Except the LORD build the house they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127.1.
THE LORD BUILDING HIS HOUSE
A sermon preached by Mr. Paul G. Watts at a Thanksgiving Service: Forest Fold, Crowborough: Saturday 27th Jan. 1996.
“Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” Psalm 127.1.
It is for me both a privilege and a responsibility to preach the Word on this special occasion in the life of this local Church and congregation. We who visit from other Churches today do rejoice with you in the way the Lord has blessed you here. The extension and modernisation work done so tastefully and attractively has been done because it was needed, because in this place the Lord has been building His Church. There has been an increase. More people have wanted to come to worship God and hear the preaching of the Word. Men and women and young people have been saved and added to the Church.
Now from this Psalm we have a most important lesson – that nothing we do will prosper unless the Lord Himself blesses our efforts. Today we have great cause for praise and thanksgiving, but no room for pride or complacency. We gather in this spirit: “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory” (Psalm 115.1).
Clearly a lot of labour has gone into these improvements: the labour of the original planning: of the architect, of builders, technicians, engineers: then the labour of many volunteers, young and old, skilled and unskilled who have saved costs by their work. In Nehemiah’s day the Jews had a project to undertake; and we read in the book of Nehemiah that they had “a mind to work”, they wanted to work together. There was unity in the work, a team spirit. They recognised that there was a work to be done greater than the personal interests of those doing it. So it has been here. There has been a sacrificial giving of time and effort. Many jobs have been humdrum and unnoticed, but still they had to be done. Then of course there has been the labour of giving financially. People have been prepared to give priority to the work of God going forward in this place. There has been the labour of making contingency arrangements for worship and so on.
But now our text sets before us a really worrying thought: found in this little word “vain”. “Except the Lord build the house they labour in vain that build it”. Notice as you read on in the Psalm the
word is repeated. It seems to fasten in the Psalmist’s soul. “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late …” The Psalmist is filled with a dread of things becoming vain.
You will notice that the title of the Psalm connects it with Solomon, perhaps especially with the building of Solomon’s temple. Solomon also wrote Ecclesiastes, and one of the key concepts of that book is vanity, emptiness. It points to the futility of so much human effort and labour. Here in the Psalm we have the same thought. What if we should invest all this time and effort, labour and money, and it all come to nothing, all prove to be futile? What if after all this, the Church should divide and dwindle? What if the people become complacent and satisfied with just an outward form of worship? We must learn the lesson – the tendency of all merely human enterprises to come to nothing. It hardly needs to be spelt out. Early in Genesis we read of that early enterprise of human pride and ingenuity, co-operation and intelligence – the Tower of Babel. It came to nothing. The great empires of the world – the Babylonian, the Roman, the British – where are they now? You may think of the effect of a single earthquake or explosion on a building, or of the tendency of businesses to go bankrupt, or relationships to break up (for the Psalm goes on to speak about the building up of family life).
The labour our text speaks of is the sort which makes us tired, weary: like a woman’s labour or travail in childbirth. One of the most tragic experiences in life is the labour of childbirth without the birth of a living child. If the Lord Jehovah does not build the house and bless our work, then all our travail and expense is futile. That is why from the very beginning of this project there has been prayer. How important is prayer: that God would bless the work, guide every stage, that it may not be a distraction in the spiritual life of this community, that the material might not take over the spiritual.
Now you may be thinking that this is a depressing line of thought for a thanksgiving occasion. No, it is a necessary and salutary and, above all, a Biblical line of thought: to warn us against the danger of glorying in or relying upon our own achievements. It is not depressing because it leads us to another line of thought which is gloriously positive. There is one vital ingredient to success: one sure way of our labours being prospered. This Psalm does not tell us to stop working, never to embark on any project, never to step out in faith, never to have a vision for the future. There is a proverb which .says: “Where there is no vision the people perish”. The Psalm is not teaching us to be crippled by a fear of failure or to sit back in a sort of fatalism. One of the clearest teachings in the Bible is God’s use of human instruments to accomplish His work, His building. Yes, He
uses people, He uses our gifts and our talents. John Calvin commenting on this verse said:
“It is not the will of the Lord that we should be like blocks of wood, or that we should keep our arms folded without doing anything, but that we should apply ourselves to use all the talents and advantages which he has conferred upon us”.
I think Calvin would be rather surprised looking round at this building and seeing some of the “advantages” God has given us in these days, but I am sure he would have approved the good use that has been made of advances in technology and skill. There is nothing in the Word of God to encourage us towards fatalism. What this Psalm teaches us, consistent with the whole Bible, is that failure will certainly stare us in the face unless the Lord is with us. Human effort and toil will not achieve anything without God’s blessing. Our building, however fine, however appealing, on its own just will not do. We need the Lord to work, we need the Lord to build, we need His blessing on our labours, His presence in His Church. “The blessing of the Lord: it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it” (Proverbs 10.22).
This thought is so encouraging because we have every reason to believe, in these dark days, God is still building His Church. We have every encouragement to labour on:
“Go labour on while it is day;
The world’s dark night is hastening on;
Speed, speed your work, cast sloth away;
It is not thus that souls are won.”
