I remember the early days of being here at Britton Christian Church. The very first Sunday that I ever stood in this pulpit I confessed to you that I didn’t know a thing about being a pastor, but that if you would pray for me and if I would earnestly seek God then I was certain that He would provide all that I lacked. On that Sunday morning I invited everyone present to join me on Sunday night for prayer. I said, “We need to seek the Lord and to have Him share with us what is on His heart and what He is doing in this neighborhood so that we can join Him.” I remember those prayer meetings as we joined together in the parlor and sought the Lord. Those were some of the sweetest times of fellowship and prayer that I have ever experienced at Britton Christian Church. It was through those times of prayer together that God birthed so much of what is happening to this day. Many of you who are new to Britton Christian Church can’t understand how powerfully God was present in those times of prayer since you weren’t here, but let me tell you that God moved our hearts and He gave us, a dying church, new life!
The message that the Lord has given me to share this morning is not an easy one for me to share. The spiritual climate of our society today has made it so that we expect preachers to stand before us and tell us how good we are, how good God is, and how everything is really alright. This is not the message the Lord has given me. The Lord has shown me that we are a friendly church who welcomes people with love and grace. He has shown me that He has given us a heart for those who are hurting and those who need to know Jesus. He has shown me that He has far greater plans for this church than any we have seen come to fruition to date. He has also shown me that He desires to move us back to where we started. Humbled, yearning for Him in prayer as a church. God has shown me that we are united in love, we are united in grace, but we are not united in prayer. If we are ever going to see God’s grace and majesty rain down upon this congregation and community then we must seek Him together in prayer. God desires that Britton Christian Church will one day be known not for its outreach ministries, not for its preaching, not for its welcoming, warm atmosphere, but for its passion for prayer.
For the Church of Jesus Christ to fulfill her Savior’s commission, her Master’s mandate, there is no substitute for prayer. There is no greater lesson that God has shown me during my time away than this: prayer is the heart and soul of the Church. Prayer is the lifeblood of the Church through which the very heart of God, His will and His ways, His counsel, His mercy, grace and salvation, and His empowering presence are made manifest.
Sweet times of conversation in the quiet of our own personal time with God each day are vital for our living life to the glory of God. For the individual, prayer is more important than three square meals a day. Prayer is to the Christian what the first breath of life is to a newborn baby. Prayer opens us up to the life-giving Spirit of God who yearns to speak to us from the Father’s heart. Prayer pumps life-giving, holy oxygen throughout our bodies and moves us beyond the limp existence of normal life. In a world of six billion people, God grants a private audience to those men, women, boys, and girls who will take time to be still and know that He is God. My friend, prayer is the precious blessing of actually enjoying the magnificent and majestic presence of the God of the Universe.
As important as prayer is to the spiritual growth and daily sustenance of the individual, there is still yet a step beyond the blessings that can come from my own private times of prayer with God. God has set us who are His children in the Body of Christ. What the eye can come to know by itself pales in comparison to what it can know in relation to the entire body. What it can experience, the places it can go, the insights it can gain, and the strength it can experience are very limited compared to the heights it can attain if it will but work with the rest of the body.
In our country today, we have personalized and privatized our faith. We want to know, “How can Jesus help me? What difference can God make in my life? Can God make me happy, help me escape the turmoil I have been experiencing, and get me what I want out of life?” God cares deeply for you and for me my friend, but in focusing on us we are leaving out, missing, one of the most important aspects and elements of our lives – God has set us in a Body, the Body of Christ. It is in relation to the rest of the Body that we can see God move, reveal, and empower like at no other time.
The Body of Christ, local churches, in our modern-day have sought to maximize their efforts and learn new ways to make their ministries better, to see their membership roles grow, and to boost their budgets, but if you were to poll most churches today you would find an emphasis on prayer, a passion to seek God together on their knees, far down the list. Prayer must be the foundation of any church, or the church’s foundation is built on shifting sand.
