Text: Psalm 26:8
‘I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells.’
A lot has happened in the 30 years since this fine church was officialy opened and dedicated. Most people who died before 1998 wouldn’t have known much about drones and solar panels, desalination plants and even Lutheran bishops in Australia! And one could go on adding to this list, showing the tremendous changes that have occurred in both church and society in that time.
One of the significant changes here at St Peter’s in more recent years has been the way pastoral ministry has been provided, largely by visiting pastors. And it’s my privilege to be with you again for a few weeks, and for this special anniversary service.
I’m sure that all of you would echo the words ascribed to David in Palm 26: ‘I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells’. That’s why you’re here today.
The ‘house’ David was talking about was the tabernacle – that portable tent-church the Israelites used during their 40 years in the desert. At Sinai God had told Moses how the tabernacle was to be built. The materials it was made from came largely from from the wilderness – acacia wood and animal skins. These were overlaid with gold and silver, brass and linen, all given by the people.
The tabernacle proper was like a large tent. It was surrounded by a courtyard that had rich curtains all round it. A gold-plated wooden frame gave strength to the back and side of the tent. Ten embroidered linen ‘curtains’ were draped over this, with a goatskin covering over the top.
Inside there were two parts: the sanctuary or ‘holy place’, and – curtained off at one end – was the ‘holy of holies’, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. This was seen as God’s special dwelling place. It was where showed his presence as a ‘glory cloud’ whenever the Israelites made camp.
This portable ‘church’ was the first thing the Israelites set up when they made camp. It was where God met his people in a special way. He’d promised: ‘There I will meet with you and speak to you … and the place will be consecrated to my glory.’
Right down until Solomon’s time this tabernacle was the worship centre for God’s people. Here God revealed his gracious presence among his people. Here the people brought their sacrifices, and their prayers and praises. That’s why David could say: ‘I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells’. David knew that in the tabernacle he was close to God, and so he truly loved this tent church. He said in Psalm 122: ‘I rejoiced with those who said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”’.
I hope you can say the same about this fine church where we’re gathered for worship on this anniversary Sunday. Of course, you don’t have to have a church building to worship God. Over the years, I’ve led people in worship in many a secular hall or private home. Jesus promises: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’. And what a promise that is! God, the almighty, holy Creator of all things, is pleased to be with us, his people – even though we’re sinful! He doesn’t overlook us. He’s not ‘too good’ for us, too ‘high and mighty’, or ‘too busy’. He comes to us where we are.
He came to us as one of us when his eternal Son took on our human flesh and blood as the Son of Mary. In his life as one of us he felt the pain of our sorrow and sin. He identified with us to the point of taking our guilt on himself, and then dealing with it once and for all on a cross. That’s your God: not far off, but with you in your kind of life, remaining with you, and constantly coming to you in a special way as you gather round his word and sacrament.
Like many other congregations, St Peter’s started life without a ‘church home’ of its own. It began in 1981, and in its early years members gathered for worship in various schools, and in churches of other denominations. But the God who came into this world in a borrowed shed in Bethlehem was just as much present with his people in borrowed surroundings as he’s with us now. But just as God took delight in the tabernacle of old, and then the magnificent temple in Solomon’s time, so he also delights in the church that the members of this St Peter’s congregation have erected and maintained to his glory, and which is the focal point of your corporate life and worship.
I’m sure that, like David, you love this house of worship because it, too, is a ‘place where [God’s] glory dwells’ … where God reveals himself in a rich and gracious and powerful way. Again and again God’s come to you here, to make himself known in his grace, to reassure and strengthen you, to bless you with his love, to motivate you, and build you up for your life of service and witness.
Here at this font children have received the gracious cleansing of Holy Baptism and been sealed into God’s family. Here the word of God has been proclaimed and taught, and its central message of God’s love has been expounded again and again.
