Please read Joel 1: 8-20 and pray; Sovereign and holy God, your Word is life and light. Renew me through Your life-giving Word and bring light to my understanding, In Jesus Name, Amen.
Today I want to us consider what is happening to the Church as a result of the pandemic and the lockdowns. My hope is to speak prayerfully and prophetically as I consider the question of where we are right now as the Church, and where the Church in this nation might be in the immediate years to come. What we must remember from the outset is that the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ! He is the Head of the Church. The Church is His body, of which He is the Head and Lord. (Colossians 1:18) Jesus has promised to build His Church and the gates of hell will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18). God is sovereign over His own people and His Spirit fills, empowers, purifies and prepares His people for all that lies ahead within the sovereign and unchangeable plans of God. Never forget that as well as the Church being the body of Christ, she is also the dearly loved bride of Christ (Ephesians 25-32, Revelation 19:7, 21:9, 22:17). Christ gave up his life for his own people, his sheep. We have been bought at a great price – the price of his blood! (1 Corinthians 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18)
What has happened to the Church during this pandemic and through this time of lockdowns? This will be our chief consideration. Within our text today, there are two occasions where we encounter the important phrase “cut off”. During the devastating locust plague of Joel’s day there was “a cutting off” of something important and special. In Joel 1:9 we read;
Grain offerings and drink offerings are cut off from the house of the Lord.
And in Joel 1:16;
Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes – joy and gladness from the house of our God?
In these verses we see how badly the locust plague had affected the Temple and the worship life of the nation. Due to the devastation of the crops and the resulting food shortages, no offerings or tithes were being made by the people of God toward the daily offerings regularly performed by the priests within the Temple. Such were the shortages of flour, oil and wine that the daily grain and drink offerings (9) had “dried up”. (1:10-12). Offerings were being “withheld” (13b), and the priests were “in mourning” (9b) not just because offerings were no longer being made, but because they themselves would have no access to food; the priests personal food supply came from the offerings. The priests could no longer carry out their sacred duties, and the sense and sound of joy and gladness within the Temple had vanished. Joy had withered away (12) even from the house of God. (16) The people would have felt completely “cut off” from God and his covenant blessings.
You should immediately begin to see some similarities/parallels with our own time and situation in 2020-21, an unprecedented time in the history of the Church. Never before has the Church in this nation been told to stop gathering for worship. Churches, like so many other places were instructed by the Government to close and cease activities. Gathered worship was to stop, although on-line worship began in earnest for those able to access it. All gathered fellowship meetings were stopped along with a huge amount of compassionate outreach. If a food bank was based at a Church – it could continue, but virtually every other kind of physical outreach was suspended. Individual acts of Christian kindness and love continued but with very limited social contact.
The knock-on effect for some Churches was that offerings were not being made, unless given directly through the banking system. Income for many churches plummeted, not just because offerings stopped or slowed down, but because the income from hiring out halls and rooms also instantly dried up. This type of income has become vital for the ongoing life of thousands of Churches. When Churches were allowed to open and gather again physically for private prayer or corporate worship (with reduced and limited numbers) the meetings could not include singing, a vital element in the worship of the Church. Singing stimulates and radiates joy and gladness in the hearts of God’s gathered people (Psalm 68:4, 100: 1-2). Singing is a precious element in praise and worship. However, the people of God have remained masked and silent. Worship is simply not the same without celebratory praise and singing. Even now, as we come toward the end of this difficult time, many still remain cut off from the life and worship of the Church, and it will take time for Churches to recover and assess their futures. Just as the Temple in Joel’s day, with all its worship activities was not immune from the damage caused by the locust plague – so the Church today has experienced significant losses, deprivation and trauma.
However, once again I want to emphasise as the Scriptures do, and as I have done in several previous sermons, that the Lord reigns! (Psalm 99:1) God is over and above all, and His plans cannot be thwarted, and this includes His eternal plans for His dearly beloved and chosen people. Today I want to simply and honestly share with you what I believe God is doing amongst His people at this time, both in this nation – and perhaps some of the other developed western nations. I want to also share with you what I believe needs to be the key element in the ministry “of the priests who minister before the altar and the Lord” (9b, 13, 2:17) in this nation, and I will use Joel as my reference point.
It seems clear to me, that many smaller rural, seaside, urban and suburban Churches will close now or in the very near future. During the first wave of the pandemic about 40% of those who died were the frail elderly living in nursing homes. Their deaths were sadly brought forward by a few weeks, months or years by the virus. It was both sad and tragic, but once the virus entered such places – it was inevitable. I see a parallel here with the Church. Small, weak, struggling Churches across the land, who were in any case nearing the end of their lives will now die. They would have died within the next few years anyway, but their deaths will now be brought forward. Some will simply not re-open, others will re-open but give up the ghost fairly soon. Their elderly members have been weakened and the pandemic and lockdowns will prove to be the last straw. There are many Churches like this in our nation and the majority of them are connected to the traditional mainline denominations.
We should therefore expect to hear of the closure of hundreds of historic Churches, many of whom had very proud and notable histories and served their communities for decades or even hundreds of years. Of the 16000 Anglican churches in this country, 8000 presently have 26 or less people (mainly elderly) attending them regularly. Their lives are hanging by a very thin thread. I only have to look at the smaller sized Churches in the Forest of Dean, and the steadily decreasing number of traditional Churches to see that the outlook is very bleak. Their deaths will be brought forward. Do not be surprised if you hear of the closure of many Church fellowships, those you have personally known and even been a part of in the past. The virus and lockdowns have undoubtedly helped to accelerate the relentless terminal decline of Anglicanism, Methodism and the URC. I won’t bore you with alarming statistics, but we need to understand that the collapse of ecclesiastical Church institutions and structures is near and has just got significantly closer. It may even happen during this present decade. This is not an exaggeration. Just simply look at the age-profile of the Churches and that alone should sound an alarm. He who has an ear – let them hear what the Spirit says to the Church.
But that does not mean to say that the Church is finished in this nation, and I do not believe that for one second. Much of what you and I have known as “Church” will die – and relatively quickly. However, some Churches will survive and even thrive as they seek to obey God and evangelise and serve their communities. These will very largely (not entirely) be what are referred to as mainstream and/or independent biblical Evangelical and Pentecostal type Churches. These are the types of Churches that continue to grow significantly around the world and are now almost exclusively responsible for the outworking of the Jesus’s great commission. (Matthew 28: 18-20) If a committed Christian chooses to live in a rural or less populated area of the UK in the years to come, they may well find themselves only being able to attend smaller house churches that meet locally for fellowship, worship, bible study and prayer. In that sense, it will be like the early Church in Acts that simply met together in private homes. In other words, to use biblical terminology, there will be a remnant of the true Church in this nation, a nation which itself will become even more godless and secularised. The question is this. If you are still living, will you be part of this future marginalised (and almost certainly persecuted) remnant?
We have entered a period where God, who is the Gardener (John 15:1), is going to be sovereignly engaged in some severe pruning within the life of His Church. The pruning hook and shears are in the hands of the Father! Dead branches, lifeless Churches and nominal Christians without the life and word of Christ will be cut off and thrown away. (John 15:1-8) The pandemic is playing its part here as it helps to separate wheat from chaff. God is moving to refine His Church, and to purify a people for Himself and for His glory. A divine alarm and trumpet call are being sounded. Churches will undergo pruning for the sake of new and real growth, and this could include some numerical growth, although I believe we are discovering that God’s main concern is not numbers, but devotion, faithfulness and holiness. As the great story of Gideon reminds us, God would rather call and use smaller Spirit-filled numbers, so that He alone can be glorified through them and their consecrated service. (Judges 7:2f)
In the next 5-15 years, the Church will shrink considerably in numbers, but it should become significantly saltier than it has been for a hundred years. (Matthew 5:13, Mark 9:50, Colossians 4:6) For the people left in this country who still want to genuinely find God and His truth, the Church will be an oasis in a spiritually barren land, and a lighthouse in a morally dark and disintegrating nation. The emerging Church will possess a prophetic edge and an evangelistic power, as it leans only upon God and heaven’s resources. Prayer will become its greatest need and weapon. But precisely because of that, this remnant Church will become even more marginalised and persecuted. A dead Church is not worth persecuting, and a compromised and lukewarm Church makes God vomit. (Revelation 3:16) Endurance, perseverance and Christ-like character will be needed by God’s people, and the pandemic has provided a great opportunity for Christians to have their faith tested and deepened, and an opportunity to examine themselves to see whether or not they have been building their lives and futures on sand or rock. (Matthew 7: 24-27) The challenge of Paul to the Corinthians is most relevant to us;
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith: test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you – unless of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. (2 Corinthians 13:5-6)
Here is the question facing you and I? Will we continue to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ whatever the pressures? Will Christchurch still be here in a decade? Will Christchurch consist of a refined, strong, brave and flowering fellowship of believers whose supreme concern and vocation is to honour God’s word and glorify His name? Will Christchurch be a channel of God’s gracious blessing to the community? It will depend on God’s grace, will and purposes, and also your willingness to give your all for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom. Never take Christchurch’s life and continuance for granted! One of the most significant prophetic passages of the bible for any thinking and committed Christian to consider at this time is Luke 13:6-9. This provides us with another challenging picture from the world of horticulture/agriculture;
Read Luke 13: 6-9. There is limited time left for us to bear the requisite fruit. Remember, God prunes and God can and will remove unfruitful Churches. He can and does remove lampstands! (Revelation 2:5)
The situation we face is very serious and extremely challenging. I hope that you are not one of those many Christians who have their heads buried in the sand, pretending things aren’t too bad, casual and even lazy in your approach to faith in Christ. The Church in this country has often been described as a sleeping giant. I think the Church is asleep, but it is not a giant any more. If the pandemic has been so bad, so historically unprecedented, like the terrifying locust plague of Joel’s day – what should our response be? Surely there has to be a response, an awakening to the seriousness of the situation. What should be the response of those “priests who minister before the Lord”- the leadership within the Churches? And so, we return to the message and the challenges within the prophecy of Joel.
