Sermons

June 28, 2020

Built Up As a Spiritual House

Ming-Jinn Tong (Downtown Campus) | 1 Peter 2:4-5

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.—1 Peter 2:4–5

Picking up from last week—drinking spiritual milk, tasting that God is good, and growing up into salvation—Peter now introduces an analogy from Isaiah 28:16, which says, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.” Let’s take a look at this analogy for just a short moment. I hope that this will be a lot of fun. 

In Isaiah, God is the one who is creating this word picture for us. It’s a building analogy. And as you probably know, the buildings in Isaiah’s time were made of stone. Stones that were cut and placed one on top of the other. But the emphasis in God’s word picture is not yet on the building itself. The focus is on the foundation. So God begins with this: “I am the one who has laid a foundation in Zion,” his coming kingdom on Earth. He says further, in an expanding description, that that foundation is a stone. A tested stone. A precious cornerstone. Of course, this stone refers to Jesus himself. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a moment. 

But what about the building? A foundation stone is laid for a purpose. If you’re putting up a shed, you’ll need several strong footings. If you’re putting up a two car garage, you’d need to pour a solid concrete foundation. If you’re building a tower, you’d need a very firm foundation. 

I had the opportunity to visit the two tallest buildings on Earth over the past two years. The Taipei 101 in Taiwan and the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates. What kind of foundations do you think those towers have? The Burj Khalifa extends over a half mile into the atmosphere. 

It’s so tall that you can watch the sunset from the ground level, then take one of its 57 elevators to the observation deck, and watch the sunset all over again. It has 160 stories and weighs about a half million tons. The foundation is 16 stories deep and the builders used over 200 million pounds of concrete to pour the foundation. That’s impressive. But compared to the precious cornerstone of Isaiah 28? All of that is a fleck of dust. A grain of sand. A flimsy waif compared to Christ. So what in the world is God preparing to build?

That’s where Peter unveils the mystery for us: “You yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.” And what is this house that God is preparing to build in Zion with a tested, precious, sure foundation? It’s the church. It’s a home and an identity for you, me, and every true believer. And since it’s our eternal home, I want to be sure that it will last forever.

I came across this article in the New York Times about a building called the Millennium Tower that was built 11 years ago in San Francisco. The article says: 

A 21-page disclosure statement [was] given to potential [apartment] buyers. It reads,The color and texture of the marble and granite hallways may not be completely uniform. The streets below the tower could be congested and noisy, and the landscaping in the common areas could change.

But the disclosure left out what owners of units in the building now say was a crucial detail: that the building had already sunk more than eight inches into the soft soil by the time construction was completed, much more than engineers had anticipated.

“If they had disclosed the defect,’ said Jerry Dodson, the owner of a $2.1 million apartment, ‘I would never have bought here.”

What about the church? To give your life to Christ will cost you far more than $2.1 million. It will require your whole life. The Millennium Tower might not be there in just a few years. The Burj Khalifa might not be there in 500 years. Do you care about how sure that foundation of your identity is? Do you care about how secure you are in the Kingdom of God? How do we know if the church will continue to exist for all of eternity? 

We must look at the foundation. Its engineer is God himself, who hung the sun in its place and set it on fire. Its cornerstone is Christ, by whom all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Through Christ, all things were created. They were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. The foundation of your everlasting home and very identity, which is Jesus Christ himself, will last forever because he existed before anything was made. And he holds everything together.

Let’s turn our attention now to the kind of building that God has in mind. It’s not a physical building. Peter calls it a spiritual building. A spiritual house, to be exact. 

So we come here to the second analogy. The foundation is not for a shed or garage. It’s also important to note that it’s not for a battle station. It’s not for a strong tower. It’s not for a shopping mall, university, or theater. It’s for a house. 

Have you ever stopped to think deeply about the meaning of having a house? A house is the central place of human life. It’s the central place on earth designed for human flourishing. It’s the place where we get to simply exist. We may travel all over town to conduct trade at the marketplace, connect with friends at a park, seek help at a hospital, enjoy food at a restaurant, be entertained at a theater; but at the end of the day, we all come home. 

What is God’s design for a house? A house is where we are raised. A house is where we can feel safe and be nourished. A house is where we go to be at peace. A house is where we rest and become rejuvenated. A house is where we welcome outsiders and include them to make them feel “at home.” A house is where we can sing out loud without being judged. A house is where we celebrate birthdays and graduations. A house is where we gather to grieve. A house is where we can weep and wail, then wash our face and begin to heal. In other words, a house is God’s design for the central place of human flourishing. 

Now keep in mind, Peter has given us this imagery to teach us about the church and her foundation. In Christ is where we are raised. In Christ is where we can feel safe and be nourished. In Christ is where we go to be at peace. In Christ is where we rest and become rejuvenated. In Christ is where we welcome outsiders and include them to make them feel “at home.” In Christ is where we can sing out loud without being judged. And in Christ is where we celebrate victories, grieve our losses, weep, wail, wash our face, and find healing.