E.M. Bounds, wrote a powerful book that would serve as a primer for any follower of Jesus or for any church that wants to experience the power of God made visible like never before. The book, The Necessity of Prayer, is a classic that should be studied by any person or church that is seeking a deepened walk with God or a greater hunger for God’s presence. Rev. Bounds writes,
A church is a sacred place, set apart from all unhallowed and secular uses, for the worship of God. As worship is prayer, the house of God is a place set apart for worship. It is no common place; it is where God dwells, where He meets with His people, and He delights in the worship of His saints. Prayer is always in place in the house of God. When prayer is a stranger there, then it ceases to be God’s house at all. Our Lord put peculiar emphasis upon what the Church was when He cast out the buyers and sellers in the Temple, repeating the words from Isaiah, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer.” He makes prayer preeminent, that which stands out above all else in the house of God. They, who sidetrack prayer or seek to minify it, and give it a secondary place, pervert the Church of God, and make it something less and other than it is ordained to be. The very place is made sacred by its ministry. Without it, the Church is lifeless and powerless. Without it, even the building, itself, is nothing, more or other, than any other structure. Prayer converts even the bricks, and mortar, and lumber, into a sanctuary, a holy of holies, where the Shekinah dwells. It separates it, in spirit and in purpose from all other edifices. Prayer gives a peculiar sacredness to the building, sanctifies it, sets it apart for God, conserves it from all common and mundane affairs. With prayer, though the house of God might be supposed to lack everything else, it becomes a Divine sanctuary. (E.M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer.)
We would do well to stop and drink deeply of Rev. Bounds’ powerful words. My deepest desire this morning is that God would so move upon each of our hearts that we would desire more than anything else to seek God with all of our hearts – together, as a house of prayer for all people.
This morning my prayer is that God would stir within each of us a hunger like we have never experienced before to draw near to His Holy Throne by joining with our brothers and sisters in prayer.
It is so easy for the church to lose its focus. Churches throughout history have sensed God’s leading, they have yielded to His will, and followed Him faithfully with passion and commitment. And yet, as history rocked along they became so involved in doing what God had called them to do that they forgot the One who had called them, the One who had blessed them with His presence and His power to accomplish more than they ever dreamed, and they lost their first love. Jesus spoke to such a church in Revelation 2, when He said,
1″To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. (Revelation 2:1-5 NIV)
I sense that you and I stand at the door of opportunity. Like the Church in Ephesus, we are a church known for its hard work, good deeds, and for our desire to know the Truth. Yet, we must ask ourselves, better yet, allow the Lord to search our hearts concerning our love for Him. Here are some questions the Lord has placed before me to consider:
* Do you spend as much time with God as you do with those you are serving?
* Do you regularly set aside time to be still before the Lord and patiently listen for His voice?
* Do you long to seek guidance, healing, and forgiveness from the hand of God together with other brothers and sisters?
These are questions that pierce me to the core of my soul. The fact of the matter is that I fall short on each of these questions. I am not able to answer them as I would desire and certainly not as the Lord would desire for me to answer them. I spend much more time with others in counseling, teaching the Bible, visiting hospitals, etc. than I do in quiet solitude with my Father. My prayer times are filled with more of my words than they are with me listening for God’s voice speaking to me. The only time that I spend an extended time in prayer together with my brothers and sisters seeking healing, forgiveness, and guidance is on Sunday night.
I am convinced that God is calling me to a deepened walk with Himself. I am just as convinced that this deepened walk is a calling to join with other Christians together in prayer. I want to ask your forgiveness for failing to be a godly example in the area of prayer. I want you to know that the Lord has exposed my lack of prayer and my lack of concern for this place to be known as a house of prayer for all people. I do not want to remain where I have been, I want to seek God’s forgiveness and His empowering presence so that one day Britton Christian Church will be known as a house of prayer.
Just to show you that we are not alone, nor are we the first church to suffer from this malady, I want to lead you in a study this morning of two separate stories, events that took place at the beginning and at the end of Jesus’ ministry. The “church” of Jesus’ day, the Temple, was the gathering place for the people of God. It was the place where all Jews who desired to know God would come to humble themselves before Him in confession of their sins, to bring their offerings and sacrifices to God, and to seek His will for their lives. That was the intention of God, but what Jesus encountered was something vastly different. The Temple had turned from a house of prayer for all people into a segregated warehouse of merchandisers who exploited God’s people. Turn in your Bibles to John 2:13-17 and let’s read together.
