Christianity 201

January 14, 2021

When We Still Can’t Go to Church: There is Good News

by Clarke Dixon

In these days of restrictions due to COVID-19 our lives are far from normal. The expression of our faith is also now far from normal. Those of us who would normally make our way to church on a Sunday morning among other times are stuck at home. Our church building can feel like our spiritual home, not just the building itself, but the church family we expect to meet there.

As Carey Nieuwhof has often said, this is not an interruption, but a disruption. We wonder if we will ever get back to normal.

There was a huge disruption in the early days of Christianity, a disruption which had a huge impact on how God’s people expressed their faith. There was no getting back to normal. Looking at that great disruption will help us navigate ours.

Let us put ourselves back into New Testament times. Imagine that you were a Jew, for whom the Temple was a focal point of the expression of your faith. The sacrifices are held there, you make pilgrimages there, the life of the nation is focused there in so many ways. While the local synagogue also played a big role, the readings of the Scriptures often pointed to the Tabernacle of the days of Moses and the judges, and the Temple which was built in the days of the kings. The synagogue was convenient, but the Temple was central, and crucial.

You come to trust in Jesus as the Messiah, as your Lord and Saviour. Being a Jewish Christian, the temple is still very important to you, the traditions around the temple are still a part of your life. Indeed we see in the Book of Acts how the apostles, with their Jewish background, would often make their way to the temple in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, normally under Roman control until a Jewish rebellion in 67AD, was put under a proper siege in 70AD. After a few months the city fell and the temple was destroyed. Indeed, it has never been rebuilt. Now that was a disruption! This meant, not just the loss of the temple, but the loss of many cherished traditions that centred on the temple. There would be no getting back to normal. As a Jewish Christian how do you handle the disruption? Is there hope?

There is. One verse in the Gospel of John captured how God’s people now had something far better in Christ:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

The word translated as “lived” among us, but sometimes translated as “dwelt” among us, is the word for pitching a tent. It was a word that evokes the tabernacle that God’s people were to build for the presence of God’s glory among them as directed to Moses following the exodus from Egypt. This tabernacle, literally a tent, would give way to a temple once Jerusalem was established as the focal city in the days of the kings. You could translate John 1:14 as “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” The tabernacle was the place where God was said to reside among his people. Since the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, we no longer go to the temple in Jerusalem to find God. We go to Jesus.

The tabernacle/temple was also the place where God’s glory rested, often referred to as His shekina glory. Note again John 1:14 and “we have seen his glory.” The glory of God was to be found, not at the temple, but in Jesus. Again, the destruction of the temple could not disrupt the worship of the Christ follower.

The tabernacle/temple was also the place where intimacy with God was shown to be an impossible thing. Only one person, the High Priest, could enter the Most Holy Place in the temple, and then only once a year after much religious rigmarole. The lesson was clear: while God wanted to be among His people, a holy God and an unholy people cannot mix. While the temple symbolized the nearness of God to His people, it also represented distance. John 1:14 continues with “the glory as of a father’s only son.” While even the priests could not speak of intimacy with God such that they could meet with God face to face, Jesus has a unique intimate connection with the Father. Jesus represented intimacy with God. Through his death on the cross, intimacy with God is now possible for us. The destruction of the temple could not change the fact that in Jesus, a much better intimacy with God was on offer.

John 1:14 goes on to say that Jesus is “full of grace and truth.” Before Jesus you would go to the temple to experience and be reminded of God’s grace. It was the place of sacrifice for atonement, a place representing the forgiveness of sin and covenant with God. The temple was the place you would expect to be reminded of the truths of God, the reality of God’s relationship with His people. The destruction of the temple could not destroy the experience of grace, the presence of truth, for these are found in Jesus, even more so.

In summary, before Jesus, if you were wondering where to go to find God, you would be pointed to the temple. But now we look to Jesus. Being with Jesus was far more important and exciting than being at the temple!

Here is a point which is important for us today. Being with and walking with Jesus in all of life is far better than being religious in a sacred space once a week. Having Jesus in our hearts and minds is far better than having ourselves in a church building. Experiencing Jesus in our lives daily is far better than experiencing church ministries from time to time.

There was one major benefit to the destruction of the temple as we will see. Worship at the temple could become temple worship.

The disciples were impressed by the temple:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls.”

Mark 13:1 (NLT)

Jesus responded:

Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!

Mark 13:2 (NLT)

So don’t be too impressed with the temple. It is temporary. Worship that which is eternal. The destruction of the temple was also the deletion of an idol.

Worship in a church can become worship of the church. We are easily impressed with things that cannot last. In our day, the expression of faith through the ministry of a church is not being destroyed, but perhaps it is being deconstructed. What was once impressive, is not so much anymore. With a lockdown in our province, the most impressive church buildings are now much less impressive. Even those built to hold thousands can currently only hold ten.

We cannot at this time invite people to attend impressive churches, to experience impressive ministries, held together with impressive leadership. But we can connect with, and invite others to connect with, an impressive God.

Very few churches have impressive ministries right now. Our own church “services” are shot using the phone in my pocket, and edited with software that came free with our computer. It is a very Mickey Mouse affair. In fact I refuse to call them church “services,” but instead call them “worship expressions.” It is just not the same! But that’s okay, it is not about impressive churches and ministries, but about becoming people through whom God makes an impression on the world.

