Worshipping like Jesus: Remotely

April 7th, 2020
This article is featured in the Sustaining Worship issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

Jesus was a worshipper. That may sound obvious. Of course, Jesus was a worshipper.

We know that Jesus went to Temple and synagogue to engage in the formal opportunities that were part and parcel of his Jewish faith. When he climbed the Temple steps to participate in the liturgy of the day, he did so surrounded by throngs of other God-honoring Jews singing their psalms of ascent; when he attended synagogue, he participated with other Jewish males who each took up their role in the creeds, lectionary scripture readings, sermons, discussions, and appointed prayers. The four Gospels are full of stories of Jesus’ public worship life.

Jewish worship was largely communal worship. The community was gathered as God’s chosen people to meet God as it fulfilled the Law. There was the sound of the greeting of friends, the chanting of the priests, the bleating of the animals poised for sacrifice, little children singing their impromptu songs of praise as they played tag outside, the trumpet blasts, mournful prayers of those wailing their intercessions, the beggars’ cries for alms. When Jesus faithfully kept the Sabbath and the vital feast days of his heritage, he did so in community. Jesus was a worshipper as one in a crowd. It was life-giving.

During the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, our church grounds are presently silent. There are no children running in the church yard, no bell tolling the hour of worship; there is no one striking up the band and no greeting of friends. Our sanctuaries are quiet. Live-streamed services where two or three are gathered to do what they can are appreciated but fall short, through no fault of their own, in comparison to the exuberant fellowship we normally experience. We long to hear the greeting, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”

Yet the obvious—Jesus was a worshipper—has its less obvious side. He also worshipped in isolation. He worshipped remotely. He had no Internet or digital screen, no laptop or tablet. When he worshipped remotely, it was remotely. Private prayer times were a priority for Jesus. He sought out these times of worship. There he engaged in solitude, silence, listening, stillness. He actually frequently sought out such occasions. Sometimes it was before dawn: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35, NIV). Sometimes it was mid-afternoon: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone…” (Matthew 14:23, NIV). He left the crowds; the crowds didn’t leave him. He was not alone in worship simply because there was no other option; he wasn’t alone because there was a sheltering in place order. He was alone intentionally. Jesus knew well the benefit—even the necessity—of one-on-one worship, face to face with God remotely.

"Worship Like Jesus" by Constance M. Cherry. Order here: bit.ly/WorshipLikeJesus

The thing about Jesus the worshipper is this: His public worship side was nourished by his private worship side, and vice versa. Worship is not going to church or private devotions. Worship consists of going to church and one’s private prayer life. If a Pharisee had asked Jesus, “Master, which is better, to worship God at the Temple or alone in the desert?”, he would have answered as he sometimes did: “Thou Fool.” He would have taught that it is artificial to join the parade for Sunday celebration when you have simply cut in line at the door without having formed the line on Monday of those who invest in personal devotional time throughout the week. When believers come from their remote places of worship to gather as God’s chosen people to meet the Triune God, our worship is richer, deeper, truer, far more robust for having been nourished by the quiet of the desert.

It may be providential that the pandemic we are experiencing coincided with the season of Lent. During Lent we embrace the opportunities provided for us in the desert. We come face to face alone with God and let God’s Spirit penetrate our protective layers to re-fashion us into the divine image of Jesus Christ. Yet as austere as the desert is, there is hope there, for we discover that the greater we identify with the suffering of our Lord, the more joyful the Alleluias on Easter. That’s what Alan testified to one night many years ago as the Chancel Choir rehearsal was concluding. We had finished the preparation for our upcoming Lenten concert. Any prayer requests? Of course, we must pray for Alan fighting cancer, who then stood up in the bass section and said, “I am halfway through my chemo treatments and I am weak. But I’ve been thinking about something. How can we sing the songs of Easter without singing the songs of Lent?” These words turned out to be prophetic, for Alan sang the songs of Easter in heaven that year.

As devastating as the COVID-19 crisis is, it may be a gift to us in at least one way: It is teaching us the value of private worship. We are forced into isolation and many of us find it disorienting. For now, all of worship is private worship. But we find ourselves exclaiming with the psalmist, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Ps. 84:2, NIV). How long the yearning? How long the fainting and crying out? We don’t know for how long. Perhaps as long as it takes to understand that as it was for Jesus, the consistent rhythm of public and private worship is critical to our spiritual lives. The wonderful day of reuniting for corporate worship may not happen on Easter Day this year, but whenever it happens—April 26th or May 10th or June 7ththat will be Easter Sunday! We will feel like God’s people returning from Babylon to worship in Jerusalem: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion…Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Ps. 126:1-2, NIV).

If we will embrace the relationship with God to be found when we shelter in place, our first Sunday back together in church, whenever that will be, will become our Easter Sunday 2020. On that day we will find that the greeting of friends will never be more precious, the chanting of the leaders never more beautiful, the sound of children worshiping God never more profound, our prayers never more full of faith, and alms to the poor never given with more love. Worshiping remotely will once again be joined with worshiping together in person. We will have sung the songs of Lent and be ready to sing the song of Easter: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”

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