What Have We Done to the House of Prayer?
A Sermon Preached on Sunday, August 28, 2011, by
The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him, And could not find what they might do: for all the people were very attentive to hear him. (Luke 19:45-48)
One of our old hymns refers to our Lord as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Our Lord was meek and mild, referring to himself as meek and lowly in heart. He describes himself as the good shepherd who takes tender care of his sheep. He is the one who was so filled with compassion for the multitudes that he healed many of those who were sick and possessed of evil spirits. He showed tenderness and love for people such as lepers, adulterers, and even a thief hanging on a cross. But out Lord was also capable of being very stern and even caustic in his speech. He could look at a crowd of scribes and Pharisees and call them hypocrites, white-washed tombs, serpents, and a generation of vipers. Of all the incidents in the life of our Lord, the one that seems to be most out of character for the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” is the one desribing his driving of the money changers out of the temple. We know the story of how on Palm Sunday he went into the temple and surveyed the scene. Jesus knew what was going in there at that time, and he could have driven out the money changers then. Instead, he goes back to Bethany, and has all night to think about it. Then, the next day, on Monday, he goes into the temple and cleanses it. This was not some moment when Jesus suddenly lost his temper and started overturning tables. This act was definitely a pre-meditated. He looks around, no doubt with fire in his eyes, and begins to cast these people out of the temple. Throughout the life of our Lord, I am sure that he saw many sinful things. He was treated in despicable ways by the scribes and Pharisees, but we never see him reacting like this to any of the evil activities around him. What happened in the temple that infuriated him so? He was angry because of what these people were doing to his house.
According to our Lord, the temple, the house of God, was designed to be the house of prayer. If you look at everything that went on in the temple, there were more activities than simply prayer. We know that there were many sacrifices offered. We know that there was music. We know that in some parts of the temple precincts, teaching took place. But it is interesting that our Lord does not say, “My house is the house of sacrifice.” He doesn’t say, “My house is the house of music.” He doesn’t say, “My house is the house of teaching.” He says, “My house is the house of prayer.” Why does he characterize the temple as a house of prayer above all else? The temple was, first and foremost,t a place where people were to gaze upon the glory of God and worship him. Prayer is our act of devotion whereby we lift the soul to God and seek his face and behold his glory. In Solomon’s prayer when he dedicated the temple, he used language that indicated that prayer was to be the central activity connected with this place of worship:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded? Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer, which thy servant prayeth before thee to day: That thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there: that thou mayest hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall make toward this place. And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive. (I Kings 8:27-30).
What was the temple but a place where God was to be sought? Even the sacrifices that were offered in the temple were designed to purify the people of God so that they might approach him in prayer. The incense that was offered was a symbol of the prayers his people arising to heaven. The central act of devotion in the temple was prayer.
Christian worship is no different. The reason we gather in our churches is to pray. When Paul told Timothy what should be done when the people of God meet together, he said, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:1-2). Prayer is the key ingredient of our daily lives and our public worship.
Though this incident of the cleansing of the temple is recorded in the other gospel accounts, it must have been very special to Luke, because Luke, more than any other, is the gospel that emphasizes prayer. Luke tells us, for example, that when Jesus was baptized, he was praying and the heavens were opened. In Luke 5:16, we are told that Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. In the story of the Transfiguration, Luke tells us that Christ was transfigured as he was praying (Luke 9:29). Luke says that Jesus was praying just before he gave us what we call the Lord’s prayer: “And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father…” (Luke 11:1-2). The disciples knew that our Lord was a man of prayer, and when they saw him praying, they must have thought, “Oh, how we wish we could pray like that. Lord, teach us to pray.” In Luke 18:1, we read, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.” Luke is truly “the prayer gospel.”