What a great work is the work of soul winning! As we labour, and do what we are called to do, we join in the great prayers of the Bible, especially of the Psalms: “It is time for thee, LORD, to work”; “Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children” (119.126; 90.16).
Let us now consider the Lord’s building work, and our involvement in it, under five headings:-
1. The house the Lord builds is a spiritual house
We need to understand today that this building is not an end in itself, but a means to the end that the people of God should worship God, and that the Church of Jesus Christ should grow. It is a useful and good distinction to hold on to between “church” and “chapel”. The label “chapel” points us to the building, whereas “church” points to the spiritual building, to the people. The Church of Jesus Christ does not consist of bricks and mortar, but of believers, people who have been saved by the grace of God. Peter, writing his first epistle, calls them “lively stones”, or we might say “living stones”.
He tells us that these living stones are being built up into a spiritual house.
Our main concern for this extended chapel today is that in it the spiritual sacrifice of praise might be offered, that spiritual worshippers might gather in the name of Jesus Christ to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, that we may be among those who worship God in spirit and in truth, not just in an outward form, but sincerely and really worshipping God. It is our prayer that in this place the gospel may be proclaimed, that the Lord Jesus Christ may be lifted up, set before the people, and that sinners may be drawn to Christ: that by the power of the Holy Spirit people will repent of their sins, and come to that wonderful point of believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, publicly confessing His name, and following Him in His ways. It is in this way that living stones are built into a spiritual building.
These living stones come from the rough quarry of human nature. In their natural setting they are embedded in pride and selfishness and worldliness. But by the power of the Holy Spirit these stones are taken away from this very rough setting (and, as this happens, a lot of muck and dirt has to fall away) and they are placed in a sparkling new spiritual building, where there is order and grace, the Church of Jesus Christ. This building, as Paul says writing to the Ephesians, is “fitly framed together”. Just as this physical building here is put together in a very attractive way, so is the building of the Church of Jesus Christ. Believers are joined together in a wonderful way in the Lord. “In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit”. Oh that we could grasp the wonder of this:
for God to dwell with us, for us to be a place for God’s habitation!
What, then, is our prayer today? “Build thy Church, Lord. Come in the power of thy Spirit. Fulfil thy promise to build Jerusalem (Jerusalem in the Old Testament is a picture of the Church of Jesus Christ). Gather together her outcast sons, bring them in, bless our efforts to promote the gospel”: because “unless the LORD build the house they labour in vain that build it.”
2. The house the Lord builds is built on firm foundations
This new building is in a sense built on plans and promises. Before construction work could begin the architect submitted plans, and costings were done. People indicated that they would support the work financially. Now the house the Lord builds is built on His own plans and His own promises. He Himself is the architect. It is His design, and what a wonderful design it is! What a wonderful architect of salvation is God Himself! The Church of Jesus Christ is built on the counsels of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit in a wonderful agreement in eternity past. God
determined to save His people, Christ determined to come into the world to lay down His life, go all the way to the cross of Calvary. Just as God Himself makes the plans for His Church so also He gives the promises to secure its future. The Church of Jesus Christ is built on the firm foundation of the character and attributes and promises of God. They are exceeding great and precious promises, promises which are “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ Jesus, for He Himself, the elect and precious One, is the chief cornerstone of His Church. He is its sure foundation. One of His promises is this: “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. In any building project there are bound to be moments of discouragement and difficulty. Unexpected problems arise. But what opposition there has been, and still is, to the Church, the spiritual building of our Lord Jesus Christ! What Satanic opposition! In an ancient city, the gates were the place where the elders met. The counsels, the plans, the strategies of the city were formulated there. And here the Lord refers to those strategies which come from “the gates of hell”. They are dark and crafty plans calculated to bring maximum damage and discouragement and division into the Church. But we have this promise, a foundation for the Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. The foundation of God is a foundation which stands sure. It bears a seal: “The Lord knoweth them that are his”. Nothing can assail or break up these deep foundations of the Church of Jesus Christ. It cannot be moved, it cannot be shaken:
and that is our great encouragement today. The Church of Jesus is built upon the fixed and unchanging character and determination and promises of God Himself, His undying love for His own. The house that God builds is built on firm foundations.
3. The house the Lord builds is a well-equipped house
As we look round today we can see that this place is really rather well-equipped. Those with an eye for detail will see that a lot of work has been done behind the scenes. This could be a picture of how the Lord equips His Church as He builds it. What is the single most important thing for a Church to have? As a spiritual house it must have a spiritual presence. Without that spiritual presence it is lost: the presence of Jesus Christ Himself in the meeting together of His people. “Where two or three (it is not a question of numbers nor of surroundings) are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst”. What is the best of church buildings without the presence of Jesus “in the midst”? What are the gatherings of people if Christ is not there in the power of His Holy Spirit to bless? Oh how gloriously the Church is equipped if Christ is there, when Jesus Himself draws near. This is the real joy of worship, these the pleasures that only the people of God know: and as they obey His word His promise is
fulfilled: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every :creature” . . . “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am aith you alway, even unto the end of the world.”
