Isaiah 56:1-8 & Mark 11:15-19

A House of Prayer for All Nations

Who knows what is written in the stone above the main door of this building? That’s right, “All the seats in this church are free and unappropriated forever.” When I was at university, the college chapel had something engraved in the stone above the door as well, “A house of prayer for all nations”. Both of these engravings were put in place in reaction to something, and to affirm something.

In the case of this building, it was in reaction to the common historical practice of richer members of the community being able to buy or rent pews so that they could always sit in the same place, usually towards the front. Anyone who’s ever read Jane Austin or watched Poldark would have read of or seen services waiting to start until the family of the manor arrived, to sit on the front pew. It was un, even anti-scriptural and I’m glad that when this building was re-pewed, the leaders of the church community at the time decided that it would not be part of the way that this church works.

In the case of the college chapel, it was in reaction to the often bitter denominational disputes that had raged through the history of this country. The founders of the college wanted the chapel to be intentionally non-denominational, and chose this Scripture to show that they intended it to be a Christian place of worship, that was safe for all Christian traditions.

Both draw on and affirm what we find in what we read in Isaiah this morning. Here we read of God challenging the boundaries of who is in and who is out of the people of God. God is much more interested in faithfulness and obedience than in what nationality someone is. God’s house has many rooms, and there is a place of prayer, of communication with God for all those who seek God whole heartedly. This is God’s intent.

By the time of Jesus, this intent had been subverted. The part of the temple that was specifically set aside so that Gentiles could come and pray had been taken over by money-changers and animal merchants. They were there for good religious reasons. Roman coins weren’t acceptable in the temple treasury, as they bore the image of the Emperor, so the common money of the market place had to be changed for special temple money for giving at the temple.
And of course, if you had come to the temple to make a sacrifice, as required by the law, you needed an animal to sacrifice. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem you probably hadn’t bought an animal with you, so you had to buy one. And what could be more convenient than being able to buy one at the temple. So good religious reasons for them being there – to facilitate the worship of God’s people. The problem is that their good religious reasons were taking the space away from others to pray. Jesus wasn’t having this. He clears out of the way the things that were taking the space of prayer. Later on, of course, at his death, the curtain in the temple tears from top to bottom – opening up the space even more.

I believe that God’s intent couldn’t be clearer. Our buildings and communities of faith are to be places and fellowships of prayer for all nations. So, how can we join Jesus in clearing away the things that could get in the way of this? Well, firstly it seems to me that we need to identify them, clear them out, and replace them with good things that encourage this. We also need to celebrate when we see this working well.

Let’s look first at Isaiah. He starts with the positive things that God praises and is looking for. – justice, righteousness, loving the name of the Lord, keeping the Sabbath, holding the covenant. These are the ones that God promises the joy of prayer to. Some of these have obvious carry overs for us. If we are doing things that aren’t just, or are wrong, or if we don’t love God then our prayer lives are going to suffer. Sin can be a prayer killer. We feel guilty and ashamed so we don’t want to go to God. Or we are completely oblivious and unaware, and so we cannot be heard. We need the Holy Spirit to convict us, so that we can come in repentance and receive forgiveness and be freed to live in Jesus’ righteousness and pray in assurance that we are heard and spoken to.

But what about keeping the Sabbath and holding the covenant? Didn’t Jesus do away with the Sabbath regulations and isn’t there a new covenant?

On the Sabbath, Jesus did challenge the legalism that had surrounded the way that it was kept, that meant that people were left unhealed and unhelped.

He said that the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath. The principles of the Sabbath – something that is distinctive about the way we live, something that acknowledges God’s sovereignty over time, something that creates space for rest and connection with God for everyone in a community – these all carry over. It seems to me that this is something our society is crying out for.

I love the fact that I can get stuff delivered to my door within 24 hours from Amazon. It’s very convenient. It also means that fulfilment centres are running all day, every day. 24/7 availability of stores and services is very convenient, but it means horrible shift patterns for millions of people. I lose track of the number of people I talk to whose family and worshipping lives are disrupted by shift work. It’s one of the reasons we started our Shift Church congregation. I wonder what else we can do as a church, and as individuals, to counter the culture that has very little space for Sabbath rest and connection with God. Surely, as we do this, we will become more a house of prayer for all nations.

I wonder, also, whether we as individuals are being challenged to look at our own Sabbath practices. Do we give God the best of our time for prayer, or the time that’s left over after work, family, and leisure activities. This is not about guilt tripping, it’s about inviting the Holy Spirit to challenge us where we need it, and to equip us to change if that is needed.

And, of course, there is a new covenant. One sealed by Jesus’ blood, that promises forgiveness and welcome to the family for all those who turn to Jesus, believe him, and submit to him as Lord. It is an awesome promise, a gift of grace, that we are made daughters and sons of the King of all creation, able to come to God in prayer, to talk with God, to hear God speaking to us. It is a fantastic privilege.

As Paul writes in his letter to the church in Galatia, all people are invited to be part of this new covenant, “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

However, it seems to me that we do also need to be clear – all nations does not mean all faiths. The claims of Jesus are exclusive as well as inclusive. All are included in the invitation to follow the way in the truth and receive life. I believe that my old college chapel has gone wrong in this. When I was there we had a weekly, Christian, non denominational service. Now this has been done away with, and instead there are weekly choral contemplations. It is no longer a place of Christian worship and prayer. It seems to me that in an attempt to take barriers down, more barriers to the experience of the presence of God have actually been put up. We do not help people come closer to God by saying that they are already there if they are not. This is offensive. In this society claims to exclusive truth are offensive. And we do need to be careful in the way we speak, without arrogance, or being holier than thou, but we do also need to be clear, so that everyone can hear the invitation of Jesus to draw closer.

Now let’s turn to Jesus in the temple. We’ve already talked a bit about the good religious reasons for the obstructions to prayer that Jesus was clearing out. I wonder what the equivalents might be in our way of doing things. What might we be doing for good religious reasons, that actually stop us coming to prayer, or stop others, particularly those from other nations, to pray? Are there other things that we could do which would actively encourage us to welcome other cultures and nationalities, to celebrate the diversity that God has already given us, and to learn from each other – particularly, perhaps, in our prayer lives?

Over the summer, I’ve been reflecting on our prayer life as a church community. One of our values as a church is loving God, and as part of that we have identified prayerfulness as something that needs to be at the centre of who we are. I’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Intimate with the Ultimate” and I’m thinking that in the new year we may very well have sermon series based on this, and encourage small groups to read, study, and experiment with its suggestions together. If you want to get ahead, then do get hold of a copy. In the meantime, let’s be intentional about clearing away the rubbish and encouraging each other in our prayer lives, so that we can truly be a distinctive house of prayer for all nations.

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