Reflections on shutdown

As you come to [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)

In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered a room in a house in Jerusalem and rested on the disciples gathered there. The Spirit took on the form as tongues of fire, and God’s Spirit took up residence in the disciples. This pivotal moment in history signaled a change that Peter talks about in his letter: no longer is God’s personal presence confined to a building, each believer has become a tabernacle, a tent of meeting, where Jesus is high priest and you are a priest. We are the new building, the true tabernacle, a tent with feet and shoes, a mobile sanctuary. Giving praise as we live and move. Whether you’re on the tractor, in your car or at the grocery store, you a are a priest and a sanctuary. No matter how you dress, you are a part in the new Temple building being built on Jesus. During the shutdown our building was closed and I was reminded of this scripture.

When Millie and I returned to our work as pastors after our Sabbatical in March, our building had been closed for one Sunday already. It would be about 5 months until we returned to worshiping in our building. During that time many of us worshiped God from our homes and we gathered online until later in June when some of us would meet at our outdoor sacred space gatherings. We returned to worship In our building on August 23. That’s 23 Sundays that we were away from our building and 16 Sundays with only virtual gatherings.

Even though we have returned to worship in our building, we have not returned to the same pattern of worship that we had in 2019 before Millie and I left on Sabbatical. We are changed. In what ways are you changed?

Destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem

During the lock down, I was constantly reminded of the 2 times that God had let his Temple in Jerusalem be destroyed. When I prayed during the lock down I asked God about our return to worshiping in our building and my thoughts constantly returned to Israel’s exile into Babylon.

The story of the exile can be found near the end of 2nd Kings, also in 2nd Chronicles and Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Israel’s defeat to Babylon and exile was devastating to the Jewish people. The Babylonian exile took place over a 17 year period. There were 3 times when the army of Babylon came to Jerusalem and people were taken away into exile. During the first 2 events, the Temple was left standing. Before the final exile, the false prophets started preaching messages that everything was going to return to normal and all was going to be well and God would defend them. And so the king in Jerusalem rebelled against the king of Babylon. About 6 years after rebelling, Babylon’s army returned and destroyed everything that remained, including the Temple. Nothing returned to normal.

Jeremiah had been prophesying for years before the Babylonians came, calling the people of Israel to repent. The people refused to listen and when Nebuchadnezzar became king, he started prophesying about their coming destruction:

Therefore the LORD Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.

Jeremiah 25:8-11 (NIV)

Notice how God calls Nebuchadnezzar his servant. God promises to punish Babylon in their turn after the 70 years because of their own arrogance and evil deeds. As the people of God head into exile in Babylon, think of all that they lost: No longer could they gather together to worship God as one people. Also, how were the people going to make things right with God? God had taken away their ability to make offerings to atone for their sin, there was no more altar to offer sacrifices. Their identity as a people was tied to the Temple and to Jerusalem and both those had been taken away.

There were many faithful in Israel who suffered in exile. These people did not deserve exile yet they suffered through it. The purpose of this terrible event was to change the people of Israel so that they could return to right relationship with God, something the Temple could not fix.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NIV)

The new normal

I don’t like the idea of a “new normal”, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be a reality. Jeremiah points to a new normal in his day, with a new covenant, for the people of Israel. Instead of the Law being written on stone tablets sitting in the middle of the Temple, it will now be written in their hearts and minds.

When the people of Israel returned from exile they tried as hard as possible to return to the way things had been before. They probably should’ve been trying to live into the new covenant that Jeremiah had talked about instead.

Like Israel’s exile, when we were in lock down, we couldn’t gather in one place together, it was difficult to collect offerings, or sing songs, and a part of our identity is defined by Sunday morning gathering in this church building. It was strange to worship online and apart from each other. It was during this time that I realized how much we take gathering for granted that we can gather at all and God reminded me of the testimonies I’ve heard of believers in nations where the church is outlawed where believers would meet one-on-one in taxis because nowhere else was safe. Our Anabaptist ancestors could not meet in large gatherings when they were persecuted, it wasn’t safe.

I was also reminded about true worship, like when Jesus talks about worship with a Samaritan woman, he tells us that true worship isn’t about where it happens:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:21-23 (NIV)

And Peter’s words emphasize that point.

As you come to [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)

When the Israelites returned from exile, they were supposed to return as a changed people, but they wanted to go back to the way it was. As we return to worship together, we should return as a changed people. If the Spirit of God is changing worship for us, it would be good to work with the Spirit to make this change. Resisting the Spirit is not good.

In Matthew 24, Jesus predicts that the Temple will yet again be destroyed, which happens almost 40 years after. The Jews in Jerusalem rebel against Rome and so Rome sends it’s armies to recapture the city. The Romans destroy everything and God allows the Temple to be destroyed again.

Reflections and Responses

I want to give you a chance to add your own reflection or responses. As you think about Peter’s words that we are each part of the holy priesthood and that we are altogether the spiritual house, what thoughts come to mind about your time away from worship in a building?

As you come to [Jesus], the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)


Heavenly Father, during these challenging days of the covid-19 pandemic we pray for reassurances from you of your love for us. I pray that we will be faithful in listening to what you are calling us to in this new season. In the name of Jesus, the cornerstone of our spiritual house, we pray, amen.

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