A Dwelling Place for God
Please note: Due to technical difficulties, audio is not available for this week's sermon.
In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
In the 18th century England people who belonged to the Methodist Societies under the leadership of John Wesley were expected to attend a daily preaching service at 5:00 A.M.—before they went to work. On Sunday the 5:00 A.M. service was suspended as they were expected to be present at their local Anglican parish church for worship. There are comments in Wesley’s journal indicating that he thought the spiritual health of people in these societies went hand in hand with attendance of the 5: A.M. preaching service.
I grew up in a church where we had Sunday school followed by a worship service on Sunday mornings and a Sunday evening service; in addition we attended a Wednesday evening prayer service. Expectations were clear; the people of the church were expected to be at these services. I recall at Sunday evening service the Minister would sometimes opine about the apparent lack in spiritual commitment because there were fewer people at the evening service than the morning. It seemed to me that he was scolding the wrong people; chastising the people who did come for those who did not was like being disciplined by my father for something one of my brothers did. Why scold us? We were there!
Today we are considering this text of scripture where Paul indicates that the church is a dwelling place on earth for God. It is a glorious image and, at the same time, a high calling. Here at Central we have a weekly Sunday morning worship service, a six week small group study campaign in the fall and a five week Lenten study. We look at dwindling numbers and wonder what might promote people being here. I have never found that scolding people for lack of spiritual commitment all that productive. Guilt is not much of a sustaining motivator. I find that, generally speaking, people understand that faith calls them to this commitment to worship together. When I meet people of this congregation in the community who have not been to church in a while on many occasions the first words out of their mouth is an apology for their absence. My goal is not to make anyone feel guilty (Ok I admit there may be a few I would be prone to a little twist of guilt).
So for the sake of clarity, when I say I am delighted for all who have come to worship today, I am. I would not want to treat lightly any person’s commitment to being present for worship. I do treasure your company in this that God is doing among us to be his dwelling place. We share, in common, the same Lord and I should like to be both catalyst and encourager of commitment to him.
Another tack that some take to encourage commitment to the church is to underline its significance in what God is doing. We are being built into a dwelling-place for God! Could anything be of greater significance or satisfy the need for my life to mean something like the eternal purposes of God? You too can be a bearer of God in the world!!! This, however, feels a little like shining our badges and saying I belong to the best club. To be certain, in no way am I trying to diminish the sense of significance we feel in serving Jesus Christ but Jesus Christ doesn’t exist so we can feel significant. In Jesus Christ your significance to God has never been in doubt. Further, if participating in church life is so self-evidently glorious why doesn’t it naturally attract tons of people?
Others approach this challenge appealing to the “what’s-in-it-for-me” motivation. The benefits of worshipping together are trumpeted. Yes, worship of Jesus Christ has benefit for our lives but benefit is never the primary reason for gathering together—the primary reason is that Jesus is worthy of our worship and is so uniquely. Emphasis on the benefits shifts the focus such that church tends towards being treated as a commodity and we compete for worshippers by having the best show in town. Now, there is nothing unseemly about good music, engaging and practical preaching, or beautiful sacrament. But if this is what worship is reduced to then we ever have to be cutting edge in order to have the most captivating worship to compete. Soon what was at the fore-front wears thin and consumers of worship are looking elsewhere.
So if guilt is a poor motivator and the glory of it all is not self-evidently compelling and the benefits only hold attention for a season what will motivate? I can only tell you what keeps me motivated, or more accurately, who keeps me motivated. Jesus Christ. It is out of a growing apprehension of his great love for me that ever calls me to this place. It is standing before the cross knowing that it is there that he reconciled me to God at great personal sacrifice that makes pale every other reason or motivation. When I see his sacrifice for me then it seems a small matter that I should organize my life to meet with his people—the church that he loves and gave himself to bring together.
Friends, we are on this thing together called the church for eternity; it would be good to begin to learn to be together here. The dwelling-place of God that Jesus is building us into has a glorious future unimagined by human mind. This does not mean that you will have to listen to this preacher’s voice forever. One day our faith will be sight and all preacher voices will be stopped as we hear directly from him. And I can hardly wait.
I had the privilege to attend the Ontario Prayer Breakfast this year where Dr. Kent Brantly spoke. He was the medical missionary doctor who made the news having contracted the Ebola virus and was brought back to the United States from Africa for treatment. As we listened to his story of how his life was spared my heart soared because of his witness to the saving love of Jesus Christ. I find that my heart soars similarly whenever I hear the good news of Jesus announced. You know these moments; it is when the Spirit of God bears witness to our hearts that we are hearing the truth of God. If our hearts soar on these occasions when we hear of Jesus through the stumbling voice of a preacher think about what it will be when we hear him live! No one motivates life like Jesus.
1. When you read the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and consider the crew of disciples he called to himself what odds would you have given that the church would ever have come into existence? (I know I should not encourage you to place bets—it was a euphemism to make point). If you consider how they all disserted Jesus and how dispirited and broken they were at the crucifixion you would haven’t given “team Jesus” much of a chance. Yet, here we are called into his company 2000 years later and we are a tiny part of all who have walk in company with Jesus now and have walked in company with him throughout history.
