A House of Prayer

Mark 11:15-19

Jesus entered Jerusalem. He had been heading for Jerusalem for weeks now and finally he had arrived with palm branches and cheering crowds (mostly cheering because they just loved a parade and not because they really knew what was going on) and the first place that Jesus went to that first day after entering the city was to the Temple. Now, that wasn’t so unusual for a good Jewish boy. There was, after all, only one Temple for the Jews. The Romans had all sorts of gods to worship and temples to those gods grew around Judea like dandelions, but for the Jews there was just one Temple dedicated to God and it was this one in David’s very own city, first built by David’s own son, Solomon. So, I’m sure all of the disciples and the crowds nodded their head in recognition that of course, the first thing any Jewish tourist would do upon entering the city of Jerusalem would be to pay a visit to the Temple. It was a grand sight to see, the guide books said, and Jesus, being the son of David and even, as some thought, the son of God, would more than anyone want to visit the homestead before doing anything else. It was, as I said, expected.

And so when Jesus entered the Temple courts and gazed around at the thirty five acres of glorious columns and porticos, the cedar tiling of the Temple roofs, the engraved white marble of the gates, the staircases leading here to the woman’s court, and there to the priestly inner sanctum — when Jesus walked around the magnificent Temple complex and then quietly left without comment, that too was expected. Many visitors to the Temple were rendered speechless by its glory. That was the effect that King Herod had been going for when he had poured millions into its renovation. The Temple, Herod decided, would be a monument to God and to God’s chosen people, and if some of that honor spilled over onto Herod and the Temple priests and the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, that was okay too. Why shouldn’t they all share a bit in God’s glory… and the Temple proceeds?

When Jesus entered Jerusalem and immediately made his way to the Temple and then left for the night apparently awed by the sight, that was, as I said, to be expected.

What was not expected was what Jesus did the next day. The next day, Jesus came back to the Temple, but this time, he came in the most foul of moods. He strode through the gates with clenched teeth and grabbed the tables of the money changers, flipping them over, scattering money all over the courtyard. Baskets crashed to the ground, and freed doves fluttered frantically through the air as people ducked and scrambled away from the mad man striding angrily through the courtyard. The money changers had been selling animals for sacrifice, cheap doves that the poorer worshippers could buy to make a meager offering in the Temple, and as Jesus tossed their tables about, they protested, “Hey, what are you doing? We are providing a service here!”

And they were providing a service, if the Temple was in the business of selling God. And I’m guessing that most of the people in the Temple that day — not just the money changers but also the priests and the Temple guards and an awful lot of the worshippers — did think of the Temple as being in the business of selling God. People came to make their offerings, pay their dues, and receive their receipt assuring that they were good with God for another month. They could check it off of their to do list, you know — buy a gallon of milk, pick up the dry-cleaning, repent of your sins, make an offering to God, stop at the post office on the way home.

In the Temple, God was no longer a living real presence: God had become a commodity to be bought and sold.

“Buy your salvation here!” the money changers cried out.

“Purchase your holiness at our gates!” the priests promised.

And the people handed over their coins and went home satisfied that their religious duty was done.

Before we condemn those Temple goers too quickly, we have to admit that in 2000 years, things haven’t changed much. How many Christians today think of the church as a divine vending machine where you can go on Sunday morning, insert your offering, sing your hymns or your praise songs, and Ka-ching! — out comes a receipt saying that you are good with God for another week? In fact, in America, Christianity has become such a business that you can even skip the “going to church” part and still be assured of your salvation. Do you remember back at Christmas time when Christians boycotted Starbucks charging that Starbucks was anti-Christmas because they had dropped the snowflakes and holly berries from their “holiday” cup? A journalist covering the episode found that most of the people he interviewed who were involved in the protest didn’t even go to church. They self-identified as Christian but in a cultural identity sort of way. At some point in their lives they had probably belonged to a church or been baptized in Christ but they now believed that that past event had permanently marked them as one of the saved and no more needed to be done. They had purchased a receipt proving their holiness which, in case of emergency, would prove that they were in good standing with God. And I am not exaggerating the degree to which some people today treat faith as an insurance policy. As I’ve told the book group, I was once browsing a Christian book store where I saw an ID card for sale that read, “I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” and had a place for you to sign with the date on which you made your confession of faith. The instructions on the back of the card told you to carry this card in your wallet at all times so that when Jesus comes again, you can pull out your card and prove that you are one of the faithful. Apparently Jesus isn’t as all-knowing as you thought and he might need to see your proof of purchase before he lets you into his company.