To further help us understand the meaning of a house, we need to talk about what it means to live without a house. This meeting place of ours, that we have labeled Bethlehem Baptist Church, is in Downtown Minneapolis. All around us are men, women, teenagers, and children, precious humans made in God’s image, who live their lives without a house. These house-less people live in tents all around us. 

Why am I bringing this up? Am I trying to make you feel guilty that you have a house? By all means, no. That’s not my point. I also own a home. I don’t feel guilty about providing for my family. I feel grateful. 

My point is this: To live without a house is a devastating reality that many of our neighbors face. 

Let’s look at these neighbors with mercy and a tender heart of love. Let’s allow that love and mercy to grow in us and push us into finding tangible ways to help our neighbors. Many of these precious neighbors struggle with mental health and addiction. Let’s be a source of support for our mental health workers and addiction centers. Many neighbors struggle with physical and medical problems. Let’s be a source of encouragement and advocacy to the local clinics and medical personnel who can do good and make lasting change. Many of our neighbors struggle with hunger and a lack of necessary basic resources like sanitary products and socks in the winter. Let’s be a source of financial blessing to organizations like Jericho Road and InvolveMN, which exist to meet basic needs in the name of Christ. 

Again, to further help us understand the meaning of a house, we need to talk about what it means to live without feeling secure in your own house. Can we talk for a moment about the tragic killings of Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, and Breonna Taylor? These three Black Americans were killed by police officers in the safety of their own home. Atatiana was at home in her bedroom. Botham Jean was at home eating ice cream and watching television. Breonna Taylor was at home asleep in her bed. I’m pleading with you to imagine for just a moment what it means for Black Americans to know that these realities exist in their communities. Imagine what it’s like to be home, but not safe.

The local police chief said this about the officer who killed Breonna Taylor: 

You violated standard operating procedures when you used deadly force by blindly firing 10 rounds into Breonna Taylor’s apartment without supporting facts that your deadly force was directed at a person who posed an immediate threat of danger or serious injury to yourself or others. In fact, the 10 rounds you fired were into a patio door and window which were covered with material that completely prevented you from verifying any person as an immediate threat or more importantly any innocent persons present. Based upon my review, these are extreme violations of our policies. I find your conduct a shock to the conscience. I am alarmed and stunned you used deadly force in this fashion.

To date, this officer has still not been arrested.

One of the most fundamental aspects of a home is safety. When we see fellow members of humanity being unjustly killed in their own homes, we should cry out for justice. Why? Because God is a God of justice. When the central place of human flourishing that God created is under attack, Christians should deeply care, cry out for justice, and begin to do what it takes to see that justice delivered by God in our lifetime.

Now, I recognize the environment in which we are living today is hostile to police officers. So let me be clear. Police officers are men and women created in the image of God, and for that fact alone we should love and care for them as members of our fellow humanity. I deny that police officers are the cause of racism in our society.

I believe that the cause of racism is sin. I also believe that no one is immune to racism. The biblical command to not show partiality is given to all Christians. Not just some. I also believe that no organization is immune to racism. Organizations are made up of fallible human beings. Is it a far stretch to say that the organizations we create might be plagued by the very same sins that plague our personal lives? Is it possible that the human sin of racism has crept into our human institutions? Do we fear that corporations might commit the sin of greed and act unethically for decades? Do we fear that restaurants might commit the sin of laziness and act in unsanitary ways? Do we fear that UPS and FedEx might commit the sin of carelessness and break our things? Do we fear that airlines might not actually care that much about our lost luggage? Do we fear that the government is trying to take away our civil liberties? We know that a human sins in singular ways. Can it follow, then, that groups of humans sin in group ways?

This can be hard for Americans to recognize. We are fiercely independent. We say, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Not, “Give us liberty, or give us death.” In North American English, we don’t even have a separate word for “you” in the plural. We feel this lack and so we make up words like “y’all” and “you guys.”

But in the Bible we find that God speaks mainly in the language of “y’all.” He speaks to Israel as a group. He speaks to us as a church.

If you are part of an organization, you should love that organization. You should be loyal to that organization. But you must never forget that your primary allegiance is to the God of Justice, Peace, and Love, and that your second allegiance is to loving your neighbor as yourself. If you see pervasive patterns of prejudice in your organization, God is calling you to cry out. God is calling you to do things to bring about righteousness in the field where you are at work! That is partly why God has placed you there. If, after giving it your best effort, your organization simply will not change, but forces you to deny your primary allegiance to Christ and his kingdom, you may need to consider moving on from that organization.

