Writings by Cole Huffman


The World In Lazaretto

When I wrote my book about Jesus’ seven miracles in John’s Gospel, I learned that the name Lazarus has been converted into a term for a quarantine room—a lazaretto. It’s apt: the need for quarantining due to contagion is so one can emerge “resurrected.”

Owing to Coronavirus, the world is in lazaretto now. We’re all disrupted, waiting to emerge from social isolation. Lazarus and his sisters were personally close to Jesus, but Lazarus still died and his sisters had cause to weep in grief. Being loved by God does not make us immune from troubles. It’s never a question of whether we can escape troubles, but whether we have a meaning in life troubles can’t take away. 

For those in Christ, present sorrows and distresses are invitations to go “further up and further in,” as Lewis has his Narnians put it—further up and further in to faith, hope, and love. I once heard someone put it like this: that suffering is an invitation to a higher dialogue with God. I heard someone else say it this way: that when the worst moment of your life comes, go to the deepest thing you know of God and hold on to that.

You and I may emerge from Coronavirus with our health unscathed but we won’t emerge the same. I learned late last night that someone I know, a fellow pastor, has died from COVID-19. The pandemic is a mortality check for everyone. The old and infirm already appreciate the delicateness of health, while the young and invincible are learning to in real time. (I’m watching this happen in my college daughters, who happen to be nursing students.)

I’ve had past conversations with pastor-friends along lines of: What does it take to break people out of their preoccupations with personal peace and affluence? Francis Schaeffer used to point to “personal peace and affluence” as the double-barreled reality that made the West hard ground for sowing gospel seeds. How do people who often have it so well come to feel a need for God? It usually requires troubles of some kind.

I’ve been asked if Coronavirus is a judgment from God. The honest answer is no one knows. Those who say it cannot be—how do they know the mind of God on this? He has used plagues before, hasn’t He? People who reflexively say this is not God’s judgment say that because they want to rescue God from any accusation of wrongdoing. They want a god who only calls people from tombs, not a god who puts anyone there.

On the other extreme are those who nod and say it is judgment, yes. Whatever cultural unrighteousness needs divine retribution it’s now getting it. But hasn’t God withheld plagues before (Jonah, anyone)? And isn’t God on record saying judgment is His alien work (Isa. 28:21), and His mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13)? The judgers want to call neighbors to repentance, which is needed in bearing witness to grace, except the judgers so often act as if unbelievers’ sins are the sole reason for calamities affecting us all. Repentance applies to believers also and the self-righteous have as much to repent of as the unrighteous. 

Anytime we face something like a natural disaster or terrorist attack or pandemic in which many die, when normal life is interrupted and everyone is on edge, we do better to look within than to look around. Remember what Jesus told that crowd in Luke 13? The ones on whom a tower fell, as well as those Pilate victimized, were not worse sinners than survivors. We all need to practice repentance as a way of life. Not because God is threatening disasters on us if we don’t but because every disaster in a fallen world is a prompt to “collapse on Christ, not promise you’ll do better” (Jack Miller’s vivid description of repentance in practice).

Lazarus died and Jesus loved him. The text says both. It would be a hopeless situation if Lazarus died and that was it, or if Jesus’ love was mere sentiment lacking authority. As it was, Lazarus was allowed to die so God through Jesus could demonstrate His power and glory incomparable.

Throughout the centuries the church has had to learn how God uses low times to set His gospel more securely in us. His grace is what braces our life. If we have a meaning in life troubles cannot take away it’s not because we’re better or smarter than our neighbors, it’s because God has ordered our life around the love of the One who loved us first and called us from death to life.

The world will come out of its present lazaretto. Medical professionals will find a COVID-19 cure. But mortality is reality ongoing until Jesus’ kingdom comes in fullness. 

While we yet live—in and through this time as God wills—let’s reflect again on how we were all Lazarus, dead in our trespasses and sins, how Jesus remedied the contamination for us, taking it upon His own person, calling us from our self-righteous and unrighteous lazarettos both, holding new life out to us. Jesus holds on to us now, come what may. No trouble, near or far, can take from us who Jesus is, or what He accomplishes on our behalf.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 10:37 AM
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