Empty Pews, Full Hearts | A Letter from Pastor Jon
Dearest Christ Church Family,
The COVID-19 virus continues to turn the world upside down. It’s unsettling hearts everywhere, and it knows no limits or biases. The contagion is infecting ordinary citizens as well as the cultural elite. Indeed, Hollywood stars and high ranking public officials are testing positive every day. The Prime Minister of England, Boris Johnson, is infected and currently in ICU. Many of us know folks who are infected and/or personally impacted by the virus. A friend of mine recently lost a family member to the disease. The mainstream media adds to public anxiety as they produce a daily cascade of interviews, reports, and articles that highlight worse case scenarios— potentially millions infected, economic disaster, recession, large-scale unemployment, conflict with China, longterm travel bans, six-month lockdowns, etc.
What is the faithful Christian response to this current crisis? It’s a question many of us are asking. Christ Church, how are we to shine as believers (and as a congregation) during these dark and uncertain times?
I must confess, this past Lord’s Day I felt a deep sense of sadness as I preached and prayed before empty pews. It was our third week of conducting online/livestream services in an empty sanctuary. The newness and mad adrenaline rush to get our online ministry up and running has worn off. I miss seeing your faces, and hearing your voices worship the Lord in song. I miss our covenant children. I miss hearing them loudly recite (and sometimes mispronounce) the sacred creeds and confessions. I miss kneeling down and speaking with them after worship. I miss our weekly partaking of the Lord’s Supper; that is, when we feast spiritually upon our crucified and risen Savior through the exercising of sincere faith, and remember all the saving benefits that we possess through our union with Christ.
It’s really sad that we can’t be together right now, and it’s supposed to be sad. Being “socially distanced” from one another runs counter to who we are. Brothers and sisters, we are the church — the ecclesia [the called-out ones]. We are “called out” of this world [i.e. the sinful patterns and godless values of this present evil age] and “called into” a new life of communion with God and his people. We, members of the church, are meant to dwell in community, not in isolation. We are supposed to be with each other, not separated. God’s Word reinforces this again and again (e.g. Rom. 12:3-8; I Cor. 12:12-26; Eph. 4:1-32). We are the body of Christ. The members of the body are intended to be together, not apart. That’s why this time of “social distancing” is painful for the devoted Christian. It has disrupted the beautiful and ordinary cadences of our Christian lives. It has tampered with our sacred rhythms. Under the circumstances, online/livestream ministry is a blessing. Even so, it is a faint shadow of the true togetherness of Christian fellowship.
In the Psalms, King David often voices lament due to long periods of separation from God’s people and God’s house (i.e. the tabernacle). During times of trouble in the wilderness, he cried out to God with a holy longing to return to the sacred assembly. David reflected upon those cherished days when he was in the sanctuary, worshipping God in the splendor of holiness. After describing his enemies as “evildoers”, “adversaries”, and “foes” who seek to “eat up my flesh”, he writes:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of the my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple (Ps. 27:3-4; c.f. Ps. 84).
In an earlier Psalm, David cries out: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:1-3). With inspired hyperbole, David declares that God is his only good, and God’s people have captured all his delight. For David, the worst part about being in the wilderness is not danger from his enemies or the loss of royal comforts. No, the worst part about being away from Jerusalem is separation from God’s people and being cut off from the sacred assembly.
In his isolation, however, David didn’t despair. Yes, he was sad. Yes, he longed to worship God once again in the assembled congregation. But he didn’t lose heart. Quite the contrary! Filled with the Holy Spirit (not self pity), David conveyed a sure and certain hope. Even when his enemies surrounded him, David did not stop trusting in his sovereign and merciful God. Rather, he reminded himself of God’s unchanging nature, steadfast love, and unshakable promises.
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom [or what!] shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid … . I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Ps. 27:1, 13-14).
Even with “terror on every side”, David proclaims, “I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand … Make your face shine on your servant; save me in your steadfast love … . Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Ps. 31:13b, 14-15a, 24). Again he writes, “As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me” (Ps. 40:11).
In his times of trouble and difficulty, David held fast to God and his gospel promises. He didn’t always do this, however; and when he did, he certainly didn’t do it perfectly. In fact, when we take a closer look at these Psalms, we recognize that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of these texts. As David’s greater son, Jesus cried out to God with deep lament from the olive groves of Gethsemane and the cursed hill of Golgotha. The Righteous One sweat “great drops of blood” as he agonized over the prospect of bearing the awful load of our sin (becoming sin for us; II Cor. 5:21), and receiving the full measure of God’s wrath in our place (Rom. 3:25). In his human (sinless) frailty Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” He then added: “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Then later, while wrapped in our sin and hanging on the cursed cross, Jesus cried out — quoting Ps. 22:1 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt 27:46). Christ, for a time, while suffering and dying to pay the debt of our wretched sins, was deserted by the Father. The sinless lamb was forsaken by the Father on Calvary so that we would, by grace through faith, be adopted into God’s family — never to be forsaken!
Jesus, Israel’s greatest, final, and everlasting King, perfectly trusted God. When trouble arose, he held fast to God’s promises and faultlessly carried out his will; accomplishing our redemption. He is not only the best example for us to follow. He’s the only true Savior in which to place our faith and trust. The perfect life, sacrificial death, and hell-conquering resurrection of Jesus Christ give us a sure hope in a world filled with sin, misery, and death. When we contemplate the love of God — in the sending of his Son — to save us from what our sins deserve (everlasting judgment), we know that our greatest problem has been solved. We know that nothing can separate us from that divine love — not even COVID-19.
Beloved members of Christ Church, the coronavirus is a real threat to public health. We need to take it seriously. We should honor and obey our governing authorities as it concerns the new “stay at home” injunctions. We should not, however, live in fear. We should not allow anxiety to rule our hearts. Nor should we fill our minds with the media’s steady stream of unbridled conjecture. Rather, by faith let us take shelter in our true refuge and everlasting fortress, Jesus Christ. As we abide in our crucified and risen Savior, the pews for a time may be empty, but our hearts will forever be full.
Your Pastor, Servant, and Friend,