A Dwelling Place

John 14: 1-4
David A. Davis
June 25, 2023
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I am the youngest child in the family and I have been told that when I was a young boy I whined quite a bit about my birthday always being the last one to celebrate. My sister’s birthday is in August. My father’s was September. My mother’s was October. My brother’s is November. My birthday is in January. It is obvious by all standards of the calendar year and for the mature of spirit, that my January birthday was actually first, not last. It is not like one can declare a birthday year end of July 31 like a fiscal year. But as a child, it must have felt like I always had to wait for the end to celebrate my birthday.
“In my Father’s house”, Jesus said, “there are many dwelling places.” Christ’s promise to us of a dwelling place in God’s house. Like that child who always thought we would have to wait for the end to celebrate a January birthday, I confess to you that I have always filed this promise of Jesus in the end time folder. Not the end as in the Second of Jesus or the rapture or anything else, but the end in terms of one’s earthly life in God. When it comes to a dwelling place in God’s house in the gospel of John, I always thought I would have to wait until the end.
To be fair the words of Jesus sort of lean in that direction. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus teaching, his promise, certainly has the feel of something more eternal like. Though you will remember the prologue to John’s gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Dwelt among us. Our humanity. His dwelling place. But as to our dwelling place, I have always just thought it was heaven. A vision of the beauty and grandeur of the kingdom of heaven is the only thing I can come up with that explains the word choice of the King James. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” The Greek word is pretty clear; it’s “abode”, “room”, “dwelling places”. Not mansion. Various modern English translations go with “many dwelling places”, “many rooms”. The Common English Version translates v.2 this way: My Father’s house has room to spare.” In his paraphrase The Message, Eugene Peterson makes it all sound more casual, personal, even homey. “Don’t’ let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.” Plenty of room but not mansion. Plenty of room and maybe you don’t have to wait until the end.
Later in this familiar 14th chapter of John, the teaching of Jesus, the promise of Jesus expands to the relationship between God, Jesus, and those who love Jesus. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
The disciple asked about how it is that Jesus reveals himself to those who love him and not the world. Here’s Jesus answer: “you love me, God loves you, and we (God and Jesus() will come to you and make our home with you.” Home. Not the same Greek word as “In my Father’s house” Not house, it’s the word for home. Not mansion. Home. Abode. Room. Dwelling place. “You love me. God loves you. And we will come to you make our dwelling place with you.” That doesn’t sound like the end to me. That sounds like the “now” to me. God’s house has plenty of room to spare. There is plenty of room for you in God.
On June 21st 1998, my predecessor Wallace Alston, came out of retirement as they say, to preach at the 25th Anniversary of Nassau Church. In the last fifty years Nassau Presbyterian Church has had two pastors. Not many congregations would share that statistic. History and you can be the decider of whether that’s been a good thing or not! Dr. Alston preached that morning on the text “How lovely is thy dwelling place O Lord of hosts” (Psalm 84:1). The title of his sermon was “The Church That People Love”. God’s dwelling place here at Nassau Presbyterian Church generation after generation. So, is it God’s dwelling place at the end that you have to wait for? God’s dwelling place in you now?” God’s dwelling place in the people of God at worship in this place, the body of Christ that is Nassau Church? And of course, the answer is Yes. God’s house has room to spare!
