Pandemic as Apocalypse


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“Pandemic as Apocalypse”
April 26, 2020
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
Pastor Nicoletti

We will have a topical sermon tonight, in which we will consider and rely on a number of Scriptural truths.

But we will begin our time together with Luke 8:17.

Jesus said: “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

Let’s pray …

The starting point for tonight’s sermon, and the inspiration for several points I will make this evening, are a few articles that came out over the past few weeks.

The first to come out was by Rod Dreher, and then two others that built on Dreher’s reflections were by Peter Leithart. And each of them dealt with the claim that this pandemic is an apocalypse.

Now, before I go further, I should explain what I mean by that. And the best way to lay that out might be to explain first what it isn’t, second, what it might be, and then third, what it almost certainly is.

So first, what this isn’t. When I say that this pandemic is an apocalypse, I do not mean that it is the apocalypse. I don’t mean that it is the end of history. I don’t mean that the bodily return of Christ is at hand. That’s not what I’m saying this is.

Second, what this could be. Another thing some people could mean when they refer to this as an apocalypse is that while it is not the end of the world, it is the end of a world – the end of one particular organization of human life and culture. And a lot more writing has focused on that question – the question of: How will this pandemic change our culture, or our expectations, or our social interactions, or our economy, or our global order for years, or decades, or even forever? Now, some expect that we will be back to normal sooner rather than later. Others think we could be at the brink of a major global transition in one area of life or another. Those folks would say that we are not facing the end of the world, but the end of the world as we know it. And we may find ourselves wondering if that is the case. And it might be. Or it might not be. The fact is we don’t know. We do not know what aspects of the current social order may die through these events or what new ones might be born. And so the pandemic and the global response to the pandemic could be an apocalypse in that sense … but we don’t really know yet.

And that brings us to a third sense. Which is what is at the heart of what I want to focus on tonight. Because Rod Dreher points out that the word “apocalypse” itself means “to uncover” or “to unveil” – “to reveal.” That’s why the word we use for the title of the last book of the Bible is “Revelation” – which translates the word “Apocalypse.”

And I think it is fair to say that to the extent that we can discern such things, the current pandemic is almost certainly that kind of apocalypse. It is an uncovering – a revelation of what is.

Because while the current pandemic is no special indication that we have come to the end of the world, and while I do not know whether or not these events will bring about the end of a world – of a way of life – I am confident in asserting that through the current pandemic God has revealed much about us, about our world, and about our way of life.

And that should not be surprising, because that is what God so often does. He is a God who reveals what is hidden – he is a God who makes manifest what is below the surface. As Peter Leithart puts it: “When God comes near, he strips away the fig leaves, our defenses and delusions, and brings hidden things to light.”

And God does this again and again in the Scriptures and in history. He does this to some extent to all people, in all times and places, but in the Bible, we see him especially do it to his people. And when he does, it seems like there are three kinds of things God often reveals: he reveals the truth about their idols, he reveals the truth about their existence, and he reveals what they are called to do.

We see this in a range of places, but we might easily think of three examples.

On multiple occasions in the Old Testament we see God reveal the impotence of the idols that Israel has chosen to worship. Throughout the book of Judges, or throughout the historical books, or throughout the prophets, we see that when God’s people place their trust in an idol, God will expose to them how powerless that idol is, by allowing it to fail them before their very eyes. As their idols fail to save them, God repeatedly reveals to Israel the truth that their idols are powerless to do what they had trusted them to do.

Second, God reveals to people eternal truths about their existence in this world. That too can come in a number of forms. But if we want an overarching statement, we can consider Romans chapter one, and how through the creation God tells us certain things about our existence and our relationship to him.

And third, through his actions in this world, God also calls people to be faithful to him. When he brings calamity on his people in the Bible, it is in order to call them to repentance. And when he provides for his people it is to do the same, for as the Apostle Paul reminds us, the kindness of God is meant to lead us to repentance. [Romans 2:4]

And I want to argue tonight that in the events we are living through right now, God appears to be doing the same thing. He is revealing idols, he is revealing eternal truth, and he is revealing our calling.