13When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” 17His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13-17 NIV)
It is important for us to understand what was going on at the Temple, what was required of those who visited the Temple, for us to really understand Jesus’ furious desire to cleanse God’s House. The time that the “cleansing of the Temple” took place was just before the Passover, a time when Jews from all over the Roman Empire and Israel would travel to Jerusalem, it was required of them to go. John MacArthur gives us insight into the situation about which John writes.
During the celebration of Passover, worshipers came from all over Israel and the Roman Empire to Jerusalem. Because many traveled large distances, it was inconvenient to bring their sacrificial animals with them. Opportunistic merchants, seeing a chance to provide a service and probably eyeing considerable profit during this time, set up areas in the outer courts of the temple in order for travelers to buy animals. The money changers were needed because the temple tax, paid annually by every conscientious Jewish male 20 years of age or older (Exodus 30:13, 14; Matthew 17:24-27), had to be in Jewish or Tyrian coinage (because of its high purity of silver). Those coming from foreign lands would need to exchange their money into the proper coinage for the tax. The money changers charged a high fee for the exchange. With such a large group of travelers and because of the seasonal nature of the celebration, both the animal dealers and money exchangers exploited the situation for monetary gain. Religion had become crass and materialistic. (John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1579.)
Where Jesus cleaned house was not the actual Temple, but the area around the Temple called, “The Court of the Gentiles.” The Temple was a small building, and contained the Holy of Holies into which only the high priest could enter, and then only on the annual Day of Atonement. Several courtyards surrounded the Temple. Where the cleansing took place was the Court of the Gentiles, into which anyone might come. No Gentile could go beyond the Court of the Gentiles or they would be punished with death. There was an inscription between the Court of the Gentiles and the other courts which said: “No stranger is to enter within the balustrade… Whoever is caught will be answerable for his death, which will ensue.” This inscription was a total affront to everything that God had desired for His people the Jews, whom He had called to be a “Light to the Gentiles.”
The people who traveled to Jerusalem were required to bring a sacrifice to offer to God. Because of the great distances many of them had to travel, it wasn’t possible for them to bring their animals with them. There were animals made available at the Temple, but the people were charged exorbitant prices for the sacrificial animals. The great Bible scholar, William Henrikson, gives us an insightful glimpse into the situation.
It is true, in the abstract, that each worshipper was allowed to bring to the temple an animal of his own selection. But let him try it! In all likelihood it would not be approved by the judges, the privileged venders who filled the money-chests of Annas! Hence, to save trouble and disappointment, animals for sacrifice were bought right here in the outer court, which was called the court of the Gentiles because they were permitted to enter it. Of course, the dealers in cattle and sheep would be tempted to charge exorbitant prices for such animals. They would exploit the worshippers. And those who sold pigeons would do likewise, charging, perhaps, $4 for a pair of doves worth a nickel (William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), p. 76.
God required His people to come to the Temple each year during Passover to remember His faithfulness in delivering the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It was time set aside by God for the people to be reminded that God is faithful, His love is sure and unwavering, and His provision is certain for those who love Him. God set aside this time each year for all people to come before His presence and lay aside everything else in their lives so as to draw near to God.
The money changers and the merchants were a stumbling block to the people. They should have been providing a much needed service in providing the people with the necessary coinage and sacrificial animals, but instead they were exploiting the people by gouging them.
The story of Jesus’ cleaning house in John comes at the beginning of His ministry. John tells the story in the second chapter of his book. Now I want us to take a look at an event that happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Turn in your Bibles to Luke 19:41-46.
41As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace-but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” 45Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. 46″It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.'” (Luke 19:41-46 NIV)
Jesus had set things straight down at the local church back in John 2, at the beginning of His ministry. Now He made another trip to the church and guess what He found? You got it! The money changers and the merchants had set up their stands and were hocking their wares once again. Jesus’ response was the same as it was at the beginning of His ministry. Jesus set out to clean house!
Some Bible teachers will try and tell you that this story reported in Luke, which is also reported by Matthew and Mark, is the same story as the one found in John. There is no way possible for these stories to be one and the same, the stories are too different. More important than the stories being so different is the lesson God is trying to teach us about His house, the house of prayer. Jesus is zealous for the house of God. Jesus knows that the Lord’s house is to be a house of prayer for all people. Jesus knew that people needed, desperately needed, to come into the presence of Almighty God. Jesus set out to reform the church of His day and He is still cleaning house today.
