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I want to take you to the Word of God, but before I do that, just to introduce it. I was being interviewed by a reporter last week who was trying to figure out why this church is what it is. It’s a local reporter who knows something about the church. And the reporter said to me, “Why has this church grown? Why has it flourished? Why do so many people go there? Churches come and go, rise and fall, what is the secret? What is the key? What makes this church so different?”
And that really is an appropriate question to ask at an occasion like this. When other churches do come and go, rise and fall, have their moment of impact and fade away, why is this church sustained for so long with such energy and vibrance and influence and impact and joy, blessing? Why is our church after so many years not living in the past, or hoping for some future but rather enjoying this immense outpouring of God’s grace in the present? How can a church have an ever-increasing impact and an explosive impact, an exponential impact transcending several pastors, changing congregations, dozens and dozens and dozens of leaders, thousands of people in service? How can a church go through all of that and continue to have a dramatic impact on a rapidly changing culture? How can a church grow stronger and more effective in a half a century when the world around it has changed more dramatically than any 50-year period in human history? Ethnic change, life style, mega shifts, rapidly transitioning expectations and demands by people? How can a church that is not changing survive in such a rapidly changing world? How can a church stay the same and reach a world demanding change? How can a church ignore the fluctuating styles of ministry, cultural demographics and reach more and more people of all social educational racial and age segments?
Well you get the idea. How do you explain this church? Well, first of all, let me say I’m thankful for everyone who has ever been a part of this church, including all of you. I’m thankful for all who have come here to worship and to serve and to love and to learn and to pray and to reach out. I’m thankful for the gifted pastors and shepherds and elders and deacons and teachers and leaders who have come through the years and I’m grateful for all the followers and all the learners and all of those who followed every direction that godly leaders gave them. I’m grateful for the people with prominent gifts, very public gifts that we all benefitted from as well as those with quiet and almost invisible ministries that we’ll never really understand until we get to heaven. I’m grateful for those with financial resources and those with none. I’m grateful for the able-bodied and the disabled. I’m grateful to the Lord for the joyful people who are always a delight, and even for the people who are usually a pain because with those kinds of people we refine, we clarify, and we learn to be compassionate and patient and to treat people the way Jesus treated them.
I’m grateful to everybody who has ever been a part of this church in the past and, of course, all of you in the present. I’m grateful for you all but none of you, none of us, either all of us or part of us or a group of us or any one of us explains this church’s 50 years of impact...none of us is the reason. This church is what it is, has been what it has been and will be what it will be in the future because of one dominating presence...the living eternal God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, goes to Grace Church. That’s the reason we are what we are. Triune God is a full and faithful and ever-present and active member of this church. He’s always here when you’re here because He comes when you come. This is His church and He loves this church and that’s why you love it. He is the source of our life. He is the source of our influence. He is the source of our message. He is the source, the power of our ministry. He is the motivation for our worship. It is to Him we sing and pray and for Him we preach and disciple. He is the one we worship. He is the one we serve. And He is the power behind everything that this church ever has done for the glory of God.
There is no human explanation, none whatsoever. There is no strategy that can be packaged and carted off somewhere else and reproduced. There is no method. There is no style. There is no skill in public relations. There is no marketing plan, no cleverness, no demographic approach. There is no personality or personalities, there is no level of creativity, there is no skill at cultural sensitivity. None of these things individually nor collectively explain this church. This church is what it is because God goes to Grace Church. Not just to Grace Church, but He goes to Grace Church. For fifty years He has come here, every time His people have met. This church has been blessed with His presence.
Now does that sound presumptuous? Does it sound a little over the top? Let me help you by showing you what God Himself says is the kind of place that He will go to. Turn to Isaiah 66, Isaiah 66, the last chapter in that great prophecy. Let me read you the opening two verses and make some comments.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, thus all these things came into being,’ declares the Lord. ‘But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at My Word.’”
