In the book of Isaiah there is a call to repentance that the prophet proclaims to the Jews living in Jerusalem during the eighth century BC:
Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
Large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isa. 5:8–9)
We live in a time when the local church is a nice place filled with nice people. We have air conditioning, lovely music, good singers, comfortable chairs, and charismatic pastors who are clever, educated, and successful. Most of the people who attend middle- to upper-class churches have all kinds of things to comfort their hearts, as they have plenty of everything: great music, food, drink, and friends that make their hearts merry. Don’t get me wrong—not all the things that are mentioned here are evil. However, it is evil when the human heart finds ultimate joy and comfort in those things. I wonder if the words of Isaiah are calling us to mourn the many comforts we have in this time. If we reflect on the words of the prophet, we need to recognize how, in many cases, the church in our day has become a place to teach people how to be happy with themselves, how to feel great about themselves, how to use good things for their own honor and glory. For example, during the lockdown we have seen many churches distributing food and helping people in need, which is wonderful. Yet, is it possible that some are seeking to generate all the publicity they can in order to show people how wonderful their churches and ministries are?
Isaiah continues with these words of judgment:
Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
as wine inflames them!
They have lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands. (Isa. 5:11–12)
The Jews had lyres, harps, and feasts to avoid boredom. How are we any different in our fight against despair? I know we are reluctant to identify ourselves with the original audience of Isaiah, but as Christians in general, do we not think that we might be guilty of the same idolatry and addiction to amusement that the Jews were guilty of in their own time? I wonder how our lives would look after two months of lockdown if we didn’t have all the things that soothe our souls—comfort food, music, “feasts,” and videoconferencing?
I pray that the church does not miss this opportunity to help those in our congregations understand that this could be a very needed time of mourning and repentance rather than just another time where we look forward to more feasting and indulgence. This is an opportunity to seek the Lord and repent from our easy believism and idolatrous hearts. It is probably best at this time to remind our people that salvation is not about being free to go out jogging, reestablishing our busy schedules, or seeing our friends and family. Instead, it is an opportunity to remind our people that they have communion with our heavenly Father through our faith in Christ, who lived the life we cannot live and took our place at the cross so that we do not die the death we deserve for our sins.
Will we be successful pastors at the end of this crisis by keeping our parishioners pleased with themselves? Or will we take this opportunity to teach our people to mourn our sin and to repent from our old idolatrous ways?