelled everywhere, and businesses shuttering, certainty about the future escapes us all. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the biggest disruption to daily life since World War II.

But God is still on His throne. When everything else in life is stripped bare, God is the one certainty that we can cling to.

Kurt Mahlburg is a teacher and freelance writer, writing for the Canberra Declaration and occasionally for the Spectator Australia. He also blogs at kurtmahlburg.blog.

Kurt Mahlburg

Kurt Mahlburg is a teacher and freelance writer, writing for the Canberra Declaration and occasionally the Spectator Australia. He also blogs at kurtmahlburg.blog.