Sermon: Bless You, New Residents

This is an exciting time here at First Methodist. There’s an excitement that comes in times of new beginnings. Don’t get me wrong, I always love being a part of the ministries of this church- you can come up here on any given day and hear the sounds of activity throughout these halls. On literally any day of the week around here, you can hear the sounds of adult friendships being formed over prayer and bible study, you can hear people receiving help when they thought they had nowhere to go, you can hear children learning the word of God. All these sounds remind us that we are fulfilling our mission of passing on our faith. But there’s something about this particular time of year that makes it seem like all these blessings are starting to come at warp speed. I don't know if you've noticed, but we have fewer empty spaces in worship most every week. Today we are - once again - welcoming new members and celebrating professions of faith. In just a few weeks we will fill this place on Wednesday nights as our youth and children and adult study groups get underway. Somebody this week was looking at the regularly scheduled events on our church calendar and she said "I had no idea how much goes on around here." And of course, all of these possibilities haven't come out of nowhere - they are the latest fruits of the strong roots and history of this church. Several months ago, when we raised some money to spruce things up a bit and jumpstart a few ministries, Ms. Virginia Kemp asked if she could say a few words about the history of this church. She talked about the members of the church who made the bold decision to move the church from its original location to the place it stands now, and it was in Ms. Virginia's telling that I heard for the first time about the first Easter ever held on this campus. The sanctuary still didn't have pews, but everyone was so eager to worship God in that space that they came and brought chairs or stood for the whole service. They were so excited, so full of anticipation. All of us have these moments of new possibility every so often in our lives. A kid on their first day at school, or a new Christian waiting to be baptized, or a new resident learning a new town, those risk-taking members of this church who just couldn't wait to find out what God had in store. The possibilities for growth and reinvention seemed absolutely endless. That time, like this time, was an exciting time. Which makes this time a fitting time for us to read today's scripture passage about the day that Israel dedicated their temple. You see, Israel were a people on the way up. They had a gorgeous new building - bigger, richer than anyone of them had seen. After decades of wars and rebellions, they were now living in a time of peace and prosperity. And, as we heard a couple weeks ago, they now had the richest, wisest king anyone had ever known - King Solomon. So, on the day we read about today, the day the temple was dedicated, there was a buzz in the air; the anticipation that built as the drums and the lyre and the flutes and the horn began to play. The anticipation as they looked forward to worshipping in this beautiful new temple of god. There was a scent on the air as everyone's noses twitched and stomachs growled in the mingled aroma of the spices and the sacrifices. And as the anticipation built, as the glory of the worship of God grew bigger and bigger, suddenly this cloud - the glory of God - came down on them and met them in that place and overwhelmed them so much the passage tells us the priests could no longer minister - everyone just stood in awe and wonder. All the struggle, all the wandering in the wilderness, all the times when Israel wondered if being God's chosen people was really worth all the hassle - all of that was swept away. But then, solomon turned around, and he faced the people and he prayed. It's the substance of solomon's prayer that I want to look at this morning. At such an exciting time, a time of joy, a time of possible change, how should we pray? I think Solomon’s own desires in this moment of new beginnings are pretty clear, and I want them to be clear for us as well. So, I am going to attempt something I've only rarely done. I'm gonna pray a good old fashioned three point sermon. Three clear points, three things to take away this morning, from what Solomon prayed. The first point is the one with which Solomon begins his prayer - solomon begins by remembering. “Oh Lord, god of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or earth beneath. keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants.” Over the next several verses, Solomon continues by remembering exactly what those covenants were - covenants to Abraham, and Moses, and Solomon’s own dad David. Solomon beings by remembering that God keeps his covenants. Solomon remembered all the promises that had gotten hi to this point, and he thanked God. Many of you are like me, you don't have stories like Ms. Virginia's, about remembering the early days of this church. But you do remember the first time you realized you were made to follow Jesus. Perhaps you remember your baptism, maybe you remember the first time you joined a church. Maybe you remember the first time that you trusted God enough to tithe, or to serve in a ministry. The first time you gave of yourself because you believed God would meet you. Maybe your freshest memory of God is that God put something on your heart that brought you here today. Whatever memories, whatever stories, whatever pains or disillusionments you bring into worship, all of those have brought you here, in this moment. And, remembering that, we all have some reason to praise God. I remember the first church that Jennifer and I became a part of after we were married. We were in a new town, we'd visited several church and none felt like a good fit, until we walked in the doors of one particular church, and Jennifer said "this feels like Jesus." We remember Ms. Joann to this day and we remember that even in a new place, God was preparing the way for us. Solomon’s first prayer was to remember.

Take five seconds now and remember. How did God bring you here?