Paul reminds them of such impossibility even in these early days of the church’s life. “… remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12) We need to take note that God alone is the one who can do this and God surely does it. “In him (Jesus) the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.”
God alone can fashion us into a dwelling-place for God’s self. This that he presses upon us to make us his own is gift; sheer gift. At the same time it is a gift we must exercise. Too many people, upon hearing scripture’s declaration that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing it is the gift of God” think that this renders us bystanders with nothing to do but watch.
We shouldn’t do this. Instead we should affirm, in faith, that the gift which God alone can bestow upon us he has bestowed; and then we should set about exercising this gift, doing the truth. We take God at his word, and then we act on the truth of that word. He has built us together into a dwelling-place for himself and so we live that out accordingly.
We pray then, that the Lord of the church will build his church. And that for which we pray we work. Yes we engage in worship with the best we can offer all the while knowing that it is our Lord who builds.
We read today the story of King David who wanted to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant and become the centre of Israel’s worship. At this point in David’s career David is on top of the world. He is the King that everyone in the 12 tribes of Israel is behind. He is a cunning military leader and has subdued his major enemies. He has taken the strategic city Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capital. He has built a palace and has brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Everything David touches turns to gold; he’s really got it goin’ on!
So David consults his prophet Nathan—who he consults in matters relating to God—and says he feeling bad for God—I live in a grand cedar house but the Ark of God is still in a tent. Nathan is so confident in David that he doesn’t consult God he just tells David to go for it.
So why does God intervene and tell Nathan to tell David No! David was about to trot down a path that may have looked as innocent as could be but that could well have led him to the kind of arrogant self-sufficiency that could be his undoing. David is going to build a house for God. So God has to get into Nathan’s face with a long oracle.
As Pastor Eugene Peterson points out, there is no missing the message here: it’s not about David and what he can do for God. This is about God and what God alone can do for David. That’s why God is the subject of no less than 23 active verbs in the 12 verses of this story—that averages nearly two per verse! What David is reminded is that it’s not what he can do for God that is crucial but what God has done and will do through David—for God’s glory, not David’s.
Notice God’s question to David—are you the one to build a house for me? (2 Samuel 7:5) Clearly David wants it to be him—so he could say “I built this house for God.” God reveals that it will be David’s son who will build the temple. So David acts accordingly—he makes provision for the materials so that his son will be able to move ahead at the appropriate time.
We must always keep in mind that our Lord build’s his church for his purposes to make us his own dwelling place. The church does not exist so preachers can make a name for themselves nor for some vision of bringing justice to the world nor to be the best social gathering possible. The church exists for Jesus’ sake; we are called to live accordingly.
2. In the early days of the church a big wall existed between Jew and Gentile. Paul insists that in Jesus Christ “the dividing wall of hostility” has been crumbled. In the ancient world the highest wall (so high, in fact that it could never be climbed over) was the wall separating Jew and Gentile. Because this “dividing wall of hostility” was utterly insurmountable it also represented any lesser wall that separated people from each other anywhere, for any reason (or no reason.) And precisely this wall, humanly insurmountable, God has broken down, says Paul, in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now the wall doesn’t exist at all. And in place of the two hostile persons God has created one new person in Christ. And if this one wall has been crumbled, so have all the lesser walls that it represents. So if the wall is down in Christ we are to live that reality.
I know, hostility and antagonism are the order of a fallen universe. And certainly we live in that universe. But finally, ultimately, we Christians live in Christ. We live in the one in whom the Fall has been overturned; we live in the one in whom all dividing walls have been crumbled.
To say the same thing differently: we have a foot in both worlds, but we don’t distribute our weight evenly over both feet. Even as we have a foot in both worlds we have shifted our weight onto that foot which is planted in the world of reconciliation. We don’t want to reflect the world’s antagonisms back to the world, thereby making everything worse. We want to reflect the reality of Christ’s reconciliation into darkened corners where darkened people continue to think that assorted walls of hostility are still standing. We want only to hold up reconciliation: God’s reconciliation with us and ours with our fellows – and all of this just because we know where reconciliation was first wrought and how it was wrought: namely, at a cross where the God we had offended and pained absorbed his pain in order to have us home again.
Here is the truth of the gospel that overwhelms me with wonder. In the good news of Jesus it is the offended party (God in this case) who initiates reconciliation. We had violated him. We had wounded him. Yet he reconciled us to himself. There is no harder point for people to grasp, I have found, than this. We always assume the opposite; we always assume that the responsibility for initiating reconciliation lies with the offender. It’s the offender who turned bond into breach. “Then let the offender fix it!” we say. This logic is perfectly logical with the logic of the world; it is equally illogical according to the logic of the gospel. For according to the Gospel, God himself sought our reconciliation with him when we were wholly to blame for the estrangement.
I know that we want to see results for our efforts at being the church. We have prayed and offered what we can to promote the life of the church yet numbers decline. Where are we now? We must remember it’s never our task to be successful. It’s our task to be faithful. Our only responsibility is to be agents of God’s dwelling-place by living the truth of the company we already enjoy in Christ. The fruitfulness of our effort we must leave with God.