"God's Building Project: Living Stones"
Nov.5/06 1Peter 2:4-12
Is it possible to build a church building - WITHOUT it becoming an idol? (Repeat) That depends; and the deeper we delve, the more we discover that what's at stake is how we worship God; what Jesus has done for us and wants from us; whether we 'get it' about how dear we are to God, and how attached we are to Him. Before we even start to make drawings and plans for a building, we need to make sure we see the church the way God sees it - much more than just bricks that perish. Biblically speaking, the church is people that worship and minister as priests in Christ's name.
Acquiring land is exciting. Finally it seems that through buying 4.5 acres, LWCF is about to be "put on the map". We have appointed a Facility Design Team. Starting to talk about building increases anticipation: we want a place to meet that we can call "our own". A place where we don't have to set up and take down each week (which must be tiring for volunteers). A place with a proper nursery facility, comfortable seating, even a church library and so forth. A place that makes a visible statement in the community, that we're "here to stay". These are very real longings.
But erecting a church building can be fraught with dangers; just talk to someone who's been involved in a building project. The process itself is a bit like a minefield relationally. Congregation members can come into sharp conflict over issues such as colour of the carpet, or chairs vs pews. Building committee chairpersons may resign, 3 or 4 times before a project's complete. Planning and meetings soak up endless amounts of leaders and volunteers' time that could have been utilized in outreach instead. There's a great danger that the building process will divert the church's focus from actual ministry.
And once the construction process is complete, there's all the maintenance and upkeep. Now you have to clean, and heat, and repair the thing. Often there's a mortgage to pay off, which can drag a congregation into financial bondage. Pleas from the pulpit for capital donations become endless. All this in a spiritual climate in Canada in which more churches are CLOSING than opening. Are we really sure this is what we want? More important, are we really sure this is what GOD wants?
A building project raises questions of trust, security, value, and attachment. Just think how attached people get to church buildings that have to close: "that stained-glass window was donated in memory of my great-grandmother!" People buy the pew (3rd from the front on the right) their family always sat in. The prospect of a building caters to our human, fleshly need for security, a place to be protected; donors do pour thousands of dollars into carpets and paint and furnishings because "no spot is so dear to my childhood" as "the little brown church in the vale". Trust - security - value - attachment: a building project raises fundamental issues about worship and idolatry. There's a strong temptation to become sidetracked from the church's real focus and mission - ministering to people in Christ's name, for God's glory.
This unconscious yet unholy attachment to things "made" goes back a long way. In Exodus 20(3-5) the Lord God gives the people of Israel the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai: "You shall have no other gods before Me.You shall not make for yourself an idol...You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God..." Yet scarcely more than a month later, when Moses hasn't returned from his mountain-top rendezvous with the Lord to receive further instructions, the people gather around Aaron and urge him, "Come, make us gods who will go before us." From their jewellery Aaron makes an idol cast in the shape of a calf, and they bow down to it and sacrifice to it (Ex 32:1,4,8). In our creatureliness we seem to want a focus of worship that's hands-on, something we can control yet suppose links us to the supernatural. Unfortunately today there are still expensive 'golden calves' dotting the countryside that get in the way of the church being obedient and carrying out its true mission.
We thank God for providing affordable land on which to build. But God's purpose in dealing with humans does not involve property so much as PEOPLE. History shows that human-made temples are very transitory. They're not permanent, a source of true security: they don't last. In v12 Peter talks about "the day [God] visits us": in his second letter (3:13,10) he notes "that day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat." "The elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." Man's proudest structures will crumple to naught just like the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Take the religious structures of ancient Israel: the patriarchs built altars, out in the open. The Israelites entering Palestine carried a portable Tabernacle. Solomon's beautiful Temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians. Herod the Great's magnificent Temple was levelled by the Romans in 70 AD. Awesome as they were, they didn't last.