God’s purpose for the Church today is that we welcome the stranger, the alien, the lost, the divorced, the fatherless, the broken, the hurting, the drug addicted, the prostitute, the homosexual, the widows and orphans, and all people who desire to draw near to God. I know folks don’t like that at all, but we need to change our likes to God’s will. As we welcome the hurting we need to pray that the Lord would impress upon their hearts their great need to draw near to His presence, to seek Him in prayer.
The conclusion that I have drawn from being around Christians and working in churches for the past seventeen years is that there are two things that we earnestly desire: One, we want action. We want to see programs, productive programs that touch every area of life where we feel needy. Prayer is viewed as inactivity. We bow as churches in prayer and make our requests known to God only to rise up from prayer and try and figure out what we need to do to get out of the mess we are in. Secondly, we want a sanitized sanctuary filled with saintly men and women. We want children around, but just make sure they are the right kind of children. We want kids who come from good backgrounds, who dress in their Sunday best, can recite God’s Word chapter and verse, and who believe in the philosophy that children are to be seen and not heard.
We want the same kind of adults among us at church as well. Just this past week, I was talking to some folks who are shooting a video of the ministries of Urban Impact. They are also working with a ministry in town that reaches out to ex-felons. The man who runs this ministry, David Nichols, has been trying to link his men up with local churches. He visited with one pastor who told him, “Our church wouldn’t be comfortable with knowing that ex-felons were among us.”
We, like those who frequented the Temple in Jesus’ day have forgotten that the Lord’s house is for all people. Its purpose is not for show, its purpose is not for me to feel comfortable, for me to find the right friends for my kids, or for me to have a place where I can meet with all of my friends. The purpose of God’s house is so that people can meet with God – A house of prayer for all people.
Jesus didn’t make this up, it wasn’t something that He simply wanted to see happen, like some pet project. The purpose of the church in being a house of prayer for all people was stated long before Jesus ever turned over His first table in the Temple. Isaiah heard from the Lord and delivered these powerful words.
1 This is what the LORD says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed. 2 Blessed is the man who does this, the man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” 3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant- 5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. 6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant-7 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.” 8 The Sovereign LORD declares-he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:1-8 NIV)
God’s heart is that all people would know their need for Him and come before Him in joyous, humble worship. Let the foreigner come, let the eunuch come, let the outsider find himself on the inside, let the downtrodden have his face lifted up, let the unwed mother find a father for her child in the God who is called, “Father,” let the addicted find deliverance. Where will they find it – in the presence of the Lord!
The Church today is being reformed by Jesus. He is traveling far and wide turning over tables, dismantling walls that separate people from God, and challenging the ways that we have kept folks at arms length. You may be wondering, “What are you talking about?” Let me give you an example. Just this past week, I was visiting with someone here in our church. The Lord is moving mightily in her life and I am thrilled to see how she is responding to His gentle voice calling her home. I asked her if I could share part of her story this morning because it so vividly illustrates how we have neglected the heart of God for those who do not know Him.
She told me that she grew up in church, but while she was a child her mom and dad divorced. After the divorce things were difficult for her mother and the kids. She didn’t have nice clothes to wear to church and the church they were attending began to frown upon them because they weren’t dressed right. The family stopped going to church and never went back again because they felt that they weren’t wanted if they didn’t have the right clothes to wear.
God help us, God forgive us for building walls that turn people away. Lord make us a house of prayer for all people!
I don’t know if you sense it, but I am convinced that God’s greatest work for Britton Christian Church is yet to come. God is burdening my heart, and hopefully your heart, to seek Him in prayer together so that He can prepare us for the days yet to come. Days of seeing the hurting healed by being in His presence! Days of seeing those who don’t know the Lord come to know His salvation and mercy by coming into His presence! Days of seeing the fatherless, the widows, and the lonely find their place of consolation and peace in His presence! Days of seeing those who suffer from addictions freed from their bondage by coming into His presence! Days of seeing the hate-filled and angry find peace and love by coming into His presence! Days of seeing those who feel they have no hope find hope by coming into His presence! These days will come when we, all of us, at Britton Christian Church, burn with passion for this place to be known as a house of prayer for all people. These days will come when we seek the Lord together in prayer together crying out for our Father to make His presence manifest among us.