Archive for January, 2012

Strengthening the Inner Man

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, October 9, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named,  That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.  (Eph. 3:14-16) 

During this time of year, every Saturday and Sunday, we get to see some athletes in action who are pretty amazing physical specimens.  When we see some of these football players we are overwhelmed by their size.   If you have an opportunity to actually meet some of these offensive linemen, you feel that you are standing next to a giant of a man.   Some of the other players may not be that large, but they have incredible muscles, and we hear tales of how much they can bench press.  In an outward sense, they are very powerful men.  Yet, every year it seems that we hear more and more stories of how these boys and men who have all this incredible physical strength do not have much moral strength.  We hear of some of them being involved in thefts, losing their tempers and battering their wives or girlfriends, or being arrested for DUI.    While they are incredibly strong on the outside, some of them don’t seem to be very strong on the inside.  They do not seem to have much strength in the way of goodness and virtue.

In the writings of St. Paul, several times we find him referring to this difference between the inward man and the outward man.  In this passage from his epistle to the Ephesians, he prays that they would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the inner man.  In Scripture, there is an outward man and an inner man.  That outward man is what we would think of as the body.  As we have observed, that outward person can be very strong, or it can be very weak.  We all know people who are extremely healthy.  Then, there are those who because of accidents, illnesses, or old age, have become quite weak in the outward man.  As we go through Scripture, we often find that people who are strong in the outward man are not always strong in the inner man.  Take Samson, for example.  Certainly, there was no one stronger in terms of the outward man, but inwardly, what a weakling he often proved to be, unable to control his passions, his anger, and his lusts.  On the other hand, we have someone like the apostle Paul, who seems not to have been a very impressive physical specimen.  He said that other people thought that his outward presence was weak and contemptible.    Knowing all the beatings and other forms of abuse he had experienced, St. Paul probably looked pretty weak.  If he had an eye disease, as some Bible scholars think, he may have even had a facial deformity that was not pleasant to look upon.    Though he may have been weak on the outside, what strength he had inwardly!   He had the strength to continue to go on all those missionary journeys, spreading the gospel of Christ around the world at great cost to his physical health, being in prisons, suffering beating, and floating in the sea after a shipwreck.  But he kept on going for the cause of Christ.  What inner strength he displayed!

As I said, the outward man refers to the body.   I would include in this description of the outward man the brain, the mind, or the intellect.   As we have noticed throughout our lives, some people, because of genetic blessing, or just through intense study, have minds that are very strong and vigorous.  There is more to the inward man than just our thoughts.  The inward main is something spiritual, but the brain is still part of the body.  The brain can become weak and sick.  People can have strokes and their minds never be what they were before.  People can have Alzheimer’s disease, and it is terrible to watch them come to the place where they no longer recognize us, and we really no longer recognize them because of the changes that take place in their personalities.  Yet, people can have strong intellects, and, at the same time, be very weak in a moral and spiritual sense.  We often say that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and his writings do demonstrate great wisdom.  But anybody who thinks he can handle 300 wives and 400 concubines is also demonstrating some severe weakness in wisdom.  We can include the brain as part of this outward man that can be very strong in some ways, and yet not prevent us from some very serious moral failings.

In II Cor. 4:16, St. Paul writes, “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  There again is this distinction between the outward man and the inward man.  This outward man is described as perishing.    Whether we realize it or not, all of us are perishing in this outward man.  There is something within us, the aging process, and it is leading us toward that time when we are going to perish.  When sickness and old age comes along, that sense of the outward man perishing becomes more pronounced.    Bodily organs begin to fail, weakness begins to set in, muscles just aren’t as strong as they used to be, and these brains of ours just don’t seem to function as they once did—we are not able to learn things as fast as we once were, and we become forgetful.  Paul was right when he said that the outward man is perishing, and it is inevitable.

Nevertheless, he told the Corinthians that the inward man is being renewed day.  He told the Ephesians that he was praying that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  What is the inner man that must be strengthened and renewed?  The inner man, as I said, is more than the inner thoughts and feelings of a person.  The inner man is that new person that has been created in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Christians are new creations in Christ Jesus.  We are given a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit, an inner person that can love God and serve God and have fellowship with God.  It is this inner man that needs to be strengthened and renewed day by day.

