The Dedication of the New Building
Faith Presbyterian Church
Evening Service, May 22, 2005
It is, of course, natural for us, in thinking about the dedication of a church, to think of that part of the building which is the sanctuary. In our case the sanctuary was already here and it has served as our house of worship for more than a generation. However, our architect and our builder have so skillfully connected the new to the old that it seems to us as if everything is new. And so in thinking of the dedication of this new building, it is natural for us to think of the building as a whole, the new and the old together, for in truth it is one building, one splendid building for the use of both church and school.
It is almost an instinct with American evangelical Christians to downplay the importance of bricks and mortar. After all, in the Bible the church is first and foremost, not a building but a congregation, the people whom Christ has redeemed by the sacrifice of himself. The true worship of God, we know full well, does not require a building and, through the ages, God’s people have worshipped in private homes, in the open air, and in every kind of building built for some other purpose. In my own experience, I have worshipped with congregations that met, at least for a time, in schools, in business parks, in community centers, in hotels, in country clubs, in Masonic temples, even in a mortuary. The first time I ever saw a dead body was when, as a boy, I went exploring with my sister after the worship service of a congregation of Presbyterians in Canon City, Colorado that met in a mortuary.
And, to be sure, it was not any less true worship because it was offered to God in such places. But, as any reader of the Bible knows very well, the fact that believers can worship God anywhere does not make the church building only a convenience. When David was in the wilderness, running from King Saul, he still had access to God, he could still pray to God and worship him, he tells us in Psalm 63, but he longed for the worship of the sanctuary. “I have seen you in the sanctuary, and beheld your power and glory.” [Ps. 63:2] There was something about the worship of the sanctuary that worship in the wilderness could not replace.
Buildings can serve a particular purpose and can greatly assist in the doing of certain things and church buildings among them. God’s people were offering sacrifices to him long before the tabernacle was built and then Solomon’s temple. But worship came into its own, especially the worship of the people of God, when a building was built for the purpose. This is a principle so fixed in reality that we are reminded in Hebrews that those two great Old Testament sanctuaries were built as copies of the sanctuary that is in heaven. We might have supposed that in a perfect world, such as heaven, there would be no need for a purpose-built sanctuary, but, in fact we are told that there is one, the pattern of all true sanctuaries built for the worship of God’s people in this world.
And, thinking about our new building, it is worth our remembering that those buildings also were not solely sanctuaries proper. They too had spaces for the other aspects of the life and work of God’s people. There were, of course, the storerooms – such as the storerooms in our new building that are uncluttering our life in a wonderful way. There were also rooms that we might today call a kitchen. We tend to forget that a great deal of food was prepared and consumed in wonderful meals – feasts really – at the sanctuary of God. In the Law of Moses, God’s people were actually commanded to eat and drink together with joy in fellowship meals in the house of God. Well, our new building will allow us to do that in a way we have not been able to do for some years now. And, as the years passed, the sanctuary expanded beyond the immediate boundaries of the sanctuary to become what scholars now call the temple complex. [e.g. Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, 812] It is, I think, highly interesting that the various spaces of that temple complex can be compared so easily to the spaces that we find in our new building. Churches are built according to the necessities of church life and those necessities were much the same, for example, in Jesus’ day as they are in ours. What we have now in the new Faith Presbyterian Church, is a 21st century form of a “temple complex.”
When the Lord Jesus entered the temple complex in his day he would have passed the bath house (for the purpose of ritual cleansing). We don’t have a bathhouse, but we have very nice bathrooms, which in Jesus day would have been provided in the same building! Next to the bathhouse was the council house where the Sanhedrin, the body of elders met. We have rooms where our elders and deacons will meet. Moving forward he would enter the Court of the Gentiles – something like our now much expanded narthex, where the Lord, you remember, met the sick and the blind and healed them, where children gathered around him – as we read in Matthew 21 – and from where the Lord drove out the money-changers. A great deal of the intellectual and spiritual life of the city of Jerusalem took place in the temple’s courtyards. It was in the porticoes around this court where Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds and where later his disciples also taught. In other words, the temple, the church, had spaces that were used as a school. And so our new church is a school. It is on Sunday and it is five days a week. All of these spaces for busy and important activity surrounded the sanctuary itself, the house of praise and worship. In Jesus’ day that sanctuary, that inner court, was restricted to men: a distinction that has no basis in the Law of Moses and, so far as we know, was not the practice of Israel in the early days or in the times when she was walking with God. Our building, like all Christian sanctuaries, makes the same provision for children as for adults, for women as for men.
And, as the gospel made its way out into the Gentile world, the church became more and more the center of that world, both physically and spiritually. In the towns and cities of Europe for the next thousand years the church was the most prominent building and so became the city center, the place of meeting. It was around the church that the community held its fairs and it was often in the church that she conducted her plays for the amusement or for the instruction of the population. We’ve long done the same – held concerts and plays and other public get-togethers – and can do that even more effectively with the new building the Lord has given us. This new building will enable us more and more to be and to live as a community, whether in work, festivity, solemnity, or mourning and to minister to the community around us in all manner of ways.
