KC Tsai—Toronto, Canada
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the province of Ontario, Canada, was diagnosed on January 25, 2020. Subsequently, the Ontario government closed all indoor recreational venues, libraries, theaters, and schools, and banned social gatherings of fifty individuals or more. From March 24, all non-essential businesses were shut down, except for grocery stores, pharmacies, and other essential vendors. On March 28, the maximum number of people allowed to gather was reduced to five.
From March 18, the church in Toronto started hosting online worship services for members to attend. Many members have found this arrangement beneficial, sharing that they participate with a more reverent attitude, treating the occasion to worship their Savior as a privilege. To address the need for interaction and fellowship during this time, the church replaced the scheduled afternoon Sabbath service with group Bible studies catering to different age groups and languages. Members are also encouraged to greet one another, using their cameras and microphones on their devices at the start and end of each session.
In July, the Ontario government started lifting restrictions cautiously, allowing churches to open for services for a limited number of congregants, at thirty percent capacity of the building. Online services continue, but afternoon Sabbath services have resumed, with the online Bible study shifted to later in the day. Even as the lockdown eases, the appetite to fellowship with God remains strong, as the number of attendees to the Bible study continues to increase.
Through this pandemic, our Lord Jesus put an emergency brake on our lives, which had increasingly become inundated with confusing information and chaotic opinions, and He brought the whole world to a standstill. He allowed us a time to refocus and reflect—to ask ourselves: Have I, in my usual busy routines, forgotten the most precious things in life? Have I neglected the ones whom I should cherish? Through these reflections, we may be able to realign ourselves and relaunch our lives in a new direction.
“I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the LORD, who does all these things.
Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the LORD have created it.” (Isa 45:6b–8, ESV) 
The shadow of the pandemic hovering over every land is, of course, God’s doing. To many who have been busily toiling away in this age of information and endless pursuits, this calamity is a wake-up call. But to those who delight in God’s name and long for His righteousness, this calamity brings peace. It is a time of quietness, when we can once again learn to revere God, to calm our hearts with His words and be inspired, so that we may regain strength and mount up with wings like eagles (Isa 40:31).
At times in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people drifted far away from Him. In His lovingkindness, God would bring calamities upon them, so that they would return. During the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people continued to make their three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feasts, as instructed by God through Moses (Deut 16:16). But their hearts were not genuine. In their daily lives, they walked in idolatry and filthy conduct. To call them out of this spiritual darkness and restore a clear conscience in them, God sent His prophet, Isaiah, to proclaim:
“Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt!
Add year to year;
Let feasts come around.
Yet I will distress Ariel;
There shall be heaviness and sorrow,
And it shall be to Me as Ariel.” (Isa 29:1–2)
The meaning of Ariel is “altar hearth,” signifying Jerusalem, the city where David dwelt. During the feasts, the people would bring their grain, new wine, and firstborn cattle, or pigeons, to offer as sacrifices at the temple of God. While the sacrificial animals were lifted to the altar one by one for burning, Jerusalem was revived and became radiant with joy and vitality during these festivities.
However, God found these offerings detestable. They made sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem, yet at home, they would bow down to idols. They were confused about their devotion and worship. Because they lacked genuine faith and true worship, God viewed Jerusalem as Ariel—merely a furnace for burning dead animals.
Therefore the Lord said:
“Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths
And honor Me with their lips,
But have removed their hearts far from Me,
And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men,
Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work
Among this people,
A marvelous work and a wonder;
For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
And the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.” (Isa 29:13–14)
Their hearts were far from God as they did not follow what was required of them—to offer sacrifices according to the true knowledge of God’s word and commandments. They would steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other false gods they did not know, and then stand before God in the temple called by His name (Jer 7:9–10). Hence, their ritual worship and burnt offerings became detestable to God.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God warned them of a “marvelous work and a wonder” that would astonish their wise men and cause their wisdom to perish. This work unfolded when He allowed the Babylonian armies to besiege and invade Jerusalem, tear down the city walls, and burn the temple. Many of God’s chosen people were taken captive to Babylon and elsewhere in the empire. These events caught them unaware as they never thought such harm would come upon the temple bearing God’s name (Mic 3:9–11; Jer 7:4).
However, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not the end of the miracle and wonder with which God would astonish them. The loss of the physical temple on earth opened a way for the new spiritual temple to come into being through the blood of Jesus. At the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, God declared: “See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and to pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant" (Jer 1:10). Before God builds and plants, He destroys and pulls down what has become corrupt.
God gradually revealed the meaning of sincere worship in spirit and truth. Through the Holy Spirit, He also revealed Christ’s mystery, which was hidden in Him since the beginning of the ages—how He extended the grace of salvation to encompass not only the Jews but all nations (Eph 3:1–11). This mystery entailed God’s manifestation in the flesh, His crucifixion on the cross, and the shedding of His blood to pave the way for men to return to Him. It is a wonder, an act of God that surpasses all human understanding, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
THOUGHTS OF PEACE
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, God assured those in captivity that things happened as they did because His thoughts were of peace towards them:
For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer 29:10–11)
This message was spoken to the captives: the calamity would bring peace, a future, and a hope. We can see that for God’s intended peace to come, three things needed to happen: the holy temple had to be destroyed, the people had to be taken captive to a foreign land, and their channel of ritual sacrifices in Jerusalem had to be cut off. Because they had failed utterly in offering sincere worship and faithfulness, a drastic transformation was required to revitalize their faith.
