Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Unless the Lord..."

Message preached November 9, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Psalm 127

Order of Worship

            I was a teenager when my family built a house. Well, strictly speaking, "we" didnít build the house. Bob Reeves did. He was the father of a good friend of mine, and it was "Reeves Construction" which did the work. We didnít just sit around and watch, however. To lower the price, my folks helped out on some lesser jobs on the site - which meant I worked, also. Maybe not as much as my Dad wouldíve liked, but I was involved.

            One of my jobs was to paint the outside of the cinder blocks which would eventually be underground. It was some sort of waterproof black gooey stuff that I swabbed on with a big brush. It actually was in my own self-interest to do this, because my bedroom was to be in the basement, and this gooey black stuff would keep ground water from oozing through the cinder blocks into my living space. At least, thatís what they told me.

            There were other "fun" jobs like that, if you call (for instance) putting up itchy insulation "fun." As much work as we did on that house, though, we were under no illusion that it was our family which actually Ďbuilt" it. Bob Reeves did. If he hadnít, all our work wouldíve been in vain. We were but sub-contractors.

            Is this what that verse means? "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain..." (Psalm 127:1a) In other words, unless God is the contractor who actually builds the structure, any sub-contracting work we do is for nothing. Is that what it means? Do they make hard hats big enough to fit the Lord?

            Imagine God with a tool belt around his waist, a plastic hat covering his head, holding a blueprint between outstretched arms. Iím not sure Iíve ever seen such a picture in any of my Bibles. You? Isnít that how this Psalm begins, with an illustration of God the builder? Shouldnít come as much of a surprise, though. After all, we say that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. I know, weíre actually talking about Joseph, his earthly father. But, if the hat fits....

            Of course, thatís not the only picture in the psalm. "Unless the LORD guards the city," it continues, "the guard keeps watch in vain" (Psalms 127:1). Imagine that one. As you do, however, make sure you complete the illustration. Just as the first part of that verse did not end with God portrayed as the builder, the second part doesnít just present God as the guard. No, there are other builders, other guards.

            Thatís not an unimportant point. We donít just sit back and let God do all the work, do we? My teenage soul may have wanted to let somebody else do all the work on our house twenty-seven years ago, but thankfully my parents had a better idea. When we finally moved in, I could more fully say, "this is my house," because Iíd put some sweat into it. That, by the way, is the rationale behind Habitat for Humanity, a ministry which involves the recipients of homes built by volunteers. They labor alongside the other builders, giving their "sweat-equity." Their home, thus, becomes more fully their own. And they join the volunteers helping others.

            Habitat for Humanity is not a bad entryway for understanding this Psalm. The writer is, of course, talking about more than physical structures. What I find interesting, though, is who tradition says wrote this "song of ascents." Those with your Bibles open to that page, what does it say immediately before the first verse. "Of Solomon." Please remember that these prescriptions are later additions, just like the verse numbers. But, Solomon. Hmmm!

            Solomon was a builder. Well, strictly speaking, he was the king who built the city of Jerusalem and especially the Temple (the House of God) to itís most spectacular extent. His father, David, established the city, but it was Solomon who really oversaw its building. Once upon a time, Lebanon was covered with massive cedar trees. Whole forests of them went into Solomonís building program, so vast was his plan.

            The Bible remembers Solomon with both a smile and a frown. On the positive, he built up the nation of Israel and the Temple of God. His wisdom was legendary. However, he was a powerful man. If you read the chapters about his reign in the Old Testament books of 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, you will find no mention of Godís prophets, who kept even Solomonís father, David, in check. He was the most powerful king Israel ever had. His harem was also legendary. In the end, for all the good Solomon may have done, God judged him for not keeping the covenant, for disobeying the law, for following other gods (1 Kings 11:9-13).

            How interesting, then, that the Bible puts these words upon Solomonís lips: "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain..." If Solomon is identified as the wise teacher, Ecclesiates (see 1:1), as some traditions assert, then the Bible also has him saying, "vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2b).... "Unless the LORD builds the house..."

