Dedicating a “House of Prayer”

My work at Maranatha CRC, in York, ended on the last Sunday of October. I had fulfilled a year long contract as their interim pastor. A new full time pastor is on his way to the congregation. It was a good year!!!

For the entire time that I was there, construction was going on. First on a new sanctuary and then a complete renovation of the original facility. My time was over before the construction was finished. The Worship Committee of the church graciously invited me to return to lead the dedication service.

Yesterday, with a full house, we sang and made music, shared praise and prayer, listened to God’s word and were sent out into the world. It was an exciting morning. It was good to be there.

What follows is the text of the message, based on Matthew 21:12-17:

I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment.  I want you to picture Jesus. I want you to picture him during his ministry, right up to the time of the last supper.

In your mind’s eye you may see him walking with his disciples, head bent in conversation, you may see him sitting down to teach small groups and large crowds, or maybe squatting down writing in the dirt between an angry crowd and a crying woman,  maybe bending to mix water and dust together to apply to the eyes of a blind man,  or sitting at a well, dusty and hot, speaking about living water with a woman. Some of you I’m sure have visualized him seated with children on his lap.

You can open your eyes now.

Most of you would not have visualized Jesus a being particularly active.

That’s because the Jesus portrayed by the writers of the gospels, is not a man of action, not someone who runs to someone’s aid, who bravely fights enemies, who is an expert with weapons or even martial arts. Jesus is remembered for us as a moderate person, whose temper is well under control, who seems to move through the landscape without leaving much of a trace. He is shown as a person of compassion and contemplation.

That’s the Jesus our minds eye knows, the Jesus you likely imagined

Our Messiah is not a super hero in the way that we have come to know super heroes.

Until we come to this passage and suddenly there is action. Lets read together from Matthew 21:12-17 (New International Version)

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buyingand selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]

14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,

“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’[c]?”

17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

This passage displays a different Jesus than the one we have come to know  from much of the gospel record. Tables are over turned, lambs and doves are going in all directions, coins are rolling across the floor with money-changers and everyone else scuttling around to gather them up. And the noise; there are shouts of indignation from the merchants, anger from those buyers in the middle of their transactions, someone runs to get the temple guards, because it appears that this teacher from Galilee has just gone berserk, swinging a braided rope.

In one way or another, all of the gospel writers record this event. They don’t all agree on the order of events leading up to it, but all are very clear. God’s house, the temple and what happens there is viscerally important to Jesus. It brings out the far side of his emotional reactions. The temple, the place of worship, the place of gathering is extremely important to Jesus. I don’t think on a Sunday when we dedicate a new sanctuary and a re-purposed building, that Jesus passion about what happens here is any different at all, he is very passionate about what happens here, and how  this reflects on him and his Father, how it reflects on God.

Jesus calls the temple a house of prayer, In using these words he is quoting words written centuries before by Isaiah.  As often happens in the gospels, the words Jesus speaks are meant to invoke the memory of an earlier text, one that may have a little more detail,

these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” Isaiah 56:7 (NIV)

The “these” Isaiah is referring to in this passage are individuals who were being excluded from worshiping in the temple, specifically eunuchs and foreigners.  Isaiah is looking back all the way to Abraham’s call, all the way back to Genesis 12, where God promises the entire world would come to know God through Abraham’s descendants.

That promise is to be fulfilled in the temple, the house of God, a house of prayer for all nations a place for everyone to worship, for everyone to come and know God.

Over time though, the idea of being a house of prayer for all the nations had been replaced by exclusion to the point that even the offerings that were being brought by Jewish people coming from many countries, over great distances, was not accepted in the temple offering boxes, but needed to be changed in the temple court at profit to the money changers. Exclusion even happened in the provision of offerings of doves and lambs which needed to be purchased by those who came from such distances. The poor would not be able to afford them

With such rules in place, you can imagine that anyone who did not know God already would have a much skewed idea of who this God of the Jews was, of what he required, had become an exclusive club, led by a group of self serving priests and scribes.  In driving out both buyers and sellers, Jesus is making a statement about the whole of society, the entire enterprise, not just those profiting from it. This exclusive marketplace was not what God intended. It was not how God wanted to be known to the nations.

Jesus, as Messiah, as God’s son, turns over the tables, drives out merchant and client alike. His Father’s house is to be an inclusive place, a place where all can come freely to meet God, to know God, to speak with God. Jesus is passionate about God’s house, the temple, so passionate that he steps outside of the character his disciples had come to know, surprises them and us with his action.

I don’t think that Jesus passion for God’s house has changed over the centuries since his crucifixion and resurrection. This morning, we are dedicating a new place of worship, a rejuvenated space, and this place is vitally important to our savior, it is the place where the body of Christ gathers, it is of infinite, eternal importance. This is the place where Christ’s body gathers, where God is revealed to the world.

I wonder this morning, what our neighbours here in this community have come to know about God through the things that they see happening at this church, in this new sanctuary, and through the wider Christian community? I wonder, as they have watched the building and renovations going on here over the past year if they see this place as an inclusive place, a place where they would feel welcome to meet God or is it a place of mystery, a place of regimented rules that they are not sure can be understood? Do our neighbours, like the foreigners and eunuchs of Jesus time experience barriers as they wonder about meeting God in this place?

The church, as a body, in North America has had it pretty tough over the past months.

