Read 1 Corinthians 3:1-10 to start.
In 1885, Sarah Winchester moved to San Francisco, California. She had been widowed a few years previous, and her husband had left her a considerable fortune, including a number of shares in his company, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, best known for making Winchester rifles. This allowed her to buy a nice piece of property, a 45 acre ranch, in nearby San Jose. The ranch had an eight-room, two story farmhouse. Having plenty of budget and an interest in architecture, she decided to renovate. And renovate she did. But her plans kept changing. She hired architects and fired them, she took advice from various carpenters, and eventually took over the project lead herself. The house existed for years in a state of flux, constantly under construction. It grew and grew, and alternated between different styles of architecture, from Victorian to Gothic and Romanesque. After the 1906 earthquake a considerable part of the house was destroyed, including a 7 story tall tower. Some of it was rebuilt, some was not, and construction continued until her death in 1922.
You can visit it today, it’s a popular and famous landmark in the San Francisco Bay Area to this day, known as the Winchester Mystery House. It has 160 rooms, 10,000 windows, 2000 doors, 6 kitchens, 47 stairways and also 47 fireplaces. Some of the stairways go nowhere. Many of the windows are on interior walls, some even into some of the 13 washrooms. The house is a bizarre and incoherent place, and is considered to be haunted. The story goes that Mrs Winchester had visited a medium who told her that unless she constantly built, she would be haunted by the ghosts of everyone shot by a Winchester rifle, but this was likely just a story concocted by the people who later purchased the property and turned it into a tourist attraction. That story clearly worked, a ticket for a one hour tour is $41.99 per person.
A more likely explanation is that Mrs Winchester had the money and the interest in architecture to just keep building, and she may have well have enjoyed personally funding a small army of carpenters and tradesmen who worked on her house.
The point is that this house was under construction for decades. It was a work in progress from the time Sarah Winchester bought it until her passing, 37 years later. It grew and expanded, and while it became quite the spectacle, it was never really declared finished. Of course, it’s hard, it’s essentially impossible, to finish a project when there is no cohesive plan.
In the passage we read to start, we are described both as God’s workers, and as His building. This applies to each of us as individuals, and to the church as a whole. God would see His people edified, strengthened, and improved. He would see His church enlarged, equipped, and emboldened to do His work. This is central to the life of the believer, it is a core component of who we are to be in Christ. As followers of Christ, we are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Saviour, and we are to become more like Him.
I should clarify that this is assuming that you have already repented of your sins, turned from them, and turned to God. If not, then you aren’t God’s building, at least not yet. If you have not put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as your saviour, then the construction hasn’t even broken ground yet. You are still at the stage of waiting for the permit application to be approved.
If what I’ve said so far does not really feel like it applies to you, then I would ask you to consider what is important in your life. What is worthwhile to you right now, and what do you think will be of worth in the future. God will work in the lives of anyone and everyone who believes, all who allow Him to do so. But He does not often force the issue, at least not right away. In Revelation chapter 3 we read that He stands at the door and knocks, seeking entry. At times the knocking may be soft and gentle, at times loud and forceful, but it does not say that He will kick down the door.
Now, it is true that there are times when God will push a person into a corner, or it will feel like that, because the poor choices we make have a way of narrowing the available options, and pruning out the good options, the ones with the best long term outcomes, until it feels like God has backed us up against the wall. That’s generally the result of backing away from God instead of moving toward Him, and embracing Him and His plan for your life. If that is what you have chosen, then it might feel that God has trapped you, but it is generally the result of choices you have made of your own volition. And so often the choices we make for ourselves are impulsive, selfish, and short-sighted, and lack any sort of a long term plan. Or whatever plan we have might be a disjointed mess. A lot of people have a lot of plans, but very often those plans go awry. When we follow our own plans, our lives may end up looking like the Winchester House, only with a smaller budget.
God does have a plan for the growth of the church, and every believer, every person who follows Christ, is part of that plan. While the passage we read to start talks about God’s blueprint for the church as much it does about the individual growth and development of believers, my focus this morning is on the personal level. We’re looking at the small picture rather than the big one. The building of the church is a great topic for a different sermon. We are stones or bricks or boards in the walls of God’s building, and while the plan for the building itself is essential, the quality and the usefulness of the individual elements is no less vital.
You can’t build a good wall out of crumbly bricks. You can’t frame a house with crooked, splintery boards, or at least you shouldn’t. A house like that is not going to last. The Romans built aqueducts and bridges of stone, some of which are still in use. They didn’t use soft, brittle, or misshapen stones in their construction. They used quality materials, and we can see the evidence of that today.
God builds His church using men and women, boys and girls, and as none of us are anywhere close to being perfect, He needs to work on us as individuals. When we come to faith in Christ, we are added to the church. That it happens immediately is a remarkable thing. It is a wondrous truth that believers are added to the church on an as-is basis, salvation is the only prerequisite. There isn’t a particular level of personal holiness to be attained before believing. We don’t have to be improved first. That happens later.