The world is full of churches, small ones, medium sized ones and large ones. The world is full of huge duomos and cathedrals, all of them ostensibly built in an effort to honor God. God doesn’t go to all those churches. Maybe He doesn’t go to most of them. He never shows up in many of them. Over the centuries, massive incalculable fortunes have been spent to build grandiose and lavish and impressive buildings with design and detail and art and music all to be a house for God. And, in fact, the most glorious edifice ever erected by man for the honor of God was actually designed by God Himself. It was God who was the heavenly architect and the decorator for the temple which was built by Solomon. It was erected to precise and exacting divine specifications and ornamentation, commanded by God Himself. It was majestic in symmetry, in beauty and in wealth, made out of hand cut stone and hand cut timber from Lebanon. It was assembled together, a massive structure, and then completely covered with hammered gold so that no stone and no wood was visible. And artisans carved angels, cherubim into its surfaces and palm trees, and they were all overlaid with gold. It was one shimmering shining spectacular gold piece. It took nearly two hundred thousand men seven and a half years to build this temple. Magnificent would be too small an insignificant word to describe it.
But even that building was not the dwelling place of God. When the temple was completed and it was opened, according to 1 Kings chapter 8, we read this, “The glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” The glory of the Lord appeared, the Shekinah presence of God, that was not all of God, that was not the immensity of God, but a symbol of His presence, a representation of His presence. In the same eighth chapter of 1 Kings and verse 27, we read this, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have built, it could not. Even at its best, perfectly constructed by God’s design, contain Him. His glory was there to show them that He would be in the midst of His people. But at that very occasions, there was a severe warning given. Chapter 8 of 1 Kings and verse 57, “May the Lord our God be with us as He was with our fathers. May He not leave us or forsake us. May He incline our hearts to Himself. Let your heart therefore be holy devoted to the Lord, our God, to walk in His statutes and keep His commandments as it is this day.” And the warning went forth that God has shown us He will meet us here if we walk in His Word. If we don’t, He’ll leave us and abandon His house.
In the ninth chapter of 1 Kings, the very next chapter, we read, “But if you or your sons will indeed turn away from following Me, says the Lord, and shall not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you and shall go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them and the house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight.” God says if you don’t obey Me, I’ll not only judge you, but I’ll remove this place from My sight. And the house will become a heap of ruins. Everyone who passes by will be astonished and hiss and say, “Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?” God is not impressed with buildings, even buildings He designs. He is not contained in buildings, He doesn’t need buildings as His home or His house.
It was 586 B.C., it was August when the Babylonians finally arrived, sacked and destroyed Jerusalem and dismantled the temple completely turning it into rubble and taking all of its wealth. Six years before that happened, in 592, Ezekiel, already in captivity in Babylon, was given one of his visions. And in that vision, recorded in the eighth chapter of his prophecy, he was taken in a vision back to Jerusalem. The temple was still standing then, six years later it would be destroyed. He was taken back in a vision and he was taken to the temple. The Spirit, he says in Ezekiel 8, lifted me up between earth and heaven, brought me to the vision of God in Jerusalem into the entrance of the north gate of the inner court where the seat of the idol of jealousy which provokes to jealousy was located and behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there. He was taken back and in the initial vision he saw the glory of God still associated with the temple, but also an idol to make God jealous, an idol symbolic of the idolatry of Israel and the violation of the first commandment. And in this vision in Ezekiel chapter 8, Ezekiel is shown more abominations, more and more and more and greater and greater abominations he sees people who are worshiping Tammuz, the false god. He sees people who are worshiping the sun. There is evidence of gross immorality and sin that abounds in this vision. And in chapter 8 verse 6 we hear these words, “Son of man...speaking to Ezekiel...do you see what they are doing? The great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here that I should be far from My sanctuary.”
And as the story unfolds, the vision unfolds, the glory of God rises up over the threshold of the door, moves up in the air oft to the foot of the mountains and disappears. Ichabod, the glory has departed. And God left that great edifice in the vision of Ezekiel which He Himself had designed and six years later that vision became a reality. God was gone and the Israelites were in captivity..the judgment of God on their idolatry.