St. Luke is the one who especially emphasizes that the temple was the place of prayer. In the story about the birth of John the Baptist, we are told that Zacharias was in the temple offering the incense and that “the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense” (Luke 1:10). It was as those prayers were offered that the angel Gabriel appears to Zacharias. Then in Luke 2, we read that wonderful story of Anna who was in the temple day and night. What is she doing in the temple? “And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). Anna was using the temple for its proper purpose. It was to be a house of prayer
These people whom Jesus casts out were not using the temple as a place of prayer. There have been many explanations about why Jesus drove these people out of the temple. Some have said Jesus was angry because they were using it as a place to make a profit. He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” When he cleansed the temple in John 2 he says to those who sold doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” These money-changers were not there to seek the face of God in prayer. They knew that sacrifices had to be offered in the temple. Many people did not have the space, facilities, or money to raise animals for their own sacrifices, so they had to buy them. These money-changers saw this system as an opportunity to cash in on the religious market. There was nothing really wrong in selling animals for sacrifice, but theywere sinning in the money-exchange system. Let’s say that you were trying to change pesos into dollars and someone gave you less dollars than what the pesos were worth. You would have been cheated, right? The money-changers were engaging in the same kind of activity. When people exchanged their money, they were receving money in return of less value. The money-changer were stealing from the people. They had turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves, or a “cave of bandits” as one translation has it.
Some have suggested that Jesus was angry because all of this activity was happening in the court of the Gentiles. You remember that Gentiles could not enter the temple proper, but there was a court designated for those Gentiles who wanted to pray. All of this buying and selling was going on in the court of the Gentiles, preventing the Gentiles from being able to worship. In Mark’s account Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This buying and selling was preventing the “nations ,” the Gentiles from engaging in prayer to God.
Some people have said that Jesus was angry about the hypocrisy of the people. They were supposed to be there for prayer, but they lived in such a way that made prayer an act of hypocrisy. The phrase, “den of thieves” comes from Jeremiah 7 where the temple is described as a den of robbers:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD. But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.
In this passage, the Lord says that his people are guilty of oppressing the fatherless and widows. Then engaged in idolatry, theft, murder, and then they would come into the temple and claim to be worshiping God. They even put their trust in the temple, believing that since they came to the temple, God would protect them from judgment no matter how they lived. The people in the time of Christ had done the same. They were living ungodly lives, but believed that since they were the chosen people, the people who had the glorious temple, God would protect them. Jesus has warned them that one day the Romans are going to come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. If the temple of God had truly been the house of prayer, then this judgment of God would not have come upon them. But the temple was no longer a place of prayer. It was a gathering place of hypocrites. They said they were worshiping God while at the same time, by their actions, they were robbing God of his glory.
Whatever might have been the reason our Lord was angry on this occasion, we can be certain that what has infuriated our Lord so much is that the people have turned the temple into something other than what it was intended it to be. He was saying that his should be called the house of prayer, but they have made it into something else. If our Lord were to visit our churches today, I wonder how he would complete that sentence. “My house is house of prayer, but you have made it….” What have we made the house of prayer? How many churches do you know of today that you would honestly refer to as “the house of prayer?” They might be called many things, but not the house of prayer, because what goes on in there is usually anything but prayer. There may be a few prayers sprinkled in the service between the other “main events,” but prayer is definitely not the focus. If our Lord were to attend our churches today, perhaps he would say, “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a social club where you gather to meet with friends and make business contacts.” “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a place where teen-agers can hook up with other teen-agers.” “My temple is the house of prayer, but you have made it an amusement park, a sanctified version of Disney World.” “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a rock concert.” “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it Broadway show.” “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a three-ring circus.”