            This psalm is a corrective to those who place too much stock in their own power and importance. Of course, none of us are in that category, are we? Listen again to the next verse. "It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved." How many of us are burning the candle at both ends? Why is that? Is our staying up too late and rising too early truly for the reasons we profess? Granted, there are good explanations for why we do what we do, but is there a Solomon in us who needs to hear the corrective word, "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain..."?

            This word isnít for lazy believers, who donít do anything. Itís a corrective for those of us who do. Unless the Lord builds our families, all our work is in vain. If the Lord isnít making our marriages, what good is what we do together? Unless the Lord builds this church, our labor is for nothing. Unless the Lord builds our choirs, our commissions, our classes, our ministries - everything we are about as the body of Christ, all is vanity! Unless the Lord builds our portion of our workplace, our work is meaningless. It is through us that God enters our work or school or home or church (wherever), but if God is not the builder of what we put our hands into, if God is not recognized as the guard of our watchtower, what are we doing? Nothing!

            One of the loudest cries of people today is over the meaninglessness of it all. Why do I put my labor into it? If my sweat means something, what? How do I get that sense, when my work is done, that I have contributed something? Does the answer come back to this psalm? "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain..."

            Okay, so God is to be the master builder. How do I get around to making that more real in my daily life? How do I make the Lord the contractor, so to speak, such that I become his sub-contractor? If you were here last week and listening, you heard some solid answers to that question. Our junior highs did a marvelous job of leading us in worship. The dramas made me laugh as they connected me with Godís Word. The "liturgical dance" touched me deeper than I was prepared to be, as God used some girls I had once held in my hands as babies to bring the Lordís song into my heart. Then there was the question and answer session. Five adults bravely came forward to respond to some penetrating questions from the youth about baptism and faith.

            Within the answers I heard clues as to how God becomes the builder of our house, without whom all our work is in vain. One person spoke of an "inner voice," and how she responded to that voice when she was a girl. "You need to pay attention to that voice," she said. Weíre not talking about some schizophrenic episode here, folks. This is the Holy Spirit, Godís promised presence in our lives. Are we listening to that voice? Itís through this Spirit that God is building our house. Not only that, but itís also through this Spirit that we have the tools and the energy to do what needs to be done. Without this, weíre hammering away in vain.

            However, this Spirit doesnít work in a vacuum. Every time I hear someone speak of this inner voice and what it has "said" to them, the words sound familiar - like Iíve already read them somewhere - which we usually have. Another one of our "wise" adults last week spoke of diving into the Bible and finding a bottomless resource. Okay, so she may not have put it in exactly those terms, but the point is the same. If we are people of the Book, are we laboring in vain if we donít pay attention to the Book of the Master Builder? Of course, thereís stuff in here we donít understand. So what. Get over it. Do we have to understand everything? I donít understand my wife and my children some of the time. Should I then just set them down and gather dust? Thatís what we do with God and how God has been revealed to us. Either that or we think weíve got it all figured out and donít need to keep the conversation going. When we set the Bible down, we become the master builder, not God.

            I liked what the other "wise" adults had to say last Sunday about the human element. Key persons were lifted up as significant to the faith that God was building in them. There was the pastor who baptized them, the spiritual friends who nurtured them all along the way, the church which had stood with them when their house felt like it was tumbling down. God not only builds the house with his Spirit and his Word, but also with his people who labor together, sharing their "sweat equity." We are co-workers with God. Of course, letís not confuse the issue. We are but sub-contractors, if you will. If that image doesnít speak to you, choose another - the Bible is full of them.

            Speaking of Bibles, one of our co-workers in this household of faith felt the nudge of the Spirit and acted upon it, nudging us into a project to provide Bibles to the school where she served last summer in a work camp. Through Spirit and Word Godís people here are helping to build (with books, not bricks) Godís household at Crossnore, North Carolina. Before sending these Bibles to the young people there, she has asked that we dedicate them. Caitlin, would you come forward and lead us in a prayer of consecration? As we do so, letís dedicate ourselves (and not just those to whom we are sending these Bibles) to pay attention to the Spiritís voice here, to read Godís Word now, and to work with one another in this house of faith. After all, "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain..."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Psalms.


©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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