"My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations."
CHURCH ANNIVERSARY (Easter 6)
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Isaiah 56:6-7 Sermon
May 21, 2006
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
----- "God Is Here! As We His People"
242 "Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation"
257 "God's Word Is Our Great Heritage"
172 "Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise"
153 "Jesus With Thy Church Abide"
150 "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"
GOD’S HOUSE FOR ALL NATIONS
TEXT: “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
These past few months in my life have included a couple of church anniversaries. St. Paul’s in Emerson, NE is celebrating their 120th Anniversary. St. Paul’s is where I was baptized, and where I was a member until I was 12 years old. I gave a short address at their afternoon program, where I recounted some of my memories of the past.
St. Andrew’s in Lincoln is celebrating their 50th anniversary. I was confirmed at St. Andrew's. They are having several special events in their celebration, and I’ve attended two of these; a musical program by the Schulz family, and an organ recital. I wrote a short article recounting some of my memories there, which is going to be included in a special anniversary book.
Church anniversaries are always notable events, and congregations usually mark their anniversaries in some sort of special way. And when the anniversary is a specific milestone, then quite often the congregation will form an anniversary committee to help plan and coordinate how this event will be celebrated. But even when the anniversary isn’t a special milestone, the day will still be remembered in one way or another.
Church anniversaries usually contain three basic elements: a long look at the past with thanksgiving as to how God has blessed them through their ancestors, a look at the present and how God is blessing them now, and a look to the future with the prayer that God will continue to bless them as he has in the past in the generations to come.
Mighty Fortress is no different. Even though this is only our second anniversary, it is still worth noting. Even though we don’t have a very long history, yet we still have one. And so we look at the past, the present, and ahead to the future.
In preparation for this morning’s message, I did my study like I do for any sermon. But in this case, I decided to do a Google search for church anniversary sermons, just to see how other pastors have handled the subject. A lot of what I found was very specific to a particular situation, and not really suitable for our purposes. Of course searches like this are for ideas, and not for something to plagiarize.
But I did come up with something that caught my interest. I found a series of anniversary sermons that had been preached at St. Matthew’s United Church in Clairville, New Brunswick.
New Brunswick is the Canadian province that sort of wraps around the eastern end of Maine, just above Nova Scotia in what I understand is one of the most beautiful and pristine places in North America. It’s a trip that is definitely on my agenda for the future.
Anyway, as I read through these sermons, I began to wonder more and more about this St. Matthew’s Church in Clairville. I browsed around Pastor Johnston’s website, and I couldn’t find any more information. So then I visited the website for the United Church of Canada, and there was no mention of it either. I then tried to find information on Clairville on the various New Brunswick websites, and came up empty there as well. The only thing I was able to find out was the listing of who was buried in the church cemetery.
More curious than ever, I decided to pick up the phone and give Pastor Johnston a call and find out about this little church in New Brunswick.
I found out that St. Matthew’s was no longer an active independent congregation. Back in the 1980’s, it was merged together with several other congregations, and the membership was now part of St. Stephen’s United Church, a short distance away.
The history of St. Matthew’s itself is a bit sketchy. In the years before it was merged, it had been part of a multi-parish charge, and had been served by seminary students as part of their training. Pastor Johnston did not know the last time St. Matthew’s had been served by a regular pastor.
St. Matthew’s has some history, dating back probably a hundred years or more. It was in existence before the formation of the Canadian United Church, which amalgamated all of the Canadian Methodists, all of the Congregationalists, and about 70 percent of the Presbyterians. I’m not sure which group St. Matthew’s belonged to.
Clairville isn’t really a town. It’s just a small group of houses and the church—something along the order of the small unincorporated townships we have here in Nebraska, maybe like Swedehome or Ruby.
Today, St. Matthew’s has only one active board, and that’s the cemetery board. The cemetery is active, and burials still take place there. They have one service per year in the church building, which takes place as more of a fundraiser to get the money to operate and maintain the cemetery. The church anniversary sermons I had been reading were the ones preached at that annual service.
As we get into our text for today, we find words the Lord is speaking through the Prophet Isaiah. In this text, there are two very important topics being addressed, namely God’s house and God’s people.
The words God uses to describe who his people are were not at all in line with what the Old Testament Jews thought. Certainly they were the chosen race, which produced the lineage from Abraham, through King David, all the way down to Jesus. It was the ancestry which would produce the Saviour of the world.
Even with this noble lineage, the Jews did not have the corner on the market for God’s love and salvation. In the verses just prior to our text for today, in Isaiah 56, 4-5 we read: “For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.’”
With these words, God breaks down the ethnic barrier and the “holier than thou” attitude which pervaded many of the Jews. In fact, in the Old Testament God doesn’t hesitate to speak harsh words of judgment against the unfaithfulness of the Jews numerous times.