Here is what the priests were instructed and challenged to do by the prophet! Notice the prophet brings the message to the priests. Read Joel 1: 13-14 (Where are the prophetic voices today?)
The priests are basically instructed by the prophet to get very seriousness about repentance. The whole book of Joel is fundamentally about the need to return to the Lord because His great Day is near. (Joel 2 v 12-15). There is a need to refocus on God, His glory, His holiness, His justice, His power, His will and His grace. The great need, the mighty prophetic clarion call is to “return to God” and to “cry out to the Lord”. This is the word Joel brings – and it highly relevant to us.
Repentance – a turning toward God – a return to seeking His face – always begins with the Church – the priests and the people. God’s people themselves first need to return to God with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength. Judgement begins with the household of God according to the apostle Peter (1 Peter 4:17), so naturally repentance must also begin with the Church. The Church, under conviction by the Holy Spirit, repents first – on behalf of itself and the nation; the church can then aim to lead those awakened by the Spirit of God amongst the nation in repentance. In Joel’s time, the call to repent came first to the spiritual leaders of the beleaguered nation.
The priests themselves must begin this vital act and process of repentance. They are called to;
- Have the right dress code (demeanour) v 13 says “put on sackcloth”. The priests can cast off lightness and levity in their approach to leading worship.
- Spend the whole night in prayer. Jesus often did this. Your future choices are critical. (Luke 6:12). You need to hear from God! Earnestly seek God in a barren land!
- Mourn before God. The call is to lament for the dire situation. (9,13)
- A call to fasting as well as prayer (14)
- Call out for God and seek His face and grace. God is gracious. (Joel 1:14, 2:13)
Isn’t this a bit extreme asks someone? Sackcloth? Fasting? Lengthy periods of prayer? My response to that would be this. Was (is) the pandemic a little problem or a massive one? Was (is) the pandemic unprecedented or not? Has it resulted in a little fear or a huge amount of fear? What about the severe economic and social devastation? Do we believe this situation requires God’s merciful intervention and grace? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then serious, humble, persistent seeking of God in repentance is needed. There needs to be a new call to prayer and repentance, and the Church and priests must lead the way. The god-less people of our nation can’t do it! This unbelieving generation hasn’t got a clue about repentance and the need for it. We are no longer the nation we were during the 2nd world war, when our monarch could personally call the nation to prayer before the Dunkirk landings and rescue. We are now no longer a “praying Christian nation”. That’s gone! That was in the past! The new reality is that the UK is now a nation that does not understand how to pray and seek God, and how to call upon the name of the Lord. Therefore, the Church must lead the way – hence the initial call to the priests to “wake up” and act!
How do we respond then as a Church and as individual Christians? I will go into more detail about what repentance really is and involves in the coming weeks as we face Joel chapter 2, but let me suggest 3 or 4 things you can begin to seriously think about.
- Set aside special times of prayer for yourself where you seek God afresh and offer him your life and repent of all sin, lukewarmness, spiritual lethargy and complacency.
- Conscientiously make time to enter this building on a Wednesday morning and begin calling out to God for yourself and for your nation. If Christians don’t do it – who will?
- Come to the monthly Sunday evening prayer meeting. Turn off the TV for an hour, get up, leave your house and come into the house of the Lord your God (Joel 1:14) Join me, your leader and let us seek God’s forgiveness, grace and favour for now and for the future.
- If we call extra prayer and worship meetings for renewal and spiritual refreshing – prioritise them and come and engage wholeheartedly in prayer and worship and intercession. We need to learn how to use the laments and prayers for restoration that are found in the Holy Scriptures. There are many such prayers and they are ideal for us to use individually and corporately.
Let me close with an important Scriptural encouragement, one that has often been quoted over the last few decades, but whether or not it has truly been prioritised and put into action in the life of the Church is another question. It would have been a relevant word to Joel and it is relevant to us.
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
The situation and spiritual climate we now face is incredibly serious, even more so after the pandemic and the lockdowns. It can only be faced without fear as we look to the God who reigns in power and heals with mercy. This “kind of spirit” can only come out with prayer (and fasting). (Mark 9:29) Whenever a situation in Israel was deemed to be highly serious and desperate, the prophets always held out the same challenge and call, the challenge and call to repent, and to cry out to the name of the Lord who is gracious (Joel 1:14).
This is I believe, the primary challenged and task facing the Church in the UK in 2021 and beyond.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17 etc)
To God our Father, to Jesus our Lord, and to the Holy Spirit our constant Companion, be the glory and praise.
Revd Peter J Clarkson (June 20th 2021)