You may not realize it at the present time, but you need this inner man, and you need this inner man to be strong.  It is this inner man that will help you during your times of temptation to say, “No.”  It is this inner man that receives the comforts of God when you are sick, bereaved, or facing tragedy in your life.  It is this inner man that is instructed, led, and guided by the Holy Spirit when you are facing difficult choices and decisions in your life.    The great advantage of being a Christian is that when all these things happen to you, you have this inner man to look to and rely upon.   One of the saddest moments in life for many people is that whenever they confront these terrible moments in life, they have no inner man.    They don’t have this person living within that can be comforted and guided during those awful moments.    Sometimes, even the Christian finds that though he has this inner man, he has not been nourishing it, strengthening it, and when these trials come, they find this inner man to be very weak.    For example, when temptations come, if the inner man has not been nourished, the inner man is not strong enough to overcome the desires of the flesh.  Remember how St. Paul put it in Romans 7: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:   But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23) . There again is that term “inward man,” and we can see that Paul says he delights in the law of God after the inward man.  That inward man has been placed in us by God himself, and as such, it delights in the law of God.  This inward man, placed in us by God, wants to obey God.  But there is something else present with us.  There is sin which still resides in us.  In Galatians 5:17, the apostle writes, “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”  There is this constant battle going on between the flesh and spirit, between our sinful nature and the inner man, and sometimes, the flesh wins.  We do the things we don’t want to do.  Deep down inside there is this inner man, this true self created by God that wants to do what is right in the sight of God.  But this inner man needs to be strengthened.

St. Paul tells these Ephesian Christians that he is praying for them that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them in the inner man.  How does this strengthening take place?  Do we just sit around and wait for it to happen.    No, once again, we must use all the means of grace at our disposal, and the Holy Spirit uses those means to strengthen us.  Just as we use means such as exercise and the right food to nourish these outward bodies, we need to use those things God has given us to strengthen the inner man.  We must study the Scriptures.  We must pray a great deal, praying specifically that the Holy Spirit would strengthen the inner man.  We need to attend worship and the preaching of God’s word.  We need the sacrament of Holy Communion.  We pray that as we take this Holy Communion that we will be “made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us and we in him.”   This is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to preserve us body and soul to everlasting life.  The Holy Spirit uses all these means of grace to strengthen the inner man.

Let me say a special word of encouragement to our young people.   Start strengthening this inner man now!  You are going to need him, and you are going to need him to be strong.  It is a terrible thing to wake up one day, facing a temptation, a trial, a sickness, or a tragedy and realize that you have such a weak inner man to face these challenges.  You know the old saying by Mickey Mantle, “If I knew I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”  The same thing is true of the inner man.  If you live long enough, you are going to need a strong inner man, and you will wish that you had been spending your time strengthening it.

Thanks be to God, abundant strength for the inner man is available if you will only spend the time and effort to access it, for Paul prays that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.”  Where do you get this strength for the inner man?  It is true that you get this strength from the Holy Spirit, but notice how St. Paul describes this source of strength.  St. Paul prays that God would grant this strength “according to the riches of his glory.”  Just think of all the trials and testing you will face.  You are going to need a great deal of strength.  But look to heaven and picture there a huge treasure chest filled with all the strength you need, described here as “the riches of his glory.”  That’s a lot of strength, isn’t it?  How much strength do you need?  All of that strength comes flowing to us from God’s abundant riches of strength. Do you need to be strengthened in the inner man?    Look to God right now and see how glorious he is.  He is glorious in strength and power.  Now, ask him for his strength.  Ask him, pray to him earnestly, and he will give the strength in the inner man that you need.  He has great riches of strength to share with you.

The wonderful thing about this inner strengthening is that it can continue throughout life.  I read to you a moment ago a passage from II Cor. 4, where Paul writes, “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.”  It is so sad that this outward man has to perish.  As we get older, we look in the mirror and see more evidence that the outward man is perishing.  We try so hard to keep the outward man from perishing, but no amount of money, no amount of good eating, and no amount of exercise can put it off forever.  The outward man is perishing.  There are all kinds of theories about why we age.  There are biological theories and genetic theories, and from time to time researchers say that they have come up with ways to slow it down.  Perhaps we will find ways to slow down the aging process in the future, but eventually the outward man perishes, and we all know that it is happening to each of us as we sit here now.  But Paul says that the inward man is being renewed day by day.  What would you think if you could say, “My body is being renewed every day?  I’m not getting older.  I’m getting younger”?  In a spiritual sense, that is to be true of the Christian.  Inwardly, we are not wearing out.  We are being renewed every day.  Bob Dylan wrote a song, later made more popular by The Byrds, where he says, “Oh, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”  The Christian can have that kind of outlook.  The Christian can say, “Every day, my outlook on life, my hope for the future, is getting brighter and brighter.”  Paul could say, “When you look at me, you just see the outward man.  You just see that I’m getting older and how I’m suffering all the results of years of persecution.  But you don’t see the inward man, how I’m being sustained, refreshed, rejuvenated, and this inner man will be sustained until that day when I am in heaven with energy, freshness, and youthful innocence, even better than that which Adam experienced in the Garden of Eden.”

