Jeremiah 32:1-15 & 29:11-14.
Acts 7:44-60, & 8:1
May I speak and may we listen, in the name of God who is Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?”
That passage in Acts comes at the end of a long interregation of St Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen is seized by the Sanhedrin who see this ‘man full of God’s grace and power, who did great wonders and miracles among the people’. And they lie about him, and decide to accuse him of blasphemy!
So all the teachers of the law gather around, and the elders – producing false witness but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke…and They see that his face was like the face of an angel….but as we know Stephen still ends up being stoned.
For all his miracles and wonders and wisdom.
We hear a few things that are worth mentioning in the account of Stephens final moments….firstly before he is stoned he looks up, and says: ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’….and the people covered their ears and yelled at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him and dragged him out of the city to stone him. What was it about what Stephen says that was so threatening?
Secondly, just as he is being stoned he prays: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…..then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord do not hold this sin against them”….and we hear that very small but so powerful verse: ‘And Saul was there, giving approval to his death’. This reminds me so much of Our Lord upon the cross – asking forgiveness for the sins of his killers, and promising paradise to the thief beside him.
And, though it’s just a tiny mention, for some reason pushed down into a new Chapter 8:1 – Saul is there…..not just any Saul, but that same Saul, who later becomes Paul, right there in the midst of the action – briefly mentioned…the one who moments later is to become a great witness to the same Jesus for whom Stephen gave up his life.
‘What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord.’
The past few weeks have been pretty manic for me, and full of funerals more than anything – but one thing I have managed to do over the past week is finish reading a biography I inherited from Donald Knighton, the only one written on the Reverend F. Luke Wiseman.
Luke Wiseman was an interesting character – who left an imprint on the hearts of many people – born in 1858 a Methodist minister who was president of the Wesleyan Conference and then also president of the Methodist Conference after Methodist union, and also Superintendent of Methodist Central Hall.
In Methodism, we have this enormous legacy of biographical material mostly written about Ministers and lay preachers – and it’s interesting sometimes, particularly for me, to go back and read about their lives, and about the lives of the congregations and communities they served. Often I hear people talk about the glory days of Methodism, when Ministers and their preaching were much better, and every Sunday school and act of worship was full to breaking point…..and people became Members every year, and families kept coming back after Christenings, and marriages flourished…..reading biographies you begin to realise that those golden days were not actually as golden as people like to make out!
One of the things about biographies is that often they highlight the positive aspects of people’s lives and hide some of the less beautiful detail, leaving us to think that great people have smooth and often non-turbulent lives – so for example many people don’t know that one of the main driving forces behind Donald Soper’s pacifism was the fact that he killed someone with a cricket ball accidentally in his younger days – and that changed his life. People also don’t know that F. Luke Wiseman was so insanely committed to his work because he couldn’t cope with the death of his wife – and Weatherhead couldn’t quite hack the itinerant Ministry and was the first president of Conference to serve whilst not serving the Methodist Church, and Sangster had to be practically dragged out of Central Hall kicking and screaming practically – because he didn’t want to leave and his health was deteriorating…..we look back and we see what we want to see in the lives of great Christians.
‘What kind of house will you build for me? Says the Lord’
There are many Ministers who for years, went around the connexion leaving physical houses built for the Lord – and in each circuit there will be examples of this – a Minister’s legacy being in bricks and mortar, and we are paying the cost for that type of ministry now, as our buildings become burdens.
I often think foundation stones should say: “To the Glory of God, and the Long List of Names Below”….
But you see St Stephen knew that the Lord doesn’t want that kind of house, the kind of house that is made of stone and passes away – he asks us tonight: ‘What kind of house will you build for me?’
In other words – what will your legacy be, and how will it speak of my glory?
How will your life, and your witness, and your choices bear testimony to me in the world?
What kind of house will you build? And on what foundations?
At the beginning of a new year, it isn’t a bad thing to stop and ask ourselves – what kind of Christian do we want to become? What kind of child of God do we long to be? What legacy to God’s glory do we want to leave?
Over the past few weeks we will have renewed our covenant with God, as all good Methodists do – and we said once again those infamous words: ‘I am no longer my own, but yours’.
That’s a statement that doesn’t just speak of us as individuals, but also of us as the body of Christ: ‘we are no longer our own, but yours’. And on this Sunday which marks the end of the week of prayer for Christian unity, that’s a good thing for us to remember. What are the things that we hold onto as precious, the things about or denominational identity which we think makes us better than the others….?
We are no longer our own, but yours.
In other words, Lord all that we are, all that we have been, and all that we shall become: we offer up to you.
Like Stephen, on his knees being stoned, we say: ‘Lord, receive my spirit’. For in dying we rise to new life.
We know that there is no other ground on which to build, but on the name, blood and cross of Jesus Christ.
We know that all other ground is sinking sand…and it is that knowledge that led Stephen to offer up his life, it is that knowledge that converted the murderer Saul into a new creation, it is that knowledge that touched the hearts of all the great Methodists that we so often speak of – and it is only that knowledge that can change our hearts today – for the only way to build a house for the Lord is to fall in love with the one for whom we built it.
Because if we fall in love with the one for whom we build, then we keep at it.
If we fall in love with the one for whom we build, then we build the best.
If we fall in love with the one for whom we build, then we strive and keep striving for perfection.
And as Methodists – we believe in Christian perfection – in scriptural holiness – in growing into the stature and likeness of Christ. Because with God who is all truth and power and grace, all things are possible! And even one day – the Church itself, might be, as Jesus prayed – one in love and unity.
Now we heard of Jeremiah, buying that plot of land – and it’s easy for us to forget, that actually what the Lord has asked Jeremiah to do – is to buy a plot of land in the middle of a warzone.
And Jeremiah – does what good prophets do, and he buys the plot of land, and he does as the Lord tells him and he buries the deeds.
Could you imagine the Lord asking you to invest in something that speaks of ruin?
Imagine God asking one of us to go and buy land in Syria…
Or to take out shares in one of Donald Trump’s businesses…
Or to transfer our membership to a tiny chapel of two people….
Would we do it? Probably not.
But Jeremiah does – and in doing so, he shows us that if we cannot build the house, then sometimes it is enough to buy the land and set the foundations.
At the beginning of a new year, in this week of prayer for Christian unity, and at this turning point in the life of the world – it seems to me that it is not enough to look at the task ahead and shrug our shoulders and say to the Lord… ‘we don’t know where to start in the task of building’, but rather to get on with whatever it is we can – to cultivate and till the land, to mix the cement, to set the foundations – and all of that is metaphor for working on ourselves….
For God doesn’t need another house built of bricks and mortar,
God doesn’t need a lifeless monument that reaches the heavens in height…
The greatest house that God can have built for him – is a life, rendered up joyfully in obedience to him –
A life lived in his service – a life that gives and doesn’t count the cost –
A life that is the best mirror image it can be, of the life of his Son, Jesus Christ.
God says to us: ‘surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, and I will bring you back to the places from which I sent you into exile.’
The reality with many of us, is that we don’t really long to be brought back….the lost sheep isn’t always glad to be found by the sheep – there’s something empowering about being lost, and wandering down our own pathway…..and we take it for granted that God is there waiting for us to come back whenever we decide we can be bothered….
God longs for a house in which he alone is praised and glorified – and our lives are that house which he longs to enter in.
What house will you build for me says the Lord? Or rather – what house will you allow me to build in you, with you, and through you?
Start with me Lord….start with us, start here, start tonight, start now….in Jesus name.