Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the rabbis had known for forty years before that date that something was amiss. Yoma 39b of the Talmud records the strange occurrences from around A. D. 30 onwards:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.”

From the year 30 (give or take three years), the Yom Kippur lot came up in the wrong hand, the crimson cord that was tied around the scapegoat’s neck did not change colour, the Menorah would go out by itself, and the doors would open and close by themselves. Since Luke tells us that many of the thousands of priests in Jerusalem became believers (Acts 6:7), clearly many of them understood the significance of these events, and of the one recorded in Scripture, the tearing of the Temple veil.

But not everyone did. Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai hurried to consolidate and set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. Rabbinic Judaism eliminated the centrality of the Temple and the need for ritual atonement. Several texts in the Talmud defend the new bloodless and templeless religion:

Shabbat 119b states that “Rabbi Chisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [heaven and earth were finished]’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him ‘and thine iniquity is taken away and thine sin purged.”

Menachot 110a: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt-offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt-offering”.

Hundreds of years later, the Siddur (prayer book) continued the idea:
“Lord of the Universe, thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in office…may Thy will, therefore, be…that the speech of our lips shall be considered an offering.”

Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalised on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the centre of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement. One can imagine the argument from expediency and pragmatism: “But we can’t perform the sacrifices! Prayer and the study of Torah must suffice now.” The larger question is ignored: “Why would God remove what He commanded to be used?” The fact that the first and second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, centuries apart, should surely have been some cause for reflecting on the meaning of this providence.

But the nature of professional religionists is to keep the show going. Treat the elephant in the room as a natural feature. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Last week, I posted on why we [my local church] chose not to livestream. (Note, not “Why You Should Not Livestream” or “Why Only the Ungodly Livestream”. )

In that post, I explained – carefully, I thought – that there are great uses for livestreaming in the church, but the one thing we should not do is to smooth this event over. As a pastor, I understand why pastors want to be shock-absorbers, and reduce the level of panic and fear. But comfort should never become half-truths. We should not tell our people that we are really still gathering, only through a screen. We might be communicating, and enjoying the connection that digital media afford. But we aren’t gathering. And I don’t think I’m splitting hairs in insisting that we reserve the term gathering for an actual gathering. The assembly must assemble. My argument was simply: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.

To make that attempt would be the rabbinic response. Instead of asking, “Why has God removed our opportunity for corporate worship?”, the rabbinic response says, “Well, God hasn’t totally removed corporate worship, since we still have the Internet! ” Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.

Yes, there’s no question that the parallels between the destruction of the Temple and our current crisis are not without many differences. We have not lost our atonement, nor have we rejected Christ. But there are certainly some similarities: Israel could no longer corporately gather three times a year, and we cannot gather for the time being.

As we look upon the rabbis of the first century and marvel at their hardness of heart, is it too much to ask for modern evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to ponder the meaning of the moment and soul-search?

Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we  attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?

Might it be that God is giving us that thing which people craved for, till it comes out of their nostrils (Num. 11:20) ? Some have craved internet church, home church, online sermons, convenience and comfort, and have despised gathering, prayer meetings, membership, covenanting, and ministering to one another. Now they have enough home and internet church to make themselves sick, and none of those things they treated lightly.

Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community?

Perhaps.

Or we could assure our people that this is a technical difficulty, and that regular programming will resume shortly. Our technicians are working on it.

  2 comments for “Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

  1. April 7, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    Part of the reason why many evangelical churches will react as the rabbis did in the 1st century is that the concept of repentance has no practical place in their theology. Oh they can quote the word “repentance” and perhaps use it as a decorative item, but it isn’t part of the gospel they preach. As a result they CANNOT conceive that they might have to seriously look at their own behaviour or teaching and repent of preaching a maimed “gospel” (developed for itching ears)… Yup, the show must go on…

  2. April 8, 2020 at 5:03 am

    Oh, I did forget to add that many ‘evangelical’ preachers also preach a gospel that involves no concept of judgement, that humans like us are accountable to our Creator. As a result, of such preaching, God is there to make us “feel good”, and provide self-fulfilment… And as a result, the concept that God could judge US, is totally alien, inconceivable…

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