What is the purpose of all this renewing?  Why does the Holy Spirit strengthen the inner man?  Why is the inward man being renewed day by day?  In this same chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul tells us why God strengthens the inner man:  “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;  And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God (Eph. 3:17-19). All this strengthening of the inner man is designed to show us the love of Christ, to reveal to us the love of Christ.  No matter what we are going through in this life, the inner man is strengthened to look beyond all this and see that love of God which passes knowledge, and when you comprehend that love, you are filled with all the fullness of God.    Let us look now to the riches of his glory and pray that we might be strengthened in the inner man to know the love of Christ which renews us day by day.  Amen.


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The New Pharisees

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, September 4, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:  Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.   The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.   I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.  And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14) 

If you really want to insult Christian people, call them a bunch of Pharisees.  As we read the New Testament, the Pharisees come across as one of the villainous groups ever portrayed in Scripture.  When we think of Pharisees we think of those who like to put their piety and devotion on display for the entire world to see.  We imagine them standing in public places, praying these loud, long prayers so that everyone will be sure to see them and praise them for being so devout and holy.  We see them wearing their long robes, with the beautiful borders, the phylacteries worn around their arms or on their foreheads to signal how they were always meditating upon and observing the law of God.  Perhaps, most of all, when we think of the Pharisees, we think of their hypocrisy.  While they put on such a show to convince people of how godly they were, tithing not only their money, but even their herbs, the Pharisees were capable of incredible cruelty.  Though they professed to be obedient to the law, they were those who devoured widow’s houses.  Though they made long prayers, we see them plotting how they might kill Jesus.

One of the most famous descriptions of the Pharisees is found in Luke 18.  Our Lord shows us that one of the chief characteristics of the Pharisees was that they thought they were so much better than other people.  In this Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, we notice how the Pharisee brags about how good he is.  He fasts, he tithes, and he is not an extortioner or unjust.  He’s not an adulterer.  Then, in the middle of his prayer, he sort of takes a peak and sees a tax collector, and in effect says, “I’m certainly much better than this tax collector.”  The Pharisee is someone who is convinced of his own goodness, his own righteousness, and how superior he is morally to other people.

Since the Pharisees were so religious, when we look for modern day examples of Pharisaism, we tend to look in the church.    We look for people in the church who pray, sing praises to God, give their money to the church, and yet lead hypocritical lives.  We look at such people and say, “These are the Pharisees of our generation.”  But I think we need to expand the membership of modern Pharisaism and include some other people.  In our generation, I would go so far as to say that most of the Pharisees are outside the church.   In our analysis of the Pharisees we often forget their chief characteristic was that they felt that they did not need a savior.    The Pharisee is someone that we call “self-righteous.”    The Pharisee believed that he was so good and holy, he didn’t need someone to save him from the guilt and power of his sin.    He would not even have classified himself as a sinner.  Those other people, the extortioners, the adulterers, the tax collectors, were the sinners.  We could define Pharisaism in this way:  the Pharisee is someone who feels no need to pray this prayer offered by the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  The Pharisee may pray a great deal, but he sees no need to pray that prayer.

You do not have to go to church to find people who feel that they have no need to pray that prayer.  We would have to say that most people in America today, even among those who are not in the church, see no need to pray, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

In our day, we have intellectual Pharisees.  The chief characteristic of the Pharisee is that he despises others.  Our modern intellectual Pharisees despise others, considering themselves to be so intellectually superior to those fools in churches who believe those fairy stories in the Bible.  While they wouldn’t thank God for their superiority, as this Pharisee in the parable did, they would say to themselves, “I am so glad I am not as other men are.  I am intellectually superior and know that there is no proof for the existence of God.  I am thankful that my keen, enlightened intellect has freed me from the idea that there is a superior being to whom I must one day give account, so there is no need for me to grovel before an almighty tyrant and plead for his mercy.”

