House for Prayer? Thoughts on the Third Sunday in Lent

Jesus cleansing the temple. Chasing out the bad guys, the ones who had turned into a place to make a fast denarius or two. And from that little tidbit we build sermons around what we perceive to be the parallel misuses of the buildings used for worship today. You’ve heard them, I’ve heard them; I’ve preached them.

Today, however, I’d like us to focus a little more attention on the first portion of Jesus’s objection to what was happening in Jerusalem. We can lay aside the reality that there are difficulties in identifying each of our respective houses of worship with the “my house” character of the Jerusalem temple. The reality is that any temple or church structure dedicated to the worship of God will encounter the same troublesome tendencies at some time or other. Lots of things happened in that temple on a regular basis; even more activities arguably take place in our buildings today. We play there, we worship there, we exercise there, we study together, we laugh, we cry, we talk about football and politics, we fellowship, we celebrate, we encourage one another, entertain guests and performers, raise funds, etc., etc. But how much do we pray there? Really pray?

The posts in this year’s somewhat shorter Lenten series have been focused on the kingdom of God and how we should make it more of a centering concern for our calling as the people of God. Nowhere can the commitment we have to the kingdom be better seen in our congregations than in the way we think about the places in which we gather as the body of believers. The question is simple–how much of what we do “at church” has prayer at its core, or as a natural outgrowth of the activity?

“My house shall be called a house of prayer.” Did this mean that any other activity was forbidden? No. The temple was a busy place; it was the symbolic center of communal life, where the reason for being was found, where purpose for moving ahead through difficult times was instilled, where hope was renewed, where children were reminded of their special identity in God’s desires for the world and its redemption. Faith was formed in concert between home and temple, and faith was never perceived as some private
decision to believe what one wanted; it was “the faith” before it ever became any particular one’s faith. And prayers both confessed that faith and wove it into the fabric of the lives of its people.

Hence the anger with which Jesus confronted the money changers. Their activities clouded rather than cleared the vision of life and godliness that prayer was to engender where the people of God gathered. They hindered prayer. We are stimulated by and alerted to the real intents and purposes of God for us through the teaching of the scriptures; we commit ourselves to it through prayer. And our very identity as the people of God depends upon it.

What is it in our congregations that cannot continue without prayer? To put it another way, would anything in our regular way of doing things really be different if prayer were removed from it? Is it there at all? Maybe for some of our congregations we don’t need to repent of not praying for the kingdom as much as we need to repent of not really praying at all. Our faith formation and our faith transmission to another generation will not take place without it. And if something is crowding it out of our corporate life, perhaps a few overturned tables are in order. Repentance surely is.

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Kingdoms and Politics

“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

Granted. This post backs up one short phrase from last week’s thoughts on praying for the kingdom to come over all the earth, and not just over our tiny corner thereof. Those who are tracking with me joined in repenting of having such a narrow view of God’s interests. Perhaps we also need to ask what it is we are praying for, and what it is that we too readily accept as substitutes. And at times we lobby harder for the substitutes than we do for the kingdom of God.

There are, of course, many ideas about just how the kingdom of God relates to the kingdoms of this world, some of which are nearer or farther from exhibiting laws and policies that are consistent with the rule of God. Good Christians have long disagreed about the level of involvement in secular government that is appropriate for believers. Do we dig in and make the best of a messy situation, hoping to influence policies in God-honoring ways, or is the very activity of governing so steeped in corruption that we must stay out of it entirely if we are to maintain any sort of integrity as citizens of God’s kingdom? I’ve held both views at different times–and sometimes simultaneously!

But this post is not about finding the right theory of engagement for Christians. It is about thinking wrongly about the prospects of bringing God’s rule through governmental actions and policies; and it is about our apparent belief that getting the right party to control the halls of Congress or the various state houses is where our hopes should lie and toward which our energies should be expended. It is all too common for self-identified Christians to join in political rants that have far more to do with maintaining the power of a chosen party than they do with what measures are good for our common life. Often it is done with very bitter spirits, with venom toward any who disagree, and with an edge of anger and self-preservation unbefitting those who are not their own because they’ve been bought with a great price.

Neither the anger of people, not the policies of a government can achieve the righteousness of God. We look to the wrong places for the solutions to greed, corruption, theft, abuse, violence, and basic unrest and distrust if we think a party can accomplish it if only given its way. His will; His ways. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we focused our minds on the ways of our Lord, and then learned to make his ways more consistently our ways we would have the audience the gospel deserves. We might do well to repent of not making it so in our lives.

It Must Be So: Thoughts on the Second Sunday in Lent

“Get away from me, Satan!”

The gospel lesson for today is Mark 8:31-39, wherein Jesus announces his death and resurrection to his disciples. Peter’s response is not at all surprising: “No way!” To which, of course, Jesus replies with the words above. Matthew’s version of this account includes the stark contrast between the words to Peter after his recognition of the true identity of Jesus and the words after the same Peter’s objection to the very means by which his Lord would become his saviour.

The temptation to want a Christ without the messiness of the crucifixion is ever with us. We want a champion with whom to identify, one who captures the imagination with his incredibly insightful answers for all occasions, who confronts the powers that be, bringing them down to size and exposing their duplicity. We want to be on the winning side when the final buzzer sounds. We like the idea of siding with the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the victims. After all, somehow the world unfolds in such a way that we all tend to think that we have drawn the short straw in one way or another. Things are unjust; someone needs to answer for that, and we find it difficult to rest until we at least know who it is. The idea of a triumphal Christ, one who will bring justice in his arm, set the world to rights (in deference to N. T. Wright), and make the evil doers pay sits well with us. We might even be willing to put up with an inconvenience or two in order to remain on his side. It will all be worth it someday.

But somehow the very cross that makes the promised victory possible doesn’t seem quite so popular among some of his would-be followers. We want Jesus to win the day, but we want him to get on with it on our terms. We want him to fill our hopes, our expectations, our dreams of a utopian world, and we really don’t see the need to be talking about crosses along the way. Such is the implication, sometimes clear and sometimes subtle, when we want our side to win without cost. Jesus already paid it all, right? Let’s not speak of it any longer. And if we must, let us speak of it strictly as history.

The horrific persecution being visited upon our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world might give us pause to reconsider the words of Jesus in a different, more challenging light. Crucifixion was the way of God’s victory over sin. Resurrection completes the accomplishment. And those who come after him are encouraged to take up their cross. Middle East believers in the early twenty-first century are not the first or only ones to know fully how literal that directive from Jesus can sometimes be. And while their sacrifice, along with that of all who have gone before them in similar fashion, does not atone for sin, it does give witness to the way of God’s ultimate victory. Cross, then resurrection.

To demand or desire another way, to insist upon a more palatable way of using the name of Jesus will continue to draw the response that must have stung in Peter’s mind: get out of my way, Satan. Perhaps it’s because we really don’t grasp the depth of our sin problem that we think we can have this champion Jesus without his cross. It’s our problem, and it’s the world’s problem, and it is ours as much as it is the world’s. Whenever we prefer another Lord or kingdom, no matter how good and just it might seem, over the one that comes by way of crucifixion, we are in great peril. And we should repent.