Where is God's House?
What and where is the kingdom of heaven?
Where is the house of God? Is the local homeless shelter more the house of God than any of the churches in the community all around it?
Jesus walked into the temple two different times and upset everything that was assumed to be normal, declaring that things were in fact not normal at all according to God's design for a place called His house. He in effect said that a building controlled and manipulated by religious experts with a view to exploiting the public for their own benefit in the name of God was in reality blasphemy against the God who had entrusted them with so much information about Himself. Clearing out everything that interfered with the true purpose of the temple, everything that would intimidate anyone no matter how weak, timid or even sinful from coming to Him, Jesus then sat down and began doing God's work in God's house for a few brief hours.
Is this what the kingdom of heaven looks like? For years I have been asking God to explain to me what the kingdom of God is. The reason for this is because I am taking seriously Jesus' instruction to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and He would be sure that all these other things (the practical things needed as provisions for life) would be provided. I trust His promise and have been experiencing it for some months rather dramatically at times. But what has remained puzzling to me is what He meant by the term, kingdom of God.
In the past few days I have begun to sense that God may be leading me and our church to get involved in helping in some way with efforts by a new friend of mine who is director of the local homeless shelter. I have been very impressed with his spirit and enthusiasm as I am sure many people are. But I am also encouraged as I sense a deep spiritual hunger inside of him that God might want me to be involved in addressing. At the same time I realize that my own lopsided life of heavy mental spirituality devoid of much practical application in the real world just might be in desperate need of mentoring by someone like this man who is being used by God to minister to people we are supposed to be helping according to Jesus.
So, is God prompting us to take seriously the example of Jesus and His teachings about helping the poor and disadvantaged? Is this what it really means to seek first the kingdom of God? I believe it most likely is. In the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of corruption, extortion, fraud and distractions, after the commotion of house cleaning faded away, in no time the place was filling with people who may have seldom darkened its gates before – people who were not normally welcome in such religious places because those in charge frowned on such low-life being seen in a place considered holy.
Yet the most holy Person to ever walk the face of this planet was now sitting in the most holy building known on earth (if a building can in fact be holy), and what ensued for a short time was nothing short of amazing, confusing and even damning for all of us who again have reestablished rigid prohibitions as to who or what can be active in places we might call 'the house of God.'
Sick people surged into a space that was before too crowded and too uncomfortable to enter. And why did they come at this time? Because they knew that Jesus had a reputation for loving anyone unconditionally and He also had access to a power that could reverse the curse of suffering and disease that they were experiencing. Were all of these sick people only sick in body alone? Do you suppose that many of them might have also become social misfits? Given the opinion of the religious leaders about the cause of sickness in that day as coming from God as a punishment, I have little doubt that they had been marginalized, shamed and spiritually abused for so long that many may have not had very good social etiquette befitting what we might consider necessary to worship with us in church.
It is reported that children were heard shouting in the temple, something that evidently was not normal. Now before someone begins to think that I am saying anything goes in a place called a 'house of prayer for all people' as Jesus wanted to rename it, we should pay attention what the children were shouting. I doubt they were just running around playing tag or hide-and-seek in the temple oblivious to everyone else. Some have taken this story to imply that we should not suppress our children's urge to run around and do anything they feel like in church. No, I don't think the parents of these children suddenly turned them loose in the temple to make it an open playground.
Rather, these children were attracted into the temple because Jesus was there and He had a reputation for being kind, sympathetic and gentle with every child. Jesus was the perfect reflection of the infinite heart of love and compassion found in the Father, the One who happens to also be the Ruler and Creator of the entire universe – including children. These children were drawn to want to be around Jesus, like so many others who were normally ostracized by the religious culture of austere religion. And when the obstacles put in place by religion were removed, they eagerly came into the 'church,' not to play but to celebrate Jesus who loved them so much that they couldn't suppress their own love and joy that they always felt in His presence.
Matthew reports that the children were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Now what does hosanna mean in plain English, since it is not a word we use in everyday life? Here is what I found in Strong's dictionary that for me at least, is quite compelling.
Hosanna – oh save!; hosanna, an exclamation of adoration. Taken from two root words, one meaning an interjection and the other with this meaning – to be open, wide or free, i.e. to be safe; also to free or defend, deliver, help, preserve, rescue, be safe, bring salvation, save, get victory.
Do you think those children might have had reasons to want to shout about a Man who could make them feel safe, One who might be able to defend them, who would rescue them from threats of harm or humiliation or fear or shame? I think these children just might have been far more perceptive about what was really going on than most of the adults, for didn't Jesus Himself tell His disciples that unless they became like little children they couldn't even enter the kingdom of heaven? Read the first half of Matthew 18.
Why was it that the chief priests and scribes – the religious authorities and the expert theologians of Scripture – felt offended both over the children's shouting as well as what they were saying?
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He had done, and the children who were shouting in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they became indignant. (Matthew 21:15)
Of course it was not just the children and what they were saying that upset the establishment of status quo religion. It says they were also upset over the wonderful things He had done. Now isn't that bizarre! Why would people get upset over a Man coming in to heal people, bless people and care for people unless that very thing was threatening the whole system of power and control that had been cultivated and reinforced over many years of political maneuvering and compromising. This whole situation was threatening to cause the corruption of the religious and political establishment to become exposed and they could not afford to allow that to continue at the expense of their own interests.
But let me ask, is this story really about how we should let children act in a church building; or does it have far more profound implications that might make most of us squirm and raise objections of our own? Just what might be the threat to our own status quo if the “house of God” might actually be discovered to be the homeless shelter nearby more than the expensive, austere buildings extensively funded and carefully managed where we go to ostensibly worship our convenient politically correct concepts of God that look little like what Jesus came to live and teach? And what if the kind of people who were attracted to Jesus in His time decided to show up in our church buildings with all their dysfunction, bad odors and addictions? Would we feel disinclined to welcome them, minister to them or allow their children to get excited about the love of a God they discovered in ways that are foreign to what we are used to having around?