Then we have those who say that they believe in God, but they are so superior to those who go to church, because they are broad-minded and tolerant.  They brag that they are so much better than those bigots who go to conservative churches.  They have come to the conclusion that all those verses in the Bible that speak of God being a God of wrath and justice are just remnants of a very primitive belief system.  They have “demythologized” the Bible and have seen that there is no need to look upon ourselves as sinners, because God doesn’t see us as sinners.  They believe that God sees us as those who have made some mistakes, but there is no need to ask God for mercy, for God is not going to hold us accountable for our sins anyway.  They pray with themselves, “God I thank you, that I have realized that I am not a sinner, and even if I were, I still wouldn’t have to ask you for mercy, because you are so loving, you are not going to hold me accountable for my actions.”

Then there are those who call themselves Christians, but won’t go to church because there are too many hypocrites in the church.  This is one of the reasons why I say that so many Pharisees are outside the church.  The new Pharisee is not someone who is inside the church, feeling superior to those outside the church.  The new Pharisee is that person who is outside the church, because he feels he is so superior to those inside the church.   These are the people who pride themselves on saying, “Those hypocrites in the church are religious, but I’m not religious.  I’m spiritual.”  The next time you hear someone use that slogan, just remember, you are listening to a proud Pharisee.  They don’t go to church because they are too good, too spiritual to mingle with those religious hypocrites.  Since they are not guilty of such hypocrisy, they could not bear to get off their lofty pedestal and associate with those ungodly hypocrites who go to church.  They stand and pray with themselves saying, “God I thank you that I am not like those hypocritical people who go to church.  There is no need for me to pray, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner,’ because I am so spiritual.”  Yes, it is true that the church has its share of Pharisees, but atheists, agnostics, members of other religions, and those who don’t go to church have their own form of Pharisaism.  They all have this characteristic in common—they are intellectually, morally, and spiritually, better than other people.

But what is the opposite of Pharisaism? The opposite of the Pharisee is seen in this tax collector who will not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but smites his breast saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  The Christian does not feel that he is superior to anyone, morally, spiritually, or intellectually.  How could the Christian ever feel superior to anyone when the first thing that a Christian has discovered about himself is that he is a sinner?  The Holy Spirit has opened his eyes and made him look into the deep recesses of his heart and what has he found there?  The Christian has found within himself hatred, envy, jealousy, lust, idolatry, cruelty, and other things too horrible to mention.  The Christian knows that there is no sin that he is not capable of committing.  The Christian looks at all the people of the Bible, like David, and knows, that given the right opportunity and the right pressure, he is capable of committing those sins and more.    Even when the Christian sees someone who is living in open rebellion against the law of God, his is always the famous sentiment, “There but by the grace of God, go I.”    The Christian knows that his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked.  The Christian knows that if he has any virtue at all, it was planted there by Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit has worked in him and produced in him the fruit of righteousness.  We have done nothing at all worthy of praise.

Christians realize that they are sinners, and if we have any goodness at all, it is because God has had mercy on us and produced that goodness in us.  We have nothing of which to boast.  We can’t boast that we are believers because we are intellectually superior.  We are not believers because we have these wonderfully reasonable minds that have deduced with our keen intellects that the gospel is true.  The Christian knows that if he believes it is because God had mercy on him and granted him the ability to believe.  We are just like other people.  By nature, we don’t want to believe the gospel.    By nature, we would much rather not believe the gospel, but God in his mercy has shown us that the gospel is the truth, and gave us hearts to love the gospel message.  Believe a believer is nothing that we can brag or boast about.  Our ability to believe is the merciful act of God.

The Christian knows that he is no better than those outside the church, and he doesn’t have a haughty attitude toward people inside the church either.   The Christian looks upon other believers in Christ as those who are fellow sinners who have received mercy.  We see this humility in St. Paul when he said,   “For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.  But by the grace of God I am what I am” (I Cor. 15:9-10).  Notice how the apostle says that though he is an apostle, he is not worthy to be called an apostle.  He had been a persecutor of the church, and if he has accomplished anything for the cause of Christ, it is because of the grace of God working in him.  He has done nothing of which he can boast as any kind of innate goodness or virtue.   St. Paul continues these kinds of descriptions of himself.   We find him looking upon himself as  “the least of the apostles,” “less than the least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), and “the chief of sinners” (I Tim. 1:15).  The believer in Christ sees himself the same light.

