Cholera is an acute illness caused by bacteria found in contaminated water. There have been seven pandemic outbreaks of cholera in the past 200 years, most recently in 2016. The fourth outbreak started in 1846 and lasted four years. Russia was the country worst hit, with one million lives lost. But it also reached North America and Europe.
People were not sure how cholera spread, only that it was highly contagious and that families tended to get it together. We now know that it is transmitted through contaminated food and water, and spread by people not washing their hands after using the bathroom. Handwashing was simply not part of routine hygiene in those days.
Understandably, people were extremely afraid of the unknown. Public gatherings, including church services ceased, not because of government orders, but as the natural response of a terrified population.
The pandemic reached London in 1854, scarcely one year into the ministry of a young preacher by the name of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The outbreak would end up killing over 14,000 Londoners. What would Spurgeon and the New Park Street Baptist Church do? They kept on holding services for those who wanted to attend, added new members, and celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Spurgeon was urged to remain quarantined except for preaching, but instead he bravely insisted on visiting the sick, as they were most afraid and most in need of ministry.
“In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighborhood in which I labored was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave… When many were afraid to enter their houses lest they should catch the deadly disease, we who had no fear about such things found ourselves most gladly listened to when we spoke of Christ and of things Divine.”
How is it that while other pastors were self-quarantined, and other churches shut their doors, Spurgeon and his church “had no fear about such things”? It’s not that he didn’t believe he would die, it’s that he didn’t fear death.
I hope to provide for you something more powerful than a vaccine for the coronavirus today; I hope to arm you with the same knowledge and faith Spurgeon had, by drawing from the same source: God’s life-giving word.
We are in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic. People we know have the disease. Some have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. But as Christians we know that in time of disease and death, our experience of God’s love is often intensified, and we see this in a family in Bethany. John 11 is all about the glory, love, and power of Christ in the time of grief, disease, and death.
What Satan Hopes to Accomplish in this Time of Pandemic
DISTRUST OF GOD’S LOVE (John 11:1-6; 28-38)
John 11:1–3 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
Christ’s love for this family is emphasized in this passage repeatedly, which keeps whispering in our ear the theological reminder that illness and suffering is not necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure. Never distrust God’s love for you when you are sick.
There is an unexpected conjunction in verse 6, Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Jesus allowed Lazarus to die?! Why?
Because in the midst of sickness and death, God can be glorified. John says in verse 4 but when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
When you are sick, know this: God loves you. His love is not diminished when you are suffering or afraid.
See how intensely Jesus’ love is expressed…verse 33 tells us that Jesus was deeply moved – or indignant -and greatly troubled, or agitated, by the sorrow that he saw around him, even though he knows what is about to happen!
Death is an abomination; it is unnatural and unwelcome in God’s world. Death entered the world because of sin. And Jesus is on a mission to abolish sin and death forever! And until that is done, he balks at the death of his loved ones just like you do.
The temptation we face when a loved one dies is to think that maybe God doesn’t care, because if he did, then he could have prevented this. But let me assure you that God’s love in a time of cholera or corona or cancer is as real as at any other time, if not more real!
The solution to the wrong response of distrust of God’s love is the empathy of Christ. If you do get COVID-19 or cancer or anything else, cling to the love of God in Christ Jesus.
DISTRACTION FROM MINISTRY (John 11:7-16)
John 11:7–10 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Another common response to the pandemic is that we become paralyzed with fear. We are afraid to get on with the work God has given us to do. We are afraid of dying, so we live as if surviving is the most important duty we have.
But it’s not.
The most important duty we have as humans is NOT to keep on living; it is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, even if it kills us.
Glorify God… or die trying!
The disciples were jittery about Jerusalem. Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem—the epicenter of the anti-Jesus movement – so Jesus quotes a little proverb to them: Are there not twelve hours in the day?
Jesus is saying daylight is prime time for working. There is a time to work and a time to rest. Life is the season to minister.
Our priority tends to be to stay alive; Christ’s priority is to glorify the Father and to give saving faith to people. Jesus did not want Lazarus to avoid dying. He wanted to give God glory, even if that meant grief and distress and death.
And the antidote to distraction from ministry, is to have the courage of Thomas. Yes, you read that right.
John 11:16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Doubting Thomas gets a bad rep for his one moment of wavering. But here I see him getting the point of what Jesus is saying: “Let’s do ministry, come what may. Let’s glorify God or die trying.”
Spurgeon saw the time of cholera as the best time for the ministry. During the 1866 outbreak he gave this charge: “And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls… You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him.”
Now is not a time to hole up but a time to get out there. It’s prime time for the gospel!
Yes, you might die, but what a great way to go—with your boots on.
Use this time to preach to your neighbors. To come to church. Take precautions, wear a mask, and for the love of God, wash your hands! But don’t hole up as if avoiding death is the most important duty you have.
How do I get that bold? How do I avoid distress about my life?
DISTRESS ABOUT OUR FUTURE (John 11:21-27)
John 11:21-27 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
The distress about our future is an anxiety that can be dispelled with a shot of right theology.
Right theology is a comforting hug from the truth; right theology is a soft pillow on which to rest your burdened mind.
Martha has right theology. She doesn’t know what Jesus will do. But she knows him, and she trusts God’s power, and she draws comfort from what is certain about the future.
What do you believe about your future? Does it drive out the fear of death?
1 Corinthians 15:51–58 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
So don’t panic in distress about your future. When your faith is failing and fears are growing, fill your mind with God’s promises. Let your theology be a cozy blanket of comforting truth.