So that's my first point of prayer for a new beginning - remember. And I hope you enjoyed it because the next point is a bit less fun. You see, there's a big danger in remembering. If we are not careful, a trip down memory lane can become a victory lap. Remembering God's blessings can quickly become a time to say "Good for us”!, and so as soon as he remembers, Solomon begins to repent. "Lord who are we to think that this temple and this nation can contain you?” And the same goes for us - who are we to think that this history of who we are can contain the story of what God is going to do? God, is so much bigger than us, and we so often fall short. And so, Solomon prays "heed our prayers; hear us in heaven, and forgive." You see ,throughout Israel’s history there had been those times when they were tempted to rest content. Tempted to say "Hooray, we are God's people and we are done." And every time that happened they fell away. Every time that happened, they forgot who the source of all their joy and celebration truly was. So Solomon on this day was not going to let them fall into that trap. Solomon says "God, this morning not only do we want to celebrate, we want you to correct us when there's something we haven't done right, when there's somewhere we need to go." Everyone of us can pray that prayer. Imagine if someone were to write a 4000 page history of this particular congregation; imagine if they had enough research to account for each day of the last 100 years. It wouldn't begin to say tell the full story of who God is and all that God is doing. We cannot contain God, we don't get the option of disappearing in a cloud of glorious smoke when we think we've made it. No, God calls us, continually, to repent - to turn around, to head off in a new direction. That’s the meaning of the word repent - it means “to turn around.” Repentance isn’t about taking on a burden of guilt or shame. Guilt can sometimes be the beginning of repentance - guilt might make us realize we are headed in the wrong direction. But to truly repent is not about how you feel, it’s about heading toward the new direction God gives you.

Now Christians famously love to talk about repentance, but too often we are known only for praying that someone else will repent. Notice that on this particular day, Solomon didn't pray “God forgive them; forgive those people.” Solomon prayed "God forgive us.”

When any newcomer is among us, I hope they don’t discover that we are continually asking them to repent. I hope they discover that we are always repenting, and they are welcome to join us. Is God calling you into some new direction, to leave behind some old way of life, or to take up a new one.

Take five seconds now and consider, is there some new direction God is calling you to go.

It’s scary to ask for repentance halfway through the sermon. I might repent myself and have to take this sermon in an entirely new direction. So let’s move on. And now we come to the third and the last part of Solomon's prayer. After remembering God's faithfulness, and repenting for their own lack of faith, Solomon has Israel do what seems to me to be the most remarkable thing of all. Solomon prays for the foreigners who will come to the temple.

Now remember, for most of Israel’s history, they have been surrounded by foreigners who wanted to kill them. And to be fair, Israel for their part has usually been all too willing to return the favor. But God promised that beginning with Solomon the people who sought after God would live in peace, and Solomon's prayer is that Israel will no longer be an enemy to the foreigners, but instead that Israel will be a blessing. “God," he prays "hear the prayers of the foreigners who do not know you but will hear of you because of us." We remember, we repent, and we pray for the foreigners. And of course there are no shortage of foreigners around us today. This very sanctuary is full of borderline heathens, and I bet you're sure you know who they are. The kinds of folk who don't talk in the same rhythm as you do, who don’t think along the same lines as you do, folks you just can’t figure out. And Solomon tells us today that we are praying for them. And we are praying that God will hear their prayers. This town is full of thousands of people who aren't from around here - to many of them the church is just as foreign as Florida, even more so. Are we treating them as enemies, or as potential brothers and sisters? When a non-Christian looks at your Facebook wall, do they get a deep and abiding sense that you are praying that God will hear them - or do they think they might be your enemy.

Now there is a powerful assumption in Solomon's prayer. Solomon assumes that these foreigners will come to the temple. Even though they do not worship Israel's God, they will come because they will have heard that something is going on there, something that is worthy checking out. Last week, we read a beautiful Psalm that many of you might know from a modern praise song with the same lyrics - "How lovely is your dwelling place, better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere." We forget sometimes, but that was never a psalm about heaven - it was a song about the temple. The worship in the temple was so wonderful, so full of joy devotion and attention to God that the singers said just a day of it was better than three years anywhere else.

This morning, I invite you to ask is there enough love, and joy and Jesus in our worship together to whatever seems dark in their lives, or will they have to go elsewhere? This morning I know that everyone of us has spoken to someone who feels like a foreigner to God and to the church. What will they encounter if they hear that this could be a place of welcome?

Take five seconds now and consider, what might you say to the newcomer in our midst that would let them know God hears their prayers?

Here’s one thing you might say. If you are a newcomer, so are we. We worship a God so much greater than us that we can’t help feeling as though we’re still figuring out what it means to serve God. We remember, we repent, and we pray for those who still feel new to all this. They remind us that we are not alone, and neither are they. May we bless them as they so richly bless us.