While it is certainly true that most of us have not experienced an event like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is something of an overstatement to describe it as “unprecedented”. Sadly, the world has known such global tragedy before.
The so-called Spanish flu arrived in Australia in January 1919 and caused the death of 15,000 Australians within a year. Most of the victims, like their countrymen who had fought in the Great War overseas, were fit, young people aged 20-40 years. Globally, up to 100 million people would lose their lives to the disease.
As now, responses in Australia to the Spanish flu pandemic included ‘the closure of schools, churches, theatres, pubs, race meetings and agricultural shows, plus the delay of victory celebrations. The result was not only economic hardship, but significant interruptions in education, entertainment, travel, shopping and worship’.
Jesus said: “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains…. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24: 6-8, 14).
Amid the tremendous upheaval we have experienced as a result of COVID-19, it is so good to look to the Lord who is risen, reigning and returning. Nothing takes God by surprise and the ministry he has entrusted to his people remains the same: “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world”.
I’m praying for a “Corona harvest”. In the midst of the suffering and loss caused by the pandemic, Sydney parishes have brought comfort, help and hope to many, far beyond our local fellowships. The transition to online ministry, which was intended to continue to provide support and encouragement to church members, has been accessed widely by newcomers and inquirers, the curious and the sceptical. Many parishes have been able to offer such visitors to their online presence the opportunity to take another step towards Jesus by enrolling in an online course or group, whether Christianity Explored, Introducing God or Alpha.
Church members have found that friends and family who have long declined invitations to attend a Sunday service in person, have responded warmly to the opportunity to join an online “service” as an interested observer, from the comfort of their own home. One member of our church family reported, “My Dad has been watching the morning services since they moved online”. Another says, “My neighbours… avoid anything to do with church. Now, I have been instructed to ask you to stream the services even after the pandemic, so they can continue to participate”. A Christian friend interstate says, “I’ve forwarded [the web link] to all my children, my brothers and sisters and close friends”. And another: “I’ve passed on the link to my 90-year[old [non-church attending] father… and he sends it to friends in Africa, Canada and Scotland!”.
Many parishes report the same thing. People who have had little do with Jesus and matters of faith are turning to their Christian friends and local online ministry in this strange season. Perhaps it is because the pandemic has given people both time and reason for an “inward look” and many have been discomforted by what they have found. Some, at least, have sensed that when the consumerism, competition and entertainment are stripped away, we’re left with a yearning for something substantial and satisfying. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
I’m praying for a Corona harvest. I’m praying that out of the disruption, suffering, loss and grief of the pandemic some – many – may find in Jesus the forgiveness that calms our fears, the hope that does not fail, the rest for which we yearn, the bread that nourishes to eternal life. I’m praying that in the days and months ahead, we will hear the testimony of new-born brothers and sisters who will speak of how “during the pandemic, I thought I’d check out my local church online”. I’m praying for a Corona harvest. Will you pray with me?