This sermon is part of the sermon series "Four Best Places to Live". See series.
"My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves." That stands as one of the harshest indictments ever uttered against religious busyness and spiritual commercialism. Those words are all the sharper for coming from the mouth of Jesus. The context, you might well remember, was the day he braided his own whip and cleared the moneychangers and sellers of religious wares from the temple courts.
God desires prayer.
What was so offensive to Jesus about the moneychangers and sellers? They were, after all, making church relevant. People traveled to the temple, many of them, from long, dry, hot distances. They came on donkeys if they were wealthy, while the rest came on foot. It was impractical to bring with them a goat or even a pigeon to offer as a sacrifice at the temple. Often they carried only foreign currency, the coin of whatever region they lived in. It was a matter of convenience to provide, right on the temple grounds, a currency exchange, as well as a stall to buy an animal or goat or sheep or—for the especially well-heeled, a bull—to offer as a sacrifice. It served the needs of the people. But Jesus would have none of it.
Often this passage is taken as a broad attack on any form of buying and selling within the walls of the church. It might be that. But more and more, I don't think that was Jesus' main objection. I think his objection was the way we're tempted to reduce religion to a commercial transaction, a business deal, rather than treat it as a relationship of trust and love. Jesus, I believe, is offended by the idea that a relationship with God is merely an exchange: I sacrifice this; you provide that. That's paganism. It is what the prophets so vigorously denounced—the substituting of a religion of mere externals for a religion of the heart. As early as the reign of King Saul, over 2000 years prior to the time of Jesus and almost 100 years before there even was a temple, we read in 1 Samuel 15:22: Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
What God wants is you. Before he wants your sacrifices, he wants your attention. Before it's about giving anything from your hands, or getting anything from his hands, it's about seeking his face with your face. The contrast to religion as transaction—where we try to give something to God in order to get something from God—is prayer. The opposite of faith as a series of deals we make or rituals we observe is faith as a friendship with God that we enter and nurture. My temple should be a house of prayer.
Prayer is paying attention to God.
This sermon is second in a series entitled Four Best Places to Live. The idea was inspired by the UN's practice of annually releasing a list of the best countries to live in and Money Magazine's custom of a yearly issue declaring the top ten places to live in the US. I wondered what the best places to live are according to the Bible—where we truly live in and live out our God-given purposes and deeply experience life as it was meant to be. In the first message, we looked at the House of Worship—the place where worship is not something we do, fitfully and distractedly, for an hour or so on Sunday, but an ever-enlarging capacity to dwell in the presence of the Lord, in season and out.
Today, we go to the House of Prayer. To live in the place of prayer, as opposed to making a visit there now and then, means we learn to pay attention to God, not just here and now, but in the ordinariness and dailyness of our lives. We learn the secret of praying without ceasing, so that always, in all our comings and goings, there is a communing with the God who is near. Psalm 81 promises that if God's people would listen to him and follow his ways they would be fed.
I will feed you … only, listen. We experience abundance—fine wheat (always what Israel's enemies plundered from them) and honey from a rock (delicacies from the most unlikely and unpromising places)—but the requirement is that we listen and follow. Life bursts forth in the place of attentiveness and submissiveness.
That is my most distilled definition of prayer: paying attention to God. Being as mindful, if not more so, of God as we are of flesh and blood people; heeding his presence and his desires above all others.
My temple should be a house of prayer. I want people to practice the art of divine attentiveness, so that on Monday morning, it's still intact. I want the encounter I have with God on Sunday mornings to be a template for encounter with him anytime, anywhere. It's not by accident that both Jesus and Paul described the true temple of God as our bodies. This temple-my body—needs to become a house of prayer.
I think this is why Jesus' disciples asked him, "Teach us to pray." As far as the biblical record shows, they didn't ask him to teach them anything else. They sometimes asked him to explain things—what a parable meant, why they were powerless to heal a demon-possessed boy, what caused a man's congenital blindness—but only once did they ask Jesus to teach them something. They asked for his lesson on prayer. I'm not sure I would have. More likely I would have asked, "Teach me to preach. Teach me to lead. Teach me to counsel. Teach me to perform miracles." Those seem more dramatic gifts, more inherently rewarding, more beneficial to the people of God. But the Disciples want to be taught how to pray. We sometimes—I do, anyhow—see the disciples as dimwits, with an uncanny ability to miss the obvious. But here they got it right. For all their befuddlement and thick-headedness, give them this: they grasped the center of the Godward life. My temple should be a house of prayer.