And so tonight I want to talk about eight idols that are being revealed in the current crisis, four eternal truths that are bring revealed, and two callings that are being revealed.

Now – before you open another tab and start looking to see what else might be on the internet, because you did not sign up for a fourteen-point sermon tonight – hold on. Give me a minute.

We are going to move fast. While we’ll spend more time on some of them than others, we’re going to consider each of these items only briefly. So give me a chance.

What I ask of you, as we prepare to begin, is to honestly reflect on each of these items. Honestly consider how they might apply to you. And God knows whether these things are true of you. He knows you better than you do. So pray that he will reveal your own heart to you.

With that said, let’s dive in.

We start with eight idols revealed in the current crisis.

A few disclaimers as we begin:

First, this is not an exhaustive list. These are not the only eight idols revealed through current events, just eight of the first ones that came to mind for me.

Second, I need to stress that none of the things I’ll mention here are bad in themselves. They are not inherently sinful things, but good things we have turned into idols. They are good created things that we have mis-prioritized. They are things that we have put more faith, more hope, and more love into than God intended us to. And that is the problem we have: we have taken created things and treated them as greater than they are – we have treated them as gods.

The issue with everything on this list is not that we should put no faith or hope in them – it’s not that we should have no love for them. The issue is when we have placed far too much faith and hope in them – when we have too much love for them. Then we have made them idols.

Let me give a simple, and sort of silly, example.

God made food to temporarily sustain us, to satisfy our hunger, and to bring us enjoyment. In its proper place, a meal is a good gift that should be received with thanksgiving. But out of its right place, it becomes a serious problem.

If I trust a turkey sandwich to satisfy my hunger and sustain my energy for the next few hours, and to taste pretty good, then I do well.

But if I trust that turkey sandwich to heal cancer, I have misplaced my faith and hope in it and I do badly. If I trust it to heal my soul than I have misplaced my love in it, and I do even worse.

It’s a silly example, of course. But each idol we will talk about tonight is, in truth, just as silly, whether we see it or not.

So, if I name an idol, and you have the urge to object that the thing I’ve mentioned is not a bad thing, then you are right – I agree. It is good in its proper place. But the question I want you to consider – for our world, for our culture, and for your own heart – is, have we made it an idol? Have we placed or faith, our hope, or our love in it more than we should?

With that all said, what idols might this pandemic expose in us and around us?

Well, the first idol for us to consider is our idolatry of expertise.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago, Ross Douthat pointed out that we are in the habit of categorizing claims as being either information or misinformation – as being either news or fake news. The idea is that there are straightforward good and bad sources of information and the key is to just get the right ones. This framework, he notes, appears in most epidemic-themed movies. There is an official source of scientific study and information. There are unofficial sources. One is good and one is bad. One is on a quest for truth and the other is working to obscure the truth. Which is which will vary from movie to movie, but the shared assumption those movies so often hold out is that the experts who want the truth can always reach it.

But Douthat points out that while we find that pattern in Hollywood, it is not so in real life.

And we see that exposed right before our eyes. Our experts have struggled. Many have labored valiantly, many have sought the truth earnestly, but there is still so much that they don’t know. Every model is imperfect – some more so than others. The facts we know about how the virus spreads and how it affects people and what the risk factors are has changed again and again. Some have responded to these changes and developments by seeing it through that lens provided by Hollywood and by our culture, that some of the experts are seekers of truth while others are obscurers of truth … but the more obvious conclusion from all of this is actually scarier. Our experts cannot do what we assumed they could. Our experts, no matter how pure their motives and sincere their efforts, are able to know fewer things than we thought and are able to discover them at a slower rate than we assumed.

And this is an unveiling to us. It is an unveiling regarding our experts perhaps – at least regarding the confidence some of them may have in themselves or in their colleagues. But more than that it is an unveiling of us, of our expectations, of the faith and hope we place in the experts of our culture.

Now, none of this means that experts are bad or worthless – we’ll get to that opposite conclusion in a minute. What it means is that they are limited. And when we make idols of them, we tell ourselves that they are not limited. We tell ourselves that they are more than they could be. We are tempted to place more faith and hope in them than we should.