Scripture reveals God's idea of true worship is different from one which requires you to present yourself at a certain place in geography. The interaction with the Holy One is not to be localized 'out there' but IN US. Even before the Ten Commandments, God tells the Israelites (Ex 19:5f), "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Already you can see the hint that priesthood extends far beyond a limited group of appointed professionals carrying out rituals at a fixed location. God wants many people to be His representatives. In Jeremiah 31(33) God predicts a new covenant or deal He's aiming to introduce: "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time...I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people." God's vision is for people to be responding to Him in their hearts, connected, not cut off from Him.
This was not possible on the basis of our own merits, because we are all sinners and unworthy to come before a holy God. Something had to happen so our sins could be taken away, our guilt expunged - else in justice we would be legitimate targets for God's wrath. God the Father sent Jesus His unique Son to be our perfect sacrifice. Now, a very interesting thing happened the moment Jesus died: Mark records in the very next verse (15:38), "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom". The curtain was what separated people from seeing or entering the Holy of Holies. The tearing of the curtain symbolized that God was suddenly accessible to man, to everyone who believes in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. So Peter calls believers in vv5&9 a "holy priesthood" or "royal priesthood". The concept of a priest is someone qualified to approach God on another's behalf. Hebrews 4(6) urges us, "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." Incredible - that we mortals should suddenly, by Christ's blood, be washed clean so as to be acceptable to approach God's throne!
Who is it that has made such an amazing change possible for us? Peter refers to Jesus in v4 as "the living Stone". Interesting metaphor, seemingly incongruous: I've picked many stones in my life, but not one seemed alive! These words suggest a combination of something solid and permanent, yet alive, dynamic, giving life. Rock-solid security AND power, energy, a change-agent. Peter reaches back to Isaiah 28(16) for two adjectives to describe the closeness of relationship between this 'living-stone' Son and the Father: "chosen by God and precious to Him..." Chosen means elect, picked-out, choice, select; precious can mean 'held in honour, prized'. Remember God's voice at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased." (Matt 3:17, 17:5) That's close attachment we're talking about here!
God has made Jesus the litmus test which, in reacting to, it becomes evident whether we will receive God's Kingdom. V6, "the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame"; or vv7-8, "the stone the builders rejected...causes men to stumble...a rock that makes them fall.They stumble because they disobey the message..." The crucial question in deciding your eternal destiny is, "What do you make of Jesus?" Do you trust in Him, build your life upon Him and His teaching? Or do you push Him away? If so, watch out - God has appointed Him as Judge (Jn 5:22; Acts 17:31).
Jesus owned for Himself this imagery of lives being built upon Him like a living capstone or chief cornerstone. When Peter confessed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," how did Jesus respond? He said, "I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church..." (Matt 16:16,18) Jesus is building His church - not with bricks and mortar, but believers! Jesus applies the words of Psalm 118(22), "the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone", to Himself in the context of opposition from the Jewish religious leaders (Mark 12:10). So this idea of "living stones" seems to go back to Christ Himself; Peter's just expanding upon it.
Can we trust Jesus to be our Rock when our personal world is changing as with a tide shifting the sand? Can you rest upon the belief that He's your all-sufficient Lord and Saviour; that He's there for you, in the midst of crisis? Architect Ray Bowman had his own business for 26 years. One day as he was driving in his car to the office, he recalls, "a thought came to me as clearly as if someone had entered the car and spoken to me: 'There's going to be a big change in your life and it's going to involve your profession.' I recognized the voice. When I got home, I told my wife, Sally, about it, then promptly forgot it.3 weeks later I had a totally unexpected opportunity to leave my architectural firm when one of my partners, over lunch, offered to buy my stock. I had absolutely no idea what prompted his offer. When I told Sally about it, she said, 'No way!' But as we prayed about it, both Sally and I felt we should accept. 'But, Lord,' I said, 'then I'll have no work and no income. What am I supposed to do?' God's answer was clear even if a bit sketchy on details: 'I'll show you what kind of work you are to do and give you all the work you can handle.' On the strength of that promise I accepted my partner's offer and left behind an established career for an unknown future." That's faith - letting the Lord be your Rock, more than career or other security; loving and obeying Him when He leads in major life decisions.