Perhaps a positive from all this is that we are being weaned from trying to be impressive in what we do for Jesus, and instead must focus on leaving an impression, from what God is doing in us.

An impression is left, when,

  • someone forgives as a result of focusing their worship on Jesus,
  • someone expresses generosity as a result of a walk with Jesus,
  • someone is a peacemaker as a result of being with Jesus,
  • someone becomes a more faithful and loving partner in a marriage relationship because of their relationship with Jesus,
  • someone shows a gentleness that was not there before, because of the inner soul work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit,
  • Someone makes progress on coming to terms with an addiction, because of the higher power of Jesus . . .

The list can go on. An impression is left when people are growing in the fruit of the Spirit, growing in love, peace, kindness, joy, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus calls us to follow him. The question is not, how impressive are our men’s ministries and women’s ministries, but are there men and women of God who are following Jesus?

Don’t get me wrong. We will regather for in-person worship at some point. This is important. However, the things we do as a church are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The end is to be walking with Jesus. What can we do as a church family to help people walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love, to the glory of God? This is a question we can ask whether we are in lockdown or not. In this time of disruption let us put church in its proper place, as a means to an end, and not the end in itself. Let us turn from idolatry if we have let worship at the church become worship of the church.

We live in a bad news world, things are not normal, the expression of our faith in worship is not normal.

There is good news, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our faith is not dependent on being in impressive buildings or going to impressive churches with impressive ministries and impressive pastors. Believe me, our church has not been dependent on an impressive pastor, at least not since my arrival here nine years ago or so. It is dependent on the presence of Jesus through His Holy Spirit.

When are we getting back to normal? The Lord knows. Walking with Jesus is way more exciting than getting back to normal anyway.

(Clarke Dixon appears here most Thursdays. The full reflection can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

May 22, 2011

The Filthy Part of Incarnation

Came across this illustration today.  The set-up is lengthy but drives home the main point with clarity, so don’t rush through, okay?  This is from the blog, The Heretic Mug Collection, where it appeared in January under the title, Christ in the Sewer.

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to preach. Being close to Christmas time, the subject of the incarnation seemed appropriate, so I chose the prologue to John’s gospel, chapter 1 verses 1-18. I spent a considerable amount of time on verse 14 “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” While pondering this verse I was reminded of something I heard about once while visiting in Siberia.

Forgive me, but to get the full effect of this story requires me to be a bit descriptive. Needless to say, if you have a weak stomach you might not want to read this while eating.

In many Siberian villages homes do not have running water. The toilet then, as you can imagine, is included in this little deficiency. Somewhere in the backyard will be a little building that serves this purpose. A hole is dug and an outhouse is placed on top of it. Usually when one walks in he sees nothing more than a floor with a hole cut in it about 18 inches wide. If it’s done right, the hole goes down about 5 or 6 feet to the bottom. Now here’s where I have to get descriptive. As you can imagine, the bottom of that outhouse is probably the last place on earth anyone would want to fall. It’s horrid, utterly nasty filth that smells worse than it looks. It is the stuff that nightmares are made of.

Now you may have noted the width of this hole, 18 inches. While that’s not big enough for an adult to fall through, it’s plenty big for a small child to slip into. Most of the time this isn’t a problem as the littlest kids will use buckets or little makeshift training potties inside of the house, but from time to time a child’s curiosity gets the best of him and he wanders into the outhouse, slips and falls through that hole. Generally speaking, drowning isn’t common as the ground absorbs the water well enough to keep the “water” level low. But falling to bottom of this outhouse the child still will find himself covered in the most foul filth imaginable, most likely spared serious injury from the fall by the sheer fact that he landed on 6 or 7 inches of soft sewer mud.

So what does one do in this situation? I asked this question hypothetically to a Russian friend once. There are no ladders built for the child to crawl out. In many cases the child it too young to understand the concept of grabbing on to a rope, not that he would even be physically able to hold on long enough to be pulled out. To this question my friend answered “You go down there, get him out and clean him off.” Did you catch that? You crawl into a sewer to save your child. You don’t think about the awfulness of it, the nastiness of it all, you go down there and you save the one you love.

This illustration struck me as I pondered verse 14. Up to that point, Christ’s divinity, glory, power and majesty are all laid out by John. The bottom of an outhouse is no place for the King of Glory, the God of the universe. Then we read that Christ became flesh and dwelt among us. It’s easy to miss the weight of this statement because we have so “sanitized” the manger. The hay is clean, the animals, are clean, there is a warm glow of cozy light as the shepherds gather around. But it goes beyond the physical filth that Christ endured in his birth. Christ who was perfect and sinless came to this sinful, broken world full of murder, hatred, envy, wars, jealousy, lying, and every sin imaginable. He descended to us as we wallowed in the sewer of our sin so that he might lift us out and cleanse us of all of it. The “fall” was just that; it was a collapse into utter filth that we are powerless to escape from. Christ crawled into this sewer to save those he loved.

“Let us mark what kind of Being the Redeemer of mankind must needs be, in order to provide eternal redemption for sinners. If no one less than the Eternal God, the Creator and Preserver of all things, could take away the sin of the world, sin must be a far more abominable thing in the sight of God than most men suppose. The right measure of sin’s sinfulness is the dignity of Him who came into the world to save sinners. If Christ is so great, then sin must indeed be sinful!” – J.C. Ryle