This has been highlighted first in the medical field during this pandemic. But it is true elsewhere as well. It is true of every area of life.

But the current crisis pulls back the veil. And we need to ask ourselves: Has this idolatry of expertise been rampant in our culture all along? How do we now see it exposed through what it is happening? And how might this form of idolatry need to be exposed and uprooted from our hearts as well?

That is the first idol for us to consider.

Now, if you liked my point about that first idol, chances are you may not like my point about the second idol. Because many in our culture, when they see the limitations of the expert’s knowledge, have a tendency to shift their faith and hope to a new idol – they have the tendency to shift their faith and hope to the idol of their own intellect and skill.

Though this tendency is common, it is an odd thought process if you really think about it. It’s like discovering that the average basketball player in the NBA is a couple inches shorter than you thought … and then assuming that that fact will make you taller … and also better at dunking.

Of course, it will not.

And yet, this is the line of thinking we are often tempted to follow. When the limitations of our experts are exposed, we tend to place our idolatrous trust more and more in our own intellect and skill. When we see the limits on those who have dedicated years of study and decades of work in a field, we come away with the unspoken conviction that a few days, or even a few hours, of Googling and reading on our own will make us more knowledgeable than those idiots who have spent a lifetime studying the same subject.

This tendency is foolish, and it is idolatrous. And, interestingly, it’s scientifically verified. It is known among psychologists as the Dunning-Kruger effect. What Dunning and Kruger have found, based on over a hundred studies, is that “people display an illusory superiority” in all sorts of areas of knowledge and skill. In fact, “those with the least ability [in a given field] are often most likely to over-rate their skills to the greatest extent.” [Dunning]

David Dunning notes that studies have shown that “People who are measurably poor at logical reasoning, grammar, financial knowledge, math, emotional intelligence, running medical lab tests, and chess [when asked to rate their own abilities,] all tend to rate their expertise almost as favorably as actual experts do.”

Now, this is an interesting phenomenon and has a number of aspects to it. But what I want to focus on especially is an aspect that social psychologists don’t tend to focus on – that of idolatry.

We have a tendency to place more faith and hope in our own abilities than we should.

One author recently put it like this. He said: “Many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.” [Nichols]

Now, again, as with other idols, our intellect and skill are not bad things. They are gifts from God, and he has given us a thirst to increase them. He has called us to seek wisdom. We should seek to learn and to grow. We should have opinions. We should use the knowledge, skill, and wisdom that God has given us. But as the Book of Proverbs reminds us again and again, true wisdom teaches us to be very aware of the limits of our own knowledge and understanding, and to respect and consider the counsel of those who know more than we do.

Now, idolatry of our intellect is not new. But perhaps the current situation has exposed it in more obvious ways. One of my friends recently posted on social media about how nice it was to see their friends online “switch back from being infectious disease experts to being constitutional scholars again.”

Perhaps the current crisis pulls back the veil a bit. Ask yourself: Is this idolatry of our own intellect and abilities – is it a problem in our culture? Is it being exposed now? And, most importantly: Is it present in your heart as well?

A third idol for us to consider that is exposed in the current crisis is our idolatry of technological solutions to our problems.

We are a culture that has come to believe that technology can save us from just about anything. We expect it to be able to alter our world, to alter our bodies, to alter our relationships, so that all of those things can be just the way we want them to be.

One might ask what better way there is to expose this idol in our culture and in our hearts than to force us to see that the only really effective thing we have right now against this virus is the same low-tech response people used five hundred years ago – quarantine and social distancing.

Again, technology and technological solutions are good things! They are gifts from God through the abilities he has given human beings. I expect that technology will play a central role in the long-term solution to all this. But the short-term realities have been an unveiling of our hearts, and the idolatrous faith and hope that we tend to place in technology. Because while our technology has been a huge help in the past weeks, still, it could not spare us from the crisis itself.

Recent events have pulled back the veil on the inordinate faith and hope we tend to place in our technology. And we need to ask ourselves: Has that idolatry been with us all along? How is it exposed more clearly now? And how is it at work in our own hearts as well?

