There is a famous line from the movie “Usual Suspects” that goes like this: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” To not see the Devil, to not believe in him, to disregard the warnings and the cautions concerning his work, is to give him free reign to work his chaos and destruction. Without the Devil we forget the true opposition to our faith. We forget there is indeed a battle going on, that evil is real and working to divide and destroy the children of God. The other day I was talking with my good friend and colleague, Tim Barkett, about everything going on in our country these past few months. He said that out of all of Satan’s attacks, all his manifestations, this is perhaps his most elegant one.
Think about it, a pandemic in our country that calls for the Church to stop gathering. The people of God are not separated because of violent oppression or financial threats but are separated under the banner of love. To protect our neighbor, to show our love and compassion, we must stay home. Overnight the Church was labeled “non-essential.” We turned to our computer screens to stay connected and our hearts barely skipped a beat. There were even Bible verses to back it up, to reassure us how not gathering as the fellowship of God’s people was a good and faithful thing to do. Does Paul not say to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others” (Philippians 2:4). And to the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). So, the public gathering of the Church, the fellowship of the people of God around Word and Sacrament simply stopped. When it did, our increasingly small foothold in the conversation of the world almost faded from existence.
Without the physical gathering of God’s people new causes and different fellowships grew up to claim our allegiance. The online presence of the Church was dwarfed by the major media outlets, the special interest groups, the social causes, and the constant fearmongering which would keep us separated. When we did not meet in church, one’s identity was a bit confused and the Devil knew just what to do with it. He would give you more relevant options. Perhaps now was the time to reevaluate your political party. How you vote matters far more now in the face of national emergency. Perhaps you felt it was the time to identify yourself with the resistance of the government overreach and make a stand for our First Amendment rights. Or, perhaps you identified with the caution being espoused and chose to take the call for self-quarantine very seriously. New lines are being drawn and new allegiances being forged. All the while new voices of authority and guidance were being embraced by the children of God away from our gathering, away from the input of one another, away from the encouragement and love of the Church.
Then things got far worse. Years of injustice and racial inequality exploded out into the streets of our cities. Abuse of power was met with righteous anger. New lines were being drawn, new allegiances, new sides to divide the people of God. All the while the fellowship of the Church, the gathering of God’s people was halted. We have been given a taste of what it is to have the voice of our God drowned out by all the competing voices of our age. Voices calling for our compassion, our love, our anger, and our action. They are not unjust. They are not wrong. It is only how we engage them without the Body of Christ to engage with us, to weigh it out and find the best way forward. It is an elegant attack to be sure, and we will feel the consequences of this for many years to come.
We have been attacked and divided without much resistance. The fellowship of God’s children has been parceled out to all the causes that demand our attention. Slowly they begin to define who you are. They add to your identity, to your understanding of your place in this world. To hear the voice of God, to gather with your brothers and sisters slowly moves down the line in the sequence of priorities in your life. I have been a pastor long enough to know that when someone skips church on a Sunday it is really not that big of a deal, but when they skip church two Sundays in a row you should probably be a bit concerned. For two has a habit of becoming three and then you might as well write off the whole month. The voice of God is small compared to all the other voices. If you were to come to church and Bible study on a Sunday and perhaps one more during the week you would spend approximately 4 hours out of your week hearing His voice. That is about two percent of your week. So, what happens when you stop gathering? How low does that number go? How small does God’s voice become in your life?
Therefore, we are pulled this way and that. So much pain, so much fear, so much injustice, where do we begin? What new fellowship will give us guidance and instruction? Yet, as we go looking, there is something Satan has not accounted for. There is something which has a habit of undoing his work. It is an old thing, a simple thing, easily overlooked and often ignored. You see, there is a tactile, physical, perhaps even sticky quality to the voice of God that is not so easily pushed aside. There is a parasitic nature to His voice. It gets in things and works even when we cannot see it. Which means even during this elegant attack on the fellowship, God remains at work. He has not abandoned His flock. In fact, He relentlessly continues to invade and gnaw at the hearts and minds of His people.
It may not seem like much. It may seem downright foolish and meaningless. It may look like the grandmother who prays every night for her grandchildren, she weeps silently for them in the darkness as she fears what this world might do to them. But when she is in their presence, she dries her eyes and puts on that sweet smile and tries at every turn to love, forgive, and console those little ones. It might be the father who feels his own children are falling away from him. A growing gap forms between them and he stays up late terrified he is losing them. Yet, he finds the strength to speak the truth, to proclaim love, to fight for their character and reputation. It could be a mother letting her little ones go as they outgrow her care and compassion, but she still calls them, worries about them, and loves them even in their imperfections. It might be a friend who refuses to accept your silence and distance as the new normal, so they send you a message, they reach out to love and care and welcome you home.
You may be lured into new fellowships and aligned yourself with new causes, but the relentless Word of God has a way of seeking you out, finding you in your hurt and suffering, locating you in your defiance and anger. He may look like a grandmother or a husband or a father or a friend. He may come at unsuspecting times when He is not wanted or desired, but He still comes. He comes to offer you a place of belonging, a place of comfort, and a place of rest. More than anything else, is this not what you really need, rest. Not just a turning off of the TV and all the terror of this world but real rest. Rest where you can be sure it is okay, your future is secure, and you remain in His love and forgiveness.
For sometimes it comes as a whisper. Sometimes it is a shout from the mountaintops. Sometimes it comes during mass protests and riots and stay at home orders and designations of what is essential and what is not. It is the relentless, driving Word of God and it declares to you: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is Mine, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
A kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is who you are. You are the tangible, sticky reality of the Word of God. He sought you and loves you and forgives you so you might seek others, forgive others, and love others. You are the priests. You are the living voice of God. This fellowship, this gathering of the Saints of God is not a creation of our will or desire but of the Word of God itself for you are His treasured possession. Satan may have scattered us for a bit, he may have separated the fellowship, but the voice of God was never silenced, it never retreated but went with you. So, now is the time to shout it out again, to call for the faithful to come back. For together we will proclaim the voice of the One who calls us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Together we make our stand as the treasured possession of God.