Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 4-10 Church is the temple of God

This evening we gather to celebrate the 180th birthday of St Matthew’s. We give thanks to God for his faithfulness, and his steadfast love to this congregation over many generations, with this parish church in the heart of the village being at the centre of peoples’ lives through all those years. The celebrations of Baptisms, the joy of weddings, the grief of funerals; and the regular, weekly gathering of God’s people around his word and his table, bringing prayers and praises.

For 180 years, St Matthew’s has held out the gospel to Richhill and beyond. These stones have echoed with our Saviour’s praise. But if you’re in the main aisle this evening, then these old stones have stood far longer than just the 180 years we’re celebrating tonight. Back in 1752, what is now the main aisle was built as the market house for the village, by the Richardsons of the castle.

When the market ended, it was decided to convert the market house into the parish church for the new parish of Richhill, in 1837. In our first reading, we heard how the Lord Jesus lamented that the temple in Jerusalem, the place of prayer, had become a marketplace, with traders crowding in. Well here in Richhill, we went the other way, with the marketplace becoming a place of prayer.

Tonight we rejoice in God’s goodness in the past; and give thanks to him for all that he has done in and through St Matthew’s over the past 180 years. But we can’t stop at that. We must also consider what God is still doing, and what God will do in the future in and through St Matthew’s. And our second reading, from 1 Peter, shows us that God is in the business of church building.

We’re given a glimpse of the plans, we’re brought onto the building site, in order to see how God is building his church.

And it all begins in verse 4: ‘As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him...’ Now if you go onto a building site, you might see plenty of stones, but you won’t see any living stones (unless the builder’s name is Livingstone!). Stones are just stones.

But this living Stone is described in greater detail by Peter: rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. He’s talking about the Lord Jesus - who was rejected by men. Do you remember before the crucifixion, the crowd were offered a choice - Jesus or Barabbas? They chose to free Barabbas, and to crucify Jesus. Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, ‘he was despised and rejected by men...’ (Is 53:3). Everyone may have rejected him, but he was chosen by God and precious to him. God showed he was chosen and precious, because he raised him from death, gave him life - made him the living Stone.

Jesus is the living Stone. And Peter remembers a verse of Scripture, from Isaiah, which promises that Jesus would come. ‘See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’

Jesus is this chosen and precious cornerstone. Now, what is a cornerstone? It’s the most important stone in the whole building. It’s the one set at the bottom corner, from which everything else is built up - it’s the one that keeps the whole building straight, like a foundation stone.

So what do you do with a cornerstone? You build on it, of course! But it’s not with bricks and mortar. It’s not with stones. Rather, what is the building material? It’s us. ‘As you come to him... you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house...’

Peter is talking about building the church - a spiritual house, a place for God to dwell - but it’s not a parish church, not St Matthew’s itself. We used to sing a song in Dundonald ‘Church is not a building, it’s the people there inside, people who love Jesus and wear his badge with pride...’

We are the building, we are the church, we are God’s dwelling place. We’re each like a stone being fitted into place, being built up together to be the temple where God lives, inside us. I’m a County Down man, and in the mountains of Mourne there are the famous dry stone walls, where the stones are placed together to build the wall, each stone playing its part in forming the wall, whatever shape or size, it fits with all the other stones. It’s like that with us. We are being joined together as God brings us together.

As we come to Jesus, we’re added to his church, we’re built into this spiritual house. But verse 7 reminds us that not everyone comes to Jesus. Peter tells us that we who believe in him know that the stone, Jesus is precious. But some people don’t believe. Some people reject Jesus.

So what about them? What will they do with Jesus, the living Stone? Rather than building on it, instead they stumble over it. The stone is there, to be built on, but they trip over it.

For those who don’t believe, Jesus is the stone that makes them stumble. You may not really believe that Jesus rose again from the dead; you might think it impossible that there is anything after death; you might not think that Jesus is the only way to God. You can’t accept what Jesus says about himself - the way, the truth, the life. Please think carefully - to reject Jesus is to stumble over him and to finally fall.

But the focus here isn’t on those who fall. Rather, the focus is on Jesus, the living stone. Some may reject him, not see what use they have for him, but ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ - the one that crowns the whole building, that makes the whole thing come together.

Peter reminds us of the change that comes about as we come to Jesus, as we’re built together in him. And he uses some more pictures from the Old Testament to do so.

We are a chosen people; a royal priesthood; a holy nation. We have been brought from darkness to being in the light. We have been brought from not being a people, being on the outside, to now being on the inside, being the people of God. Once we had not received mercy, but now we have received mercy.

It’s what happens as we come into the church - the people of God; as we believe in Jesus and are built up together. And what is our purpose? Why have we been brought together? ‘That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ We are to offer spiritual sacrifices of praise (5) - not just on Sundays, but on every day, wherever we are.

Maybe this evening you’re in danger of stumbling. Come to Jesus, and be built into his house, his temple. Through his mercy, come into the light.

If you have come to Jesus, if you have taken your place, united and connected with everyone else, then realise that you are a holy priesthood, that you are called to declare his praise. And do it!

So as we celebrate the 180th anniversary of this building being consecrated, we are called to get on God’s church building plans. As we come to Jesus - to be built into his Spiritual house; as we come together in the place God has placed us - so that God dwells within us; as we declare his praises - so that we celebrate what God has done for us; and as we bring others to him - so that they don’t stumble, but are included in God’s temple.

God is building his church. He’s been doing it through St Matthew’s for the past 180 years - may he continue, through to the return of Jesus, for his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Thanksgiving Service for the 180th anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 10th September 2017.

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