Let’s focus now on the last part of our passage: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

So here we encounter Peter’s third and final analogy in these two verses. Who dwells in the house that God is building? Or better put, who is the house that God is building? We have here a house, with a sure foundation, and each part of that house is a living stone. Peter goes on to tell us that the function of that house is to offer spiritual sacrifices to God as a holy priesthood. Now what the heck does that mean?

We don’t have time to dig to the bottom of this rich analogy, but let’s at least say this. Before the coming of Christ, the people of God needed an intermediary between God and his people. So one the twelve tribes of Israel, Levi, was appointed by God to be the tribe of priests. And what was the job of the priest? Well, lots of jobs, but one was this: to help the people of God come to God by doing the work of going behind a thick, wall-like curtain to meet with God and make sacrifices to God so that the sins of the people could be dealt with. Removed. Washed away. An offering for sin involved the slaying of a perfect lamb. The sin of the people was transferred to the lamb, and the lamb was killed as just punishment for now bearing that sin. 

In this last analogy, Peter is saying that we, those who have been purchased by Jesus, the Lamb of God, have now become those priests. And our job as priests is to do the same thing that priests have always done: make sacrifices that are acceptable to God. 

The question, then, is when do we begin to do this? And how? 

Here’s how I see it. When we were born, we were born as enemies of God. Born in sin. Born broken. Shrouded in death. But when we turn to the Lord, that shroud or veil is removed, and we experience a new birth. We become new creations in Christ. We were purchased with a great price, and we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong now to God. And so our whole life is lived for him. He purchased every bit of me for himself. What I do with my body? It belongs wholly to God. How I choose to use my mind? It belongs wholly to God. The emotions that I feel? They belong wholly to God. The dreams that I have for myself? They belong wholly to God. The desires I have for my future? They belong wholly to God. 

My skills, my time, my energy, my hopes, my fears, my abilities, my possessions, my weaknesses, my losses, my tragedies, my griefs—God bought them all. Along with me, they belong to him. They are his skills, his time, his energy, his hopes, his fears, his abilities, his possessions, his weaknesses, his losses, his tragedies, his griefs. All of me belongs wholly to God because he bought all of me.  

And so my whole life is now reframed as one continuously fragrant living sacrifice to God. 

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! Therefore, whatever I do, I must remember that I do it—not for myself, like I used to do—but for the glory of God! Not for building up my own kingdom, but for the building up of his kingdom.

Ok, but practically, what do we do? How do we actually offer spiritual sacrifices to God? I think the model that many of us have in our heads is something like this.

Get up early, obviously, because Jesus rose early from the grave. Then do your devotions because that’s how we ensure that God is still happy with us. Be sure to give money to church. Volunteer at your local library. Be different at work so that people will ask what’s different about you and you can point them to the Bible on your desk. Hope that a stranger sits next to you on the airplane so you can evangelize them. And hope that you don’t run into me in the Main Hall and wind up doing the Sunday Brunch dishes.

Ok, so I’m being facetious. All of those things are good and fruitful things. But is that what Peter has in mind? Wake up early, don’t miss your devos, give at least 10% of your income, and so on?

Author Tim Keller asks this question and I think it’s incredibly helpful here: “How, with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God's will and of human need?”

What Tim Keller gives us here is three lenses to line up and look through to see the answer to the question, “What kind of spiritual sacrifices can I make with my life?” 

The first lens is our existing abilities and opportunities. Do you know those things about yourself? 

The second lens is knowing God’s revealed will for the world. Is it not “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7) Is it not to love your neighbor as yourself? Does Jesus not say, “Blessed are the peacemakers”? God’s will is not hidden from us. 

And the last lens is understanding the needs of people around you. Will you take the time to listen to your neighbors and learn about them? 

When those three lenses line up, we have an opportunity to make spiritual sacrifices, to serve God in our strength. 

In this season where we see so much injustice on the street, the gross injustice of murdering unarmed black men, the gross injustice of looting and burning out small businesses, so many people are asking, What can I do? Micah 6:8 tells us plainly: “Do justly.”   

Look around you. Listen to your neighbors. Learn about what’s happening in the lives of those who are near to you. Then lean in with the things that you love to do. Lead in areas where you have skill and experience.

Application

Let’s be practical for a moment.

  • Is there a single mom on your block? Do you like to cook? A home-cooked meal would be welcome, you don’t even need to ask. 
  • Is trash piling up in your park? Do you like to go for walks? Bring a bag and some gloves and make your park a nicer place to be. 
  • Are there kids in your neighborhood whose parents each work two full time jobs? Are you home in the daytime with your kids? Get to know those parents and see how you might be helpful, even just for an hour a week. 
  • Do you notice that the immigrant church down the street really needs to be scraped and painted? Do you like to work outdoors? Reach out to the church and see if you can organize a work day for their building. 
  • Have you read that Minnesota has the largest disparity in primary education in the entire nation? Do you like to read? Sign up to tutor kids at a local school. 