A fourth unveiled idol we may consider is our idolatry of our institutions.

Because in the past few months we have seen institutions – institutions we trust, institutions we rely on – we have seen those institutions falter, or fail, or fall short, or just be unavailable to us. In some cases it may be their fault. But in others, it may be the fault of what we thought they could do for us. In still others, they have handled things well, but we have learned how we can be cut off from those institutions in ways we had not anticipated. They are finite and we can lose access to them.

Though which institutions we trust in can vary from person to person, the limitations of all of them have been exposed.

What institutions do you tend to place your trust in? And even if that institution handled things in an exemplary way – actually, especially if they handled things the best way they could – how have the events of the past few weeks maybe exposed the reality that you have placed more faith and hope in them than you should have? Maybe it is exposed by what they could do or couldn’t do. Or maybe it was exposed by the simple fact that you can no longer fully participate in that institution. Do you see this idol exposed in your life right now?

A fifth idol to consider, which this situation has exposed, is our idolatry of our system of commerce.

Now, to say it again, I am not talking about a critique of our economic system. That’s not what we are considering tonight. What I want to focus on is not what is right or wrong with our system of commerce itself, but what false hopes – what inappropriate faith – we have placed in them, and how the current situation has revealed that mis-ordered faith.

We live in a culture where many of us have come to assume we can have just about any product we want, in an instant. We can run out the door and be back with it in minutes, or after a couple minutes on our phones or computer, we can arrange to have it at our door in two days or less.

And in just a few days we went from being able to do just that, to being unable to buy basic cleaning products … or toilet paper … or rice … or flour … or yeast … or any number of things.

Now, we should give thanks because we are not really in danger of want – plenty of food is available. That’s not my point.

My point is, when those basics were suddenly unavailable to buy, how did you respond? Was it with a rational level of disappointment? Or was there a deeper distress gnawing at your gut? Was there a distress that something you always assumed would be available to you whenever you wanted it … suddenly wasn’t? Was there a distress that grew out of the fact that you had placed more faith and hope in our system of commerce than maybe you should have?

We could consider other examples, whether the strains on our supply chains, or the fact that we, the richest country in the world, have been scrambling to get our hands on masks that usually cost about sixty cents each.

Either way, how do you see this idolatry of our system of commerce in your heart? How do you see this idolatry in the culture around you? How have our recent events exposed it?

Sixth, we can consider our idolatry of wealth and power.

A pandemic and the economic uncertainty it brings both have an ability to expose this idol in our hearts.

First, we note that wealth and power, while they can buy layers of protection, are still no guarantee against disease. We have seen both heads of state and stars of Hollywood fall ill. Our power and money can buy a lot of worldly security … but a pandemic reminds us how limited that security really is.

The same things are exposed in a different way when we consider the economic uncertainty this all brings. Now, to be clear, those who already struggle financially are facing real hardships right now. And even for those who are financially secure, it is not wrong to lament the loss of wealth that has been worked for and earned. I’m not denying either of those things.

What I want to focus on is not so much the losses themselves, but whether these events have exposed an idolatrous belief that nothing could touch the wealth we have worked for or stored up. Because as markets took hits, and as the future of the economy seems uncertain, many have seen wealth that they had evaporate, and many more may still see it happen to them.

The question is not whether we should work and save and be prudent with our money. The question again is: have you placed more faith and hope in your bank account, in your career, in your retirement account, in the economy, than you should have? Have you made it an idol? Have you assumed that it will keep you safe and secure no matter what?

A seventh idol to consider is our plans.

James, in chapter four of his letter, writes:
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

Most of us Christians have heard that before. Most of us are good at nodding our head to it in agreement. Many of us are good at inserting it into our conversation with others. “Lord willing” we add before we state a plan.

So here’s my question: How have you done so far as months of your plans have blown up right in front of your face?

I don’t know about you, but I have not handled it well.

I’ve made an idol of my plans, and my ability to plan. I’ve placed more faith and hope in my own plans than is right. I’ve mis-ordered my trust. And this pandemic has exposed that in ways I had not really seen before now.

Has it exposed the same things in your heart and life?

