Psalm 84, Trusting God When Church is Not an Option

rest blogThe coronavirus should bother Christians for it has rebirthed a host of government restrictions that prevent churches from assembling together. But the local church’s inability to meet together as the church is not a new phenomenon that will undermine the vitality of God’s people. In 1918, churches were suspended for more than four weeks as the Spanish Flu ravaged America. Luther spent 300 days mostly self-isolated in a dark tower, translating the Bible while the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor sought his life. More importantly, the Scriptures have addressed how we are to care for our souls during seasons of isolation.

Though David never knew the terrors of invisible germs, he experienced the terrors of the visible king Saul who prevented him from worshiping. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit David chronicled his experiences in Psalm 84.

David’s response to his separation from the people of God should inform our response to our separation from the assembled church. While we wait for our churches to reopen and resume normal operations, Christians should heed David’s counsel place their trust in the Lord Almighty. “O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!” Such well founded trust produces holy discontentment, divine dependence, and divine hope.

Holy Discontentment

Those who trust the Lord will find the love for the church growing. David longed for a church like a lover kept from the object of his affections, like an athlete kept from water and like a wounded animal unable to find comfort. He cries out for the house of God. He is envious of the insignificant birds who hang about the altar that he can no longer see. David understood that God was specially present in the gatherings of his people (Mt 18:20). He wanted to be there with every ounce of his being. When Christians are kept from corporate worship, their love for the assembled body grows and they become discontent with their lot in life, crying out for God to act.

Separation from the normal graces of God should stir Christians to yearn for God even more. Deuteronomy 8:3 reminds us that God let the people of Israel hunger in the wilderness for the purpose of teaching them, “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Christians in 1918 experienced this Biblical reality. Washington D.C. Pastor Francis Grimke noted,

The fact that for several weeks we have been shut out from the privileges of the sanctuary has brought home to us as never before what the church has really meant to us. We hadn’t thought, perhaps, very much of the privilege while it lasted, but the moment it was taken away we saw at once how much it meant to us.

Those who trust the Lord while separated from the church will find their love for church growing.

The Bible has no category for Christians who willingly isolate themselves from the body of Christ so that they can drive about the country, go to softball tournaments, and spend weekends at college sporting venues. Instead of excusing those who social distances themselves from their local church, Christians need to call their friends to repentance. Christians should have the heart of David and prefer church above all else.

The Christian ultimately does not seek fulfillment in this life for she is a “sojourner” and an “exile” on her way to heaven (1 Pt. 2:11). The Christian lives life longing for the heavenly assembly. As she waits for that moment, she delights in the local church which pictures that reality. Since all Christians should long for heaven, all Christians should long to be at their local church which is a small, imperfect representation of the whole.

Divine Dependence

Those who trust God make God their strength while they wait for church to reassemble. When Christians are kept from worshiping together, they will undoubtedly experience hardships. Those who trust the Lord go on pilgrimages that lead through desert valleys. A quick survey of first-responders, soldiers, and the homebound will reveal that isolation from the body leads to hardships. Souls will feel weary, lonely, and faint. But such pilgrimages do not end poorly for the Christian. Those who appeal to God in prayer to mend their troubled hearts find relief. The desert valleys are redeemed by gospel grace and turned into pastures of peace. Our troubles do not represent the end of God’s plan or the failure of his plan. Thomas Boston correctly noted, “There is not, in anybody’s lot, any such thing as a crook, in respect to the will and purpose of God.” God works through troubles to usher in spiritual blessings.

The Bishop Dionysius said the plague of 260 A.D. “proved to be an instrument for our training and probation.”

The apostle Paul concurs.  In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, he writes,

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Divine Hope

Lastly, those who trust in the Lord will discover divine hope. God both shields and blesses his anointed. Though humanity should hide in the shrubs like Adam and Eve when God approaches, Christians do not have to fear the presence of God. They are no longer sinners stained by all their evil deeds. Those who have repented and believed on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have been made righteous by Jesus’s work on the cross. Paul writes in Galatians 3:13,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.

The curse has been removed and Christians can reside peacefully in the presence of God. Thus, the psalmist can say, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

God has shielded his people from the pains of death absorbing all the blows of God’s justice and of Satan’s accusation. He became our curse.

