EXCEPT THE LORD BUILD A HOUSE
Faith UMC Morning Message
June 11, 2023
Scripture: Genesis 12:1-9
Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him. And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the south.
A couple of weeks ago, Mike, Donna, and I watched Citizen Kane. At first, Mike thought this a great movie, and no wonder. It has a great sound track, great visuals, and great acting. No great surprise Citizen Kane is on so many lists of greatest films ever.
By the end of the movie, Mike didn’t like it so much: the ending is way too bleak. The central character, Charles Foster Kane (loosely based on William Randolph Hearst) has it all: money, power, and fame. Yes, he has his flaws, but you’re still sort of rooting for him, hoping that he overcomes his demons and gets on the right track. But that’s not the end Orson Wells gives us. Instead, everything (including Rosebud) is all ashes.
Now, depressing or no, this is a great movie with a great message. It’s a theme addressed often in songs, poems, novels, and sermons. The English writer Samuel Johnson, for instance, has a similar message in his poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Johnson points to the ultimate failure of earthly hopes—though (unlike Orson Wells) Johnson goes beyond the failure of earthly hopes to the true hope:
For faith, that panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind Nature’s signal of retreat:
These goods for man the laws of Heav’n ordain,
These goods he grants, who grants the pow’r to gain;
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.
Then there’s the Lanny Wolf song Only One Life:
It matters so little
How much you may own
The places you've been
Or people that you k
For it all comes to nothing
When placed at His feet
It's nothing to Jesus
Just memories to me
You can take all the treasures
From far away lands
And take all the riches
you can hold in your hands
And take all the pleasures
Your riches can buy
But will it help
When it's your time to die
Only one life
So soon it will pass
Only what's done for Christ will last
Only one chance to do His will
So give to Jesus all you days
It's the only life that pays
When you recall
You have but one life
When I was first a Christian, if I was asked to give an account of my own conversion, I talked about wrestling with that “what’s it all about” question. I talked of my freshman year at Stanford, and the amazingly accomplished people I met—and the disturbing realization that the things I would have considered the epitome of success (like being a Stanford professor or a successful playwright) didn’t seem to make anyone happy.
Now I would suspect that, at some point, each of you came to a similar realization, the realization that everything in life was meaningless without Christ—and it would probably make for a better morning message if we just shared stories of where they turning point came in our lives.
But I want to deal with a further question. How is it, exactly, that we follow Christ?
Now, when I was first a Christian, it seemed simple enough. Start reading the Bible. Start praying. Start going to church. Share the Gospel with others. Fulfill the Great Commission: go to all the world and share the Gospel with every living creature.
But all these things are part of a team effort. Acts talks about the Lord adding daily “to the Church those that would be saved. To build the kingdom of God in part mean to build the church, both the physical church and the people who constitute the church.
No great surprise that building the kind of things Charles Foster Kane built may end up leaving you nothing but ashes.
But while building the church is something really worth doing, if we try to build the church the wrong way, we may end up, in the end, with nothing abut ashes anyway.
“Except the Lord build a house, they labor in vain that build it,” says the Psalm. I love this Hebrew version of the Psalm.
If the Lord doesn’t build the house, it’s going to fade. And even if, initially, it did seem the Lord was building the house, the work might eventually run into trouble.
There’s Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian in the 6th century, and one of the most splendid places of Christian worship ever. It’s now a mosque. There are the medieval Cathedrals, likewise beautiful places of worship originally, now mostly museums and tourist attractions. There are the great French churches, seized by revolutionaries in 1793 and turned into “Temples of Reason,” essentially places for nature worship.
There are Russian orthodox churches of the Kremlin in Moscow—seized by revolutionaries and becoming a symbol of the triumph of atheistic Communist. . And there are the great churches of America, many of them torn down, re-purposed, or just hanging on.
Now this doesn’t mean for a second that those who built these churches were wasting their time and money. Note that in this passage and elsewhere, Abraham and the patriarchs build altars as reminders of what God had done.
But what it does mean that we have to be very careful with the tremendous heritage left us by those who gave sacrificially to build these churches. to properly remember and build on their efforts, and to keep them serving their original purpose.
Notice that even the greatest spiritual shrines can get diverted from their purpose. Bethel, one of the places Abraham builds an altar is a place where his decedents also found a relationship with God. It’s at Bethel where Jacob sees the ladder into heaven.
Bethel continued to be a place of worship later. King Jeroboam especially emphasized Bethel as a place of worship. He set up a Golden Calf there (and another at Dan). The God worshiped was still called “Elohim,” but this isn’t the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob Jeroboam worshiped, but a god of riches and sensuality. Prophets like Amos and Hosea gave warning after warning, but Bethel came crashing down. And then there’s another of Abraham’s altars: Mount Moriah (apparently the temple mount)—where the Dome of the Rock stands today—something both Jews and Christians see as a partial fulfillment of the “abomination of desolation: prophecy. Maybe so.
Now what is the point of all this?
Faith UMC is in a way a place like Bethel. It has a tremendous spiritual heritage. It can and should be a place to remember what God has done and what he can do in the future. But we’re aging. There are no young people, and we’re not growing.
Does this mean we’ve drifted from God’s plan for us? Not necessarily. We host NarcAnon and Prairie Schole. We’re continuing the prayer chain: and maybe that’s all God wants from us right now.
But shouldn’t we be growing? Do we need a plan for growth, the kind of plan many churches adopt?
Now I have lots of ideas on how we can do more…but I hesitate. “Except the Lord build a house, they labor in vain that build it.” The things we might do will come to nothing if we are dependent on our own efforts and not trusting to God to build the house.
So what’s our church growth plan? Abraham didn’t bring in the experts on church growth, or go to conferences, or read the latest books on growth.
Abraham’s growth plan? Just listening to and obeying God. That’s really all we have to do as a church, to see if we can hear what God would say to us about our future as a church.
A message on the building of altars just has to end with an altar call, of course. I had planned to use Solid Rock for the concluding hymn, but Donna reminded me we had just sung it. Bob chose Hymn 110, A Mighty Fortress is our God. That’s an even more appropriate commitment song: a reminder to trust our future to the bulwark that never fails.