St. Paul constantly admonishes Christians not to be proud and think ourselves better than others.  In Phil. 2:3, he says, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  In Romans 12:3, he writes, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” Paul constantly warns us about the sin of being “highminded,” conceited, arrogant, and proud.   When St. Paul talks about how the Jews were rejected and the Gentiles were grafted into the church, Paul tells Gentile Christians, “Be not highminded but fear.  For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:20-21).  The Christian knows what unbelief lurks in his heart, just waiting for the opportunity to fill our hearts with faithlessness.  Don’t be highminded, but fear.

If there is one characteristic of modern people, especially people in the United States, I would have to say that it is we are highminded—we think we are so much better than we really are.  But Christians,  knowing what we know about ourselves, knowing that what we have done and what we are capable of doing, knowing what a strong tendency there is in us to abandon the faith, we begin the Christian life and end the Christian life with the same prayer, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Even on the last day, when we stand before the judgment bar of God, we will still have only one plea.  We will not stand there saying, “I have done many good works.  I have gone to church.  I have read my Bible daily.  I have contributed to charities.  Surely I deserve a place in heaven because I have been such a good husband, father, mother, wife, such a faithful church member.”  No, we will still be saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Down through the centuries, the people of God have always kept this posture of pleading for the mercy of God.  In Psalm 25:7, the Psalmist prays, “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O LORD.”  The Psalmist doesn’t deny that he is a sinner.  He knows that he is and pleads for mercy.  After David committed his terrible sin with Bathsheba, he begins that beautiful penitential prayer of the 51st Psalm, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.”  David doesn’t say, “Lord, I know that I did wrong, but think back on all the good things I did before I sinned and all the good things I am going to do in the future.”  No, he pleads for mercy.  When St. Paul describes how the Christian has been saved, he puts it like this, “ Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost“(Titus 3:5).  God didn’t save us because we did so many good works.  We have no works of righteousness.  All our righteousness is as filthy rags in the sight of God.  We are saved only because of the mercy that has been shown to us in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.  Christians are often accused of being Pharisees—being haughty, proud, arrogant, feeling that they are better than other people.  If a person is bragging about his own goodness, he is no Christian.  The Christian is one who realizes that he is merely the recipient of mercy.

The great characteristic of true Anglican worship is prayer.  But if I go a little further and ask, “What kind of prayer is most characteristic of Anglican praying,” we would say that it is prayer for mercy.    We open our service with the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”    Three times we ask for mercy, and if we do the ninefold version, nine  times we ask for mercy.  If we do the Decalogue, ten times we ask for mercy.  We begin the service in this manner because we know that even our worship, even our prayers, are filled with such sin and imperfection that they are only received because God is merciful.  In the remainder of the service some 16 times the word “mercy” or some form of it, such as “merciful” is used in our service, not counting the collects and other prayers we use that often contain the word “mercy.”   As a matter of fact, if someone asked you, “What do you do in the worship services of the church,” our answer would be quite unusual for these days.  We would say,  “What we do most in our worship service is plead for mercy.”  I would invite you this morning, for the rest of the service to take note how many times we use the word mercy in our service, not even counting the many hymns we sing that contain that word.  Anglican worship encourages the posture and the attitude of this tax collector.  We do not lift proud and arrogant eyes to heaven and boast of our goodness.  We bow our heads and plead for mercy.  You can’t really see it during the service of Holy Communion, because I have my back turned to you, but while I am saying the prayer, “And though we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offences..,”  I strike my chest.  It is a way of remembering this description of the tax collector who smote his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  I make that action on behalf of us all, for we know that we are unworthy to be here, unworthy to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but God receives it out of mercy through Christ our Lord.