An eighth idol we might consider is our idolatry of our independence and our freedom from the impositions of other people.

We are an incredibly individualistic culture and I think it’d be hard to argue that we do not make an idol of our independence or our freedom from the impositions of others. We want to make our own decisions. We want to interact with other people on our terms. We want to put buffers between ourselves and others so that they cannot get too close, and cannot make too many demands on us, and cannot show up in our lives when we don’t want them there.

Author Tish Harrison Warren wrote in a recent article that this time of social distancing and isolation seemed to her like when her friend’s mom caught him smoking a cigarette as a kid, and so the mom made him sit down and smoke the whole pack. After that, he never smoked again.

The mom’s reasoning was, “You want cigarettes, I’ll give you cigarettes!” And we might wonder if God’s response to our idolatrous love of our independence is not to say to us as a culture, “You want independence and isolation; I’ll give you independence and isolation!”

Of course, God would not do that out of spite, but like the boy’s mother, he could it to help. He could do it to reveal that this thing we love so much maybe has become an idol.

I could go on. We could talk about our idolatry of cultural warfare, or our idolatry of distraction, or more. But for now I will stop there.

Where do you see these idols exposed in our culture? Where do you see them exposed in your own heart and life?

And don’t limit yourself to these eight! What other idols has God unveiled in you and around you?

The first way that this pandemic is an apocalypse is that it reveals to us our idols.

The second way this pandemic is an apocalypse is that it reveals to us things that have always been true, about us and about the world we live in – but things which we often fail to see.

In some ways these are the corresponding opposites to many of the idols we have just considered. But it is important that we consider these truths from this side as well.

Peter Leithart, reflecting on this aspect, outlines four somewhat obvious things that we should be thinking about in this season, but may not be.

First, the current crisis reveals the eternal truth that we are creatures of limited understanding.

This is something that is always the case … but we tend to forget it, until it is exposed in a time like this and everyone is struggling, from the experts on down, to understand what is going on, how bad will it be, and how long will it last.

Second, the current crisis reveals the eternal truth that we are creatures of limited control. Whenever we take actions as human beings – whether big ones or small ones – there are unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are a big red flag in life that remind us about the limits of our control. And we are living in a world filled with unintended consequences right now. With the physical health needs of the public, the emotional and spiritual needs of the public, the financial and economic needs of the public, and more, all up in the air, all seeming to be in tension with one another, the limited nature of our control over our lives – both individually and as a society – the limited nature of our control is on display.

A third eternal truth that this situation has put on display is that we are creatures who are inherently vulnerable. We cannot sustain ourselves. We are inherently dependent creatures. Of course, after sin and death entered the world, this became even more true; but even before the fall, human beings were made to be dependent, and therefore vulnerable, creatures. We rely for our existence, every minute, on another – on God. Every minute of existence is a gift that we could not obtain ourselves. And, to reflect that, we are made dependent on the world around us – on food, on water, on air. And, most obviously now, on the right functioning of incredibly complex bodies that we struggle to understand, let alone control. We are creatures who are inherently vulnerable.

Fourth, and finally, the current situation is a display once again, for us and for all people, that only God can truly protect us. Our idols cannot do it. We ourselves cannot do it. We cannot control our life. We cannot control our death. And the only real hope is in the God who is stronger than death. The only real hope is in the God who can order our lives, and who can count every hair on our heads, and who loves us enough to give his own Son in order to save us.

Our only true hope is the God who is Lord not only over life but over death, and who in Christ has told us that whatever may transpire in this life – however it may go for us, however long or short our time here may be – if we place our trust in him, then he will receive us at the end of this life into his loving arms. And then, on the last day, he will make us, and all things, new. He will restore our bodies from the dead. He will unite our bodies and souls once more. And he will give us the eternal life of joy and peace with him that we most long for in our hearts, whether we realize it or not.

The only one who can truly protect us – the only one worthy of our ultimate faith, hope, and love, is God himself.

Which brings us to our last section. We have considered eight idols revealed, four eternal truths revealed, and now we turn to two callings revealed: the callings to repent and to believe.