It is because of the place that the church building occupies in the life of God’s people that it comes to have such a hallowed place in their hearts. It is here, again and again that they meet the Lord, that they “see him in the sanctuary and behold his power and his glory,” that they enjoy and are encouraged in the fellowship of the saints, it is here that they learn the things that shed the brightest light on their way through this world. It is here that they make the fast friendships that bless their lives for years on end. It isn’t the building, of course – we know that – but the building is the place where so many wonderful things, holy things, eternal things happen and that makes the building hallowed ground. Ours will become that, we pray, for generations yet unborn. I still have a great affection for the churches in which I have worshipped in my youth and young adulthood and I hope there will be a great many and an increasing number who come to feel that way about our new building.
So, our temple complex, so to speak, now provides us what we need. It remains only that we dedicate, not so much the building, but ourselves to making the best use of it for the Lord’s sake in coming days, months, years, and generations. For nothing is clearer in the teaching of Holy Scripture than that temples built for the glory of God can be used to the opposite purpose. Throughout much of Israel’s history false prophet’s and false priests conducted a false worship in the temple built for the Lord’s worship. It was in the Lord’s temple that they actually offered worship to some of the ancient Near East’s pagan idols. In Jeremiah’s day, a people far from God still indulged the illusion that they would be kept safe from the marauding Babylonians because, after all, the temple remained among them as some kind of charm or talisman. It was in the temple that the religious authorities of Jesus’ day mocked the teaching of the Son of God and attributed his mighty works to the Devil. It was at the temple that they ordered the apostles to stop spreading the news of Christ’s resurrection.
One of the great sadnesses of believing life is to see how many church buildings, built for the glory of God, are now used by enemies of the gospel; sanctuaries that are mostly empty not only of people but of real Christian life; pulpits in which the life-giving and life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is no longer proclaimed. Church complexes to which people come and from which they go scarcely aware that once God’s people dwelt here; once his Word was taught and preached; once the love of God in Christ was a living power in many lives. May it never be so here. God forbid it should ever be so. Churches in Scotland that once were full of the sound of Christian praise and that saw the multitudes of men and women come to living faith in Jesus Christ and enter into eternal life are now being converted into condominiums or even night clubs. Great cathedrals in Europe are now effectively museums. My wife and I worshipped in a grand church in Sorrento, Italy, a few years ago, and during the poorly attended service tourists actually walked through the church with their cameras!
We believe that there is no true explanation for human existence and human life – none that bears scrutiny; none with which a human being made in God’s image can live with consistency – except that understanding of life taught in Holy Scripture. The living God of holiness and love made us and stamped his nature upon our own. But man fell; he rebelled against God and was punished by being given over to his rebellion, by getting the life he chose for himself, apart from God and alienated from that true goodness in which he was made. And now we have these two realities – the extraordinary godlike character of human beings on the one hand and the selfish, petty, impure, cruel, indifferent quality of human life on the other. We have God’s creature under God’s curse. Nothing else begins to explain human life as we know it except those two facts together. Deny that man is God’s creation and you cannot begin to explain human life as every human being experiences it. I heard the other day a lecture in which several prominent American thinkers – one from Stanford and one from MIT – were quoted as saying that human beings were nothing more than the stuff that make them up. We are matter and biological processes, nothing more. The human mind is nothing but a computer made of meat. But, both of them admitted in their published writings that they don’t think, they can’t think about themselves or their loved ones in that way. They don’t think that their children are nothing more than chemicals interacting in predictable ways. No, then, they said they take a leap of faith and think of themselves and their family as people with dignity, with moral worth, whose lives have meaning. But if you have to take a leap of blind faith – if, indeed, you have to deny the facts you otherwise so confidently assert – to love your children and your wife and your friends, then something is profoundly wrong with your system of thought. The Bible does not require you to deny the facts in order to live your life. The Bible indeed requires you to face the facts: both our creatureliness and our fallenness. Both that we owe our existence to the living God and that we have rebelled against him.
And, in the same way, there is no real solution to the problem of human sin and rebellion against God and its melancholy consequences except that solution that God himself has provided in his love: God the Son coming into our world to live and die in our place, to reconcile us to God. There can be no pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps when we are so deeply sunk in guilt and sin as we all are. God alone can rescue us. In Christ we find not only forgiveness of sins – the sins he suffered for in our place so that we would not have to suffer for them – not only the certainty of eternal life which Christ gave us when he rose from the dead, but the transformation of our lives, even while we live in this world, by the power of the Holy Spirit whom Christ gives to us.
It is this message that we must rededicate ourselves to proclaim to others, it is this power and this love that we must recommit ourselves to make the principle of our living, individually and together. The good news of eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ: this is to be the principle of our life and work in this new building God has given us. And if it is, God helping us, generations from now men and women, boys and girls will still be finding Jesus Christ and eternal life in this building: hearing the good news in a Sunday School class, or in a sermon delivered from this pulpit, or in a conversation with one of our people in the narthex, or in a high school classroom in the middle of the school day. We have congregations in our denomination that occupy buildings that were being used before the American revolution, others that predate the Civil War, many that were built in the early years of the 20th century and still more, like ours, that date from the middle of the century. Our building is not only a great gift the Lord has given us. It is a calling to remain faithful to Christ and the good news of salvation in his name so that for generations to come this building like those will still be used for the purposes for which it has now been built.
May God bless us here. May he bless our children here and their children. And may this wonderful building still be employed for the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ until he comes again.