June 9: A House of What? (1/4)

June 9: A House of What? (1/4)

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Audio of Scripture reading, sermon, and pastoral prayer only

June 9: Third Sunday after Pentecost

Other sermons in this series
“No Higher Calling, No Greater Impact”

  • #1: A House of What? (this sermon)
  • #2: Why Pray?
  • #3:
  • #4:

Scriptures: Isaiah 56:4-8 and Matthew 21:12-13

Adam Ruiz is the staff chaplain at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Louisville, KY, a level 1 trauma center. As such, the most severe emergencies come to its ER every day. Its ER and surgical staff has seen it all. [note to streaming tech] So, when it comes to knowing how emergency medical situations are going to unfold, they pretty much know exactly how the ball bounces. But the medical outcome of one particular patient defied everyone’s expectation, including those of the chaplain.

Chaplain Ruiz in the ER

It was a Friday night. He was called to the Surgical ICU where a young woman had been brought with a gunshot wound to her head. At the nurse’s station, he learned that she was in an induced coma and only the machines where keeping her alive, and that only long enough for him to come and pray with her parents who were waiting for him. With a level of certainty born of years of experience, the nurse bluntly told him she would not live.

Moments later, when he came into her room, he was confronted with two persons who were understandably overly distraught and asking the question we’d all ask if we were in their shoes: Why did this happen? Having no answer to a question that has no good answer, he simply offered to pray for her. Now, he knew they were wanting a miracle, but also knowing how these situations almost always unfold, he just couldn’t bring himself to ask outrightly for a miracle out of fear of them clinging to false hope. In his own words, then, this was his prayer: “Jesus, I thank you that you’re here with us now.I know you love us, and knowing this gives me the confidence to ask for your help. You see the need; you know what’s on our hearts. I trust our little faith will be enough. Thank you for listening,” at which point they prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.

Skip ahead three days. To his utter astonishment—and, honestly, not a little disbelief—he discovered that not only had she not died, but that she didn’t have any of the typical repercussions of a head injury of her kind. She told Chaplain Ruiz that she’d actually heard him praying for her that Friday night in the ICU. She described how at first his voice seemed came from far away but then got closer and closer until it was crystal clear by the end. When he said “amen,” she instinctively opened her eyes and I saw her parents.

From a medical perspective, her recovery should never have happened. So, the only explanation is that it was an act of God. A miracle.

Now, compare that whole scenario with that of a staff member at one of my previous churches. When his relatively young wife was diagnosed with cancer, it came as a complete shock to everyone. They had 2 sons still in grade school. She was a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. She led the worship praise band and was dearly loved by the congregation. In response, they did what any church would do: they prayed for her. They had multiple healing services during which she was anointed with oil and hands were laid on her in prayer. They continually lifted her up in prayer, asking for a miracle. But the miracle never came. Her death was a tremendous blow to everyone, including, of course, her husband and two young sons.

As seasoned as Chaplain Ruiz was, the miraculous recovery of the woman with a gunshot wound to the head threw him for a loop. It brought to the surface questions like: Once the words [of a prayer] are said, what actually happens? What role if any had [my simple prayer] played in the miracle that followed? And probably the most-asked question in situations like this, Why was this woman healed when so many others I’d prayed for weren’t? Friends, when it comes to prayer, isn’t that the most looming question of all? Why does God answer some prayers [with our desired outcome], but not others? I’m going to do my best to address that question, although let me say from the get-go that there really is no good answer. At best, we can try to see things from a wider point of view which may help us feel less anxious. But the truth is, in this life we’ll never know why this is so. So, yes, I’ll do my best to offer some thoughts on that matter, but today I’d like to begin this brief sermon series by highlighting the high value which God places on prayer—regardless of our experience of it.

I recently did a search of the entire Bible for the phrase “house of.” I was interested in seeing what immediately follows “house of.” There were quite a few references to a person’s home (“the house of the captain of the guard”) or family lineage (“the house of David”). But I was looking for something different than those. I wanted to see how Scripture used “house of” to describe or reference the people of God.  To that end, my search returned a ton of references to “the house of the LORD” or “the house of God.” Most of those references are from the the Old Testament and clearly indicate to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews came to worship. That makes sense. The Temple structure was believed to be the location of God’s dwelling, thus calling it the house of the LORD. Beyond those three types of “houses” there’s only one other kind of “house of” found in our Scriptures. It’s mentioned only three times. Twice in Isaiah 56 and once in the Gospels (though the phrase is found three times in the Gospels, Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, and Luke 19:46, they reference the same words of Jesus).