Those callings are at the heart of our response to the truth that God reveals to his people.

The first call is to repent of your sin and of your idols. What idolatries have resonated with you tonight? What idolatries have come to mind for you beyond the eight that I have mentioned here? And what would it look like to repent of your idolatry? What would it look like to put those things in their proper place – to stop trusting in them to keep you safe and secure, but to receive them as the temporal and finite gifts that they are? How do you need to repent of the idols the current crisis has exposed?

And then how do you need to believe? How do you need to increase your trust in the Lord? How do you need to increase your trust in Christ? We are vulnerable creatures who need to place their trust somewhere. How can you pursue the Lord more wholeheartedly in this crisis, and offer to him the faith, hope, and love that you have, up until now, been placing in the things he has made?

How do you need to repent and believe?

I’ve outlined a number of things that I (and others) think have been unveiled – have been exposed – have been revealed – about us in the current crisis, by God’s providence.

Do you see them as well?

In many ways, you either do or you don’t. I can’t make you see them in this world, and I certainly can’t make you see them in your own heart, even if they are there. The Lord must reveal them to each of us.

But if you do see them … the question remains whether or not you will act on what you see.

Will you act on it now? And, even more importantly, will you act on it when all of this is over?

Peter Leithart writes: “The main thing exposed by any apocalypse is the state of the heart. God tested Israel with manna to ‘know what was on your hearts’ (Deut. 6), and his word cuts through to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12–13). We will come through this, and that reprieve will be as critical a test as the crisis has been. What will we do when things return to ‘normal?’”

Will we continue in repentance and faith? Or will we return again to our idols?

I’m doing a Bible reading plan this year with a few friends from a long-term pastors’ accountability group that I’m part of – friends who are scattered across the country. And we are in the Book of Judges right now.

And the pattern of the Book of Judges is depressing, right? The people turn to idols. God brings judgment that reveals to them that their idols do not have the power to protect them. The people repent. God delivers them. And then, when the problems are over, the people return to their idols.

If we are unaware of our own hearts, we can look down on Israel in that book; but if we know our own hearts, and if we see the apocalyptic nature of our current situation, then we should be filled with fear and trembling. Because that could so easily be us.

When this is over, it will be so easy to transfer our faith and hope back to these idols once again. It will be so easy to tell ourselves that we are in control of our lives, that we have made ourselves invulnerable. It will be so easy to close our eyes again to what God is revealing to us now.

We should be praying now for how we will live then.

And in the meantime, we should seek to repent and believe, in the situation we find ourselves in today.

God, as he reigns over creation, reveals many things to his people, and to all whom he has created. He reveals our idols. He reveals eternal truths. He reveals his calling for us and his claim on us.

We have considered together tonight just some things he may be revealing in our current crisis. But whatever he is revealing, the call will remain the same – the call will be to turn from our idols and to trust in God our Maker.

The question that remains is how we will respond.

How will we respond today? How will we respond tomorrow? How will we respond a year from now?

How will the world respond? How will God’s people respond? How will you and I respond?

Let us respond by repenting of our idols, and casting ourselves on our sovereign king – the only one who can keep us safe in life and in death.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:

Douthat, Ross. “In the Fog of Coronavirus, There Are No Experts. The New York Times. April 7, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/opinion/coronavirus-science-experts.html
Dunning, David. For a good summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect, see this TED talk: https://youtu.be/pOLmD_WVY-E
Dreher, Rod. “The Present Apocalypse.” The American Conservative. March 22, 2020. https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/coronavirus-apocalypse-christianity-benedict-option/
Leithart, Peter. “Apocalypse Now?” First Things (Web Exclusive). March 27, 2020. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/apocalypse-now
Leithart, Peter. “Trust or Terror.” Theopoilis Institute. April 1, 2020. https://theopolisinstitute.com/leithart_post/trust-or-terror/
Nichols, Tom. “The problem with thinking you know more than the experts.” PBS News Hour. April 14, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/problem-thinking-know-experts
Warren, Tish Harrison. “I Miss Singing at Church” The New York Times. April 5, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/05/opinion/coronavirus-church-religion.html