I realize that I am just as much part of the comfortable religious establishment as everyone else, though I am becoming increasingly disillusioned with it. I confess that I can sometimes have strong reactions inside whenever I encounter behaviors or outbursts that make everyone uncomfortable. Again, I do not believe chaos or lack of accountability is acceptable during worship times or even in a place designed for worship. Yet at the same time I am painfully aware that we have used these excuses for centuries to avoid letting the real Jesus sit down in our midst and do things that might threaten to expose our own shallowness, our own empty forms of religion without power that we have come to value more than God.
There is no shortage of styles of worship that offer to make us feel better. The forms may vary greatly from church to church depending on our personal preferences. Some prefer more emotional stimulation while others insist on very somber and more so-called 'spiritual' atmosphere. But all of them can just as easily miss the entire reason for true worship if they fail to take seriously the teachings and example of the One who showed us how God feels about the least important people around us, the least according to our typical standard of evaluation.
God is nudging me in a direction I have not felt comfortable with in some respects recently. Yet my hunger to know Him more solidly is giving Him permission to do just that. He is leading me in directions that challenge the status quo kind of religion that I have grown up in but am becoming tired of participating in. At the same time He has encouraged me not to disconnect from it but rather to seek His face and come to see that He is strikingly different than religion has ever portrayed Him to be.
I am aware that just running out to look for good deeds to do in the name of God can become just as much of a diversion and distortion of truth as sitting isolated in a church building pretending to be the called and chosen ones while ignoring the hurting and abused and disadvantaged people around us. If I do not operate from motives awakened by a genuine appreciation for the real truth of who God is and how He feels about me personally, then acts of mercy can just as easily become crutches I rely on for my perceived importance with God as relying on doctrinal purity or knowing all the right answers.
What I really want is to know God so closely, intimately and honestly that I cannot help but pass along the grace that I discover as I get closer to His heart of love for me. I don't want to slip into the trap of trying to earn His love for me through social action anymore than trying to earn it by being religiously or doctrinally superior. What I want is to experience the same motivation that compelled the early believers to pour out their hearts and lives and resources for others because they had caught a taste of the true God of heaven who was radically different than anything religion had ever offered them before. That is what I want to experience and that is what I believe will bring true honor to His reputation.
As I have pondered our relationship to our local community and sense how much damage our local church's reputation suffers because of past offenses people have suffered at the hands of some of our members, I have wondered what might make a difference to change that situation. This morning God reminded me that this involves His reputation even more than ours and that He is the one I need to listen to and follow on a daily basis as He is the one with the best plan to remedy this problem.
In some respects our problem is not that much different than His people had centuries ago, though on a different scale and a different context.
When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, 'These are the people of the LORD; yet they have come out of His land.' But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD," declares the Lord GOD, "when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight."'
...Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God....
Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations.
"I am not doing this for your sake," declares the Lord GOD, "let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!" (Ezekiel 36:20-32)
This passage has long alerted me to the reality that salvation has not nearly so much to do with our rescue from sin as it has to do with salvaging the reputation of God. In the book of Ezekiel time and again God declares that the real problem to be solved is the damage we have caused to His reputation. Because people claiming to know and serve and love God fail to act like the Him who is full of compassion, justice and kindness, the majority of people in this world have little interest in wanting to follow Him or know Him better.
Jesus declared that eternal life means knowing God and Jesus His Son (John 17:3). What does that mean and how will doing that change us? I sense that the more I know Him the more likely it will be that I am motivated with the same motives and attitudes that compelled Jesus to treat people the way He did. I am keenly aware that I cannot produce those kinds of motives in myself, but as I am coming to know Him differently with my own heart, I sense that He will lead me in directions very similar to what He did when He lived here on earth.
The reactions from the establishment that happened from His actions will undoubtedly be seen again in the lives of His followers and will lead to similar conflicts that He encountered as the systems of the rich and powerful are again threatened. But that never intimidated or dampened His love for everyone, amazingly not even towards those who persecuted and resisted Him. He passionately loved indiscriminately and as I experience that same love myself I will be empowered to pass it along.
I am all too aware that I cannot produce any real love in my own heart. I have attempted this unsuccessfully for too many years to believe it is even possible. All I can produce is a selfish kind of love that wants something in return for my investments. But what I am beginning to see is that as I focus on knowing the real truth about how God feels about me and allow His love to personally stir my own emotions and feelings in response, He can make me a more open channel through which He can begin to pour through love to others and begin to attract others to want to know Him for themselves.
I do not want to rush to formulate plans for some venture and then ask God to bless them. Rather I want to discover God's plans for my life and how He wants to involve me in my community to begin to awaken hope and bring life to those whom Jesus said He identifies with more than privileged people like me. That doesn't mean He loves me less than them but it does mean that for me to experience His love for me at a deeper level I need to let Him use me to pass that love on to others in practical ways that they can know and feel in their own difficulties. I want to remain open to whatever He brings to my attention and cooperate with His plans and methods to let Him decide how fast or far I move.
I don't want to run ahead of God as that would involve taking things into my own hands which can easily result in pride and arrogance. But I also do not want to lag behind in fear because that would rob my own heart of much needed healing and joy that can be experienced as I allow His kindness and mercy to flow through me to those He desires to lift up.
God, keep me walking at Your pace and keep my attention fixed continuously on Your heart so that I don't become overwhelmed by the terrors that are surely to confront me, like when Peter walked on stormy waters to meet you on the waves.