This is the message I presented for the 4th Sunday in Advent (December 19, 1999) at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were 2 Samuel 7: 1 – 11, 16; Romans 16: 23 – 27; and Luke 1: 26 – 38.
Several years ago, in another place, I was asked to speak about what a particular church meant to me (added in editing – the time and place that I was referring to was before I began regular lay speaking and before I began posting to this blog and its predecessor; I later posted that piece as “What Does Stewardship Mean To Me?”). At that time, I spoke of church homes and home churches. The purpose at that time was to speak on the goals and plans for that church over the coming year. And least any one think otherwise, I think that it is an important part of the church life to have a church building and to make sure that it is fixed and always open for people to come to.
But what I want to do is speak to each person’s heart and where Christ is. To me, a home church is one that you can point to and say, “That is my church; that this is the place where I grew up.” As the oldest son of an Air Force officer, I cannot make that statement.
Oh, I suppose that I could say that the Evangelical and Reformed Church in Lexington, NC, is my home church, for it was there in 1950 that I was baptized. But I was only there for the one occasion so it shouldn’t count as my home church.
Perhaps the 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church in Aurora, CO, qualifies. After all, it was there in 1965 that I completed my studies for the God and Country award and joined the church. But the 1st Church really doesn’t exist anymore, having become the 1st United Methodist Church of Aurora following the merger in 1968.
And I still have ties to the church in Minnesota where I began my lay speaking career and the church in Memphis where I was a member and where my mother still is a member. But those ties are more about what I became and what I was allowed to do, not where I grew up.
Quite honestly, and this is what I said those years ago when I spoke about church homes, it has turned out not to be that important that I have a home church. It has always been important that I have a church home and that Christ is a part of my life. And I would add that in each of the churches where I have belonged or preached, that is exactly how I felt.
Throughout all my travels, work, and journeys, I have seen a variety of churches. They range from the one in Springfield, MO, that more resembles an office building to the ones in eastern Kentucky, which if you did not know they were churches, you would swear that they were abandoned shacks. But they all that have that quality that God is present in them and that you are made to feel welcome.
But to find that church home, to find a place where you might discover Christ is not always an easy task. One book, or rather a series of books, which I like, is by Peter Jenkins. The books that he wrote describe his walk across America, starting from Alfred University here in New York going down the Appalachian Mountains, working odd jobs as he walked, and ending up in New Orleans, where he got married. From New Orleans, he along with his wife walked from New Orleans to Oregon. Perhaps the most important parts of the journey were the times he spent in rural western North Carolina and Mobile. While in North Carolina, he lived with a black family. While he expected to sleep in late on Sunday morning after working hard at the saw mill, he quickly found out that he was expected to go with the family with whom he stayed to their church. He admitted in the book that he was uncomfortable doing so, both from the standpoint of being a white boy in a black church but also because he had never had much church in his life. But he went and he found the experience to be a positive one.
Later on in his walk, as he found himself in Mobile, he received the Holy Spirit into his life and he began to understand just what it was about that time in North Carolina that was so comforting, yet initially so troubling. His experiences in Mobile showed him in part that what he was looking for as he was on this walk across America was the presence of Jesus in his own life. He understood what it was about the church home that he had found in North Carolina that made him welcome and comfortable.
A church really is more than just a collection of bricks and mortar, wood and shingles. I found a prayer that expresses much the same thought.
Why is that I think I must get somewhere, assume some position, be gathered together, or separated apart in the quiet of my study to pray?
Why is that I feel that I have to go somewhere or do some particular act to find you, reach you, and talk with you?
Your presence is here
In the city – on the busy bus, in the factory, in the cockpit of the airplane; in the hospital- in the patients’ rooms, in the intensive care unit, in the waiting room; in the home –at dinner, in the bedroom, in the family room, at my workbench; in the car –in the parking light, at the stoplight.
Lord, reveal your presence to me everywhere, and help me become aware of your presence each moment of the day.