How else does God equip the Church which He builds? It is unthinkable that God would build a Church without equipping it. He gives us the Bible, the sword of the Spirit, a hammer to break lard hearts, a map to show us the way, a mirror to reflect both the shame of our lives and the glory of God. The Bible is the most glorious visible piece of equipment in this chapel today. By it the _Lord builds His Church. He gives to His Church the teaching of the Word of God and the preaching of the gospel as a means of grace. God equips His servants with gifts and graces necessary to preach he Word and shepherd the flock. He makes them wise builders as hey build on the foundations of gospel truth. In Psalm 132.13-16 we read words which point unmistakably to the Church:
“For the LORD hath chosen Zion: he hath desired it for his habitation. This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell; for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provision: I will satisfy her poor with bread. I will also clothe her priests with salvation: and her saints shall shout aloud for joy.”
Here is the equipment of the Church!
Those who are called to preach have to labour, and there is travail in their labour. They have to labour to be able ministers of the New Testament, approved of God. They labour in word and in prayer and in doctrine: but they must know their absolute need of the Lord’s touch, for God to come and bless His Word. Sometimes they are tempted to say with the prophet Isaiah: “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought”. All this study, all this labour, all this preaching, all this prayer! Where are the results? Where is the evidence of God’s building? But they also know what it is to say with Paul: “Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain” (Phil. 2.16). Every servant of Christ knows that “Except the LORD build the house they labour in vain that build it”, but also that the Lord does build His house.
There are other means of grace to equip the Church: its ordinances, its prayer life, various gifts given to various members of the body. We must not think that the minister of the Church has all the work to do. There is so much to be done, so much labour in a truly healthy and evangelistic Church. There is the ministry of witness to unbelievers, literature work, work among children, among teenagers. How encouraging to know that the Lord does
equip His Church. Paul referred to those who laboured with him in the gospel, who laboured with him in the Lord. He was so thankful for their labour of love. But all involved in this labour also have this principle in their hearts: “Except the LORD build the house . . . they labour in vain that build it.”
4. The house the Lord builds is a roomy house
There is plenty of room. Our chapel at home is called Rehoboth, which means: “The Lord has made room for us”. The Lord has made room now for a bigger congregation in this place. Isaiah chapter 53 is a very sacred chapter on the sufferings of Christ. As we come towards the end of that chapter we read: “The pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied.” “He shall see of the travail, the hard labour of His life and of His obedience to the will of God and the law of God, the labour of His delight to do God’s will, the labour of His sufferings and agony and death upon the cross. “He shall see of the labour of his soul and shall be satisfied”. Then you read on. It is important to read on into chapter 54, and what do you find there? A picture of enlargement, of extension, of growth. “Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes: For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left”. This picture of extension is rather different, of course, from the extension of this chapel. In those days it meant more canvas, longer ropes, stronger and bigger tent-pegs and stakes. But the point is this: the expansion and enlargement is the direct result of the sufferings and finished work of Jesus Christ. It is because of Him, of what He has achieved. Oh, do we have a narrow view of the kingdom of Christ, or do we have a God-glorifying view of His kingdom? It is because He can never be a disappointed Saviour that we know there is plenty of room in His kingdom. We know that His invitations to sinners are free and open and gracious and real. We know that Christ still says:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. If anyone is spiritually thirsty, feeling empty inside, has gone to extremes in sin, has found that the world cannot satisfy, has within an aching void which the world can never fill, the Lord Jesus Christ speaks into that void: “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink”. In Christ there is life, in Christ satisfaction, in His kingdom there is plenty of room. It is done as commanded and still there is room. There is room because Christ still welcomes sinners. There is room because “the door of his mercy is open all day to the poor and the needy who knock by the way”. Because of this we can plan and pray and work for growth. We can expect to see people saved and added to the Church. I sometimes wonder
whether many of us have got into a syndrome of defeatism, a kind of siege- mentality. That is a shocking thing to happen in the Church of Jesus Christ because He is a victorious Saviour, and He sees the travail of His soul and is satisfied.
Let us learn from this text never, never to rely on our methods on their own, never to rely on our strategies, our numbers, our gifts, because “Unless the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it.”
5. The house the Lord builds is to His glory
The headstone of the building is grace. The theme is grace, and there is a connection, an intrinsic connection between grace and glory. Christ builds His own Church, and He builds it to His glory, so that in all things in His Church, He may have the highest place, the first place. “So then”, says the Apostle Paul, “neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” We give praise to God in this place today because He has given the increase. We want to ascribe all success in our enterprises to Him. We want to say: “Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” It is only because of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are here today: only because of His grace, because He has opened up the way to God. It is because He has conquered sin and death. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15.58). Those who work, depending on the Lord, looking to the Lord, trusting in Him, will always find that their labour is not in vain in the Lord. ;
In closing I will leave you with these words of promise from Isaiah 65.21-24:
“And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”
It is the prayer of the many friends of the Church at Forest Fold that you may long enjoy the work of your hands.