The characteristic of the Pharisee, whether we find it in first century Palestine or in 21st century America, is the same.  The Pharisee refuses to bow, refuses to smite his breast in agony over his sin, and refuses to plead for mercy.  But the good news of the gospel is that for all who recognize that they are sinners and that they need mercy, God will grant his merciful forgiveness to those who ask him.  In Psalm 86:5, we find the words, “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.”  In Eph. 2, Paul described the condition of the Ephesians before they came to Christ and he says that they walked according to the course of this world.  That is, they yielded to Satan and his devices, they lived in lust, fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and of the mind, and they were those who deserved the wrath of God.  Then, St. Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5).  We are saved for one reason:  God is rich in mercy.  God is so rich in mercy, he sent his son to die on the cross for us.  If we will only believe in what Christ did on the cross, he will forgive all our sins.  He will have mercy on all who come to him through Christ.  Let us come once again to this holy table, praying again the prayer of the tax collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and then resting assured that he will pity us, for  he is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.  Amen.

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What Have We Done to the House of Prayer? 

A Sermon Preached on Sunday, August 28, 2011, by

The Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph. D.,

At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 

 And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; Saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.   And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him,   And could not find what they might do: for all the people were very attentive to hear him. (Luke 19:45-48)

             One of our old hymns refers to our Lord as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”  Our Lord was meek and mild, referring to himself as meek and lowly in heart.  He describes himself as the good shepherd who takes tender care of his sheep.  He is the one who was so filled with compassion for the multitudes that he healed many of those who were sick and possessed of evil spirits.  He showed tenderness and love for people such as lepers, adulterers, and even a thief hanging on a cross.  But out Lord was also capable of being very stern and even caustic in his speech.  He could look at a crowd of scribes and Pharisees and call them hypocrites, white-washed tombs, serpents, and a generation of vipers.  Of all the incidents in the life of our Lord, the one that seems to be most out of character for the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” is the one desribing his driving of the money changers out of the temple.  We know the story of how on Palm Sunday he went into the temple and surveyed the scene.  Jesus knew what was going in there at that time, and he could have driven out the money changers then.  Instead, he goes back to Bethany, and has all night to think about it.  Then, the next day, on Monday, he goes into the temple and cleanses it.  This was not some moment when Jesus suddenly lost his temper and started overturning tables.  This act was definitely a pre-meditated.  He looks around, no doubt with fire in his eyes, and begins to cast these people out of the temple.  Throughout the life of our Lord, I am sure that he saw many sinful things.  He was treated in despicable ways by the scribes and Pharisees, but we never see him reacting like this to any of the evil activities around him.  What happened in the temple that infuriated him so? He was angry because of what these people were doing to his house.

            According to our Lord, the temple, the house of God, was designed to be the house of prayer.  If you look at everything that went on in the temple, there were more activities than simply prayer.  We know that there were many sacrifices offered.  We know that there was music.  We know that in some parts of the temple precincts, teaching took place.    But it is interesting that our Lord does not say, “My house is the house of sacrifice.”  He doesn’t say, “My house is the house of music.”  He doesn’t say, “My house is the house of teaching.”  He says, “My house is the house of prayer.”  Why does he characterize the temple as a house of prayer above all else?  The temple was, first and foremost,t a place where people were to gaze upon the glory of God and worship him.  Prayer is our act of devotion whereby we lift the soul to God and seek his face and behold his glory.  In Solomon’s prayer when he dedicated the temple, he used language that indicated that prayer was to be the central activity connected with this place of worship:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?  Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer, which thy servant prayeth before thee to day:  That thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there: that thou mayest hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall make toward this place.   And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive.  (I Kings 8:27-30).

What was the temple but a place where God was to be sought?  Even the sacrifices that were offered in the temple were designed to purify the people of God so that they might approach him in prayer.  The incense that was offered was a symbol of the prayers his people arising to heaven.    The central act of devotion in the temple was prayer.

          Christian worship is no different.  The reason we gather in our churches is to pray.  When Paul told Timothy what should be done when the people of God meet together, he said, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:1-2).  Prayer is the key ingredient of our daily lives and our public worship.

          Though this incident of the cleansing of the temple is recorded in the other gospel accounts, it must have been very special to Luke, because Luke, more than any other, is the gospel that emphasizes prayer.  Luke tells us, for example, that when Jesus was baptized, he was praying and the heavens were opened.  In Luke 5:16, we are told that Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.   In the story of the Transfiguration, Luke tells us that Christ was transfigured as he was praying (Luke 9:29).  Luke says that Jesus was praying just before he gave us what we call the Lord’s prayer:  “And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.  And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father…” (Luke 11:1-2).  The disciples knew that our Lord was a man of prayer, and when they saw him praying, they must have thought, “Oh, how we wish we could pray like that.  Lord, teach us to pray.”  In Luke 18:1, we read, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint.”  Luke is truly “the prayer gospel.”

