The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evening Prayer online      15th November 2020
In the Long Run...
Handley Stevens

OT Reading: 1Kings 1.15-40
NT Reading: Revelation 1.4-18
‘In the long run … we are all dead’.  So said John Maynard Keynes in 1923, as economists worried about the risk of having to abandon the gold standard in the economic crisis which followed the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic. ‘In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task’ he continued ‘if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again’.   
Once again we are in the midst of a tempestuous season, which tests not only our handling of the economy, but equally our faith in God’s loving care for us.  It’s all very well to look forward, with the book of Revelation, to a new heaven and a new earth, where all our tears shall be wiped away (Rev 21.4), and of course we can now look forward to a vaccine, but getting back to normal is still a distant prospect, a bit like the economists’ vision of a calm sea when the storm is past.  How much help are these bright visions, as we struggle to cope with the ‘tempestuous season’ in which we are living to-day?  And this time, as we all hunker down in a second period of lockdown, we don’t even have the long summer evenings to look forward to.  Personally I have much to be thankful for, though I miss the social and cultural life of our great city, as well as the company of family and friends.  How much harder it must be to cope with the narrow confinement of four walls if you are living on your own in a small flat with no outside space. Where is God in all this? Are we being punished?  Has He unleashed the virus and gone away?
In the Old Testament famine sword and pestilence are sometimes seen as instruments of God’s judgment used to chastise his people, or their enemies, and bring them to their senses. The classic case is of course the succession of plagues that led to Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt. However, Jeremiah and Ezekiel saw that famine, sword and plagues could equally be turned against rebellious Israel.  On the other hand Psalm 91 appears to offer, to those who dwell under the defence of the most High, protection from the pestilence that walketh in darkness and from the sickness that destroyeth in the noon-day, and the book of Job was written to counter any suggestion that there was necessarily a causal link between bad behaviour and evil consequences.  Israel knew that often an epidemic or a famine was just one of those things that happen. 
At the consecration of the temple, when Solomon pleads with God to hear the prayers that will be offered there, his prayer encapsulates what the people of Israel had come to understand about such links as there may be between plague and the behaviour of the individual or the whole community.  
Whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea  from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing their own suffering and their own sorrows so that they stretch out their hands towards this house; then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know – according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every heart – so that they may fear you and walk in your ways all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors. (1 Kings 8.37-40; 2 Chronicles 6.28-30)
Solomon’s prayer is careful to leave open the possibility that we may need to seek the protection of God’s grace, or his forgiveness.
A second lesson which we can learn from the Old Testament is that when terrible things do happen for whatever reason, God is able to use them to carry forward his purposes.  The wickedness of heart which sells Joseph into slavery, as well as the famine which eventually compels Joseph’s brothers to make the journey to Egypt to buy food, are both used by God to raise Joseph to a position of great power in Egypt, which he can use not only to feed his family, but to bring about their reconciliation.  
The God whom we encounter in the Old Testament is often more generous than we might suppose.  But we believe that in his love for all humanity, God was not satisfied with the way even his chosen people were acting to take care of one another, much less the rest of the world.  Despite the guidance of the Law and the Prophets, when people suffered from plague or any other disaster, great or small, too often, like the priest and the scribe in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they - and we - passed by on the other side.  Some of the prophets – notably Isaiah with his poems about the Suffering Servant, and even the fierce Jeremiah who foresaw the need for a new law to be written on the hearts of God’s people – the prophets had hinted at a radical new approach, but it took the intervention of God Himself in Jesus to show us a different way, and to give us by the Holy Spirit the strength and the means to follow that way of costly love, love without limit.  
So, where is the active love of God in this pandemic?  Although it is not altogether fanciful to suggest that Covid-19 may have affected the outcome of last week’s Presidential election in the United States, I don’t believe it has been sent as an act of judgment.  First, we should respond to this pandemic by praying for God to look with mercy not only on ourselves, but on all the healthcare professionals who are treating the sick, on those who are working so hard to develop and distribute vaccines, and on governments and aid agencies including the World Health Organisation which will have choices to make about distribution.  
But the costly love of God as we see it in the life of Jesus asks more and offers more. Will the great pharmaceutical companies be allowed to make huge profits by selling to the highest bidder?  Will we all shout: Me first?  Or will the world come together to ensure that priority in protecting the vulnerable and caring for the sick is based not on wealth and power but on a just and generous assessment of need.  
In the long run … yes, humanly speaking, we are all dead.  Yet we believe with St Paul that ‘as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Corinthians 15.22).  And in the words of St John’s uplifting vision of the Son of Man, ‘I was dead and see, I am alive forever and ever’ (Rev 1.18).  
But let me give the last word to G K Chesterton, whose poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, about the courage in dark times of King Alfred, was quoted by Malcolm Guite on the back page of last week’s Church Times: 
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

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