TO PULL DOWN AND TO BUILD
How can peace be granted through calamities? Such peace is incomprehensible to the one suffering from said calamities. However, if one genuinely seeks and fears God, he can experience peace through God’s word and promise, which bring hope. Psalm 126, a Song of Ascents, is the expression of such a process:
(A Song of Ascents.) When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
And we are glad.
Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him. (Ps 126:1–6)
This psalm celebrates the return of the captives from the foreign land. When God brought them back to Zion, they dared not believe what they saw, as if it were merely a dream. At this moment, even Gentile nations proclaimed the works of God, exclaiming how He had done great things for His people.
The Negev region is south of Canaan, comprising mostly wilderness and desert. Every summer, the rivers and creeks dry up in the drought; yet, come autumn, abundant rains revive these rivers and creeks so that they can flow through the winter. Even the streams in the South receive continual care from the Lord! The Psalmist evokes this image as he pleads with God for the return of the remaining captives. The rejuvenated rivers of the Negev can once again restore the holy city to grandeur, where its people eat, drink and rejoice in the Lord’s presence.
THOSE WHO SOW IN TEARS SHALL REAP IN JOY
“He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps 126:6). In the Bible, the seed often represents the word of God (Lk 8:11), within which are the promises of God. Before the captives were taken away, God had already made a promise through the prophet Jeremiah:
“For thus says the LORD: After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place.” (Jer 29:10)
If those who mournfully left their homelands could believe in God’s compassion and unfailing love, and hold fast to God’s promise while dwelling in foreign lands, they would surely return home with the fruits of their faith. They would experience the peace God had preserved for them behind the disasters and calamities. More importantly, they would come to realize the grace and love of God through these tribulations, and hence revere God even more. When those who returned to Jerusalem laid the foundation of the temple to rebuild, they were overjoyed in thankfulness:
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (Ezra 3:12–13)
Our Lord Jesus has a purpose in all things He causes to happen to His loved ones, even in calamity. It is always to build us up, not to dishearten us. He wants us to seek His comfort and peace through His word in whatever circumstances. This current pandemic provides the God-loving person a moment of calmness to meditate on His word and to communicate with Him through prayers, and hence draw even closer to Him.
THE WORDS OF GOD ARE NOT CONFINED
Today, the phrase “those who sow in tears shall reap in joy” has extra resonance for us: it impels us to spread the seeds. As mentioned above, the Scriptures often use the seed to signify God’s word and promise. As recipients of the truth of salvation, we must reach out and share these good tidings with those searching for the meaning of life.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
And he who regards the clouds will not reap.
As you do not know what is the way of the wind,
Or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child,
So you do not know the works of God who makes everything.
In the morning sow your seed,
And in the evening do not withhold your hand;
For you do not know which will prosper,
Either this or that,
Or whether both alike will be good. (Eccl 11:4–6)
He who observes the wind will not sow for fear that the seeds will be blown away—he worries that the work will be ineffective and fruitless. He who regards the clouds will not reap for fear that the rain will cut his work short, and he ends up harvesting nothing. Future uncertainty should not prevent us from doing good. No one knows what the future will bring—only God knows. What we should consider is whether the work is according to God’s will. If so, we carry it out and pray for God to lead the way. God provides opportunities. To wait for the perfect one is to be destined to miss them all. This is why Paul encouraged “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
In current circumstances, social distancing has kept most of our loved ones and friends out of our homes. However, many of them have yet to enter into the fold of our Lord. The pandemic has made life unpredictable and brought death to our doors. Although we cannot gather physically, we should not let any opportunity to share the salvation grace pass us by. The government-imposed lockdowns confine us to our homes, and we are reduced to listening to sermons online. But this presents a great opportunity: most people are working from home or are not required to go to their workplace. Since they have more time, we should invite our friends and family to online Bible study and testimony sessions. This is the ideal time; being taken out of their busy routines allows them to reflect on the meaning of life, and be open to inspiration. Social distancing measures cannot restrict us from acting out the Lord’s commission to preach and minister His word. We are required to sow the seed and nurture it.
Confined in prison, Paul boldly wrote to Timothy:
Remember that Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, was raised from the dead according to my gospel, for which I suffer trouble as an evildoer, even to the point of chains; but the word of God is not chained. (2 Tim 2:8–9)
The word of God is not chained! It transcends all and touches all. We should continue to invite truth-seeking friends to our online church services. Encourage them to ask questions and pray for the Holy Spirit to lead them into the true faith.
This pandemic will surely subside, and eventually, it will be dismissed by our Lord. There will be a transition period of adapting to a new socially distanced lifestyle until everything returns to normal. The most important question is: has this calamity drawn us closer to our Lord Jesus, and strengthened our faith in His word? We need to treasure every footprint the Lord Jesus has made during this pandemic and let them be imprinted on our hearts, because He has His purpose for everything that happens.
 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
 “Isaiah 29,” Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, accessed August 19, 2020, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/isaiah/29.htm.