Let me go further. Sometimes, we put even legitimate things ahead of prayer. For example, it is right to sing praises and have beautiful music in the house of God, but music is not the primary reason we are here, though the baby-boomers of my generation have made it the primary reason to attend a church service. It is right to preach and teach in the house of God, but we must not elevate even preaching above prayer. The great Anglican preacher Henry Liddon put it like this:
No well-instructed, no really spiritual, Christian thinks of his parish church mainly or chiefly as a place for hearing sermons. Sermons are of great service…. Still, if a comparison is to be instituted between prayers and sermons, there ought not to be a moment’s doubt as to the decision; for it is not said, “My house shall be called a house of preaching,” but “My house shall be called the house of prayer.” Surely it is a much more responsible act, and, let me add, it is a much greater privilege, to speak to God, whether in prayer or praise, than to listen to what a fellow-sinner can tell you about Him; and when a great congregation is really joining in worship, when there is a deep spiritual, as it were an electric, current of sympathy traversing a vast multitude of souls as they make one combined advance to the foot of the eternal throne, then, if we could look at these things for a moment with angels’ eyes, we should see something infinitely greater, according to all the rules of a true spiritual measurement, than the effect of the most eloquent and the most persuasive of sermons. “My house shall be called the house of prayer” is a maxim for all time, and if this be so, then all that meets the eye, all that falls upon the ear within the sacred walls, should be in harmony with this high intention, should be valued and used only with a view to promoting it. Architecture, painting, mural decoration, and the like, are only in place when they lift the soul upwards towards the invisible, when they conduct it swiftly and surely to the gate of the world of spirits, and then themselves retire from thought and from view. Music the most pathetic, the most suggestive, is only welcome in the temples of Christ, when it gives wings to spiritualised thought and feeling, when it promotes the ascent of the soul to God. If these beautiful arts detain men on their own account, to wonder at their own intrinsic charms, down among the things of sense; if we are thinking more of music than of Him whose glory it heralds, more of the beauty of form and colour than of Him whose Temple it adorns, then be sure we are robbing God of His glory, we are turning His temple into a den of thieves.
I hope you see what Henry Liddon was saying. The church is primarily a place where we seek God, to behold his glory, and to have communion with him. All of that is accomplished in prayer. But if we elevate anything of these other things to a place above prayer, then we are not gathering in the house of God to seek his glory We are there merely to enjoy ourselves the way we would at a sporting event. Many American Christians go to certain churches because they like the style of music. But the question must be asked, “Is that style of music conducive to quiet, reverent, humble, heart-felt prayer?” If we make architecture or music the primary focus of our worship, rather than prayer, then we have made an idol of these things. Any time we come to church with some other purpose to draw near to God in prayer, we are robbing God of his glory. We have made this place a den of thieves by seeking our own enjoyment rather than the face of God.
The church that emphasizes prayer may not be very popular. Such activity is not very exciting to most people. Such worship is not very likely to draw the crowds, because for most people, nothing could be more boring and tedious than prayer. It takes discipline to pray. It takes focus and concentration to pray. It takes a heart that loves God and truly wants to draw near to him to pray. We may attract crowds with activities other than prayer, but if the house of God is not primarily the house of prayer, then it has no claim at all to being called the house of God.
This story in the life of our Lord has an interesting conclusion. Jesus says, “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” and next sentence is, “And he taught daily in the temple.” When the house of God becomes the house of prayer, when you drive out of it the things that have no place there, when the house of God has been cleansed of those things that corrupt it, then it becomes the house of prayer, and it can become a place where the word of God can be taught. Preaching and teaching without prayer, without seeking God, merely turns the church into a lecture hall, a place where we just engage in an intellectual pursuit of facts and knowledge, but with no real power to convict and transform. A great deal of time is given in our church to the teaching and preaching of God’s word, but if this church is not primarily the house of prayer, then the preaching will be ineffective. In Acts 4 we have one of the prayers of the apostles after they have been threatened that they should not preach in the name of Jesus anymore. So, they pray to God for courage. And in Acts 4:31, we read, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.” No preaching and teaching the word of God will be attended with true spiritual power unless the church of God is the house of prayer. Nothing that we do will be worth anything, unless we are the house of prayer. The preaching will be powerless. The music will only be entertainment. The sacraments will be robbed of their intent, for what is the sacrament designed to do but lift our souls to heaven so that we might have fellowship and communion God. May God give us grace that all churches in the days and years ahead will resist the temptation to become anything other than the house of prayer. Amen.