When Prayer Becomes A Sideshow
In using John’s Gospel as part of the text for this State of The Church address we indicated that John wrote to the church at Ephesus. No doubt he would have seen certain disturbing signs and used his first-hand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus as the template for correction. At very outset then, chapter two he gets right to it, taking aim at the idleness, inertia and irrelevance which had infected the faith community using the first sign of water being turned into wine. He then does a surprising thing, taking an event from the final week of Jesus before the cross and placing it at the start of his gospel.
While the other Gospel writer locate it chronologically, John locates it thematically. He is dealing with the state of the church. Not only had the faith community been infected as described above it had become distracted and disoriented. The events of the cleansing of the temple confront the contemporary distraction of the church by its fascination with the marketplace and its disorientation with regards to its priorities. Listen to the narrative from John 2: 13 – 17: “13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Let’s begin with the disorientation of the church which this text places front and center.
Jesus is portrayed in one of the rarely mentioned moments of expressing the human emotion of anger. The phrase righteous indignation apparently arose out of this narrative. His rebuke of the leaders of the faith community here indicates the matter which had aroused his anger. The response of the disciples likewise, provides a clue. Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” … “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Obviously the faith community had allowed the place of corporate worship to place at centre activities that, though legitimate, ought not to occupy the central place, and that which ought to be central had been made into a sideshow. Thanks to Matthew in chapter 21:13 and Mark in chapter 11:17 we know exactly what was and is supposed to be at the heart of the life and place of the gathered faith community. Prayer. Jesus, draws upon this long revealed desire of His Father for what the priority of place ought to be, as he quotes from Is. 56: 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.” Notice the global missional vision of YHWH, in the statement, “a house of prayer for all nations.”
The scope of influence that this local place of corporate worship had as far as God was concerned stretched far beyond its narrow boundaries to the nations. Wow! What a quantum shift! Think about it, God views what we do in our so called little corner as being a place of refuge, solace and spiritual refreshing for all of God’s people. People of every colour, race, tribe, language, culture. Our parochial attitudes, our modes of operation which tend to resemble ecclesiastical ghettos, that is zones of exclusions rather than inclusive spaces of belonging. The temple at the time of Jesus served both locals and visitors. There were those who made pilgrimages over considerable distances to come to that place to meet with God. These would have included persons who had come to learn of God’s fame, God’s character. God’s power, God’s justice, God’s holiness and made a choices to follow God’s laws and to worship God. In God’s very election of the Jews was his stated Mission to Abraham, that all the nations would be blessed. Any notion and any practice therefore that resulted in anyone, whether so called insider or outsider being hindered from that opportunity to commune with God must be considered a hugely misplaced priority.
This is what Jesus saw when he entered the temple. I must point out, for those of us who may not yet be aware or may have overlooked it, that the day Jesus become passionately upset at the misplaced priority and distraction was actually the day before the whip was called into action. It is Mark who provides us with this bit of the details. Mark 11:11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. So then Jesus took the benefit of sleeping on it, as it were. Then from John’s account we get another important detail of deliberate delayed response, 2: 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle…
The point is there was nothing impulsive about the reaction of Jesus to this descent of the faith community into a state beneath God’s design and desire. As much as Jesus was consumed with Zeal for His Father’s House and what it ought to be and do he exercised tremendous restraint. We could say, they received a merciful demonstration of wrath. And that right there is something we need more of as we deal with our fellow earthlings.
In view of this clear indication that God intends prayer to retain pride of place in our liturgy it behooves to contemplate whether our seemingly insatiable appetite for ‘praise and worship’ has not pushed prayer to the fringes. Whatever became of contemplative prayer in worship? Does our love affair with noise and movement in worship serve to push times of personal meditation, solitude and penitence in our modern temple court off the radar? How do we select those who will lead in the various prayers? Do we convey a sense that only those with a degree or those who drive a vehicle can pray? When we apply the label of intercessor to a select few, are we suggesting that the masses can only be prayed for and never do the praying? God’s intent is that His house be and remain a place of prayer for all.
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