Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon: “Making Room in God’s House” (a.k.a., "Invitangelism", "Think Bigger", or "The Parable of the Architect"), Isaiah 49:1, 4-6/Psalm 40:1-4/John 1:35-42 (January 19, 2020)


A new parable: there once was an architect who needed to design and build a house for her own family. She, her spouse, and their two children had been displaced by a natural disaster a few years back, but the time had come for them to return to their hometown, to rebuild and start again. She was full of hope as she sat down at the drafting table, but as she considered everything that needed to go into this new house—her spouse wanted a large kitchen, her son wanted a bedroom with enough space for all of his toys while her daughter wanted one as far from her brother as possible, not to mention her own need for an at-home office—she began to become discouraged. She felt that after everything they’d been through, she didn’t have the strength to create a new home for her family, one that would meet all of their needs and help them feel safe and secure again. But, they needed somewhere to live, so she did the best she could, and they began construction.

As soon as the foundation had been laid, her daughter came home with a stray dog that she’d found wandering near her school. It was obviously cold and hungry. It was also a Saint Bernard. Knowing her daughter’s heart for animals, the architect couldn’t say no. So, she sat down at her house plans again and added a large, fenced in back yard. As they began to construct the frame, she found out that her brother-in-law had lost his job and needed a place to live for a while. Back to the drawing board to add a spare bedroom. As the windows and doors were being installed, she was approached by some of her former neighbors who had also been displaced. It turned out that they still didn’t have anywhere to live, and they wondered if she knew where they could go for help. “Time to add a second floor,” she decided. As she was figuring out where on earth everyone was going to park their cars in this newly-expanded home, she got a phone call and discovered that unexpectedly, their application to become foster parents had gone through much more quickly than anticipated. As she erased her work for the fourth time and struggled to figure out where to put the nursery, she had to laugh. “I guess this house was never meant just for us, after all,” she said.

Now, I obviously don’t have any background in building design or construction, and this parable is obviously 100% fiction. I’m sure that it’s actually really difficult, if not impossible, to actually change an architectural design mid-construction. But this was the best scenario I could think of to help us understand the situation that the prophet Isaiah was facing in today’s reading. Israel had been displaced for years, and the people were anxiously looking forward to the day that they would finally go home. Isaiah’s job was to prepare them for their eventual return, but it was a trying and thankless task with no end in sight. Just as he starts coming to terms with this enormous responsibility, God springs this on him: “I know you think we’ll be done when we raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel, but we can do better than that. Think bigger. I want you to bring my salvation not just to the Hebrew people, but to the very ends of the earth. I want you to share my message with ALL nations. So good luck with that. You’ve got this.” I imagine Isaiah, like the architect in the parable, going back to the metaphorical drawing board and laughing in disbelief. “Really, God? My job wasn’t hard enough already? I could barely figure out how to get my people home, and now I have to get ALL people home? ‘Think bigger,’ indeed.”

We, like Isaiah, are also faced with the question of how to “think bigger” regarding God’s household. How do we create room for all nations in the cozy home that we’ve built for ourselves? How do we not only make space for everyone, but convince others that our home is worth inhabiting? After all, the Church has a shameful history of excluding and harming those we feel don’t belong; it’s understandable that some might be hesitant to step through the front door. But God has made it clear that God’s household is for ALL people, to the ends of the earth, without exception.

So how do we “think bigger” about God’s house? We expand God’s house the same way you build any house—one small step at a time. It’s the only way to approach ANY enormous task. It may feel overwhelming and beyond our ability, but as Isaiah notes, “My God has become my strength.”[1] We aren’t doing this alone, relying only on our own wisdom, but with God before us and behind us and beside us. We don’t have to have the whole plan detailed up front; it’s likely to change anyway, as our architect friend discovered. We don’t have to be responsible for the entire project on our own. We just need to do the best that we can here and now, one step at a time.