May your presence fill the nonanswers, empty glances and lonely times of my life. Amen. (From A Thirty-Day Experiment in Prayer by Robert Wood)
When John Wesley started the Methodist revival back in England some two hundred and fifty years ago, his success caused the Church of England to ban him and the other preachers who followed him from preaching in and using the Church of England properties. But that didn’t stop them from preaching; they simply found other meeting places or went into the open fields to preach.
When I first read the Old Testament reading for today, I thought in terms of the building God wanted David to build for him. But God says to David, in verses 6 and 7,
I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”
From this part of the Old Testament reading you can get a sense, as some of the commentaries do, that God wants a place to live but He also wants the ability to move freely among the people.
God is not real to most of us because of the condition of our consciousness. He is closer to our minds every moment than our own thoughts. He is nearer to our hearts than our own feelings. He is more intimate with our wills than our most vigorous decisions. If we are not aware of him, it is not because he is not with us. It is, in part, because our consciousness is so under the sway of other interests that it cannot turn to him with the loving attention which might soon discern him.
Did you ever encounter, on the street, a friend whose physical eyes looked at you without seeing you? You walked right into him before the alien look on his face changed into one of recognition. The he confessed that he had been so absorbed in thought about some other matters that he had not been aware of you, until your intentional collision with him. You were there, yet he did not see you. Though actually in your presence, he was nevertheless as unconscious of you as if you did not exist.
That is a persistent failure of the unempancipated consciousness. It can be so preoccupied by lesser realities that it does not sense the presence of the divine Realty surrounding and sustaining it. Something has to happen to end that absorption in other affairs, so that it can turn its attention to God.
Sometimes events will do it. One encounters God in a crisis that, as we say, “brings one to one’s senses.” Death, disaster, sickness, the collapse of friendship, are like the collision on the street. They shatter the tyranny of an idea or a dream, and release consciousness for the awareness of something greater than the idea or the dream –God himself.
It would be a very poor sort of life that was aware of people only when it collided with them, or was brought up standing by some decisive act of theirs. And it is a tragic life that becomes conscious of God only in those events that shatter its habitual thoughts and dreams and compel it to recognize his presence and activity.
What makes life splendid is the constant awareness of God. What transforms the spirit into his likeness is intimate fellowship with him. We are saved –from our pettiness and earthiness and selfishness and sin –by conscious communion with his greatness and love and holiness. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day.)
The birth of Jesus was so that God would be among us. The reason that this Old Testament passage is used today is because it is one of the prophecies that foretold the birth of Jesus. The house that is referred to throughout this passage and in verse 16,
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
is as much about the line of David that will have Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem so that Mary can give birth to Jesus as it is about the building of the temple by Solomon, David’s son. The birth of Jesus was so that there would be a presence of God in our lives, not just a building. For buildings can be destroyed, whether by men or by time, but the presence of God will not go away, especially if we let Jesus into our hearts.
But to build a house, no matter what it would look like, requires people to do the work. That is why God asked David if he was to be the one that would build his house? As we conclude this season of Advent, as we begin preparing for the birth of Jesus, God is asking us the same question, “Are you the one who will build my house?”
When Gabriel first came to visit Mary, she did not understand what was going to happen. But after he explained all that would occur and the meaning for it all, Mary’s response was quick and to the point, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
It is nice to have a home church and I think I am somewhat secretly envious of those who have one. But I think you would agree that it is much more important that you be able to have a church home, a place where all are welcome and where the presence of Jesus is known and felt. That can only come about when the home is built in your heart. The invitation is made today for you to begin building that home.
We may feel that we cannot begin such a process, that we have too much to do; that we do not have the strength or abilities to do so. Just remember as Gabriel told Mary, “For nothing is impossible with God” and what Paul told the Romans in concluding his letter to them, “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” It is God who gives us the strength to take on the tasks that have to be done.
As God asked David so many years ago, he asks each one of us today, “Are you the one to build my home?” Can we answer like Mary did, “Here I am?”