You’ve heard the judging word of God’s Law touch your conscience, to show up your spiritual bankruptcy … and you’ve heard the sweet and comforting word of the gospel that I bring you again now: that in Jesus Christ God forgives you. Your sin is wiped out. God accepts you and recreates you in Jesus Christ, and makes you new in loving service.
The glory your God reveals to you here in this dwelling place isn’t just the fearful glory of an all-powerful Judge, but the glory of a Father who sent his only Son to a cross for you. That’s the word you hear from this pulpit again and again.
Here, too, you’ve had a visible sign of God’s glory among you over the past 30 years – a sign just as powerful as the cloud that filled the Holy of holies in the tabernacle. You’ve had the precious body and blood of your Lord Jesus himself, given to you in the Holy Supper, and in those blessed moments of communion our gracious and saving God has come to dwell with you and within you.
Young people have affirmed their faith here before this altar. Some have farewelled loved ones here – family members or friends whom God’s called to their eternal home. They’ve experienced the powerful and sustaining presence of God at this sad time, as well as the support of Christian friends – brothers and sisters in their church family.
So …as you look back on these experiences, you surely have every reason to say with David: ‘I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells’. You love this church, not just because it’s your church, but because it, too, is the place where God’s saving glory in Jesus Christ is made known, and where the Christ who came into our world in Bethlehem, and who will come again at the end of time, comes to meet you in the here and now.
‘I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells.’ These weren’t just empty words for David. They reflected his whole life. He regularly came into that tent church in worship. In fact he contributed to the worship of God’s people through the many psalms he wrote. They’ve become part of the hymnal of the Old Testament, and we still sing or say them in our worship today. And David dreamt of the day when he could replace the humble tabernacle with a magnificent temple that would be a worthy tribute of worship to God.
Our attitude to the house of God also shows up in our actions. Our attitudes and actions will very plainly show how important it is for us that this church is a place where God’s glory is revealed. As you recognise more and more just what a gracious and saving God you have, and how richly he provides for you with spiritual food in his word and sacrament … just as he provided food for the Israelites on their desert trek … then you’ll constantly be found in his presence here in worship. It’ll be your delight, as it was David’s, to be in regular communion with your loving God in his special dwelling place among you.
You’ll hear with joy those words of absolution Sunday by Sunday, assuring you that God forgives you and sees you as one of his holy children. You’ll thrill to that close and tangible link our Lord establishes with you as he gives you his body and blood in the Holy Supper. You’ll celebrate here with joy in your heart. You’ll open your heart to the word of your God. You’ll listen as he speaks his gracious words of life to reassure you in your need … to strengthen you in your hope … and to empower you for service.
You’ll also maintain your church and its grounds as beautifully as you can, because this too is an act of worship. Perhaps you’ve never thought of wielding a broom or a duster, or arranging flowers as an act of worship, but it’s also a way of honouring God. It shows what God’s worth to you! It shows God himself, and it shows others around you. An unkempt church tells a community that the people who worship there don’t care all that much about God. A church that’s lovingly maintained tells people that its members love their God.
In the New Testament, of course, ‘church’ is more than buildings. It’s people. And the more you know and appreciate the saving glory of your God … the more you receive from him, the more you’ll want to share with others. You’ll share in worship with one another; you’ll share in caring for and supporting and nurturing one another, and in bearing one another’s burdens. You’ll share your insights into God’s word with each other. You’ll share your faith and convictions with others, and you’ll invite them to come in with you and know and feel the saving glory of our God.
And so this building will continue to be a powerhouse of the Holy Spirit, and a dynamic focal point for worship, witness, nurture and caring for you who’re part of the famiy of God in this congregation. And it’s as this happens that the true church of God – the one ‘holy Christian church’ that we confess in the creeds, will continue to be built by the Spirit, stone by stone, brick by brick.
As St Paul wrote in Ephesians, in this church, ‘you are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.’
May God grant you this, in Christ! And may this building of bricks, timber and tiles also continue to be a ‘tool’ used by the Master Builder – the Spirit of God himself!
Robert J Wiebusch