It’s pretty hard for all Christians not to be touched in some way by the evangelical tsunami that brought Donald Trump to the door of the Oval Office in the US. Christian leaders over the past months have made statements that just don’t seem very Christ-like, but because they are leaders give the impression that their opinions are held by all Christians everywhere.  Christians, at least those who call themselves evangelicals, voted overwhelmingly for a leader who for the most part has values that are far away from theirs. We cringe at their political expediency, their seeming self servicing attitudes. The picture they present of God, through their actions and words, is not a welcoming one, it is not inclusive, is not the picture of God we would feel is genuine.

We are very quick, I believe, to let people know, that the church here in York, a church dedicating a new facility today is nothing like those angry evangelicals south of the border, we are welcoming, we don’t discriminate, we would never support a program of deportations, or even forced enrollment of a particular religious group, we want to be welcoming, not build walls, we are not busy trying to protect our place in the political spectrum at the expense of others, at the expense of the moral standards we preach every week, we’re just plainly not like them.  We think we would be right there with Jesus tipping over their tables.

But we do have to wonder, if Jesus came here today, worshiped with us physically, which of our tables he would tip over, how many of our doves and lambs and sacred cows would be let loose in the building this morning, how many of our comfortable chairs would he smash? What would Jesus have to say about our efforts to be a house of prayer to the nations, to our neighbours, to those who are different from us?

Jesus words declaring his father’s house as a den of thieves and robbers is not just for a people many years ago and on the other side of the world, it rings true for us as well, we need to be ever vigilant, always testing our practices and the way that we are church together for ways that we might be moving away from being a house of prayer to the nations. We need to pay attention to Jesus stinging words of judgement.

It would be easy to stop here, to leave the temple with Jesus accusing voice ringing in our ears, to leave wondering what practices he point an accusing finger at, what things we do to prevent this place, which we dedicate today, from truly being a house of prayer to the nations, or at least to our community.  It would be easy to leave here with law ringing in our ears and miss the grace in this passage.

But Matthew doesn’t do that this morning. After proclaiming the temple to be a house of prayer, playing policeman, vigilante even,  we might expect to see Jesus gather his disciples, find a quiet corner and drop to his knees for a couple of hours of prayer, to use God’s house for what he said it was meant for, but that’s not what is reported. Instead he begins healing, the blind, the lame, and he has a bit of a confrontation with the temple bosses over children singing..

It makes you wonder doesn’t it what it means then to be a house of prayer. What does it mean for this place, here in York to be a house of prayer?  Jesus actions in the temple wouldn’t leave us with the impression that he would define a house of prayer as a place of hushed quiet, of murmurs floating toward heaven accompanied by soft music, maybe some candles and a bit of incense. Instead it seems that Jesus house of prayer would be a place from which God’s grace is distributed, where prayer leads to action, where God’s kingdom breaks into the world, a place of action and rejoicing, a place where hosannas rise, where crutches clatter to the floor, a place where miracles happen. That God’s house is a pathway to God,

And that is what we hope for this place as well isn’t it? That it would be a place where God’s grace abounds, a place where our prayers turn into action, a place where we praise God, a place where the community around us comes to know and love God the way we do. A place where we recognize that our prayers move us to action, move us to dispense grace in the world, move us toward the realization of the world that we pray for.

A lot of work has gone into the dream that we realize here this morning, years of planning, and months of hard work for many, in inconvenience for all of us. We are blessed this morning to have a beautiful sanctuary, a wonderful fellowship hall, functional offices, and best of all, most desired of all, plenty of space to accommodate all of our children in the nursery and Sunday School rooms. We have been truly blessed.

But let’s not forget, that this is indeed God’s house, a house of prayer, not just a place for our comfort, and as God’s house, we are called to ensure that this place is a place from which God’s grace flows,  a place of activity, a place of welcome, a place where others are included, and hospitality is extended.

You all know of course that it was high time for a face lift here in York. The old sanctuary was starting to look more than a little tired, the carpet was worn, paint, in places had been damaged, A/V equipment had become dated. It was time for change.

Last week, Jocelyn and I worshiped with our daughter and her children in Victoria BC. At the end of the service, my four year old grandson tossed back a couple of glasses of apple juice, just a little too quickly. Feeling sick he went to find his mom, who was still in the sanctuary and promptly threw up on the carpet.  No one got upset, they were concerned for him and just glad he was there.

And that is my hope for this place, that, it will become worn over time, that children will throw up on the carpet and maybe on the chairs, that young people might become a little too boisterous and scratch a bit of paint, that we will wear out those few chairs with arms, moving them around to accommodate our elderly, that the seats will become worn as week after week you come together in worship and in prayer.

Look around, this is, I hope the best, the newest, this place will ever look. Doing God’s work, becoming a true house of prayer, is tough on facilities, but it is exhilarating.

May this house of prayer be one that is welcoming to all, one that lets the community around see what God is like, who God is, become a conduit of grace, a place where the kingdom breaks into this world.

Amen

Let us pray:

Eternal God,

There is no other god who can compare to you, in heaven or on the earth.

Even the highest heavens cannot contain you!

We pray this morning that this house of prayer,

This new and refurbished building

Would become a beacon in a dark world

That through it and those who gather here to worship

You would become known

Your gift of your son to us would be celebrated

And many would come to welcome your kingdom

Here already and still coming

We pray this

In the name of Jesus Christ

Who loved your house, and who loves and died for us

Amen

 

 

 

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