Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Houses of Prayer

Pray and Stay Awake
Preached 11/2/2008

Framing Scripture
Psalm 84:1-7, 10-12 (NKJV, my paraphrase)
How lovely is Your home, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs desperately to be where God lives; my heart and my body cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow and the swallow have found homes, nests, where they may lay their eggs and raise their nestlings in Your holy place, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell where You dwell; they continually praise You. Blessed are those whose strength is in You, who are journeying continually toward You; they will find water in the wilderness and will go from strength to strength until they appear before You.

. . .

For a day where You live is better than a thousand anywhere else. I would rather stand by the door in God’s house than sit comfortably in the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory; no good thing will God withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, Blessed is the one who trusts in You.

The Temple of the Holy Ghost
The church on earth is made up of human beings who are God’s dwelling place, each a little temple of the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul teaches us. The church represents Jesus on earth—we are his arms and feet and hands, doing the will of our Father in heaven, the way Jesus did. We know God’s will is that no one should perish, that we should model God’s love by loving each other, and that we need to pass God’s love on to those who don’t already know that God loves them. We also know that our local church needs everyone who is a part to bring what we have to Jesus to use in building God’s kingdom and feeding those who are spiritually and physically hungry. So today, we’ll look at two essential characteristics of the church. One is prayer and the other is being awake.

God’s Houses Are for Prayer
The actions Jesus took while on earth often are parables for us, and this is true of the cleansing of the temple. Those who were buying and selling animals for sacrifices and changing money for people from out of town so they could buy sacrifices, and making a tidy profit in the exchanges—Jesus drove them out and turned over the tables and benches, and then he taught them: “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:15-18). Sometimes we emphasize the opportunistic profit being made at the expense of sincere worshipers when we think about what appalled Jesus here. That’s half of the story; the other half is that prayer is the purpose of God’s house, of God’s houses, of you and me.

This event takes place in the context of the fig tree without fruit that Jesus cursed. As they went into Jerusalem, Jesus said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next morning, the tree was dead. This is one of the puzzling actions Jesus took, and again serves as a parable.

Jesus says: “Have confidence (faith) in God.” What does this mean? Faith is expressed partly in the Psalm we read: “my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God; blessed are those whose strength is in You, God, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage, they go from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion; no good thing does God withhold from those whose walk is blameless; oh Lord God almighty, blessed is the person who trusts in You.”

Love God with your whole heart, mind, strength, soul—love is active, not passive, not emotional. What does it mean to love God? It means to do what God says. If Scott Peck, the psychologist who wrote The Road Less Traveled, is right, “the essence of nonlove is laziness”; the converse means that the essence of love is action.

George MacDonald wrote this: “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have, this day, done one thing because He said, Do it! Or once abstained because He said, Do not do it! It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything he tells you.”

So when Jesus says to have faith in God, he means—be doing the will of the Father in heaven just as Jesus also did the Father’s will. Faith isn’t a state of mind, it’s a decision to act. This decision to obey underlies why we pray, and helps us know how to pray. We pray in order to listen to God and our faith shows up when we do what God has said. So, if in prayer, we hear God tell us to move a mountain, we will be able to do it.

When we read this verse about moving mountains, we always focus on getting what we want from God. However, in the context of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, it looks more like prayer works to help God get what God wants from us. For instance, Jesus wanted to illustrate the fact that the Jewish religion of his day did not bear the fruit God was looking for; He uses the fig tree elsewhere in a parable as a symbol for the Jews. They were praying daily for Messiah to come. God sent the Messiah, and they didn’t like God’s version because they were looking for someone to make them free of Rome, more powerful and self-determining, not someone to make them a people after God’s heart. Then Jesus goes into the temple and cleans it out. They were praying for the Messiah to come, remember, and he comes to clean out the materialism and self-serving merchandising and power-mongering of religion and they don’t like it.

Here’s a general example from my own life. I prayed daily for years that God would make real in me the verse, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Here’s how the Messiah came to my temple; first, Jesus took me into a time of emotional disarray and depression; then through a lengthy and difficult process of self-understanding; then through healing; then through disappointment in my job, more depression and more self-understanding and more healing. Along the way, I have grown in my confidence in God even when I don’t know where God is taking me, in my sense of absolute need to know what God wants me to do next on this day, and in my commitment to do it. I don’t know whether I’ve become more creative, but I’m determined to belong as completely to God as I am able. That’s what prayer did and does for me.

And we can’t forget what God clearly says to do in Mark 11:24—if when you are praying you remember that you are holding something against another, forgive that person. Well, if anyone is puzzled about what God wants him or her to do, here’s a good place to start.

Prayer isn’t complicated; it’s just conversing with God, and one aspect of conversation is listening—active, engaged listening. Try it—when you pray, say what you need to say and then sit and listen; use the technique taught us by counselors—ok, God, what I hear you saying is this, is this right? Then, when we hear what God has to say, if it involves doing something, go do it. That is faith in God.

It’s clear that we live in a world where evil stomps around and eats people alive—the devil is like a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour. We wrestle not against humans, but spiritual powers. How do we do this wrestling? We pray. Ephesians 6 details the armor of God, and it ends with this: “And pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” Remember the story of the demon-possessed boy whom the disciples could not help, and how Jesus cast out the demon and said to them, “This kind comes out only by prayer.” Prayer means we talk with God who loves us entirely, we listen to God, and we do what God says to do. Jesus tells his disciples, Watch—be alert—and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. Remember the prayer: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Stay awake: when Jesus was wrestling with evil in the garden before his death, he prayed a prayer we do well to listen to: Daddy, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.

How do we get to a place where we can pray this Lord’s prayer?

One of my favorite authors is Flannery O’Connor; in one of her short stories, a young man who thinks he is dying calls in a Jesuit priest. He does this partly to shock his mother, who is Methodist. The priest has only one eye, but he fixes it on Asbury and says to him, “Son, do you pray?” Asbury tries to evade the question. The priest says, “How do you expect to get to know Jesus if you don’t pray?”

Exactly the question we need to ask: how can we expect to get to know Jesus if we don’t pray? And when we pray, the Messiah, Jesus, comes, and cleans out our temple and makes it a house of prayer.

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