“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 Men will stagger from sea to sea
and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
but they will not find it. Amos 8:11-12
God’s Old Testament people had a unique relationship with him. Of all the nations of the earth, none enjoyed his special presence and blessings like Israel. At numerous points along the way—with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Israelites in Egypt, at Mt. Sinai, and many more—God had revealed his power and grace as he delivered them from harm, blessed them with his Word, and prospered them into a nation.
But Israel turned their backs on God. So, God tried many different ways to bring the hearts of the Israelites back to him: Foreign oppressors, plagues, locusts, and famines, just to name a few. Once he even blessed them with prosperity (see the reign of Jeroboam II in II Kings 14:23-29), hoping that his kindness would stimulate a response of faith. At times, these worked. But eventually, the northern kingdom of Israel fell so hard and so low that even these no longer stirred their hearts toward repentance and faith.
In the end, God would send them a different kind of famine—not a lack of food or water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. There is perhaps no worse judgment of God in this world upon his people than when he cuts them off from his Word. “Faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3). To be cut off from the bread of life—the Word of God—is to be deprived of the very nourishment our souls need for life. If God’s people are cut off from the Word—the Means through which God comes to us—they are, essentially, cut off from God himself.
Although we are unable to worship together currently, we thank God that he has not cut us off from his Word. The written Word can be found in many of our homes and accessed online. Many churches are scrambling to make their services available online. Many Christians are celebrating being able to worship from their homes during this time of social isolating. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
And yet…many Christians are already feeling the effect of the onset of a different kind of famine: A famine of fellowship.
Many Christians already are sad that they are unable to gather together with their Christian congregations for public worship. They are sadder yet because they won’t be able to join together for Easter. They miss their faith family and friends. I know that I personally miss seeing the people of my flock: Hearing about their lives, serving their needs, sharing the joy of the Gospel, enjoying the company of their presence. I do not enjoy preaching to a nearly-empty church. While livestreaming and recorded services can serve God’s people well during these times, it is not the ideal, nor is it ever meant to be a permanent/acceptable replacement/alternative when public worship is possible. Something important and vital is lost when we make virtual services the norm. There is wisdom to be learned in these words of Scripture:
“Since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25).
How important, how vital to our Christian faith is the support and encouragement we glean from a house full of God people, from networking with like-minded people in the faith who can support us with the Word and God through those difficult times. And not only that, but how important and vital that we also be available to offer these very same things for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is my prayer that this wisdom is recaptured by those of God’s people who’ve forgotten it or begun to take it for granted.
Before anyone objects: I am in no way suggesting that the current pandemic and the social isolation laws are in some way God’s punishment on the church for lackadaisical worship attendance. I am not suggesting that just as the Israelites willfully ignored God’s Word so that God then withheld his Word from them, so now he is withholding public worship from the church which expressed little interest in public worship. Please don’t make those connections, because there are none to be made here. “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor (Romans 11:34)?” We don’t know all of God’s reasons and gracious purposes in allowing the global pandemic, which has forced many churches to close doors temporarily…some maybe even permanently. We don’t know because he hasn’t revealed his mind to us. We know that something like this can happen not because of a specific sin, but because of sin’s presence in this world (Luke 13:1-5). More importantly, we know God’s promises to work through all things for the good of his people, the Holy Christian Church (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:22). It is on those promises we rest our hope.
Yet, let’s be honest. There are some striking parallels here. To borrow and adapt some words from someone else: In three short weeks, just like He did with the plagues of Egypt, God has taken away much of what we worship. It is as if God has said, “You want to worship athletes, I will shut down stadiums and youth sports. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship nature, I will shut down golf courses [ok, I don’t know if this one is true/not…or the one I heard about the Wisconsin Governor delaying the opening of the fishing season. I heard only a portion of an anecdotal comment on talk-radio the other day regarding golf courses]. You want to worship social gatherings, I will shut down restaurants, bars, and nightclubs; community activities and festivals. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church, I will make it where you can’t go to church.”
Ultimately, this is all speculation, and we must be careful with speculation that it doesn’t fall down the slippery slope into presumption. God’s reasons are likely to remain hidden with him, as he is a God who hides himself (Isaiah 45:15). But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make connections that are beneficial for ourselves, and there are connections to be made.
It is my prayer that a well-known idiom proves true: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Imagine how much you would miss your spouse and kids (I hope!) if you didn’t see them for two weeks. Can you say the same about public worship? For the heart of faith, separation—in this case, separation from public worship—causes us to feel even more positive about coming to church: singing the hymns, offering corporate prayers, listening to the Word of God read in the readings and proclaimed in the sermon, receiving Christ’s personal assurance of forgiveness through his body and blood. And let’s not forget that mutual encouragement we receive from one another.
Maybe this time of isolation from the distractions of the world is just what we need to remind ourselves of what is truly important: Jesus. And maybe, along the way, those other things that are truly valuable—family dinners, family nights, home devotions, bedtime stories—can take place in a calm, deliberate manner, without the constant drumbeat of games, practices, lessons, and activities. Maybe, I pray, this time will allow family and friends to reorient and reprioritize their lives and their schedules around what is most important.