The biggest challenge for us, then, isn’t the size of the steps that we need to take; it’s that that they might not be what we expect. Contrary to what we might believe about evangelism, expanding God’s house is rarely a matter of convincing others to join us via manipulative persuasion or bullying. Sometimes, the best way to add a room to God’s house is simply to tell our own story. After all, the most effective invitation is one that describes somewhere you want to be, right? How might our perspective change if we told our own faith stories not as congratulatory reassurances for ourselves or our own community, but as evangelism meant to encourage other to join us? As testimonies directed outward, meant to invite others into our home? Listen to Psalm 40 in this way:

I put all my hope in the Lord,/[and God] leaned down to me;/[God] listened to my cry for help!/[God] lifted me out of the pit of death,/out of the mud and filth,/and set my feet on solid rock…/Those who put their trust in the Lord, who pay no attention to the proud or to those who follow lies, are truly happy![2]

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Doesn’t it sound convincing? Doesn’t it sound like something you want to be a part of? And doesn’t it sound like something YOU could do? A version of evangelism that relies on enthusiastic invitation rather than strategy or coercion—“invitangelism”, if you will. Certainly, sharing our own story is an easy enough step for us to take as we strive to “think bigger”, to make room for others in God’s house.

It’s surprisingly effective, too. In today’s Gospel reading, John engages in some “invitangelism” and immediately sees results. In verses 29-34 (just before the reading begins), he testifies to his own experience of Christ, and ends by declaring him “The Lamb of God,” who takes away all the sins of the entire world. He describes the blueprints for a house that has enough room for everyone, and points to Jesus as the architect. In response, John’s own disciples decide to follow Jesus. They want to be a part of Jesus’ house; they literally ask him where he’s staying so that they might stay with him.

This is more than just a desire to hang out with Jesus. The Greek word used here, μενω (meh-no), means to rest, to dwell, to abide. This is the same word that John uses earlier to describe what the Holy Spirit did in Jesus’ baptism—it wasn’t just near him, it rested on him, dwelt in him, abided with him. So when John’s disciples ask Jesus where he’s staying, they’re really asking, “Where is it that you dwell? Where do you abide?” Putting it another way, where is your home? Jesus invites them to “come and see” (more invitangelism), so they go and see and stay and abide.

This word choice is especially significant for us, because unlike these disciples, we don’t have the opportunity to literally walk behind Jesus in order to find out where he’s physically living at the moment. What’s important to us isn’t where Jesus rests his body temporarily at the end of a long day, but where Jesus abides and remains in our world. When we dwell in Jesus’ house, we’re not looking at four walls and a roof. Jesus’ house is wherever Jesus’ presence endures, wherever the Good News is preached freely and faithfully, and wherever all are welcomed in genuine love. And as such, we have a vital role in this house’s construction and upkeep.

As in the parable of the architect, more people are always looking to see if there’s room for them in Jesus’ house, and God makes it abundantly clear to us that there is. It’s our job to make sure that wherever we find Jesus, we invite the world to join us. That wherever we feel at home in Christ, so too do the least of these. That when someone says, “I don’t think I belong,” we respond, “Not only are you welcome here; it’s your home just as much as mine!” The architect didn’t build a separate house every time someone else needed a place to live; she made room in her own home for them, no matter what it took. We should always be thinking bigger when it comes to God’s house. No matter a person’s political leanings, their job, their sexual orientation or identity, their citizenship, or their history, all should be able to find a home where Christ dwells. Not only that, but they should WANT to come home, because our invitation to them is so warm and earnest that they can’t resist. When we truly make room for everyone in God’s house, the impact of each small, simple act of invitangelism turns out to be huge—so much bigger than we ever thought it could be.

Jesus asks John’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” Whether we realize it or not, we’re all looking for the same thing they are: to abide with Jesus, to dwell where the Holy Spirit dwells, to “live all our days in the house of the Lord”.[3] We all long to know that there’s a place for us with Christ. What are we willing to do to make sure that the salvation of God’s home reaches not just us, not just those we love, but all people? Are we willing to do the work to MAKE room? Are we willing to change our own plans, our own assumptions, our own desires, so that we, like Isaiah, can “think bigger”? As the architect said, “This house was never meant just for us, after all.” May every single person to the ends of the earth know this truth, and may we choose to make it our reality every single day. Amen.


[1] Isaiah 49:5, CEB.
[2] Psalm 40:1-2,4, CEB.
[3] Cf. Psalm 27:4.

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