In Isaiah, God informs his people that everyone who holds fast to the Covenant (the law of Moses) he will “bring to my holy mountain (a poetic reference to Jerusalem), and bring with joy in my house of prayer [where they will make burned offerings and sacrifices, making it a reference to the Temple]. My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7). My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples. That statement probably reveals more about the importance and primacy of prayer in the lives of God’s people than anything else found in the Bible, with the exception being Jesus quoting Isaiah 56:7 when he drove the money changers out of the Temple grounds. Jesus said, “It’s written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you’ve made it a hideout for crooks” (Matthew 21:13). What’s of interest to us this morning is not what Jesus said the Temple had become but, rather, what he said God declared it to be. Which is what? A house of prayer. My house will be called a house of prayer.

At this point, let’s make an important connection between the Old Testament Temple in Jerusalem and the post-Pentecost church. The Temple was the locus of worship for Jews. For them, the main act of worship was bringing forth a physical token and offering it to God as a sign of their gratitude, penitence, guilt, or when a particular life situation required it by the law, such as when a person came into physical contact with a corpse. Most often, these offerings were  an animal which was brought to a priest who sacrificed it on the altar and presented it to God on behalf of the worshiper. The alter was located on the Temple grounds just outside the Temple itself. So, bringing that offering/sacrifice was the primary act of worship under the First Covenant, and in this sense, the Temple represented the worshiping community of faith.

“Nowhere does God refer to the church as a house of preaching. Or a house of singing. Or a house of teaching. Or a house of serving. Or, most surprisingly, a house of worship.

Christians believe that the crucifixion of Jesus was the final sacrifice under the First Covenant, bringing the First Covenant to a close and ending the system of making sacrificial offerings on the altar. Jesus’ sacrificial death ushered in the New Covenant, which we acknowledge and celebrate in the sacrament of Communion. You might recognize the words of Jesus as found in the Communion liturgy: “This is my blood of the New Covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The people of the New Covenant are those who come together around the Communion Table in worship of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. The name of this gathered community is the Church. The church became the new temple. The Apostle Paul affirmed this truth in 1 Corinthians 3:16, where he wrote, “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?” In this verse, the word “you” is plural, akin to our “y’all.” Don’t you know that y’all are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you all? He’s talking about the body of Christ.

Why is this important? Because Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, and the subsequent filling of the gathered people on Pentecost with the Holy Spirit, transformed the “house of God” from a specific location and structure into the worldwide body of Christ. The church is the house of God. And wherever and whenever the people of God gather together, they are by name a house of prayer.

With this in mind, what may come as a surprise to some of us is that nowhere does God refer to the church as a house of preaching. Or a house of singing. Or a house of teaching. Or a house of serving. Or, most surprisingly, a house of worship. According to Jesus, the only distinguishing mark of the church—at least by name–is prayer. Let me say that again. From what I can tell, Jesus identified prayer as the one distinguishing mark of the church. “My house (my people) will be called a house of prayer.”

This being the case, how well would you say most modern churches reflect this identity? How about our church in particular? And how about each of us, individually? How well do each of us, and we, collectively, reflect the fact that God has declared that we are above all else a house of prayer? Does our worship reflect the primacy of prayer? Does our congregational life reflect the primacy of prayer? Or are there ways that we could make prayer a more intentional aspect of our personal lives as well as our congregational life? I have a sneaking suspicion the the answer is definitely yes, there’s a lot more we could do to live into what God has called us—a house of prayer.

Let me be first to admit that my own prayer life is probably a bit anemic compared to what it could be. It’s not that I don’t pray, because I certainly do. But at the same time, I can also say that I could be more intentional in my prayer life. It can easily get shoved to the back seat when the calendar is bursting at the seams with a long to-do list and lots of appointments. But then I’m reminded of the saying about being too busy not to pray.

In the weeks ahead I’d like to explore what prayer is, what it does and doesn’t accomplish, and what sometimes gets in the way of our prayers being effective.  I also want to suggest ways that we could make prayer a greater priority in our personal and collective lives. But the main point I’m hoping you’ll take home today is the fact that prayer really is the most important thing we get to do as Christians. It’s not what we have to do, but what we get to do. There’s a difference. Prayer is what we get to do. It’s the most important thing we get to do as Christians because at its core, prayer is partnering with God to bring about his kingdom, his will on earth as it is in heaven. And this is what we’ll explore next week  The purpose of prayer. With that said, let’s pray…


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