          St. Luke is the one who especially emphasizes that the temple was the place of prayer.  In the story about the birth of John the Baptist, we are told that Zacharias was in the temple offering the incense and that “the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense” (Luke 1:10).  It was as those prayers were offered that the angel Gabriel appears to Zacharias.   Then in Luke 2, we read that wonderful story of Anna who was in the temple day and night.  What is she doing in the temple?   “And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37).  Anna was using the temple for its proper purpose.  It was to be a house of prayer

           These people whom Jesus casts out were not using the temple as a place of prayer.  There have been many explanations about why Jesus drove these people out of the temple.  Some have said Jesus was angry because they were using it as a place to make a profit.  He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”    When he cleansed the temple in John 2 he says to those who sold doves, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.”  These money-changers were not there to seek the face of God in prayer.  They knew that sacrifices had to be offered in the temple.  Many people did not have the space, facilities, or money to raise animals for their own sacrifices, so they had to buy them.  These money-changers saw this system as an opportunity to cash in on the religious market.   There was nothing really wrong in selling animals for sacrifice, but theywere sinning in the money-exchange system.  Let’s say that you were trying to change pesos into dollars and someone gave you less dollars than what the pesos were worth.  You would have been cheated, right?  The money-changers were engaging in the same kind of activity.  When people exchanged their money, they were receving money in return of less value.  The money-changer were stealing from the people.  They had turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves, or a “cave of bandits” as one translation has it.

          Some have suggested that Jesus was angry because all of this activity was happening in the court of the Gentiles.  You remember that Gentiles could not enter the temple proper, but there was a court designated for those Gentiles who wanted to pray.  All of this buying and selling was going on in the court of the Gentiles, preventing the Gentiles from being able to worship.  In Mark’s account Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”  This buying and selling was preventing the “nations ,” the Gentiles from engaging in prayer to God.

          Some people have said that Jesus was angry about the hypocrisy of the people.  They were supposed to be there for prayer, but they lived in such a way that made prayer an act of hypocrisy.  The phrase, “den of thieves” comes from Jeremiah 7 where the temple is described as a den of robbers:

          The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying,  Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD.  Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.   Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these.   For if ye throughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye throughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour;  If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt:   Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.   Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit.   Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not;   And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?  Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD.   But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.

          In this passage, the Lord says that his people are guilty of oppressing the fatherless and widows.   Then engaged in idolatry, theft, murder, and then they would come into the temple and claim to be worshiping God.  They even put their trust in the temple, believing that since they came to the temple, God would protect them from judgment no matter how they lived.    The people in the time of Christ had done the same.  They were living ungodly lives, but believed that since they were the chosen people, the people who had the glorious temple, God would protect them.   Jesus has warned them that one day the Romans are going to come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple.    If the temple of God had truly been the house of prayer, then this judgment of God would not have come upon them.  But the temple was no longer a place of prayer.  It was a gathering place of hypocrites.   They said they were worshiping God while at the same time, by their actions, they were robbing God of his glory.

          Whatever might have been the reason our Lord was angry on this occasion, we can be certain that what has infuriated our Lord so much is that the people have turned the temple into something other than what it was intended it to be.  He was saying that his should be called the house of prayer, but they have made it into something else.  If our Lord were to visit our churches today, I wonder how he would complete that sentence.  “My house is house of prayer, but you have made it….”    What have we made the house of prayer? How many churches do you know of today that you would honestly refer to as “the house of prayer?”  They might be called many things, but not the house of prayer, because what goes on in there is usually anything but prayer.  There may be a few prayers sprinkled in the service between the other “main events,” but prayer is definitely not the focus.  If our Lord were to attend our churches today, perhaps he would say, “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a social club where you  gather to meet with friends and make business contacts.”  “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a place where teen-agers can hook up with other teen-agers.”  “My temple is the house of prayer, but you have made it an amusement park, a sanctified version of Disney World.”  “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a rock concert.”  “My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it Broadway show.”  “My house is the house of prayer, but you have made it a three-ring circus.”