After the return, they began to build again. In 516 a new temple under Zerubbabel was finished, far less glorious, plain compared to that Solomonic one.
But soon that temple, very soon, was corrupted by an unfaithful priesthood. Nehemiah came along and after building the wall, a revival came and then the cleansing of that priesthood. But that, too, was short-lived. Nehemiah called for God to come back to His house and dwell there with His people. But it didn’t last very long and by 170 B.C. it was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes who killed a pig on the altar in the Holy of Holies, plundered the temple again. In the year 20 B.C. Herod came along and tried to restore the temple of Zerubbabel and worked on restoration for about a decade and expansion as well. And it was really still being built even during the life of our Lord Jesus. But God never came back and in 70 A.D., the Romans under Titus Vespasian came, sacked Jerusalem and flattened the temple for the final time. And there hasn’t been one since.
And why all this judgment? Because they had rejected the Word of God and they had failed to be obedient to Him. Now with that in mind, look back at that last chapter of Isaiah. And the Lord is saying to the people of Israel, “I’m not impressed with a building, I’m not going to live in a building just because it’s got My name on it even if I designed it. I don’t need a building. I’m not interested in making My home in a building. Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest?” His glorious person fills infinity. He is the omnipresent one. He cannot be contained in any edifice. He needs no temple, no cathedral, no church built with human hands. He is the eternal infinite Spirit who feels all eternity. And those who think they do Him a favor by building Him a building, offer Him nothing that He wants. At best the building is only a symbol.
Where would be a house that you could build for Me that would be suitable? Where would there be a place in which I could rest? Don’t you know, My hands made all these things, including all the materials out of which you might build a building? “Thus all these things came into being,” declares the Lord, “I created it all. I own it all, it is all Mine.”
In the wonderful words of the fiftieth Psalm, we hear this same truth reiterated. “Hear, O My people, and I will speak. O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God. I do not reprove you for your sacrifices, and your burnt offerings are continually before Me.” They were doing what they had been told. “But I take no young bull out of your house nor male goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills, I know every bird of the mountains and everything that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you for the world is Mine and all it contains. So offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High. Give Me what I want, I have everything else.”
When Stephen, the first martyr, was being crushed under the bloody stones in the seventh chapter of Acts, he quoted this great passage from Isaiah 66. Stephen said in verse 48, “However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands, as the prophet says, heaven is My throne and earth is the footstool of My feet. What kind of house will you build for Me, says the Lord, or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things?” God has never been satisfied with a building.
And so He says to Israel here in this prophecy of Isaiah written over a hundred years before the destruction of the temple, “I’m not looking for an earthly house built by human hands.” But verse 2, middle of the verse, “But to this one I will look.” Here is what I’m looking for. “I’m looking to him who is humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at My Word.”
God is looking for a place to live, He’s looking for a place to dwell. He’s looking for a place to make His home, looking for a place suitable for Him, a place to rest. And it’s in a heart. He’s not looking for a big place, He’s looking for a very small place, very common, a human heart.
Earlier in Isaiah, chapter 57 and verse 15, the prophet said, “For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place and with the contrite and lowly of spirit.” It’s the same idea. God finds His home in a humble heart. God finds His home in a penitent heart. God finds His home in a trembling heart, a heart humbled before Him, a heart broken over sin before Him, and a heart trembling at His Word. That phrase, “trembles at My Word,” which appears again in verse 5, “Hear the Word of the Lord, you who tremble at His Word,” becomes a title for a true believer, it becomes a title for a true child of God. It becomes a title for a true Kingdom citizen. You find it in Ezra 9, you find it in Ezra 10, you find it in Psalm 119, you find it in Proverbs 13:13, God makes His home in the heart of the humble and the penitent who are submissive to His Word with holy fear and awe.
