- David Schrader, PhD., National Pastor
A Covid Christmas
Christmas will be quite different for many of us this year. Government restrictions will limit the number of people we can share Christmas with; and plans to connect with our families and friends will be greatly hampered because of this present pandemic.
What's worse than our social inconvenience is that millions of people around the world are facing uncertain futures because of this pandemic. They are concerned about their health, their employment, their loved ones, and the future repercussions of massive government debt on generations to come. And to make matters worse, economists everywhere are sounding alarms that government bailouts cannot continue much longer.
Most people intuitively know that there is a limit to what their governments can do. After all, they are not our saviour – even though their nanny state behaviours can give that false impression to those who are dependent on them. And, that dependency is growing more dire by the moment. In the US, data suggests that 5.6 million households with children have reported struggling to afford food in the last seven days. This is in spite of the fact that the US government has already pumped six trillion dollars into their economy to help people and businesses affected by this pandemic. And, that figure is sure to rise in a few days.
Feed Ontario, just released its 2020 Hunger Report, revealing that one out of two food bank users worry they will lose their home within the next two to six months. Eighty-six per cent of social housing tenants spend the bulk of their monthly income on rent. And there has been a 44 per cent rise in the number of employed Ontarians going to the food bank over the past four years. The Canadian government has already spent $151.7 billion on Covid 19 assistance and it faces a projected deficit of $381 billion – a deficit that's growing faster than any other nation in the G20.
This pandemic is also taking its toll on people's mental well-being. In a Nanos poll, people were four times as likely to report that their mental health was "worse" or "somewhat worse" than before COVID-19. Likewise, over half of the respondents (52%) in the crowdsourcing survey reported that their mental health was either "somewhat worse" or "much worse" than prior to the beginning of physical distancing. Among these, 41% reported symptoms consistent with moderate or severe anxiety.
Obviously, people are in dire situations; and governments are doing everything they can to offset these hardships. Unfortunately, we have been living under the impression that the government will always be there for us. But what will people do if their governments are no longer able to help them? Who will they turn to then for help? Consider Venezuela for example.
The Venezuelan government is in crisis after years of hyperinflation, violence, and food and medicine shortages. The country was once considered the richest in Latin America, thanks to having the largest oil reserves in the world. But more than a decade of socialistic policies, declining oil revenue and poor governance have led to the collapse of the national economy, and the government has not been able to provide adequate social services ever since. And now Venezuelan hospitals lack the basics to function, let alone handle COVID-19. Over four million people have already left Venezuela seeking refuge for a better country and government. So, putting our trust in governments can prove disappointing.
The world and its governments have been stunned by the devastation Covid 19 has caused. This has left some to ask, "Are we not the most advanced of all civilizations to have ever lived?" "So, couldn't we have prevented this in the first place?" "Or now that it is here, can't we fix this?" Well, yes, we are undoubtedly the most advanced of all civilizations before us. But, then again, "What exactly do we mean by 'advanced'?" If you mean we are more advanced materially, technologically, medically, and scientifically – the answer is yes. For example, the recent news out of the scientific community about new vaccines being rolled out have caused many people to have hope again – at least in the short term. So, yes it seems that we are both advanced and able to "fix" this virus.
But our hope is cautiously optimistic as a new strain of the virus has appeared in the UK which is considered to be seventy percent more transmissible. This leaves us to wonder if the new vaccines will be effective on that strain as well. And, as we look into the future, there are still more questions that trouble us. For example, if the current virus is obliterated, could we ever experience another virus again – one that is even worse than this one? Will the medical and scientific community be able to once again find a vaccine? Or will it be like cancer and go on for years without a cure? And will the world's governments even be able to financially survive another crisis like this?
I don't raise these troubling questions to be pessimistic. Instead, I raise them to give us a much-needed perspective on life. As advanced as we are as a civilization, the government and scientific community hasn't been able to fix our fears, worries and uncertainties about the future.
We are concerned about questions like these because of our temporal fixation – my life, my family, my health, my work and my friends. We want all of these dynamics and relationships to continue undisturbed. But if we know anything about life and governments, it's this – life and governments are never certain. When things begin to unravel, as they do in a pandemic like this, it leaves us wondering where to turn for meaningful answers.
We all want this pandemic to be over, but in spite of our best wishes, it rages on. There is, however, something positive in the midst of this pandemic. It continues to remind us of our frailty and mortality – two things our government and the scientific community cannot fix for us.
And while Christmas might seem like the last thing on our minds right now, it's the story of Christmas that provides us with so much hope – not just for the moment, but for our future too.
When Jesus came to earth, Matthew says, "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined (Matthew 4:16).” The word, "darkness", speaks of a deep sense of despair and hopelessness. It was not a literal darkness but a spiritual one. People were alienated from God because of their sins. This is what Paul meant when he said, "They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts (Ephesians 4:18).
Spiritual indifference, or ignorance of God, is a darkness of thought, perspective and belief. It's living one's life without hope and meaning. It's living with only a temporal focus – one that excludes God and the eternal. It's a darkness that only sees the worries and burdens of life.
