It probably goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, “I miss being with you in person!” While it is a necessity, the new normal of physically distancing can take a toll after a while. Zoom meetings are great in order to see one another’s faces, but it, not the same as actually being in the presence of one another. I do most of my work from home but sometimes I go to the church to pick up something I need from the office or to do a little work from there. Every time I go by, I am a bit melancholy from the empty parking lots, the quiet halls, the empty places of worship, and the vacant office spaces. I know that physical distancing is a must to protect from COVID19 but that doesn’t make it any less sad.
Today, I want to share a little about someone who experienced physical distancing. His name is John and he is the author of what we know as the Book of Revelation. John’s isolation was not self-imposed. John was placed in isolation by the Roman authorities because he was infected with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, John was spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to others. The Gospel was spreading across the Roman Empire and those spreading it had to be dealt with. Listen to what John records, “I, John, am your brother and partner in suffering and in God’s kingdom and in the patient endurance to which Jesus calls us. I was exiled on the island of Patmos for preaching the word of God and for my testimony about Jesus” (Revelation 1:9, NLT). Did you catch that? John is quarantined because of his faith in Christ and for sharing that faith with others!
Now, imagine that you are John. Before his exile, he went about his normal patterns of life in his faith community and the community at large. When I say “normal," we must also take into account that there was persecution occurring, so Christians were wary to a large degree. But the point is, John could be with others and share life with others, even if that meant doing so under the watchful eye of the Roman authorities. Now that John is in exile on the island of Patmos, he perhaps is experiencing fear. Maybe he is wondering about his purpose now that he cannot be with his faith community. He may even be questioning God, saying, “What use am I here?”
In his isolation, John made an important choice. He says, “It was the Lord’s Day and I was worshiping in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10). In his isolation, John chose to worship the Lord. I don’t know what his worship would have consisted of. Perhaps it included lamenting for his exile and the persecution of the church. After all, lamenting before God is an important part of worship. We often find laments in the Psalms. We even have a book in the Bible called Lamentations tucked in between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Laments to God are important and healthy and we’ve been doing our own lamenting, haven’t we? We’ve been lamenting the state of our country and world, the losses and the varying ways we’ve experienced loss.
Yet, it could have been John was praising God in the midst of his exile John may have been singing songs of praise, as Paul and Silas did when they were in jail in Philippi (see Acts 16). Or maybe he was praying and meditating on God’s word. Perhaps all of those components were occurring in John’s worship of the Lord in the Spirit. And in the midst of his worship, the Lord shows up. In response, John was petrified of the sights and sounds of the incredible vision he is experiencing of the Son of Man (Jesus). Fear is a natural reaction when all that we’ve known has changed into something strange, harsh, and terrifying. Yet, the Son of Man places his right hand on John’s and says, “Do not be afraid” (Revelation 1:17).
At this point, we should note a couple of things. First, while John was isolated to the island of Patmos, he was not isolated from Jesus and, certainly, Jesus was not isolated from him. This brings comfort to us as we are practicing physical distancing during our current COVID crisis. While we may feel secluded, Jesus is still with us. The author of Hebrews, writing during a particularly difficult time for the church, reminds us, that God has said, “’ I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.’ "So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear” (Hebrews 13:5b-6a, NLT). Again, notice Jesus’ words to John in Revelation, “Do not be afraid,” which is one of God's favorites sayings to his people, repeated throughout the bible.
Also, we should note that the worship of the Lord is not confined to a particular place. While John was not able to worship with the house church communities, he still worshiped. The Lord is worthy of worship at all times and in all places. In fact, John’s time of isolation provided a new opportunity for him. The Anglican scholar N.T. Wright says, “The authorities have put [John in exile] as punishment for his fearless teaching, and to try to stop his work having any further effect. The result has been the exact opposite. Exile has given him time to pray, to reflect, and now to receive the most explosive vision of God’s power and love.” Tim Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, recently said that those now empty parts of our calendars—he calls them white spaces—that the COVID crisis has created may be a means of grace providing space for extended times of prayer, greater listening to God, and deeper reflection.
Am I suggesting that we should expect to have a grand vision, such as John had on Patmos? No. But I do believe that Jesus is in our midst. I do believe he shows up when we seek him in worship and prayer wherever we are. I do believe that he wants to make himself known to us in new, deeper, and more profound and real ways. And I firmly believe that God’s ultimate plan for us and our world has not been thrown off track due to COVID19.
Therefore, friends, will you hold fast to these words from Hebrews 13:5-6 along with me? “For God says to us, ‘I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear’ (Hebrews 13:5b-6a, NLT).
Thanks be to God!