Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins - you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of hosts, the Lord: "In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, 'Alas! Alas!' They shall call the farmers to mourning and to wailing those who are skilled in lamentation, and in all vineyards there shall be wailing, for I will pass through your midst," says the LORD.
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? (ESV)
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A House of God
Monday of Advent 4
22 December 2014
Things need to be in the right order. My grandmother used to say, "First things first." Church buildings and renovation projects must not become "beauty for beauty's sake." They must be beautiful for the sake of the beauty of the truth. Church buildings must adorn the divine Word, not human ambition, pride, or lust. Such a building project has been tried in the sight of God, and God stopped its progress by turning its architects into the babbling fools that they already were. These designers thought they could build their way into the heart of God. God made a mockery of their self-righteousness by muddling their language, which no longer praised God, but was being used for self-adulation (Gn 11). "Hey, God look at what we have done! Isn't it beautiful? Don't you love us all the more for it?" Um, not really.
So what's the first thing? The content of the preaching and prayer. The church should be known for its proclamation. God actually forbad the building of a permanent house of worship until the time of Solomon. Before that His house was only a tent that enabled Him to sojourn wherever His people went. He wanted to pitch His tent among them (Jn 1:14). The impermanence of the tent meant that His presence and proclamation had to be the unifying and solidifying factor in the life of ancient Israel. Once a permanent building of dressed stone was able to be His house, the people easily fell into the delusion that because God promised to dwell in a house built by human hands that they could captured Him there and treat Him like a talisman. "God will never let His house fall, so we can presume on His majesty. We can do as we please, because He is our captive." How terrifyingly wrong they were! His dwelling among us is always a gift of grace; it is never our possession by law. It is always given; never possessed.
Word and prayer must be the first thing. The ancient patriarchs built altars here and there on their wanderings with the faith that the God who spoke to them would always be with them. God's speaking always hallowed the places (Ex 3:4-5), the places never made holy the speech. This is why the meanest hovel adorned by the Word of God is a holy place that rivals St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The little altar made with foil gum wrappers in a prisoner of war camp is truly the gate of heaven, because the chaplain preached God's mercy and care to his fellow prisoners. None of this is to say that beautification of the church is a bad thing or a thing to be avoided, but rather to say that the component that must drive church structures is the divine Word and the prayer that will be addressed to the God who tents among us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, there are many magnificent structures dedicated to blasphemy and false teaching where the instruction is purely legalistic or a case of the blind leading the blind. Christ is not there. No matter how many screens there are, no matter how big the stage, Christ must be proclaimed for such a place to be a house of God. Our technology can never capture God. The first thing is Word and prayer.
"Today we see that the churches are royally adorned. But, O God, what kind of preaching goes on in them! What kind of prayer! You hear the doctrine of Satan, not that of Christ. Nothing is proclaimed there except a lie, and the prayer is sheer blasphemy.
"Thus the proverb of the Germans is true: 'Dark churches and enlightened hearts.' Somber churches and illuminated hearts commonly go together. Such was the church of Abraham, in which was heard the voice of God and true worship. But look at the churches; they are often resplendent, but the hearts are gloomy or even blind.
"Thus it is not the stones, nor the construction, and nor the gorgeous silver and gold that make a church beautiful and holy; it is the Word of God and sound preaching. For where the goodness of God is commended to men and hearts are encouraged to put their trust in Him and to call upon God in the midst of dangers, there is truly a holy church. Whether it is a dark nook or a bare hill or a barren tree, it is truthfully and correctly called a house of God and a gate of heaven, even though it is without a roof, under the clouds and the open sky.
"Therefore one must pay primary attention to what is taught and prayed, not to how the building is built. What God demands is that people be converted and He Himself glorified. However this happens only by Word and prayer."
Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis,
Lord Jesus, You lead Your church by Your Word and she replies to your Word in prayer shaped by that Word. Grant that our church buildings would properly hallow those first things. Keep us from making idols of our own homes to the harm of Your house. Help us to keep holy Your house by seeing to it that Your Word is alone preached there and You alone are addressed in prayer. Continue to dwell among us by grace, for we have not deserved Your presence. Amen.
For Simon Makangula, that the Lord Jesus would grant him a full recovery of health
For Les and Carol Coolidge, that the Lord would grant them strength and healing
For those who travel over the Christmas season, that they would be kept safe from all harm
Art: Annunciation Schnorr Von Carolsfeld, Julius (1818)
© Scott R. Murray, 2014