Welcome to the most unusual Sunday in American history.
The doors of our churches are shut. With very few exceptions, no one will attend Bible study groups, sing the familiar songs of worship or listen to a pastor’s sermon in person.
Even so, millions of people will connect with their church or another local ministry via the Internet. Thank God new technology has made virtual church attendance possible while the COVID-19 pandemic keeps us home!
So here’s a good question for people who love God: Why not just meet together despite the warnings and “trust God” to protect us? Doesn’t that at least sound like something we should be doing?
Indeed, a few places of worship have flaunted their willingness to defy government orders to avoid gatherings of more than a few people. News agencies are watching the showdown in Baton Rouge, LA, for instance, between the National Guard and Life Tabernacle Baptist Church. Earlier this week, the church refused to cancel services, the pastor announcing he would hand out “anointed handkerchiefs” to protect the usual 1,000 attenders who show up today.
In Jerusalem, some Orthodox Jewish groups are also gathering in large groups. One rabbi told a reporter that skipping Torah study was more dangerous than the coronavirus. On the surface, that sounded pretty pious. The poster on the wall behind the rabbi, however, blamed the virus on Jewish women wearing wigs not made of Jewish hair!
Before we make light of the few exceptions and their wig-blaming, prayer-cloth ways, it might be good to take a very important lesson from the life of David.
He once made a deadly decision of his own … while leading worship.
Let’s rephrase that for our situation. A godly man leading his people in worship with every ounce of energy and emotion he could muster made a decision that cost one of his parishioners his life. Trying to do the right thing, he did the wrong thing.
The story comes from 2 Samuel 6. David wanted to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. He and his worship team put the ark on a cart and cranked up the praise band. The account tells us, “David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5) If you were to see it today, you’d like it. You’d want to be a part of it. The music would move you, causing you to dance along with the crowd. You’d feel good about the worship. You’d feel like you were in the right place, doing the right thing.
But as this marching worship service progressed, one of David’s spiritual leaders reached out to steady the ark (the cart had hit a pothole in the road) and dropped to the ground. He was dead on arrival.
The band stopped playing. David got angry. The ark didn’t go any further.
David hadn’t checked his own desires and actions against the Word of God.
You want to move the Ark of the Covenant? The instructions are already in place. It is to be carried by Levites, not loaded up in a cart pulled by animals. David went home, consulted Scripture and three months later, gave it another try.
On the second try, the Ark made it all the way to Jerusalem on the shoulders of men carrying it. As they followed God’s instructions, all was well. No one died. The excitement of the moment built to a crescendo. David danced and sang so passionately that his wife Michal was embarrassed. Quite famously, he later told her, “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (2 Samuel 6:21-22)
So here’s our lesson. When it comes to worship and serving God, passion and emotion by themselves are never enough. It doesn’t matter how much you want to do the right thing.
First, there is Scripture.
First, you need to know God’s standard.
First, you need to know what God expects of you. Before you can do the right thing, you’ve got to know the right thing to do!
Then you can sing, dance, play an instrument, raise your hands and express your worship in the most passionate way possible.
If you’re thinking we should be attending church this morning despite the government’s request/demand that we stay home today, check your Bible.
From Paul’s letter to his friends in Rome, we read: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” (Romans 13:1)
In another place, Paul spoke about the decisions of church leaders, most of whom have called off church activities until it’s safer to meet together. “Dear brothers and sisters, honor those who are your leaders in the Lord’s work. They work hard among you and give you spiritual guidance. Show them great respect and wholehearted love because of their work.” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
Despite the obvious shortcomings of the Roman authorities, Jesus showed respect for a Roman officer in Capernaum (see Matthew 8). When Pilate grilled him with questions, Jesus answered respectfully, even though Pilate would have him tortured and executed. He famously even expressed support for paying taxes! Remember that “give-unto-Caesar” comment? (See Matthew 22:21)
Pastors and church leaders around the world struggled with the idea of closing churches for a season. In the end, however, the request that we postpone or cancel church activities is a reasonable one. It’s also a biblical decision.
Our very unusual Sunday in the midst of this pandemic crisis is a reminder that everything we do must be checked against Scripture … even when it comes to something as precious as corporate worship.