Prayer bears fruit.
Let's focus again on the cleansing of the temple. That morning, as Jesus headed to the temple, he was hungry and went to pick figs off a fig tree. The tree had no figs (because they were not in season, as Mark informs us in verse 13). Jesus curses the tree. Immediately after that, he cleanses the temple. On the way back, Peter notices the fig tree has withered from its roots upward, and he's surprised. He doesn't ask Jesus specifically about prayer—in fact, he doesn't ask Jesus anything—but Jesus sees this as a teachable moment, and what he chooses to teach on is prayer. Look at Mark 11:20-26.
First, a comment about the context: It seems unfair of Jesus to curse a fig tree for failure to produce fruit out of season. This is what sometimes is called an acted parable. Jesus told parables about wheat fields, vineyards, and orchards. Always, those stories had earthy, familiar details, and always, they also worked as metaphors: wheat or fruit represented a wholesome response to God; weeds or blight represented faithlessness or rebellion. Other times, Jesus acted parables. He walked on water to show what it meant to overcome the seemingly impossible obstacles; he healed the blind to show what it was to overcome darkness and walk in light. Here, Jesus enacts a parable about God's judgment on fruitlessness. The point seems to be that all our seemingly compelling arguments for why we lack fruit—it's not our season, for example—carry no weight with God. He wants fruit. And fruit comes—do you remember this from John 15?—by abiding, dwelling, remaining, and living in closeness with Jesus. It comes by paying attention to God. In other words, Jesus curses the fig tree as an acted parable against the failure to abide in him. Fruitlessness is a consequence of prayerlessness.
Now let's look at the passage. The first thing that surprises me is Peter's surprise: "Rabbi, Look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!" This is genuine astonishment. Peter didn't see that coming. He is agog at the clear, unmistakable evidence of Jesus' power. Jesus said to the tree the day before, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again," and today, voila, it has come to pass. Peter's surprise surprises me because of the lateness of the hour. He had been following Jesus, not three days, not three weeks, not even three months. He had been following Jesus three years. He had seen Jesus perform every manner of astounding miracle: turn water into wine, walk on water, feed a multitude with a borrowed lunch, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, make lame men walk, cast out demons, raise the dead. Even Peter himself had by now built up an impressive resume of miracles. We have scant record of Peter's response to those miracles, but rarely, it seems, was he surprised. Here, near the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, Jesus pulls off what, in light of his other accomplishments, is small fry indeed. It's like a tightrope walker you've watched dance across Niagara Falls while you stood silent, now walk a train rail without falling and you start cheering and exclaiming, "Wow! Look at that!"
Why does God keep surprising us? Why does another display of Christ's presence and authority take us off guard? Have you not seen the power of God enough that, though it delights you every time, it surprises you no longer? There's a great story in Acts 10 where the tables get turned on Peter. Peter is in jail and, by all accounts, will likely be executed. The church gathers to pray for him. God dispatches an angel to miraculously deliver him. Peter goes to the house where the church is praying and knocks on the door. The servant girl goes to answer and, hearing Peter's voice outside, gets flustered—is surprised—and rushes upstairs without opening the door to tell the others that their prayers have been answered and Peter stands at the door and knocks. Do you know what they say? We would hope they'd say, "Hallelujah! It's just like our God to hear our prayers and answer." But they don't. They say, "You're out of your mind." When she insists, you know what they say: "Must be his ghost." They would believe in bogeymen before they'd believe in God. They'd concoct ghost stories before they'd credit Holy Ghost power. Why do we keep getting surprised by God? I think that's why Jesus uses the moment to teach on the power of prayer and to ground prayer primarily in two things: faith and forgiveness. Let's look at both.
Prayer requires faith.
Jesus teaches us to pray believing. Faith is the fuel of prayer. By faith we can say to this mountain, "Scram!" and it complies. Does this mean prayer is magic? It would seem so. Jesus goes on to say that we can ask for anything, and as long as we believe, it will be done.
