Keeping our commitment
[A note before reading: concerning the timing of this posting, we had a delightful turnout out of members, regulars and visitors yesterday.]
It is Friday. You are going to the doctor for an inoculation, and you turn up for your appointed meeting, and the receptionist informs you that, “Sorry, but I am afraid that the doctor was a little bit tired today, and wasn’t able to come in. End of a long week, you know.”
You head on to the dentist, as scheduled (it has been that kind of week), only to find a sign on the door: “Due to a bit of a cold, the dentist is not fulfilling her appointments.”
Undeterred, on Saturday you move on to a child’s weekly sporting event, only to have the news filter round the assembled parents that the coach came to the conclusion that he had a few other things he felt were pressing, and so dropped out at the last minute.
Not to worry, at least there’s the birthday party this afternoon. Except that the hosts have suddenly decided that they wanted a bit of family time, and so the party has been unceremoniously cancelled.
Still, at least there’s church on the Lord’s day. The morning is a bit underwhelming, to be honest. But off you trot in the evening, arriving at the building at the appointed hour, only for it to become apparent that the pastor has been a bit overwhelmed this week, didn’t quite get his act together, missed his afternoon nap, and so decided he would rest up a bit in the hope of being a bit more ‘with it’ by next Sunday. After all, he preached to you this morning, so at least he was there once! (In case you think I am joking, I heard only recently from a brother who had booked a visiting preacher for a small church needing encouragement. A couple of days before the preacher was due to be there, he called through, explained that he had had a few struggles with his preparation that week, and as a result he was very disappointed to have to call off his engagement at such short notice. And that was that.)
I imagine, in most–if not each–of those instances, you would be somewhat dischuffed. After all, there’s a tacit agreement if not a more formally implied contract in most of those arrangements. To be sure, maybe the dentist is understating her ailment, and you wouldn’t want someone with streaming waves of mucus mucking around with your mouth. Generally speaking, though, I think you would feel that all of this was a little unreasonable.
And yet, put the shoe on the other foot. You expect the doctor to be there, but you perhaps don’t think very much of cancelling your appointment if you weren’t feeling up to it. After all, the doctor will be there anyway, another day. The dentist you might push for – after all, they’re a bit tricky to book appointments with. That weekly sporting event will have plenty of other kids at it. You know at least three other families who will be at the birthday party, so you won’t exactly be missed. And, church …
Actually, how would you feel if the pastor were missing, or unengaged and listless, or excusing his absence, or just had not got his act together, as are many church members all too often?
Perhaps you know the joke about the son complaining to his mother about school attendance:
“Son, it’s time to get up. You are going to be late!” calls the mother.
“But I don’t wanna go to school today, mum!” replies the son.
“You don’t have a choice.”
“But none of the kids like me!”
“You know that’s not true. Some of them think you’re great!”
“All the teachers hate me!”
“The teachers don’t hate you – they’re just trying to do their job!”
“But I don’t WANNA go!”
“You have to go,” says the mother with final firmness. “You’re the headmaster!”
Isn’t the whole joke meant to be that, as the headmaster, you wouldn’t expect him to be anywhere else? The excuses that he might have used were he a pupil–flimsy as they are in the themselves–clearly hold no water for the headmaster. In fact, the flimsiness of the excuses is revealed by the relationship of the person to the institution or obligation.
But surely the same goes with regard to the church. You would, I imagine, be mortified to turn up at a church service only to find that the preacher has cried off for the same reasons, or kinds of reasons, as so many in the congregation have decided that this morning or this evening they are not going to make it.
I understand that the pastor has a particular responsibility. I understand that there’s only one of him preaching, and plenty of others hearing. But I fear that the burden of responsibility, the flow of commitment, often seems to exist only in one direction. The preacher ought to be there. After all, that’s his job. But me? I can pretty much take it or leave it, depending on my circumstances.
Really? Are you not part of the body? Are you not a living stone in that divinely-indwelt temple? Are you not covenanted together with those fellow saints to minister to them and to be ministered to by them? Are you not persuaded that in this service heaven will draw near to earth, that the Lord will speak, more or less powerfully, through the preaching of the Word? That you will genuinely and really render prayers and praises to the Most High God in your participation in the whole service? That heavenly manna will be there for you to eat? That this might be the morning or the evening when you might obtain an unusual blessing, or your friend, or your child, or your neighbour, attending with you, might be converted? That, if nothing else, you have said, more or less formally, that you will not forsake the assembling together of those saints to whom you have made a commitment to love them and to be loved by them?
Oh, sorry, I forgot. You had a cold! You had a long week! Really?
I do not think any one of us would deny that there are, at times, providential hindrances to our attendance upon the means of grace. I have been in a hospital with one of my children on a Sunday evening because of an emergency, knowing that another brother was primed to preach. My wife has had to stay home to care for one or more sick children, and to try to prevent the current plague from sweeping through the unsuspecting congregation. I have had to cancel a Sunday preaching engagement late on a Saturday night because my wife went into labour early. Someone might drive into my car on the way to church. The roads might be closed because of a flood, with no alternative way around. I might myself be struck down with an illness that I cannot overcome. But these are providential hindrances, not casual excuses. They are obstacles I simply cannot overcome, barriers that are genuinely insurmountable at that moment, factors for which I cannot have planned which prevent me, despite my best efforts, from being where I have promised to be, doing what I have promised to do. I made a commitment. So did you.
When you go to the church building on Sunday, to gather with God’s people, you will all be expecting the pastor-preacher to be there, unless providentially hindered. He has arranged his week around being present, willing and able, by God’s grace, to invest in those hours of worship. He is expecting you to be there. You ought to be expecting one another to be there. It ought to be an oddity for you to be absent. If you are a healthy Christian, your brothers and sisters should be entitled to wonder what might be wrong that you are not in your appointed place. Expect a phone call to see whether or not you are OK. After all, you’re so rarely missing.
Dear Christian friend, your pastor–or one of them (or whoever else may be preaching)–is even now labouring over his preparation. He is prayerfully, even tearfully, wrestling with his text and with his God. He is weary in body and soul as he seeks to manage all his commitments, many of them as unseen and unknown as yours are. He too is probably juggling his family life and his work responsibilities in an attempt to do all that he is committed to do. He has you in mind. Your face, your life, is before him as he sweats away in the study. He is considering his explanations and crafting his applications for you, your family, and the others whom he hopes and expects will be there morning and evening on the Lord’s day. And he will, one way or another, spring or drag himself into the pulpit on that day in order to minister God’s word to your soul. The blessing of God for you is in a measure tied, by God’s decree, to his labours. He is part of the body. In that context, he has a particular duty as a mouth. He has to be there to speak. You are part of the body. In that context, you have a particular role as an ear. You ought to be there to hear.