Stones that Live: Precious & Praising
Jesus is the living Stone, chosen, precious to God. But that's not all. Peter goes on in v5 to say to the church scattered through Asia Minor, "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood..." Wow! What's this? Now WE are living stones, too? We (our lives) are God's "building project"! God's not interested any more in tabernacles or temples - His dwelling is now in us! This thought is prominent throughout the New Testament; Paul tells the Corinthians, "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" (1Cor 3:16) And the Ephesians (2:22), "in [Christ Jesus] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit." Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that times are changing: the issue is not going to be WHERE to worship but HOW to worship. "...a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (Jn 4:21,23-24) Because of the new birth and the Holy Spirit, worship isn't about going to one fixed place OUT THERE but honouring God IN HERE (inside). Radical concept. So the early church exploded all over the Mediterranean as a people movement, not tied to any geographic location and central rituals.
The church is a PEOPLE not a building. Look how often the term 'people' crops up in the last half of our passage. V9, "You are a chosen people...a holy nation, a people belonging to God...(10) Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God..." Grammatically it's possessive, 'now you are God's people.' This ties back all the way to Exodus 19(5) when God, by His deliverance from Egypt, claimed Israel as "my treasured possession..." Paul writes to Titus (2:14): "[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." (Tit 2:14) Jesus was chosen and precious to the Father; that extends to us too who are in Christ. John can write in his first letter (1Jn 3:1), "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Are you awake to God's love being lavished on you this morning? You're precious to Him!
The primary expression of our faith is not through a physical building we construct, but worship and ministry we do. Twice here Peter refers to us as a "priesthood", "holy" or "royal". What do priests do? They sacrifice offerings. End of v5, "offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." These are spiritual sacrifices, not the ram or bull kind. What's this mean? It involves what we declare, our desires, and our deeds. V9, "You are...a royal priesthood...that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light." God reveals in Psalm 50(23), "He who sacrifices thank offerings honours me..." Our speech should make much of God, appreciating Him, declaring His excellence, in good times and bad.
Next, our desires: v11, "I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against our soul." Though we're made of flesh and blood, that doesn't mean we have to give in to desires we know to be wrong. Our citizenship is in heaven; that's where our true home is - we're aliens, pilgrims, sojourners on this planet in this life. Paul makes this same point about worshipping God by our desires in Romans 6(12f), "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness."
Priests in what we declare; our desires; and, our deeds. V12, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." Our behaviour reflects what we truly worship. Similarly, Paul appealed to the church at Rome "to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual act of worship." (Ro 12:1) So, if you're a believer in Jesus, you're a priest: it's not about funny collars or killing animals on an altar, but offering to the Lord continually what we declare, what we desire, what we do.
Last week this congregation participated in a questionnaire put together by that former architect, Ray Bowman, who now works as a church growth consultant of sorts. The dozen questions could be answered yes, no, or maybe. The good news is, our congregation got one question right: you said no to the last question, "To help pay for the building, would you explore ways to cut spending on your present ministry programs or staffing?"
The bad news is, we predominantly answered "yes" or "maybe" to the first 11 questions. Bowman maintains, "Every yes or maybe is a possible reason not to build, to delay building, or to seek another more appropriate solution through prayer, research, and re-evaluation." Surprising, isn't it?
Yet if you begin to look closely at the questions in the light of his experience over the past couple of decades, you can see how they bring to the surface the mistaken assumptions and motivations church members have when it comes to building. The first 8 questions deal with our motivation, wanting to build for the wrong reasons. These fall in the category of what Bowman calls "The Principle of Focus". He summarizes it this way: "A church should build only when it can do so without shifting its focus from ministering to people to building a building." Remember all Peter's been saying about living stones, living as priests, building lives that overflow with praise and prompt others to glorify God.
The first 3 questions are misguided in expecting the building to minister. Only people can minister. It's wrong to assume buildings can meet nonbuilding needs. Those questions were: "Do you expect a new building to attract new people to the church? Is it your goal to design a building that will inspire people to worship? Do you expect your members to be more motivated to reach out to others once you have a new building?" Bowman himself confesses that as an architect he used to believe some of these himself. But when he had ample budget to construct the most awe-inspiring sanctuary he could imagine, that church's growth rate in attendance was unchanged - 3%/year before, same after (When Not To Build 39,47). In another case, 35 years after building a truly needed new building, a congregation had not outgrown it because there was no accompanying training on outreach (WNTB 49). Another congregation's location, basement, and parking weren't the real problems. The actual barrier to growth were grouchy greeters, not advertising, and not following up on visitors (WNTB 47).