As a holy priesthood in the house that God is building, our lives should be lived with intentionality. These intentional acts of love, mercy, and justice are how we offer spiritual sacrifices to God. This is the work of the house that God is building. As a holy priesthood, our lives poured out for others will be a fragrance of Christ to others. As we participate in the lives of others, we will not only show them God’s love, but we can invite them to join us in becoming a part of the house that God is building. 

I grew up in a gospel-free environment. Now I don’t mean that I grew up in a church-free environment. My mom took us to church every week. I don’t mean that I grew up in a God-free environment, either. We definitely believed in God. But growing up going to church every week and believing in God doesn’t mean that you’re not also living in a gospel-free environment. So what do I mean?

In my youth, our family did not have a way to solve the problem of sin in our lives. Here’s what would happen. I would sin against my parents. Understandably, they would become upset with me in their heart, and they would move to punish me. The form of punishment was corporal when I was very young, but as I got older the punishment changed. I can remember a time when I quarreled with a sibling and we were both at fault in one way or another. After dealing with that sibling first, I remember so clearly my mom saying to me, “你也不是什麼好玩意兒.” This translates roughly to, “And it’s not like you’re any good either.”

Let’s look for a moment at what’s happening in this exchange. Having done wrong, I was now carrying a burden of guilt. I wasn’t innocent here, I did wrong and I was guilty. And in any family or group or society, wrongdoing needs to be corrected. We can’t live in harmony with one another when there is outstanding wrongdoing among us. So how did my family deal with my sinful behavior?

Knowing that the sin was present, and that it was present in me, it made sense, then, to my family, to push me away. That’s what you’re doing when you tell someone, “You’re no good.” 

Like a person with a disease that must be quarantined, so a person with wrongdoing on their hands must be rejected and separated from the rest of the group. So I would go to my room and lie low for a while and just feel wretched about myself. I would not be welcome to interact with my parents in a normal, happy way. It was expected and I would be humble and compliant for an undetermined amount of time. This is how I attempted to pay for my sin, but the payment was never accepted. 

During this time, my wrongdoing was not removed, it was simply pushed down below the surface and became a calcified part of who I was. After a while, life would become normal again and my wrongdoing would not incur greater wrath. I was never given an opportunity to make repairs for my actions. My actions were just ignored from that time on, but I was ever-aware that if I ever did wrong, rejection and isolation awaited me. I could never be free from my shame.

This was our way of dealing with sin. But I have really great news. This is not how the gospel works. The gospel offers a clear and effective path for dealing with sin. 

Let’s go back to the first part of the passage: “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Jesus, though sinless and without any wrongdoing in his hands, was rejected by the very people he created and came to love. It’s one thing to be rejected because you have done something meriting rejection, but it’s a whole different thing to be rejected just because of who you are. That’s what happened to Jesus. You see, Jesus was rejected, unjustly lynched, and hung on a tree. And as he hung there dying, he absorbed not only the rejection of man. He absorbed every single bit of his Father’s rejection. Yes, he was rejected by men, but in that moment of the crucifixion, he was utterly rejected by his own Father. He felt all of our calcified shame, though he himself never sinned. If there was ever an unjust murder, this was it. 

But God was at work here. He was laying a foundation. He was laying a stone in Zion. A tested stone. Jesus got no fair trial before his execution, and that was his testing. This was how Jesus came to be the precious cornerstone. And upon his death, something enormous took place. That thick, wall-like curtain where the great high priest would go to meet with God was literally torn in two. The separation between God and his people was destroyed by the death of Christ. 

In the moment of his death, all of our sin and wrongdoing was placed on Jesus, the Lamb of God, and it was washed away forever by his blood. Completely paid for. Gone. No more burden to bear. And our hearts leap with joy!

So instead of rejection because of our sin, there is actual payment and removal of our guilt. And instead of cold, hard isolation, we have become like Jesus in his resurrection. He emerged from the grave as a living stone. And in him, we have also become living stones. We no longer need to be isolated from one another. God is building us up into one unified house in Christ. And he is calling us to invite the lost to enter his kingdom with us.

Let me close with this word that Tom Steller helped me with: Church, pray earnestly with me that the disunity in our nation, which the enemy is trying to use to tear the church of Jesus Christ apart, may be overcome by the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit so center us on Christ that we will be free to listen well to those who are hurting the most. May he guard us from heading into echo chambers where we only listen to the people who agree with us. May he keep us from joining those who take their hollow arguments into the comments sections online and attack one another. 

Did God lay two foundations in Zion? Is he building a house on the left and another house on the right? You are a holy priesthood. You are secure forever in Christ. Let’s allow God to build us up into one house that will stand united forever.

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