As the pandemic waxes and wanes over the next several months, Clear Creek Community Church has begun returning to in-person worship services. Some individuals and families have returned while others are still waiting. As we each approach this “return to normalcy” in our own time and according to our own safety and needs, we benefit from taking a moment to examine our relationship with collective worship. When we each return is a less important question than why we return. And the type of experience we return to will forever be less important than the way we worship God with our daily lives.
In Zechariah chapter 7, we read that emissaries from Bethel arrived in Jerusalem with a question for the priests. More than 70 years prior, after the Babylonians invaded and conquered Judah, the people of Bethel had begun fasting and mourning during the fifth month of every year. It had become a tradition during the difficult time when regular worship at the temple was unavailable. At this point in the story, however, the exiles were returning. The temple and city of Jerusalem were back under construction. The question brought to the priests in Jerusalem was, “Should we continue?”
It appeared to be a legitimate concern. Now that things were returning to normal, did they need to keep up their ritual mourning? It was not one of God’s prescribed feasts or celebrations. Yet, God had been faithful to return the Hebrews to their promised land and the people were grateful.
God’s reply through Zechariah cut to the heart of worship:
“Was it for me that you fasted?”
– Zechariah 7:5
He then added, “When you eat and drink, is that not done for yourselves?”
To the people of Bethel, God sent a message: render justice, show kindness and mercy to one another, and assist the lonely and needy among you. In other words, if you do not live for me, no religious practice is going to make you right with me.
Interestingly, God never told the emissaries from Bethel to stop fasting. But, he did tell them a lot about what they were neglecting that was even more important. They had forgotten the true focus of their worship, and instead gotten carried away with their own agenda of the what, when, and how.
When the exiles returned to Judah, that was a big deal. There was excitement and worry: excitement for the return and worry about how long it would last. There were still dangers lurking on every side, just as COVID-19 is still present with us during our return.
Coming back together for face-to-face worship services is a big deal, too. Many people are very excited about it, and they have reason to be. Others are more hesitant, and they have reason to be as well.
In our joy to see one another again, let us not forget why we return, why we worship, and the importance of worshiping the one true God, continually.
Singing through a mask may not be the most enjoyable way to sing. Children in the worship service may seem distracting. And there’s not even coffee to gather around before or after the service. Restrictions are frustrating. Change is difficult.
But, despite these challenges, we must resist making worship about our needs and preferences. True worship looks outside of ourselves to God who is worthy of our praise and to the needs of those around us. It isn’t about us. It unites and does not divide. It places into perspective why coming together is so critical to our spiritual health. The habits, routines, and practices we have developed over the past months of online worship — and even those traditions we practice in person — are meaningless if they are only to serve us.
We must focus on who it is we worship, and what he calls us to be, think, and do.
So, in this time of reunion, let us not neglect to show kindness and mercy to those who still need online service and those who are with us on site. Let us not stop seeking justice for the needy and oppressed.
Like the people of Jerusalem who were rebuilding the temple, we’ve all longed to gather together again and worship God freely. Through Jesus, we live in intimate, personal relationship with God, no matter our circumstances or locations. Through Jesus, we never have to fear separation from God, for eternity.
So, let’s rejoice as we begin to meet in person again, but let us not forget the reason we gather in the first place.