Questions 4-6 were based on the assumption that building buildings is the work of the church, so when people united behind a building program by giving their time, money, or energy to it, they are doing the work of the church. But Bowman says "this common attitude is simply unbiblical. Building buildings is not the work of the church; the church's work is to minister to people in Christ's name." These questions were: "Do you think a building program will motivate your people to give more generously to the work of the church? Do you expect the building program to unify your people behind a significant challenge? Do you hope that a building program will involve more people in the work of the church?" Bowman recalls a church that built big and seldom had a Sunday passed since when the pastor had not appealed for funds to pay the mortgage. A member confided to the consultant, "I'd be embarrassed to invite any of my friends to our church, because they'd think the only reason I invited them was to get them to help pay the debt." Bowman was saddened by another wonderful retired couple who, after years of hearing their pastor appeal for money for buildings, came to measure their servanthood not by the many lives they had touched with God's love, but in terms of dollars given to building programs (33). Another congregation put time and energy into caring for the homeless, for runaways, and other displaced people; Bowman advised them to hire someone rather than do the remodeling themselves. They didn't listen. Two years later the pastor admitted their mistake: it had changed their focus, and ministry had suffered (34).
Questions 7&8 surface worldly values that often creep into the church. Bowman observes, "The notion that bigger and better buildings are symbols of prestige or success is unworthy of a church that is called to reject materialism and be a servant people." These questions asked: "Do you see the building as a way to make a statement to the community about the church's importance? Do you hope that a new building will help your people take more pride in their church?" These really get at heart-issues of whether we're finding our significance in God as "chosen" and "precious", or looking to an impressive structure to prop up our self-esteem. Richard Foster describes a congregational meeting his church held to pray for God's guidance concerning a proposed building program. He recalls, "I went into the meeting thinking that probably we should build, and left certain that we should not.The crucial turning point came when I saw the driving force behind my desiring that building to be my unarticulated feeling that a building program was the sign of a successful pastor.Theologically and philosophically, I did not believe that, but as we worshiped the Lord, the true condition of my heart was revealed. Eventually, we decided against building, a decision now validated by hindsight." (23)
When Ray Bowman switched from being an architect to consultant work, he began to re-evaluate the type of statement buildings make in light of the teachings of Jesus. He notes, "Personally, I loved Gothic architecture with its ornate grandeur, but it clearly did not reflect the values of Jesus. Rather, it was a monument to the pride and power of humanity. A design based on Jesus' values would not be ornate but simple; it would not be pretentious but restrained. The space would not overpower people with its lavishness or size but would make them feel welcome and comfortable.the very style of the architecture would say that people are more important than the building itself."
In Christ, the living Stone, our 'chief cornerstone', we are being build into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. God has chosen us to be His dwellings through the Holy Spirit, not man-made temples (Acts 17:24). Over time, Bowman quit viewing church buildings as sacred space and started seeing and designing them as tools for ministry. He says, "A wrench can't repair a faucet, and a word processor can't write a book, but they can help the plumber and the writer do their jobs better." There are many things buildings CAN'T do: they cannot meet nonbuilding needs, such as stimulate growth, inspire healthy stewardship, or motivate outreach. But there are things an appropriate building CAN do, such as help people feel more comfortable and welcomed; provide work space and equipment to increase efficiency; and make the ministries of the church more accessible to the community. (50) Buildings can't minister: that's why the Lord calls YOU to be His priests - declaring His excellence, desiring what's pleasing to Him, doing deeds that will cause unbelievers to glorify Him. God calls people, not buildings, into His everlasting Kingdom. Bowman concludes: "If our focus is truly on people rather than buildings, that reality will shape the kinds of buildings we design, how we use them, how much we spend on them, AND how much time, energy, and money we keep free for the real work of the church: meeting people's needs." (44) Let's pray.