The church is too often in the business of selling God and we faithful are too often buying. We treat the church as the place we go to make our offerings and prove our holiness, just in case someday, we need God to help us when we have exhausted all other possibilities.

A little boy and girl were talking religion one day around the lunch table and the subject of grace came up. The little girl said to the boy, “Don’t you say grace before dinner?” and the little boy said, “No. Why should I? My Mom’s a good cook.”

Faith as an insurance policy; God as the help of last resorts; holiness for sale. Jesus cleansed the Temple, throwing out all of those who had made God into a business and the Temple into a dispensary of divine favors, and he told the people that the Temple should be instead a house of prayer.

Let’s admit it; it’s much easier to think of church as a divine vending machine than as a house of prayer because prayer is hard work; prayer is complicated and confusing, and prayer — real prayer — is two directional meaning that it might, when we aren’t looking, change us.

When we kneel humbly in real prayer before God, we are suddenly hesitant because we aren’t sure what to say. What does God want to hear?

If we are too honest about what we are feeling, about the struggles of our lives, God might be disappointed in us.

If we truly open our hearts to God, who knows what God might see there that will embarrass us or shame us?

Can we pray on behalf of others or is that intruding in places where we have no business being? Can we ask for healing, for miracles, for help or is that treating God like a magician? Can we be angry in prayer? Can we be disappointed in prayer?

What if when we pray, “God, speak to us?” God really does speak but we don’t like what God is saying? What if prayer calls us to change instead of God?

David Lose, president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia says, “We preachers and hearers alike tend to fixate on the mechanics of prayer: how, why, when. Jesus’ instructions to his followers, however, focus on a different question: who?….. Jesus invites us into relationship with God through prayer, offering us the opportunity to approach the God whose name is too holy to speak and whose countenance too terrible to behold with the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a young child running to her parent for both provision and protection.”

Jesus said to the people, “The Temple — the church — is not in the business of selling God and you are not here to buy holy favors. You are here to meet with your God in prayer and discover the wonder of being in God’s embrace. You are here not to purchase holiness but to kneel in the presence of holiness and let it wash over you and through you, that you may be at peace with yourselves and with the world.”

For this past six weeks, we have attempted as much as possible to make this church a house of prayer. For these past six weeks we haven’t focused on the mechanics of prayer: week after week, I said to you simply, “Pray. Pray about your doubts, pray about your fears, pray about the places where you need to be healed, pray about the places where you need to be freed, pray for your eyes to be opened, and pray for those who you believe need our prayers.”

I didn’t say…. “and this is what will happen when you pray;” I just said, “Pray.” And we did.

For six weeks, we have prayed. We have poured out our words and paper and shared those words not only with God but with each other. Every week, we began the service listening to one another’s hopes and dreams, fears and struggles, and we have created in this worship a few moments of complete union with one another and with God. In our prayers we drew back the curtain on our hearts and lifted the veil between earth and heaven, and rested together in this place.

And it was beautiful.

We didn’t worry about whether the words were perfect or whether it was what God wanted to hear or what we should be saying, We didn’t worry about what the prayers might demand of us or whether we were worthy of their words. We just poured everything out before each other and before our God, and discovered that it was beautiful.

In that joining, in that moment, in those prayers we created beauty and I believe that it is in the beauty of our coming together that we are healed.