It’s quarter past seven on a Sunday evening. I’m at home. It doesn’t happen often. In fact, I doubt if there have been a dozen times in the last thirty years when I’ve not been in church on a Sunday evening. Of those nearly all have been down to illness or accident (I once spent a month in hospital with my leg in traction). But today’s different. It’s Jesse who’s ill so I’ve stayed in with him and John while Anne takes Vicky to church. In God’s kind providence David Last is here as our guest preacher this weekend. So I can happily leave things in his hands. Otherwise Anne wouldn’t have managed to get out at all today. As it is, here I am, fit and well, sitting at home while others are gathering to worship.
It’s a strange feeling. I’m restless, uneasy. I feel I’m missing something. I know a mile away, others are singing great hymns of praise together. I’ve tried to sing here on my own, but I’m painfully conscious of my own voice. Instead of being carried along by the voices of others, I’m having to force myself to keep going. I press on to the end of the hymn but wonder if I’ve worshipped at all.
By now I expect David will have begun to explain God’s Word and to apply it to himself and all who are in the meeting. I’ve tried to read the Bible here to myself, but it’s hard to concentrate. So often when I’m listening to another man preach, or even at times when I’m preaching myself, I’ve been aware that something hugely important is happening – that we’re doing something of eternal significance. It’s hard to feel that here on my own.
If I’m honest, my natural inclination is to lay aside my Bible, leave my prayers, and pick up a novel or turn on the radio. It’s hard to remember that this is the Lord’s Day, our Sabbath, a day to be used entirely for the Lord, a day for renewing my soul. Cut off from the Lord’s people, even for one Sunday evening, I’m aware that my determination to put God first is slipping.
That month I spent in hospital 20 odd years ago was the hardest month of my life spiritually. How I hated being away from the Lord’s people, from the meetings of the church. How I hated being every day being the same – seven days a week spent listening to people chatter on about empty things – seven days a week, fourteen hours a day with the television on in the background. And how I hated my own hardness of heart: the fact that I found it so hard to pray, to read the Bible, to worship. I learned back then just how vital it is to get to the meetings of the church; how quickly we decline spiritually when we miss the shared worship of the church. Tonight has been a reminder of the lessons I learned back then.
It’s Monday now. And I’m still reflecting on the lessons of last night.
Why is it so important that every Christian should aim to be at all the meetings of the church? There are many reasons.
Firstly, each of us has a duty to our fellow-Christians. As it says in our church’s covenant of membership, we must “come together at such times as we agree among ourselves..” Why? Because we have a responsibility to “cleave to, to support, and whenever possible, to encourage by our presence..” our fellow-Christians. Those words “whenever possible” are important. Yes there will be times when it’s not possible to get to all the meetings we’ve agreed together. It’s not possible for both Anne and myself to be there tonight. In a family where there are young children, it’s sometimes not possible for both parents to get to evening meetings even when all the children are well. It may be that the only job you can get is one that makes it impossible for you to get to every meeting. There may be times when you’re genuinely too ill to come. But whenever possible we owe it to our fellow-Christians to be there for them. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” (Hebrews 10:24). You may feel that there’s not a lot you can do to stir up your fellow-believers. But just by being there, you do encourage them. And when you stay away you discourage them.
Secondly each of us has a duty to the church of which we’re part. Remember, the church is more than just the sum total of the people who attend it. Each local church is supposed to be a single body, a single family, an army marching together. The Bible uses all those pictures for the life of the church. We’re supposed to learn together as one, to work together as one, to pray together as one, to worship as one. If any Christian is missing, the church can’t function as it should. As the church meets and listens to Bible preaching, the church together learns new lessons. If you’re missing, that means that there’s one lesson that everybody else will learn but you’ll miss out on. The church as a whole will learn to think in a united way – but you’ll be left behind – and the oneness of the church will be damaged. As the church meets and prays together, the church together agrees what blessings it needs from God, asks for them and waits for them. But if you’re not there at the prayer meeting you won’t even know what needs we’ve talked about together and what we’ve asked for from God. You won’t be one with the church in its praying.