But God is also proactive. He gave us righteousness and holiness. He made the Sun of God’s love shine upon the hearts of the redeemed. He brings Christians to heaven. And he sustains them while they journey about earth, growing their faith and giving them victory of their sin. Indeed, God withholds no good thing from his people. Even the trials and the troubles that strike the Christian work together for the Christian’s benefit.

David began Psalm 84 envious of the insignificant sparrows and swallows who could flutter about the alter while he stumbled about the mountains in exile. Yet the glorious truth of this Psalm and of the entire Bible is that God cares infinitely more about his people than he does the sparrows. Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows (Lk. 12:6-7).”  God loves his children dearly and will not withhold anything good from them.

The Christian who finds himself or herself unable to go to church should trust in the almighty Lord. Those who trust in God will not be disappointed. God will bless them with a longing for his church, with the strength to persevere, and with hope. Are you trusting?

Holy Bread & Jesus: When its “Ok” to Skip Church

skipping-churchChristians feel uneasy when both ministry and people claim the same square on our calendar. We are getting ready to start the service when a young man interrupts the announcements and asks for prayer. We are driving to choir practice when are sister calls and asks us to come over because she is having a down day. We are walking into our Sunday school room when our mom calls and asks if we can run her to urgent care because she has a bad headache. What do we do?

We welcome the young man, we give up choir practice, and we leave Sunday school.

In 1 Samuel 21, David comes to Ahimelech the priest for food. Unfortunately for David, the only food available is the show bread. After being a display for a week, the bread is sent to “Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it (Lev 24:5-8).” David clearly lacked priestly credentials. Yet Ahimelech “gave him the holy bread for there was no bread but the bread of Presence (1 Sam 21:6).” Though modern readers might question Ahimelech’s wisdom in discounting God’s law, Jesus does not. He praises the priest in Matthew 12:3-8, declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath.

What does all this mean? Can we dispense with the law of God? Is God saying that the strict Jews of his day and those who champion the purity culture are a bunch of godless, legalists who have misrepresented the heart of our loving God?

No. Jesus is not tossing away the law and declaring as one author said, “God accepts us as we are, without judgement or condemnation.”

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-18,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass form the law until all is accomplished.

Jesus spends most of the sermon on the mountain fortifying the law of God, equating adultery with impure thoughts and murder with anger. Jesus does not think we are broken and beautiful irrespective of the law. He upholds and defends the law, calling us to obey it.

If that is the case, why does Jesus allow his disciples to eat grain on the Sabbath and pastors to wear blended suits? The laws against eating pork, touching dead bodies, and wearing blending clothing were attached to the practice of sacrifice. They existed to teach men and women that God was holy and that they were not. They showed that people could only commune with after they had been purified by a sacrifice. The sacrifices were a picture and a reminder of the great sacrifice to come, Jesus Christ. God told Hosea,

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than brunt offerings.”

The sacrifices could not save or purify one’s heart. Rather they taught sinners to fear God and provided men and women who lived before Christ with a means of working out their faith with fear and trembling. The laws gave opportunity for faith but were not the measure of faith. The sacrifices, ceremonial cleansings, and wearing of right clothes could be carried out by unbelievers.

In short, the ceremonial laws were not salvation. They were a picture of salvation. Thus, the priest could work on the Sabbath and violate God’s command against Sabbath work. The things worshiped were always greater than the means of that worship. Because Jesus reigns and we know the sacrifice, we no longer have to slit the throats of pigeons. The curtain has been torn in two by the cross.

How does the above discussion answer our dilemmas? It reveals that we are made to love God and to love our neighbor. Things such as business dress, choir practice, and Sunday school can facilitate the worship of God well. But they are not essential to the faith. They are a means of worshiping God but they are not the thing worshiped, Jesus.  We can worship God by loving our neighbor, by caring for our sister, and by having compassion upon our mom. God is just as honored and glorified by practical ministry as He is by ties, choir concerns, and Sunday School attendance pins. I am not advocating that you regularly skip church like one famous evangelist who intentionally joined a church more than 900 miles from his home so that he would not have “to work in church affairs.” No, we need the local church as Hebrews 10:25 reminds us. But, we must never become so attached to our programs, traditions, and schedules that we neglect the worship of God and the love of others for the tools that were designed to help us worship and love.

Are you ready to handout the showbread?