Rebuild the Altar: A Plea

I’ve been asked it many times since the first days of the pandemic in spring of 2020. I’ve probably asked it alot, too. It may get phrased different ways but the basic point of the question is this: “What are you learning about God in this crazy time?” And I think we’ve all been looking for meaning and purpose and knowledge in this year unlike any we’ve ever experienced. In this time of disease (pandemic) and division (political, racial, you-name-it), I think Christians have an innate sense that we should be standing on tip-toe to make sure we’re paying attention to what God might be saying.

I’ve enjoyed hearing what others are hearing, but I’ve been amazed that I’ve basically been living in the same place for a year now. As a pastor, ever sense the onset of the pandemic and everything that followed…I’ve been living in Psalm 137:1-6–

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

I have said many times throughout this passed year that it has indeed felt like living in a foreign land. Between COVID-19 mitigations that have caused my local church to move to online only worship twice, racial unrest, the most contentious election (possibly) ever, and the fact that EVERYTHING in our world has become a political football and everyone picks their corners and wants to fight…it’s been a rough year, a year that’s left us in an almost unrecognizable place.

As a local church pastor, the reality of online only worship and strict mitigations when we are able to gather in-person makes it feel even more foreign. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the necessity of doing some of these things for safety and health, but it still makes me grieve what we’ve lost. I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to worship together from home, but it’s not the same. At some point, I was trying to sing along with the worship service and thought, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

In Psalm 137, we recount the intense grief of the children of Israel as they find themselves in exile in Babylon. They can remember the site of the temple being destroyed, the walls of Jerusalem torn down. Their babylonian captors asked them to sing the songs of their faith and they asked that some question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” And I totally understood the sentiment. I missed so much about my life and nothing seemed right.

So I started tracing this era of exile to see if I God was trying to teach me something as I asked that question, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Sometime toward the end of summer, as we got closer to the election and the realization that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere, I moved from the grief of Psalm 137 to Jeremiah 29:4-7:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

The message I was learning, and the one I was sharing with the people around me was, as long as we’re here we might as well do some good. We might as well take some time to work for a better world, and in my case, a better church. The exiles followed Jeremiah’s words. They sought the good of city where they were exiled, and they worked hard to honor the LORD. Remember, it was their disobedience to God that caused them to be carried into exile in the first place. While captive, seeking the good of the city, I’m sure they remembered their disobedience, they remembered how they had taken the temple for granted and now it was lying in ruin. In short, during their exile they began a renewed devotion to their God. I’ve heard it said that while in exile, they truly became jewish. The plan was that by the time they would return to Jersualem, that they would never take the temple or their God for granted again.

That became my message, too. “As long as we’re in this weird world we might as well do some good. Let’s take time to refocus, recalibrate and shake the dust out of our churches. Let’s never take this whole thing for granted again.”

Yet now, as the vaccine promises to open things back up and we can see “an end in sight” or a “light at the end of the tunnel” and some of us are coming back from our time of “exile” in waves, I’ve moved on to a new thought. Some churches have already reopened and gone back to business as usual, my local church will reopen on February 7 with masks and distancing. And while I’m super excited about that, I’m so excited to move to a hybrid format where those who are comfortable may attend in-person worship and I’m not preaching to an empty room anymore. I’m excited to get to do the Nehemiah work of rebuilding the walls and the work of rebuilding the temple.

But, I fear that the church may get in too big of a hurry to rebuild, rebuild, rebuild and “get back to the way things were.” When you read the history of the return from exile in the Old Testament, rebuilding the temple and the walls were secondary. Remember that it was their disobedience that led to its destruction in the first place as they took their relationship with God for granted. No, the first thing they did was repair, rebuild, and rededicate the altar of God. Nothing else mattered. Before the temple, before the walls…there was worship. In his Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament, John Wesley would note that the building of the altar, “was of more present necessity than the temple, both to make atonement to God for all their sins, and to obtain God’s assistance for the building of the temple, and to strengthen their own hearts and hands in that great work.”

I know there is rebuilding to be done, and we’re all anxious to return…but first, let’s rededicate ourselves and our altars to the work and worship of God so that we may never take the Church for granted again. Many of our churches were busy to a frantic degree, engaged in rapid decline, and many churches have been focused on all of the wrong things….I don’t want to go back to that. Let’s use this opportunity to worship and recalibrate. He has brought us this far, and one day the pandemic will be but a memory, but let’s never go back to the way things were. Let’s slow down, humble ourselves before Almighty God and seek His will for His church…Let’s rebuild the altars so that our churches may be better and stronger than ever before.

2 thoughts on “Rebuild the Altar: A Plea

  1. Since the beginning of the serious COVID-19 restrictions this is the first blog post I have read anywhere (in 10 months! your post came up randomly on the WP Reader) that has perceived the place we’re in and linked it to a scriptural precedent. I agree; how can we “rebuild” when we ought to search our hearts as to how we “built” before? “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain” (Ps 127:1).

    I feel that for many people in the church this may be the first time (or at least first time in a long time) they’ve ever been truly subject to forces beyond their control in the church; like Judah they were a sovereign nation and they were left alone. I hope many take a cue from what you’ve written, quoting from Jer 29, to walk with the Lord IN the pandemic-related restrictions and continue to do good (as, after all, we are commanded to). You stopped short of the well-known, “I know the plans I have for you” part of the passage, but that will surely follow if we yield to his working and timetable.

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