          Let me go further.  Sometimes, we put even legitimate things ahead of prayer.  For example, it is right to sing praises and have beautiful music in the house of God, but music is not the primary reason we are here, though the baby-boomers of my generation have made it the primary reason to attend a church service.    It is right to preach and teach in the house of God, but we must not elevate even preaching above prayer.  The great Anglican preacher Henry Liddon put it like this:

No well-instructed, no really spiritual, Christian thinks of his parish church mainly or chiefly as a place for hearing sermons. Sermons are of great service….  Still, if a comparison is to be instituted between prayers and sermons, there ought not to be a moment’s doubt as to the decision; for it is not said, “My house shall be called a house of preaching,” but “My house shall be called the house of prayer.” Surely it is a much more responsible act, and, let me add, it is a much greater privilege, to speak to God, whether in prayer or praise, than to listen to what a fellow-sinner can tell you about Him; and when a great congregation is really joining in worship, when there is a deep spiritual, as it were an electric, current of sympathy traversing a vast multitude of souls as they make one combined advance to the foot of the eternal throne, then, if we could look at these things for a moment with angels’ eyes, we should see something infinitely greater, according to all the rules of a true spiritual measurement, than the effect of the most eloquent and the most persuasive of sermons.  “My house shall be called the house of prayer” is a maxim for all time, and if this be so, then all that meets the eye, all that falls upon the ear within the sacred walls, should be in harmony with this high intention, should be valued and used only with a view to promoting it. Architecture, painting, mural decoration, and the like, are only in place when they lift the soul upwards towards the invisible, when they conduct it swiftly and surely to the gate of the world of spirits, and then themselves retire from thought and from view.   Music the most pathetic, the most suggestive, is only welcome in the temples of Christ, when it gives wings to spiritualised thought and feeling, when it promotes the ascent of the soul to God. If these beautiful arts detain men on their own account, to wonder at their own intrinsic charms, down among the things of sense; if we are thinking more of music than of Him whose glory it heralds, more of the beauty of form and colour than of Him whose Temple it adorns, then be sure we are robbing God of His glory, we are turning His temple into a den of thieves.

I hope you see what Henry Liddon was saying.  The church is primarily a place where we seek God, to behold his glory, and to have communion with him.  All of that is accomplished in prayer.  But if we elevate anything of these other things to a place above prayer, then we are not gathering in the house of God to seek his glory   We are there merely to enjoy ourselves the way we would at a sporting event.  Many American Christians go to certain churches because they like the style of music.  But the question must be asked, “Is that style of music conducive to quiet, reverent, humble, heart-felt prayer?”  If we make architecture or music the primary focus of our worship, rather than prayer, then we have made an idol of these things.  Any time we come to church with some other purpose to draw near to God in prayer, we are robbing God of his glory.  We have made this place a den of thieves by seeking our own enjoyment rather than the face of God.

          The church that emphasizes prayer may not be very popular. Such activity is not very exciting to most people.  Such worship is not very likely to draw the crowds, because for most people, nothing could be more boring and tedious than prayer.  It takes discipline to pray.  It takes focus and concentration to pray.  It takes a heart that loves God and truly wants to draw near to him to pray.  We may attract crowds with activities other than prayer, but if the house of God is not primarily the house of prayer, then it has no claim at all to being called the house of God.

          This story in the life of our Lord has an interesting conclusion.  Jesus says, “My house shall be called the house of prayer,” and next sentence is, “And he taught daily in the temple.”  When the house of God becomes the house of prayer, when you drive out of it the things that have no place there, when the house of God has been cleansed of those things that corrupt it, then it becomes the house of prayer, and it can become a place where the word of God can be taught.  Preaching and teaching without prayer, without seeking God, merely turns the church into a lecture hall, a place where we just engage in an intellectual pursuit of facts and knowledge, but with no real power to convict and transform.  A great deal of time is given in our church to the teaching and preaching of God’s word, but if this church is not primarily the house of prayer, then the preaching will be ineffective.  In Acts 4 we have one of the prayers of the apostles after they have been threatened that they should not preach in the name of Jesus anymore.  So, they pray to God for courage.  And in Acts 4:31, we read, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.”  No preaching and teaching the word of God will be attended with true spiritual power unless the church of God is the house of prayer.   Nothing that we do will be worth anything, unless we are the house of prayer.  The preaching will be powerless.  The music will only be entertainment.  The sacraments will be robbed of their intent, for what is the sacrament designed to do but lift our souls to heaven so that we might have fellowship and communion God.   May God give us grace that all churches in the days and years ahead will resist the temptation to become anything other than the house of prayer.  Amen.

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