The synoptic gospels all record Jesus as saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer” [Matt 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46], which is a direct quote from Isaiah the prophet:
“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” [Isaiah 56:6–7]
The challenge for us today is to to honestly ask if Jesus would consider our church a “house of prayer”? Do we really understand the call of Jesus’ church to be a people hallmarked by prayer? Do we truly see the link between the power of prayer and God’s movement in history? Do we commit to both corporate and private times of prayer as a church? Sadly, for too many churches and pastors, the answer is no.
If we can honestly assess both ourselves and our churches we will come up with the answer that corporately we are not as prayerful as we are called to be. As leaders, what are we called to do about it? Let me offer a simple answer through a common pattern we see in Israel.
The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother. The Spirit of the LORD was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the LORD gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)
Consider the following pattern as not only what has happened in the days of Israel, but what takes place today. In simple terms, here is what takes place:
- God is good to his people and they enjoy his blessings. Whether it is Israel inheriting the land God gave them, or the first century church being empowered by the Holy Spirit, whenever people are walking rightly with God, things are good.
- God’s people tend to get complacent. Sin enters in, God’s people capitulate to the cultures around them, and allow their hearts to wander away from God. If God’s people do not course-corrected at this point, things go downhill fast.
- When God’s people don’t repent, God tends to lift his hand of blessing. That can be as severe as Israel’s loss of land and being taken into captivity, or something far less like just being outside the blessing God desires to shower on his people. For us in the church today it seems to be appearing as an impotence in being the Church Jesus empowered us to be.
- When God’s people return to God, he hears their prayers and returns to them.
In the Judges passage an all too common story arises. Israel, after enjoying the covenant blessing of God for a time, inevitably gets complacent. As they allow their hearts to wander, they move further away from God and into idolatry. Eventually God lifts his hand of blessing off of them, and they lose what God had given them. After enough pain and heartache they remember God, and reach out to God in prayer. The highlight of the passage is God faithfully returning to them, pouring out his Spirit on them, and restoring them.
This story is common with Israel. It is common with the church today too. Just imagine the timeline of Church History and compare it to the history of Israel in the Old Testament. We see the same thing: times of blessing, times of idolatry, and times where God moves mightily again. But, where are we today? Not many who study the church in America for overall health and effectiveness would say that the church is doing well. It doesn’t take a statistician or biblical scholar to see that Jesus commissioned a powerful church, enabled them to do incredible things, and sent them on a God-sized Kingdom mission. If all that is still true, if we are still that church, why don’t we look a bit more like the church Jesus designed us to be? Could it be that we have lost our orientation for prayer?
The church was designed to be under God’s blessing. Jesus clearly commissioned his Bride to be a powerful community that would take his gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus teaches us that we will do even greater things after he is gone (John 14:12). Why then when we measure ourselves by Scripture do we find a church that seems so impotent?
The early church gathered often for prayer together (corporate prayer particularly). Luke records words like, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer”, and “we will devote ourselves to prayer” [Acts 1:14 and 6:4]. It was during times of prayer that God did amazing things like pour out his Holy Spirit on the people, commission leaders for ministry, miraculously setting Peter free from jail, and even raise the dead. So why not us?
What do we do when we find ourselves outside of where God has called us to be? What do we do if we find that we as a church have become complacent and too much like our culture? How has God called us to return to him, when we find that we are no longer the people he created us to be? The answer is simple: return to God in prayer.
What if we used the famous passage in 2 Chronicles written to Israel about just such a time in their lives? God told Israel that he was with them, and would remain with them, but they were prone to walking away. He provide for their complacency and sin before they even acted it out.
Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.
God provides the answer for Israel’s departure, even before they do it. In short, God says when Israel wanders away he will lift his blessing from to get their attention. However, when they return to him, he will return to them. He promises to do so when Israel returns in prayer. God even repeats himself again saying, “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.”
This brings us back to where we began: would God consider our church to be a “house of prayer”? If we desire to see another “great awakening” sweep our country, if we desire to see more empowering like the first century church, and if we desire to accomplish the mission that Jesus set us on, we need to return in prayer.