You say, “Well I thought the Word of God was the sweet gospel of salvation. I thought the Word of God was the tender promises of forgiveness, mercy, grace, love and heaven.” True. Those words are tender and they come from God and they do not come to produce fear and they do not come to produce terror and they do not come to make us tremble. But they are only received by those who are already afraid of His wrath, who are already trembling under the threats of His divine judgment. It is the sinner under the message of sin and judgment, guilt and death and hell who trembles and runs from the wrath of God to the grace of God. Those trembling under His wrath flee to be comforted under His grace. This is a picture of salvation. God says I want to make My home in the people who are humble and broken and trembling at My Word.
All of us came trembling to the cross. We all came trembling and broken and penitent, pleading for the salvation that would deliver us from eternal wrath. And God makes His home in those people. That’s why He goes to Grace, because you’re the tremblers. And even after salvation, we continue to tremble before the holy commands of our Lord, not in the sense of dread and threat, but in the sense of reverence and awe and with a desire for obedience and an understanding of the consequence of discipline. We understand the sovereign authority of His Word. We reverence His truth. We obey His truth. Calvin put it this way, he said, “All the reverence we owe to God must be paid to His Word.”
That is what marks this church. It is a congregation, always has been, of tremblers. God is looking for hearts to live in, those who are in awe of His Word, those who know His Word to be true, those who believe it, who love it, who obey it, who defend it, who proclaim it. That’s where God lives. That’s the one He’s looking for. That’s where He makes His abode. That’s where He settles down to rest. And that is why Grace Church is what it is, because God goes to this church.
The New Testament in the fourteenth chapter of the gospel of John and the words of our Lord, Jesus, Himself affirm this. Listen to what our Lord said, John 14:15, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments and I will ask the Father and He will give you another helper that He may be with you forever, that is the Spirit of Truth. He abides with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” Jesus said this, “If you keep My commandments. If you obey My Word. If you tremble in awe and respect at My Word, the Spirit will come to live in you and I will come to live in you as well.”
In verse 23 of the same chapter, Jesus answered and said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My Word and My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” For those who tremble at the Word, for those who are in awe of the Word of God who live in submission to the Word of God in obedience to His commands by the powerful transforming grace of salvation, we have the promise that the Spirit is in us, the Son is in us and the Father is in us. Staggering reality.
I love that phrase at the end of verse 23, “We will come to him and make our abode with him, make our home.” That word for abode, or home, literally means a place to stay, a place to live in, a place to dwell. God comes to Grace because you come and He comes when you come.
One other passage, 2 Corinthians chapter 6, the end of the chapter, verse 16. The Apostle Paul writes, “We are the temple of the living God,” that’s the answer to the question, why is this church what it is? We are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will dwell in them.” He doesn’t dwell in a building, He dwells in a people. And walk among them and I will be their God and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord, do not touch what is unclean and I will welcome you, I will apodechomai, I will embrace you, used, by the way, in the Septuagint of Ezekiel 20:34 of God setting up residence with His people.
That’s the explanation. You are a people who tremble at the Word of God. You are a people who love and obey the Word of God. You are a people who therefore are the abode of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and God dwells here and God walks here. It is God who inhabits your hearts and God who inhabits your praises. And that’s the only explanation for this church. And this is...this is a taste of heaven because in Revelation 21:3 we read, “And I heard a voice, a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men and He shall dwell among them and they shall be His people and God Himself shall be among them.’” That’s describing heaven.
What is heaven? It’s where we live with God. It’s where He tabernacles among us, pitches His tent with us. It’s where He is with us and among us. That’s heaven. But we’re enjoying a taste of heaven even now. God is the only explanation for this church. And He will be for its future as we’re faithful to Him and continue to reverence His Word.
Father, we give You all the praise and glory. We know this to be true. We honor You and exalt You for what You’ve done here. We are unworthy and when we’ve done all that we ought to have done, we’ve only done what we should have done and confess our unworthiness. There is no human explanation for this work at all. There is only You for of You and to You and from You and through You are all things and to You be the glory forever and ever. Amen.