A professor of preaching once wrote that part of a pastor’s preparation for weekly preaching in a particular congregation should be a weekday visit to the empty sanctuary. The suggestion was to sit different places every week in the room and think about, pray about, reflect on the church member or visitor who will be sitting there come Sunday. Apparently, you are not the only ones who sit in mostly the same place Sunday after Sunday. I’ve come into this empty room during the week and it is a powerful exercise for a preacher, for a pastor. But it’s not enough really to just sit in a pew. You have to come and stand at the fount on a weekday and try to imagine fifty years of parents bringing children to the fount, of both younger and older kneeling here at the fount. You have to walk the chancel from one side to the other, right around the curve, taking in how many new members, confirmands all making their affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. You have to stop in on a weekday and sit down on the floor in front of the chancel and be humbled by the generations of children sitting here to listen to a story about God and God’s people. Or Stand right at the bottom of the steps and take in the countless vows being exchanged between two people. Sit anywhere in here on a weekday and you can still hear that Hollcamp organ even when no one is on the bench practicing. All those pipes boosting the church’s first choir; the congregation at song. Who could count how many times the bread has been broken and the cup has been lifted. Stand on the step or sit in the loft and let your heart be filled by the great multitude that have lifted their voices in praise. Yes, sit in the first pew and the accumulated grief is too much to bear. And look around the room and take a deep breath imagining that all the prayers offered here were still hanging in the air. But its still not enough. You have to go sit all the way down in a children’s chair in a classroom. Spend some time in the chapel where the best acoustics in the building always echo the faith. Go up to the youth room, stop in the choir room, smell fifty-years worth of food in the Assembly room. But that’s not enough either!
Its enough because you have to look out there too. Its overwhelming to try to wrap ones head around the concentric circles away from this space when it comes to life, faith, service, mission, outreach, advocacy, witness, love, forgiveness. The stunningly beautiful web formed by the followers of Jesus Christ being sent out from this space, this dwelling place that is Nassau Presbyterian Church. It hasn’t been a perfect 50 years. God knows. You know. I know. We could all tell stories. We could all read the history. Some of it is not even all that faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. But God is faithful and God’s grace is new every morning, new every morning! And in every generation, God has called God’s children to this dwelling place here, that God might make a dwelling place in you now, and that together we might wait for that dwelling place to come at the end of our earthly life; which of course, in Jesus Christ is the beginning. For Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. There is plenty of room in God’s house.
Fifty years. Add on First Church, Second Church/St Andrews, hundreds of years. A list or a litany could never really sum up the change. Small changes, Big changes. Worship change. Theology change. Congregation change. Princeton change. World change. Change. Change. Change. Sam Cooke was right, “A change is gonna come”. Taylor Swift is right. “These things will change”. Too many will ponder fifty years of change with a nostalgic lament. No, Jesus Christ is still head of the church and the preacher in the Book of Hebrews proclaims “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!”. Therefore, claim in your heart and soul that which is the same, that which hasn’t changed. It has everything to do with God’s dwelling place. What hasn’t changed is how by the grace of God, and the love of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Sunday after Sunday, the beauty of the promise of God’s dwelling place all comes together. God calls God children to here to God’s dwelling place, that God might make a dwelling place in them, and together they might be assured of God’s dwelling place yet to come. A holy mash up of God’s dwelling place. No, that hasn’t changed.
In early May, I was with a few dozen of my colleagues at a dinner party in Indianapolis. The evening was hosted by members of Second Presbyterian Church in their home. Their pastor was hosting our gathering for the week. We introduced ourselves to our hosts then our hosts introduced some good friends of theirs they had invited to join us. They introduced Bill and Gloria Gaither. The Gaithers have been prolific singers and songwriters in the evangelical world and a presence in Christian music and television for at least fifty years. At the dinner table I asked Gloria which of their songs was the hands down best seller. Without any hesitation she said it was the song “Because He Lives”. “But I have to tell you how that song came to be”, she said. She explained that her husband wrote the music to their songs and she wrote the texts. In the early 1970’s she was pregnant with their third child. She and her husband were having a late night conversation filled with anxiety. She said things in the world and in the country were all stirred up and she said to him, “How can we bring another child into the world so broken.” The next morning, she told us, she wrote the text of “Because He lives”
And because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
All fear is gone
Because I know
He holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because He lives
I never watched or listened to the Gaithers. But I have sung the song. I like the song. And the story she told of how and why she wrote the text, I find that profound and moving. A profound and moving statement of faith.
And maybe, just maybe, some version of the meaning of that verse of song, is what happens Sunday after Sunday in the mash up of the promise of God’s dwelling place. God’s calling people to this place, so that in and through Jesus Christ, we can face tomorrow. Knowing that Christ Jesus holds the future and our lives are worth living because he lives. Or as you have heard me say, Nassau Church, in Jesus Christ, our best days are always yet to come. For Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed!