Longing for the Sanctuary

Written by: Jeremy Brown

Posted April 20, 2020

 

Reading the Psalms over the years has heightened my sensitivity to, longing for, and enjoyment of the corporate worship experience. Add to that the major theme of God’s presence in the Scripture and the LORD’s perpetual promise to dwell with his people (Gen. 17:7; Exod. 6:7; Ezek. 36:28; Jer. 31:33; Eph. 2:22; Rev. 21:3), and you begin to see just how precious our regular worship gatherings are. Yet, in a season of pandemic, we have been asked to stop meeting together for a time to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many experts have highlighted our need as human beings for social interaction, not virtual but incarnational. This should not surprise followers of Jesus at all, and it should inform how we view corporate worship.


The big picture of the Bible is that God is gathering for Himself a people from every nation, tribe, language, and generation who will worship him together (Rev. 5:9-11). God sent His Son to us in the flesh. When He came, Jesus identified with us in all of our human brokenness by taking on a body of flesh, "yet without sin" (Heb. 4:14). He sacrificed His flesh in our place to pay our sin debt in full. Then, He rose bodily from the dead to prove that this payment for sin had been accepted by God the Father. God could have waited longer and communicated Himself to us through virtual means. But can you really see God inviting us into a Zoom conference or posting his message to the latest outlets of social media? And how could He ever redeem our flesh (and all of creation for that matter) if He Himself didn’t come in the flesh?[1] What does this say about our need to experience God incarnationally, together as His redeemed people?


I am aware of those who fear that this pandemic will cause many to drift away from the church and the LORD, and I share this concern. But my prayer in this pandemic is that the separation will stir in us longing to gather again. As they say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The psalms are full of longing for God’s presence among His gathered people (see Pss. 24, 34, 42, 43, 63, 84, etc.). They emphasize the infinite value of the corporate worship of God, and many of them were written at times when Israel could not gather for worship. For those of us who truly belong to the LORD, one of most discouraging realities of this pandemic is that we cannot regularly gather with God’s people to worship Him together. And this is as it should be. We very easily take for granted the weekly phenomenon that has been happening for almost two thousand years.[2]


I call it phenomenon because it is one of strangest and, at the same time, one of the most precious experiences we can have this side of heaven. It is strange because it transcends the kind of worship that humans naturally organize for themselves. All man-made religion is based on the underlying principle..."you worship the deity in order to gain his/her acceptance." But the good news of Jesus is that all peoples can worship the true and living God because He has already accepted us in Christ (Col. 1:21-22). The nature of Christian worship is that sinners (those who have rebelled against God) can come together into the presence of God because God himself has welcomed them through His Son. We could never have dreamed this up! It has been granted and revealed to us by God Himself. For this reason, the corporate worship gathering is strange and equally precious to God's people. It has nothing to do with the style of music or the eloquence of the preacher. It has everything to do with the promise of God to dwell with his people and His proven commitment to this promise in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why we worship Him. Where God’s people gather together in anticipation of meeting Him in humility and wonder, there He will be in their midst.


            We can find comfort in the reality that, through the Holy Spirit, God is with us as individuals even while we are separated from the gathering (Ps. 139:7-10). But my prayer is that when we are able to gather again in the flesh, we will have a renewed sense of wonder as we worship the living God who came to us in the flesh and continues to show himself to us through the body of Christ. My prayer is that we, like the psalmists, will long for the sanctuary, where God has promised to dwell with his people forever! A genuine longing for the sanctuary reflects a genuine longing for God Himself.

 

Revelation 21:3


“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God.”



[1] This was one of the major points of Athanasius. See Athanasius and Behr, J., On the Incarnation (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69.

[2] Of course, the worship of God was going on before the church was established (see Genesis 4:3-4). Even the Garden of Eden was meant to be a sanctuary in which Adam and Eve worshiped and served the LORD. See Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 104-108. But I am speaking specifically of worship that is based on God’s full and final revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.