Twelve weeks ago, when our in-person services were suspended, I daydreamed about walking through the church doors once again, bare-faced, hugging my friends, proudly carrying my newborn son. Instead, we’ll be peeking over masks from six feet away with a baby who by now is hardly new.
Walking through the doors will bring a different range of emotions for each of us, but suffice it to say, we’ll all be disappointed. We’re grieving for the worship experience we remember.
The Latter Temple
As the Israelites began returning from their 70-year exile in Babylon, the glorious temple built by Solomon (2 Chronicles 3) was in ruins. When the foundation for a new temple was laid, most of the people rejoiced—but many of the elders who remembered the old temple wept over how much less glorious the new one would be (Ezra 3:12).
The completion of the temple seventeen years later caused a new round of mourning: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3).
God, through his prophet Haggai, exhorted his people to “be strong … for I am with you” (Haggai 2:4). The glory of the former temple had never been in its gold or its cedar, but in God’s presence. “My Spirit remains in your midst,” he told his people, so they need not grieve the loss of a particular building (Haggai 2:5).
More than that, God promised that “The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9). The latter glory that brings peace is widely understood to be Jesus. The new temple is where Jesus was dedicated, where Simeon declared him to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
Like many prophecies, Haggai’s declaration of “latter glory” has a second layer of meaning, pointing to the final glory when God’s people will not gather at a building to worship but will dwell with God and worship before his throne. God, through Haggai, called his people to not look back to Solomon’s temple, but to look ahead to what the glory of Solomon’s temple prefigured.
The Latter Glory
It is fitting to grieve our losses in our new worship logistics: losses of intimacy, comfort, focus, connection. When the elders wept over the new foundation, God did not chastise them. It was acceptable to have mixed emotions: “the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping” (Ezra 3:13).
We cannot remain in our grief, however: “Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:4). Though stifled behind masks and distanced by six feet, we must continue the work of the church—to worship and serve our Savior. We can persevere, despite awkwardness and discomfort, because what makes the church “the church” is still present: “My Spirit remains in your midst,” declares the Lord (Haggai 2:5)!
God is present with his people! Church may not look how we hoped. But God is still the Lord of hosts, Jesus has still saved us from our sins, and the Spirit still dwells in us, so we have all that we need to worship.
Finally, we must remember, like the Israelites, that our earthly worship services are a foreshadow of eternity. We have never worshiped perfectly; our minds wander, our hearts are cold, our strength wavers. But a glorious day is coming when God’s church—the whole bride of Christ, not divided into local congregations or spread across time—will sing God’s praises loud and long, side by side before the throne.