There are a lot of people who assume that they have to clean themselves up, get their house in order, tidy up their own mess, or what have you, before they can come to God. This is not the case. Christ came not to call the righteous, but rather to call sinners to repentance. We see that same verse repeated in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5, and in all three gospels it is coupled with the example that those who are well and healthy do not need a doctor.
You might argue that you sometimes go to the doctor for a check-up, not because you are sick. But of course, a check-up is only to confirm that you are in fact healthy, and make sure you are not sick. If you had zero concern about your health, you probably wouldn’t go for very many checkups at all. And of course two thousand years ago when Christ said those words public healthcare was not a thing. You had to pay for a doctor out of your own pocket, you likely only went to one if your condition was already fairly serious.
Being a sinner is a condition that is more than fairly serious. It’s downright terminal. The wages of sin are death, after all. That’s why Christ came to save sinners, because the consequences are irreparable, and we are unable to save ourselves. And so He calls us to repent, to turn from our sins, and to trust in Him for salvation. When we do this, we are added to the church, and we become His handiwork. We become His work in progress.
There are two additional verses that I will read now to reinforce this concept. First, in Ephesians chapter 2, after what are probably the two best known verses in that book, which are of course verses 8 and 9, (Eph 2:8) For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (Eph 2:9) Not of works, lest any man should boast. We see immediately following at verse 10 (Eph 2:10) For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
In contrast to our works, our feeble efforts, which are not able to save or redeem, not at all, we see that God works in us, and on us, and ultimately through us. The word used here in Greek is poiēma (POY-ay-ma), which we have here as workmanship. It’s translated in the NIV as handiwork, which has the implication of being something directly handled and worked on. There is the thought of having personal attention, effort, and expression infused into your handiwork.
If you ever make anything using your own hands, you should know what I’m talking about. You draw a picture, you put together a craft, you make a sandwich or bake a cake, that is something you have done, you have worked on, and have formed it the way you would like it to be.
Myself, sometimes I make Nanaimo bars, and I follow a recipe that I have tweaked and adjusted and improved over the years, because I know what works and what people enjoy. I also make candles, using reclaimed wax, and I pour in the wax carefully and in a particular way to get the colours and the layers the way I want them. These are my handiwork, which I have made personally. That is what God is doing with you and with me, with all who have and all who will believe and will let Him work in their lives. God wants to work on you, and make you better, make you in His image, if only you will allow Him.
I mentioned candles and Nanaimo bars, and while those are my own personal examples, they are also excellent examples of things that you can’t make all at once. It takes time, not just the actual process, but there has to be a cooling and a setting between the various layers. If you try to add the filling to the bars before the base has fully set, you end up with a crumbly mess. And if you try to pour a second colour of wax on top of the first layer before it has a chance to harden, the colours might mix, or they might not, and you might end up with a mess. Also, the wax shrinks as it cools, so if you do too much at once you end up with a divot in the middle that needs to be filled. That takes hours, or sometimes even overnight to become apparent.
That’s how it goes when God works on us, it doesn’t happen all at once. It takes time, maybe a lot of time, to see significant change. Progress may move quickly, or slowly, or it may happen in fits and starts, jumps rather than steps, or it could be slow and steady growth. Sometimes it takes the better part of a lifetime to get to the point where a believer feels that they have gotten some level of understanding. Sometimes it happens almost overnight.
Even when you reach a place where you have a certain amount of knowledge, a decent level of wisdom, and enough confidence to be ready to have an answer for any who asks a reason for the hope that is in you, that does not mean that you are done. This brings us to the second key verse on this topic that I wanted to read. In Philippians chapter 1, we read at verse 6 (Php 1:6) Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
The good work in us, the project start date, as it were, begins at salvation. And it continues throughout the rest of this life, it continues until you meet your Saviour. How long is that going to be? It varies, of course. For some folks it’s not long at all. For other people, could be eighty, ninety, a hundred or more years.
I don’t know how long my project will take, we’re at about forty years now, and while I feel that I have seen progress, I also feel that there is a long way to go. You might be in a similar place, or maybe you are closer to completion, or maybe just starting out. How long it takes is not the main concern, though. It’s the growth, it’s the progress, it’s the work done and how you are built up in Christ that matters. And it’s the fact that when God begins a thing, He doesn’t quit. Paul expresses his confidence in that, as we read a moment ago. We can be confident of that as well.
It’s not about being confident in yourself, your natural abilities, your learned skills, or even your spiritual gifts, but rather about being confident in God. Confident that He will not abandon you, confident that He will not replace you, confident that He will not write you off. If He has begun working on you, and if you have come to Christ as your Saviour, then He has, then He will continue working on you until you pass from this life.
Not only is this a solid reassurance of the eternal security of the believer. After all, the verse doesn’t say He that hath begun a good work in you will continue until you mess up real bad. It says He will continue until the day of Jesus Christ. That has nothing to do with your own worthiness, your own progress, your own anything. God has said He will do it, and therefore He will.