If you miss meetings of the church, you simply won’t know what’s going on a lot of the time. You won’t know about the work the church is doing. You won’t know about the joys and sorrows of other members. You won’t know about the encouragements the Lord gives us as a church. If the church is supposed to be a single body, you’ll be like a finger that’s been nearly severed and is no longer moving with the other fingers. Paul wrote to the Philippians that they should be “standing firm in one spirit with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel… being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 1:27, 2:2). If we can’t even get to meetings, we’re never going to experience that.
Thirdly each of us has a duty to the unconverted folk around us. When we get to meetings, we’re reminding the people of this world that God is real and that He is important. Your neighbours notice when you go out to church. As you walk out of your front door each Sunday morning and evening holding your Bible, you’re telling them, “whatever anybody else thinks, I’m going to put God first”. Teenagers growing up in our society have been told that God is dead – that nobody believes in Him anymore. But when they pass the hall where we meet and see the sign outside and the cars in the carpark, they know it’s not true.
And by the same token, if we miss meetings we’re giving unbelievers excuses to ignore God. Even our own children get the point. They can say to themselves, “If mum (or dad, or uncle so and so from the church) really believed that the Bible was God’s word, they’d make sure that they got to every meeting to learn more about it.” Every time you choose to stay away from a meeting, you’re saying to your own children, or to other people’s children, “Whatever we may preach to you week by week, we don’t really believe God is all that important..”
Fourthly each of us has a duty, to God Himself. The ultimate reason we have meetings at all is to bring glory to Him. We think it’s natural to meet with other people to pay honour to anyone we think is important. If the Queen comes to Stockport, thousands of people will line the streets to do her honour. If the England football team came back from the World Cup victorious, crowds would gather at the airport to honour them. If granddad reaches his eightieth birthday, the whole family gets together to show their respect. Just by turning up on these occasions, we’re saying to the person we want to honour, “We think you’re great!” If nobody turned up to the royal occasion, to the victory parade, to the party, what a shame it would be… Well, the meetings of the church are our opportunity to turn out to give honour to our King, our Conquering Hero, our Father, our God. “Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name. For the LORD is good…”
So there you have four good reasons to be at the meetings of the church wherever possible. But there is a fifth. You have a duty to yourself. That was what I realised during that month in hospital all those years ago. And it’s what I realised afresh last night. I need the meetings of the church. I need to be with other believers. I need to pray with them. I need to sing with them. I need to be where Jesus Christ is – and He has promised to be with the church in a special way when it meets. If I miss a meeting of the church without good reason, I’m robbing myself. I’m robbing myself of encouragement and friendship. I’m robbing myself of comfort and strength. I’m robbing myself of an opportunity to have fellowship with God. I’m robbing myself of happiness. Yes of course, there are meetings which we don’t enjoy, meetings that seem dull or dreary. But the fact is still that it’s only by that determination to get to meetings that we’ll find happiness in the Christian life. To be a happy Christian you have to be a person who puts God first. And getting to meetings whenever possible is a crucial part of that. Show me a Christian who’s casual and irregular in getting to meetings and I’ll show you an unhappy Christian.
Listen to the psalmist in his “Song for the Sabbath”. He rejoiced that he could get to meetings morning and evening. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night…” (Psalm 92:1) Or as Isaac Watts paraphrased it:
“Sweet is the work my God, my King
To praise Thy name, give thanks and sing;
To tell Thy love by morning light
And speak of all Thy truth at night.”
I wish I could have been there yesterday to speak of all His truth by night. Maybe I needed to be kept away to remind me of just how great a privilege it is to worship God with His people. I hope to arrive on Wednesday night and then next Lord’s Day with a renewed sense of anticipation and joy. I want to be there to share in the “sweet work” of praising God. And I want you to be there to enjoy that work with me.