If this pandemic has resulted in any specific catchphrase, I would argue that it is this concept of a 'new normal.'
Many are speculating what that new normal will look like; will masks become routine? will online community become a viable alternative across industry?
Churches are buying into this speculation also. The vision of moving online to reach more people, whilst there is social distancing amongst the limited body of Christ allowed in the building, no singing allowed and even talk of vaccine passports for church attendance.
Now, the concept of a 'new normal' for church is not a bad thing. In fact, I believe we should be considering what the 'new normal' of the church looks like at this point in history. My concern is that rather than asking how God is changing, shaping and directing His people, many churches are content to go with the flow, finding new ways to simply continue their old practises.
A controversial suggestion, but one I wholeheartedly believe needs to be heard by Christians, is that our Sovereign God has been at work during the unprecidented events of the past year. Even more controversially, the Holy God who cannot tolerate the presence of sin, might be at work in His judgement through these events...
We have a warped idea of love in our culture today, which we have in turn imposed upon our understanding of God as love, but Scripture makes two things quite clear; first, 'Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent' (Revelation 3:19), and secondly, 'it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household' (1 Peter 4:17). Israel's judgement for idolatry and spiritual adultary was to be sent into exile, physically leaving the land (Deuteronomy 28:64). Is it any wonder that our own idolatry and spiritual adultary within the church has led to us being exiled from the 'land'?
There is a parallel between the Israelites before the start of the monarchy, and our religious institutions today. We come to Samuel through the book of Judges, the final words of which are, 'everyone did what was right in his own eyes.' In short, there was no higher authority than me and my truth.
We even see this worldview translated into the mentality of the priesthood as Eli's sons Hophni and Phinehas disregard the law of God to their own gain. But as a result, the Israelites had come under the curse of God as promised in Deuteronomy 28:25, that they would be defeated by their enemies. They had become the slaves of the Philistines.
Even so, in 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites wage war against the Philistines twice, neither time enquiring of God! Unlike us today, they correctly identify that the Soverign God of history is at work in their defeat, but like us this does not lead them to repentance and humility before God. They recognise that God has wrought their defeat, yet still they do not come before Him in submission to seek His face!
Instead they wheel our their own salvation in the form of the ark of the covenant. Though recognised as a symbol of the presence of God, they fail to understand that the symbol is not the invisible reality it represents, and so they generate a false experience of God's presence through a false salvation- salvation devoid of God. Is this not exactly what we see today? False experiences of God through 'thousands' of new people tuning into online services. Is that the measure of God's presence? False salvation promoted through church leaders as they push people to get vaccinated, that the vaccine is the only way out of the pandemic, to get back to normal. And in both cases, the religious leaders were at the forefront of this false narrative.
Perverting salvation will only lead to greater judgement. The initial Philistine defeat only cost the Israelites 4,000 men. In their own arrogance and failure to enquire of the Lord, God allows the Philistines a defeat of 30,000, including the ruling priesthood. As F.B Meyer puts it, 'Their education is so costly and necessary that He can afford to let them suffer again and again- that an arrest may be put on courses that are not good.' In our own spiritual arrogance, will this be the necessary means for God to turn us back from paths that are not good?
There is a great need to enquire of the Lord afresh, to return to Him in repentance and humility, and to seek the guidence of our Good Shepherd.
In this dismal landscape, God had His prophet Samuel positioned to listen to His own voice and speak His words to the people. Though Israel had declared 'Ichabod- the glory has departed,' there was a remnant in the land who sought the face of God and enquired of the Lord. God is looking for faithful men and women who are ready to listen to Him and ready to speak.
The question is not 'when can we go back to what we were doing?' or even 'what will our new normal look like?' The question we need to be asking is 'what does God want to become the new normal for His people?' We need to allow His Holy Spirit to examine our hearts. We must align ourselves with God so that when He speaks we are ready to listen to and obey His word.