After all, if we can’t be counted on to save ourselves, how on earth could we be counted on to do a good and consistent and thorough job of building up ourselves in the Christian life? The answer is that we can’t. We can’t do much at all without God working in us and through us, not when it comes to the betterment of our spiritual state, nor the betterment of the church.
Frankly, the church can do with some betterment. Every church, every gathering of believers could be better. That includes this particular meeting, the other local church gatherings, and the church universal.
People complain about the church in general. Now, when this is from outside, often it is because they don’t appreciate the value of virtue over vice and they would rather not hear about the consequences of sin. People also complain about Christians in particular, and often the criticism is levelled at us for not practicing what we preach. The world holds us to a much higher standard than they hold themselves. Is that fair? Of course not. But life is far from fair. And within the church itself, do we complain? Do we complain about the state of our meeting? Do we complain about other meetings? Do we complain about our brothers and sisters in Christ? I know that I’ve done all of those. I’ve also heard all of those complaints from others, sometimes with no justification whatsoever. Then there are other times where the cause for complaint is entirely reasonable.
Of course, the church is comprised of flawed people who have been saved by grace, and we are not perfect. The only reason we might behave even slightly better than the world at large is because God has already done some work on us. God has extended considerable grace to you and me, despite of our considerable flaws and shortcomings, in fact because of our flaws and shortcomings. We need to keep this in mind and be ready to extend grace to one another.
None of us are righteous in our own merit. We should not expect others to be better than we are, that is preposterous to think, and frankly quite unfair. It is important to remember that we are all a work in progress. We aren’t done yet.
We might want to be done, to be finished and to be perfected, but as we read from Philippians chapter 1 a few minutes ago, God said that He would work on us until the day of Jesus Christ. That may well be why at times you might feel that you are a complete mess. So often that is the way things are during construction. Think about every major roadwork project you have ever encountered on the highway, while going through that, it looks like a complete disaster, maybe for weeks or months, until it’s complete. Then it’s generally far, far better than before.
When I was in high school, they started renovations just after I started grade 10, and didn’t finish until the near the end of grade 12. Some parts of the school were unusable for extended periods. At times we had to put up with noise, fumes, and construction workers seeming wandering around the hallways. I remember one guy in particular who was wearing stilts that made him a foot and a half taller, I think so he could work on a ceiling tiles or something else that was elevated without using a ladder. That was super distracting during class to see someone walking around on stilts. Existing in a work in progress is at times very challenging, but the idea is that the end goal, the final product, will be worth it.
God has a plan for each of us, a final product that He has envisioned. I don’t know exactly what that will look like for me, any more than I do for you. I do know that it’s far better than anything we could envision for ourselves, much less actually put into practice.
We do know some description of the difference between God’s plans and our own, His ways and our results. In Galatians chapter 5, we read at verse 19 (Gal 5:19) Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, (Gal 5:20) Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, (Gal 5:21) Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
We’ll pause there for a moment. You might be thinking that is quite the list, and that you aren’t generally guilty of those things. And yeah, I don’t think anyone here has done any murders and probably not much in the way of witchcraft or idol worship. Maybe you have never been drunk or engaged in immoral behaviour. Good for you. But have you ever been envious? Or had an angry outburst? Or picked a fight with someone else, or tried to undermine someone’s authority, or been irrationally jealous, or held a grudge? All of those and more are included on the list I just read. And if you can truthfully say that you have never done any of those, then you are far better behaved than I am. Or maybe you are delusional, but that’s a whole other issue.
On the flip side, we see from the next verse (Gal 5:22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, (Gal 5:23) Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Gal 5:24) And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Gal 5:25) If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
That is a very different list, isn’t it? It runs completely opposite to the works of the flesh listed above. Love instead of lust and perversion. Joy instead of hatred. Peace, patience, and gentleness instead of wrath, envy, and strife. Goodness instead of troublemaking. Faith instead of the desperation of idolatry and witchcraft. Meekness instead of anger. And self control instead of drunkenness and out-of-control behaviour. That is how God would have us to be, and that is how we will start to become if we let the Holy Spirit work in our lives. But if we refuse and reject the leading of the Spirit, then we will look like the first list, not the second.
At times do our lives feature far more of the works of the flesh than we would like? Do we display those terrible thoughts and deeds than the fruits of the Spirit? If we are being honest with ourselves, then the answer is most likely yes. That is not how things should be, but often that is how they are.
Sometimes you might feel that your life is more like the Winchester Mystery House than the handiwork of the creator. And maybe that’s on a good day. On a bad day you might feel that your life is closer to a dumpster fire than a divinely guided project.
I’m not up here this morning to make you feel bad about yourself and your behaviour. I don’t know your heart this morning, much less the condition of your eternal soul. But God does, and you probably have a fairly good idea of that yourself. But if you are a Christian, if you are a follower of Christ, even the most bumbling, stumbling, halting and inconsistent follower, then you are a work in progress. God is working in your life, to whatever extent that you will let Him. He will remake you in His image if you follow Him.
Because no matter how much of a disaster you have made, no matter how badly you feel you have messed up, you are still a work in progress. God is not done with you yet.