God Uses Corporate Worship to Save Us from Ourselves

    Series: 52 Reasons: The Importance of Corporate Worship
    November 20, 2020
    George Robertson
    Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God. When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (Jonah 2)

    Maybe you are familiar with the story of the prophet Jonah. God called Jonah to go and minister to the city of Nineveh, and Jonah fled in the opposite direction toward Tarshish. God intervenes, and Jonah eventually finds himself thrown overboard the ship he boarded and subsequently swallowed by a great fish.

    It is in this situation that Jonah turned in his mind’s eye to the temple in Jerusalem; regained his spiritual senses; and wanted to return to fellowship with the Lord. Nineveh was a wicked place that needed to be occupied by God’s grace and Tarshish was a destination of rebellion. But there is one place and building in the Old Testament that always represented a place of resource and refuge—the temple. That is the place to which Jonah turns in his mind’s eye during his distress. 

    For the New Testament believer, that temple has been replaced by thousands and thousands of places much nearer to the people of God—the church. Christ’s incarnation brought this function of the temple much closer to us.  It is the Church, the local gathering of Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

    Because life in a fallen world can be overwhelming, we must always be attached to the local church in the place where we live (God’s people in a particular place). Returning to that local church physically and mentally as a local expression of heaven must constantly reorient our souls to follow Christ. 

    The Church of Jesus Christ (a particular people in a particular place) is the refuge from our worst enemies: our personal sin, a fallen world, and ungrateful idolaters. Not only are these enemies displeasing to God they are ultimately dehumanizing. That means that attachment to a local people and place not only helps us to please God, it causes us to flourish as human beings.

    Jonah's prayer of praise in chapter 2 proves that Jonah viewed this strange conveyance in the belly of a fish as a gracious rescue by God; not as a judgment. In that strange gastro-church, Jonah’s mind turns to the Psalms for his vocabulary of thanksgiving.

    Jonah draws on at least fourteen psalms in this prayer. Eight of them he quotes directly and six or more are alluded to. How did he remember so many so quickly and in such a dire circumstance? He grew up singing them in church. He was quoting from his hymnbook! A close look at these psalms provides great insight into Jonah’s state of mind and heart.  Jonah writes it down for our practical instruction in how to engage the same enemies. 

    The early verses of Jonah’s prayer are instructive not only in their themes, but their order. Jonah knew from going to church that worship quickly moves from acknowledging God’s sovereignty to confessing our sin. One did not get far into the temple without offering a sacrifice, and by the time he finished worshiping, he and the priest were up to their necks in the bloody gore of a slain animal.

    We are following that pattern when we spend the early part of every Lord’s Day morning in a significant time of confession of sin both personal and corporate. The rest of the day is spent in responding to the assurance of pardoning grace which follows. 

    Jonah begins by acknowledging his personal sin, not only because it was the regular pattern he had learned but because he was forced to realize that his rebellion had landed him in the predicament he was now in. But remember, the provision of the fish was a sign of God’s grace, not judgment.

    Judgment would have been to allow Jonah his choice of death.  It would have been to give him over to what he had chosen—rebellion over obedience. No, it was God’s kindness that had pricked Jonah’s heart. God’s kind rescue had led Jonah to acknowledge his sin of disobedience, even though we will later learn that his repentance was not yet complete. 

    Specifically, Jonah quotes from two psalms in his Old Testament hymnbook: Psalm 86:5, 15 and 116:3-5. What makes these choices interesting is not just that they acknowledge personal guilt but they quote Exodus 34:6, 7 as the explanation for how God can forgive sinners. The very vocabulary of this passage caused the Old Testament saint to anticipate the coming Last Lamb of God who would “lift up and carry away” iniquity, transgression and sin as did the scapegoat every Day of Atonement. 

    When we engage in corporate worship, God uses his Spirit to convict us of our sin. He does so as a great mercy so that we might repent and return to the life he intended for us rather than destroying ourselves and others through rebellion. God can use the rhythm of confession and redemption replayed in worship each week to draw us back to himself even when we are far away from church, just as Jonah was.

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