Matthew's words, "in a land where death casts its shadow", speaks to our present situation too. All around us we hear of thousands who have died due to this pandemic. Some have died because of the virus and others have taken their lives because of the virus. The prospects of dying ourselves, or losing someone dear to us, or losing our jobs due to this this pandemic, keeps many feeling like they are sitting in darkness. But Matthew says, "a light has shined" into that darkness.
Jesus, the Light of the World, came into this world to forgive us, to give us hope and to provide us with a deep assurance that he is with us, even in this pandemic. That is what Emmanuel means – God is with us. Jesus said, "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows (even things like Covid 19). But take heart, because I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” The Lord Jesus Christ, being no stranger to trouble himself, was effectively saying, you will have many troubles just like I had, but I overcame those troubles and because I did, so can you.
Jesus also reassures us when he says, “I leave you peace; my peace I give you. I do not give it to you as the world does. So, don’t let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me say to you, "I am going, but I am coming back to you (John 14:27-28)." This was not a pseudo peace like the world offers. This is a peace that calms a troubled heart, a peace that quiets our fears and a peace that assures us of an eternal future with Jesus.
When the world suddenly became dark the day Christ died, the gloom and despair the disciples felt was palpable. At that moment, they were living in the shadow of Christ's death. Their world and their future looked dark and hopeless. Little did they realize that his death would brighten their world and provide hope, not only for them, but for the entire world.
When Jesus rose from the grave, the disciples gained a new perspective on life. For the first time someone had defeated death. They knew that no matter what they faced, nothing could destroy their hope now. Sitting in the darkness was no longer possible because of the light of Christ. They could now trust the risen Saviour to be with them through anything. How glad they were that Jesus came to earth and was born in Bethlehem on that first Christmas morning.
Martin Rinkart was a Lutheran Pastor in Eilenburg, Germany and he knew something about trusting God in difficult times. He lived in the seventeenth century. This was at the beginning of the Thirty Year's War and his town became the focal point of that war. In 1637 a plague came to Eilenberg with extraordinary severity. The town was overcrowded with fugitives from the country districts where the Swedes had been spreading devastation, and in this one year 8,000 persons died in it. The whole of the town council except three persons, a terrible number of school children, and the clergymen of the neighbouring parish, were all carried off.
Rinkart had to do the work of three men at the beds of the sick and dying. He buried more than 4,000 persons in one year, sometimes as many as fifty in a day. But through all his labours Rinkart remained perfectly well. The pestilence was followed by a famine so extreme that thirty or forty persons might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow. Rinkart, with the burgomaster and one other citizen, did what could be done to organize assistance, and gave away everything but the barest rations for his own family, so that his door was surrounded by a crowd of poor starving wretches, who found it their only refuge.
Yet, Martin's trust in God during all these calamities was not shattered. His confidence and trust in God are demonstrated by his best-known hymn that he wrote during this plague and famine – "Now Thank We All Our God". One of the lines of his famous hymn goes like this:
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.
Martin's hymn epitomizes what happened the day Emmanuel came to earth. Jesus came to be near us, to give us his peace, to keep us in his grace, to guide us when we are perplexed and to free us from all ills in this world into the next.
And just to be clear, there is a government we can all put our trust in. Its's the government of our Lord Jesus Christ. Isaiah 9:6-7 says, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end."
 Leonardo Blair, "Majority of US households with kids worried about food security as millions struggle", The Christian Post, https://www.christianpost.com/news/majority-of-households-with-kids-worried-about-food.html?uid=ce8fdcf89d, November 30, 2020. The Hunger Report 2020, "The Impact of Covid 19 on Food Bank Use in Ontario", https://feedontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Hunger-Report-2020-Feed-Ontario-Digital.pdf, November 30, 2020.  Paul Vieira and Kim Mackrael, "Canada’s Covid-19 Response Is to Spend Heavily and Ignore the Deficit—for Now", https://www.wsj.com/articles/canadas-covid-19-response-is-to-spend-heavily-and-ignore-the-deficitfor-now-11606825162, December 1, 2020.  Mental Health Commission of Canada. (2020). Canadians report an increase in feeling stressed regularly or all the time now compared to one month before COVID-19.  Statistics Canada. (2020, May 27). Canadians’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ibid.  https://www.worldvision.org/disaster-relief-news-stories/venezuela-crisis-facts  Philip Reeves, "Many Venezuelan Hospitals Lack Basics To Function, Let Alone Handle COVID-19", https://www.npr.org/2020/04/10/831569313/many-venezuelan-hospitals-lack-basics-to-function-let-alone-handle-covid-19, April 12, 2020.  Merrit Kennedy, U.N. Says More Than 4 Million People Have Left Venezuela, https://www.npr.org/2019/06/07/730687807/u-n-says-more-than-4-million-people-have-left-venezuela, June 7, 2019. Paul Nuki, "New coronavirus strain ‘moves fast’ and is becoming the dominant variant", The new strain – now officially named VUI-202012/01 - may be “up to 70 per cent” more transmissible than earlier strains, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/new-virus-strain-moves-fast-becoming-dominant-variant/, December 21, 2020.  https://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm  Ibid.