Dear Church Family and Friends,
I hope this letter finds you well. Just a few weeks ago, this was a social pleasantry that people wrote as an email introductory sentence to someone when asking for a favor. In this present emergency, this is no longer a social pleasantry, but an expression of true concern.
The officers of the church conferred on Tuesday and determined that on this Lord’s Day, we will again offer only streaming worship. This was before Judge Hildalgo extended the Harris County Stay-At-Home order through April 30.
Here, I must issue the disclaimer that in this matter that in what follows. I don’t speak for any of the officers other than myself. But it seems to me that the Lord is calling upon Christians worldwide to make the great sacrifice of not being able to worship corporately. That for a time, we are to give up what is most near and dear to us other than Christ himself for a time. It will not be forever. Right now, this is the overwhelming position of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world.
It’s true that “because everyone else is doing it” doesn’t prove the point. But there does seem to be a worldwide consensus emerging that the people of God are being called to sacrifice something very dear to us for the greater good.
So, what are we to make of this?
First, Christ is still on the throne.
This morning, I came to Hebrews 1 in the course of my regular Bible reading, and I came across Hebrews 1:8:
But of the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.”
COVID-19 has not and cannot change this. There is no force in heaven or on earth that can dethrone our Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, Jesus has ordained all things for the good of his people.
He has ordained all things for the good of his people, even public health emergencies. We must trust that in these uncharted waters, Jesus is doing to us as he did to Peter. Peter attempted to walk on water to meet Jesus, but as he began to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus responded by taking Peter by the hand, and saying to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:30-31).
Third, this situation is not “without precedent.”
One of the consequences of the Babylonian Captivity of the Old Testament Church was that they were not able to engage in temple worship. The Babylonians physically removed the Jews from Israel, and destroyed the temple, so that the people of God could not engage in the sacrificial worship that God has appointed. So, for seventy years, the people of God were not able to worship him as he had appointed in his Word.
This is when the Jews instituted the worship of the synagogues, local gathering of the people of God centered around prayer and the reading and preaching of God’s Word. While the Jews said, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4), they used the means of grace that were available to them. And the Lord blessed this.
In this situation, “the Lord was doing a new thing.” In the New Covenant, the synagogue, not the temple, would be the model for corporate worship. Prayer and praise, the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the centerpieces of worship today.
While the descendants of some of the exiled Jews returned to the land, the majority stayed in Babylon. The book of Esther shows us that God continued to care for his dispersed people and his people who returned to the land. I think we can infer from this that neither group was disobedient – the ones who returned to the land, or the ones who stayed. The Lord continued to love, care for, and preserve both groups through centuries of extreme hardship and persecution.
Over the centuries, the Lord blessed the Jews of the dispersion, with far-reaching consequences. First, Greek became the majority language, rather than Hebrew. So, the scholars of this period translated the Old Testament into Greek in a version that we know as the Septuagint. Many of the Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are not from the Hebrew Bible, but from the Septuagint.
The other far-reaching consequence was that the Lord purified his Church. In the New Testament, the Greek-speaking Jews were far more responsive to the preaching of the gospel than the Hebrew-speaking Jews. The Jews of the Dispersion became the seed of the Church.
One could not foretell this at the time of the Exile, but the Lord was on the move to build his kingdom. Through the dispersion, a “portable” form of worship developed that would be the model for New Testament worship. God scattered his people in order to reclaim them with the gospel and launch the missionary enterprise of reconciling peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation to himself and the Church through the preaching of the gospel, an enterprise that still continues today.
So, with the present distress, we don’t know exactly what God is doing. But we can be sure that he is on the move. And we can be sure that he will use this to advance his kingdom.
The Lord calls upon us to trust in him in ways that we have not before. The upheaval that we are experiencing to ordinary life is not easy. It is not pleasant. But we can trust the Lord that if we remain faithful, he will use this experience to purify his Church, to separate us from our idols, and to enable us not to take the gathering of public worship for granted, but for us to see the great goodness in it, and that once corporate worship is restored, for us not to neglect the grace of assembling ourselves together for worship.
Love in Christ,