This is the thought Paul carries through in the New Testament when he writes in Galatians 3, 26-29: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
God’s people are described, not by race or gender or ethnicity, but as people of faith. Regardless of who or what a person is, they are still part of the sinful human race. It’s a broad paint brush that covers all without exception. Ethnicity or anything else does not exclude people from sin and judgment. Righteousness does not come because one is born of Jewish descent, or because of some other form of social status. Romans 3, 23 is all-inclusive: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
Thankfully the following verse, Romans 3, 24 is just as inclusive: “…and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
It is the Christian, the one who by faith accepts Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, who is God’s chosen. It is the Christian who knows there is no self-generated goodness which can reconcile them to God. It is the Christian who knows there is no other way to God than through the Saviour’s waiting arms. It is the Christian who knows that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not through righteous acts or deeds. It is the Christian who holds fast to the covenant of the Gospel, and knows without a doubt that he or she is God’s precious child.
It is God’s desire that Christians come together as his family in the form of Christian congregations. David writes in Psalm 122, 1: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” We also read in Hebrews 10, 24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching.” And finally, Jesus gives this promise in Matthew 18, 20: “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.”
In our text for today, God says, “…for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” All Christians, regardless of who or what they are, will want to seek out God’s house. It is a house of prayer, where the Christian may freely come to the one true God in prayer—prayers of adoration, prayers of confession, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of supplication (i.e. prayers bringing requests before God).
But it is so much more than that. In his house, God comes to us, his people. He comes to us in the ways he has promised, namely through Word and Sacrament. We hear the very voice of God speaking through his Word, the Holy Bible. We receive the true presence and Gospel of God through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s here where we are nurtured and strengthened in our faith.
God’s house is also a place of fellowship, where Christians can gather as a family of believers simply to be with each other, enjoy each other’s company, share with each other, and build each other up.
And finally, it is here where we are equipped to go forth as Christians into the world. We are commissioned to make disciples of all nations, and to make a difference in the community and the world around us. We are to put our faith into practice, and to show others the same type of love Jesus has shown to us. What we have is something we are to share, and not to keep to ourselves.
At the beginning, I spoke about St. Matthew’s Church in Clairville, New Brunswick. Their story, sad to say, is not a unique one. Churches and congregations close their doors all the time for one reason or another.
Mergers and dwindling numbers frequently make it impractical for congregations to exist on their own. In rural America, as members of the farming community are becoming less and less, country churches are merging together and building structures in town.
And sad to say, many churches are dwindling because the people are choosing to leave the church and go their own way without God. They don’t see the need for God in their lives, and they don’t see the church as being relevant for them. The way of sin and death has become more attractive than the way of life and salvation.
I don’t know the exact reasons for St. Matthew’s in Clairville to have closed down—it’s probably a combination of all those factors.
I do know one thing however. Way back when, a group of dedicated individuals saw the need for a church in Clairville, New Brunswick. They came together and formed a congregation. Like most congregations, they would have had their ups and downs in getting started. But the congregation would have had the fortitude to progress, to move ahead.
I also know another thing. I would very seriously doubt if those who founded the congregation so long ago would have expected to see what is happening today. Having only one service per year to raise funds to maintain the cemetery would have hardly been their vision for the future.
I don’t mean to be critical of St. Matthew’s. I know there had to have been some very good and solid reasons for them to close the congregation and merge together with the others. However, I can’t help but think that there is a bit of sorrow as the former members drive by and think about the baptisms, confirmations, and funerals of loved ones that took place there. And I’m sure that at least a tear or two has been shed as those people look at the vacant and empty church. I don’t know if the church is used for other functions, but at least once a year the people are able to gather there for worship, and to once again appreciate the heritage of that small congregation.
Amid the pristine New Brunswick countryside is the small community of Clairville. And there stands a small church and cemetery. Even though it has been officially closed, yet its very presence is a reminder of the reason it stands, and that is to be God’s house, a house of prayer for all nations.
In April of 2004, a small group of people met around a conference table in Seward. It was from there that the dream of Mighty Fortress Evangelical Lutheran Church was born. From our first service in the chapel at Heartland Park until this very day, we have gathered together around Word and Sacrament, the two marks of the Christian Church.
Much has happened in the two years of our existence. We’ve gone from meeting in a borrowed facility into a facility of our own. Even though it is a former medical clinic, and a former special education school, today it is our facility for worship, education, and fellowship.
Regardless of the physical structure we are in, we come here confessing our sins and receiving the assurance of God’s forgiveness and grace through faith in our Saviour Jesus Christ. We come to worship and learn and have fellowship. And as a congregation, we are able to reach out to others both locally and globally, sharing the same love with others that God has given us. God has certainly blessed us in the past, his blessings are evident today, and we have the hope for his blessings in the future.
In every way, as we proclaim the Gospel of Christ and reach out to others, may we always show that Mighty Fortress is indeed God’s house, which shall be a house of prayer for all nations.