Over the weekend I was reading Iain Murray’s biography of the great 20th century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Now that wasn’t just because there wasn’t a great deal else to do! Rather I wanted to focus on this question- how did his church, Westminster Chapel in London, cope with the war? After all, there may be points of connection with our present experience.
They faced massive challenges. Service times needed to be changed because of the requirement of a blackout in the evening. Questions were asked as to whether the church should stay open. The minutes of deacons’ meetings reveal discussions about how to end a service when the air raid siren sounded. People fled London which meant that the church’s congregation was scattered with few easy means of keeping in touch. The church’s finances fell through the floor with Lloyd-Jones’ salary being repeatedly cut. And there was the regular fear that the church building would be destroyed by bombs or fire. Fire marshalls were required to be at the church around the clock to extinguish flames, which makes the omnipresence of welcomers in masks bearing hand sanitiser rather tame by comparison. Ultimately, though, the church would flourish- an encouragement to us.
In the midst of war, Lloyd-Jones preaching of the Gospel shone brightly. He regarded the war as illustrative of humanity’s fall, preached the urgent need of repentance and pointed boldly to hope through Christ in the face of potential death falling from the skies each night. Indeed, Murray’s account includes stories of those who embraced the Gospel that was preached at the Chapel shortly before they faced unexpected death.
So- here’s the tricky question. How have we done at manifesting a clear message in the midst of this pandemic? Let me note the particular challenge of this pandemic- the calls to demonstrate freedom from the fear of death and to love our neighbour have pulled us in different directions. I remember somebody commenting to me after a visit to church in October seeing us all masked, not singing and carefully avoiding talking to each other- “We just look afraid.” I was sympathetic- it was so far from how I wanted the church to look. To be honest I can’t wait for the day when I can stop announcing “Please don’t mingle after the service” within five minutes of proclaiming Jesus as the one who brings life in all its fulness. And yet, much as I want us to be able to tear off our masks and sing loudly because Jesus has set us free from the fear of death, we all know that would not be loving our neighbour. You see my concern is not primarily for us but for the work colleagues, fellow shoppers and so on to whom we might unwittingly pass a potentially fatal virus. And they may have right cause to fear death.
For all that, though, we need the clarity that Lloyd-Jones showed during the war. The Gospel is the chief message for our time and it is of more eternal importance than “hands, face, space.” Those of us who post on social media need to spend longer talking about Jesus than we do about the rights and wrongs of lockdown and opening or closing churches. And all of us in our minds need to remember that the reign of Jesus over sin and death is the ultimate reality in the universe at the moment with the virus being but a small breath in the flow of history.
So we need to say things clearly. With the world almost brought to a halt we are reminded of our limits- we are creatures not the creator. And we urgently need to repent of forgetting that reality before we face God. And we need to say that with death tolls rising that the virus has not introduced a new reality, it has simply ushered death closer for some. To death there is but one vaccine- Jesus Christ who lived, died, rose again and appeared to witnesses. Our hope is in Him.
These are challenging times- just as churches have faced in the past. The lesson to learn is this- don’t neglect the power of the Gospel.