But note this: Jesus would have been looking directly at the Mount of Olives, or Olivet. This was actually a series of four summits, the highest reaching some 2,500 feet above sea level. Jesus was likely referring to a prophecy in Zechariah 14:4, describing the Day of the Lord God Almighty, when the king returns to his own. The passage says on that day the Lord will stand on the Mount of Olives, and it will split in two, half tumbling away to the north, half to the south. That's important to know. Jesus is not referring to some whimsical, capricious, self-serving use of prayer, nor is Jesus promising that prayer is the key to every obstacle in our way. Rather, Jesus is saying that prayer is about "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done." At the heart of the life of faith and prayer is a joining of God in his kingdom purposes and a hastening of their fulfillment. If you are truly living the faith-centered, prayer-soaked life, more and more your life gets pulled up into the grand, sweeping, global purposes of God. Your life more and more rushes toward what God is accomplishing in history. If you think prayer is about harnessing God's power to accomplish your own ends, to fulfill your own ambitions, you've got it backward. It is about training your heart, through abiding, to long for the coming of the king and to play your role in its fulfillment.
You see, prayer is attentiveness to God. It is abiding in him. As we do that, we become more like God; as we become more like him, we desire more and more to see his will be done, not our own. That is why Jesus says, here and elsewhere, that we can pray our desires in the confidence God will give us the desires of our hearts. He is presuming that we're already living the life of abiding. He's presuming that increasingly our desires are being shaped and filled by God himself. He's presuming that what we yearn for most is the kingdom to come. That's what it means to pray in faith.
I love Philip Yancey's definition of faith: paranoia in reverse. Last Sunday, I joined a friend and some of his family and friends to a game of paintball—my first. The referee for our game gave us a debriefing on safety beforehand. He went on and on about all the safety policies that we must strictly observe while in the Demilitarized Zone: sleeves on gun barrels, locks on triggers, fingers off triggers, guns pointed ground ward. "Out here," he said, "there are no enemies. We're all friends. Of course, once you get inside the perimeter, you will discover that your paranoia is real, that you have to watch your back at all times, that you can trust no one, and that they are really out to get you."
Faith is paranoia in reverse. Hebrews says that one element of faith is to "believe God rewards those who earnestly seek him." My simple definition is that faith believes God is good. He isn't out to get you. He is for you, not against you, and though the path he sometimes chooses appears the most dangerous, narrow, and difficult, it is the path that leads to life.
Don't you ever wish we could see the end from the beginning? How will this or that situation really turn out? By faith, we already know the end from the beginning. God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called to his purposes. So pray believing. Pray in the faith that the kingdom you long for is going to be delivered. That mountain will split in two and fall away. The Lord will stand on it and return to us. The word for believe in Latin is credo. Literally, it means to give your heart. The word believe in English derives from the Old English word belove. To believe is more than to give some dry academic assent to a set of theological propositions. To believe is to give your heart. It is to belove, to fall in love and live out of that love.
Prayer requires forgiveness.
The second thing prayer requires is forgiveness. First, I think Jesus makes this plain in this passage, because it would be easy to interpret his actions and words—cursing fig trees, casting down mountains—as license for vengeance and violence. It would be easy to mistake his words about prayer as providing us with a secret weapon to get whatever we like on the backs of whomever we don't like. Again, think of the Mount of Olives looming in the distance and the reference to Zechariah's prophecy. Part of that prophecy is that on the Day of the Lord the enemies of God's people will be destroyed. That prophecy had gained in prominence and popularity among the Jewish people during Jesus' time because of the Roman occupation. They savored the promise of the humiliation and annihilation of their enemies far more than the promise of God with them. In other words, many Jewish people were already praying the Zechariah prayer. Only, they were praying it with bloodthirstiness. They were praying it with rancor and bitterness and joy at the prospect of gloating over, as Zechariah describes it, their enemies rotting.
These Jewish people were missing the point of the prophecy. The hope at the heart of it is not that it's finally payday for the Romans. It's that we finally come face to face with our God. It's that finally his kingdom comes, come what may. What he chooses to do with our enemies is his business. What we do with our hearts is ours. Our business is to belove God.
The deeper invitation here is, again, to become like our God. Our God is ultimately a forgiving God. His will is that none should perish. To pray believing and to pray forgiving is to give our hearts to God and his kingdom.
A long time ago, I told the story about a man who traveled to Russia in the 1970s, when the USSR was locked tight in the grip of Communism and cold war and was a formidable and menacing enemy of the West. The man's assignment was to visit, on behalf of the National Council of Churches, the church in Russia and bring back a report. What he found appalled him and filled him with contempt. The church in Russia is useless and pathetic, he said, it's "just a bunch of little old ladies praying."
It would take almost 20 years for the mountain of communism in Russia to split and fall into the sea. But when it did, God was awesome in his power. Beware of little ladies praying. Better yet, join 'em.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.