For close to two years now, South Africa have been living under a state of national disaster. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed South Africa into a state that none of us anticipated and none of us had heretofore experienced. Since the initial lockdown announcement, it has been, to say the least, a rollercoaster ride.
Lockdown was initially announced for three weeks, with no religious gatherings permitted for that period. Faith-based institutions were, for the most part, eager to comply. Three weeks of livestreaming was a small cost to pay to save millions of lives.
Weeks turned into months with seemingly no end in sight. We had almost forgotten what it was like to gather with the church for worship. Eventually, however, there was light at the end of the tunnel. With the infection rate stabilising, religious gatherings were permitted, subject to strict protocols and a maximum attendance of fifty. Soon, that number was increased to 100 and, later, to 250 indoors and 500 outdoors. I can well remember the joy of that first outdoor gathering, celebrating Communion for the first time in months as we affirmed ten new members, including three by baptism. Well might we have sung that morning of the Lord restoring our fortunes.
Things soon settled into a new normal, and yet there was still longing for more: longing to gather without one eye on the watch; longing to meet in the comfort of indoors; longing for the ability to regularly participate in the Communion meal. While there was gratitude for how God had restored fortunes, there was still a desire for a greater return to the old normal.
If you can relate, perhaps you can understand something of Psalm 126. This psalm was composed as a song to be sung by Jewish worshippers who returned to Jerusalem after seventy years in Babylonian exile. Those had been days of bitter weeping and an overflow of tears (Lamentations 1:2, 16). The possibility of corporate worship had been removed with the destruction of the temple. And while the temple’s destruction gave rise to the Jewish synagogue, it was not the same. Splintered worship in individual homes and other small gatherings was helpful but was not the same as the gathered worship of God at the temple.
But then a wonderful thing happened: Cyrus decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. What a glorious providence! No wonder the people sang,
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.
And yet restoration was not complete. The temple had yet to be rebuilt. Most of the Jews remained in Babylon and Persia. Restoration had taken place, but there was still so much more to be restored. The people prayed, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” (v. 4). The trickle was appreciated but the people longed for a flood of restoration. So they prayed for greater restoration of the restored.
Since the initial eased restrictions, the country has gone through various waves, with varying degrees of lockdown and eased restrictions. As I write, we have gone through three major waves of the pandemic, each with its own heightened restrictions. We are currently gathering outside once again in full number on Sunday mornings. We rejoice. We thank God for restored fortunes. But we long for more restoration. We long for the ability to fully gather with no restrictions. We must pray.
But even when that day finally arrives, and restrictions are lifted, and we return to what was once considered normal, we recognise that there is a great deal more restoration to happen. Full restoration will only occur when Christ returns and resurrects his people to life everlasting in the new heaven and new earth, where we will forever, without restriction, worship our eternal God.
As you head into a new day, thank God for every opportunity to worship. At the same time, realise that things—even in the absence of a pandemic—are not what they will one day be. Pray for greater restoration and long for the day when we are fully restored to the image of Christ in a perfect, restrictionless world.