Picture the scene: white, sandy beaches stretching for miles… blue seas glittering in the bright sunshine like lapis lazuli jewels. Feeling heartsick? Many of us have this tendency to long for idyllic scenes like this, and our inability to travel on holidays abroad to such destinations in recent months has only increased our wistfulness for such places.
Many of us have had holidays to places like this postponed or cancelled in recent months and whilst this is by no means the hardest thing we have faced, there has still been a sense of sadness at all the ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ over recent weeks. As things slowly begin to return to some kind of normality, we are beginning to anticipate meeting together in person again and the psalmist’s confident assertion that it’s better to spend one day in God’s house than a thousand elsewhere (Ps 84:10) may seem a little over-optimistic to us as we look at government guidance which will inevitably mean our gathering together doesn’t look quite like it used to.
Protestant Christians have always had ambivalent feelings about ‘places of worship‘, not wanting church buildings themselves to have a higher place in our worship than God Himself. We have not wanted to ‘limit’ God to an actual building and so have often played down the role of gathered meetings, stressing God’s presence with us everywhere we are, which is undoubtedly true. But there is no doubt that gathering together to worship God is a vital aspect of our Christian faith, and so we do understand the psalmist’s longing, expressed in the Message version in this way: ‘one day spent in Your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent on Greek island beaches.’ Even allowing for poetic licence, we too yearn to be able to gather again together in our building on Market Street!
And yet… we may have ambivalent feelings about gathering together again (which we hope to do from 2nd August) when we think about the uncertainties of this present time, about the spaced-out seating which looks so odd, about the restrictions on congregational singing placed on us by government restrictions. It would be easy to look at the notion of not being able to hug one another or share refreshments after services as making our gathered worship pointless. But there is always meaning to obeying God, and by choosing to gather together in obedience to Him and by fixing our attention on worshipping Him as our primary reason for gathering together, we too can understand the psalmist’s longing.
Ps 84 acts us a window into the heart of a person who longs for God’s presence and who understands the importance of joining with others to praise God. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a fortnight on a sun-kissed beach, but ultimately nothing satisfies us like the times we spend worshipping and serving God, and as we join together again, our prayer is that we forget the oddities and restrictions and rejoice in being together again to glorify Him for all His goodness, kindness, faithfulness, grace, mercy and forgiveness.