God’s Presence or Personal Productivity?
Recently, a small group of about 19 college students at Asbury Seminary lingered in their auditorium during chapel and something unexpected happened: the presence of God fell in such a powerful, transcendent way that prayer and worship broke out 24/7 for the next several weeks. It grew so much, that the town that is built to handle 7,000 people swelled to receive over 100,000 people and the police shut down the roads because the city infrastructure could not handle it.
These special kinds of outpourings of God’s presence began to pop up on other college campuses in the US too, and many, believe this is a sign of a greater revival to sweep across our nation just like it did with the Jesus people in the 1970s during the hippie era. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Jesus Revolution movie which recently came out about the Jesus people movement did at the same time when the early signs of revival are beginning to show again.
The conditions for revival are right. We live in a time of global tension over the war in Ukraine, we’ve just come out of a pandemic. Loneliness, depression and anxiety are at an all-time high. People are living however they want without regard to God. It reminds me of what is written in Judges 17:6 – “In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” There is a lack of spiritual power in most churches. Even high-profile Christians leaders and churches are in a season being exposed for shallowness, corruption, sexual sin, and abuse. It’s time for a year of jubilee.
You can probably see or feel the signs of the times too. Maybe you know there’s got to be more to life than being on an endless treadmill of working hard, and scrolling through your social media fees. You may Interact with people but still isolated. Do you feel the hunger for something more growing in you?
In Matthew 21 we read about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem swelled in size from 30K to 2M as Jewish worshippers made the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the Passover. The city was a madhouse of activity, and entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunity:
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The temple courts were a place that God had originally intended to be space dedicated to prayer & worship, a place where God was the primary focus. The gentiles could normally use the outer courts where all this was happening, to pray. It certainly would have been distracting to pray in the inner courts with all the noise too. Being profitable had become higher priority than being prayerful. I wonder how much productivity drowns out our prayer lives? I feel this tension every day!
Jesus’ use of the phrase “den of robbers” implies that the temple had become a place where at least some there were selling at unfair prices. And most of the pilgrims were poor. We can assume that at least some the salespeople were essentially robbing poor people. However, most of those selling animals were probably just thinking about make a living.
Jesus also seems to be implying here that the bigger issue is that people are being robbed of their opportunity to worship and pray together. Jesus interrupts business as usual to remind them what’s important. Pursuing the presence of God always takes priority over profitability and productivity.
What Jesus was doing had even deeper significance. Jesus’ actions here are signaling God’s end of the sacrificial system altogether as a new era is about to begin. In fact, in just a few days, Jesus was going to die as the ultimate sacrifice and do away with the need for temple sacrifices, so that those who trust in him could be made right with God again.
It’s interesting, once Jesus did away with all the nonsense, it cleared the way for some incredible things to happen. The first is healing.
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
The second is God worked powerfully among the children as they praised God together:
15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
Children worshipping Jesus is a sign of that the kingdom of God is at hand. Nothing makes me happier to see my own children, and the children in our church, giving glory to God. Did you know that revivals often start with young people praying, like the Jesus people movement in the 70s? That’s where it’s starting now, among college students.
This section of scripture closes with Jesus withdrawing for a brief time to get some rest, as was his custom, for what was going to be the biggest week of his life, and the most important week in history:
17 And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
There are some really important lessons that Jesus models for his disciples in this story, and many of them push against a key narrative at the heart of our culture today called expressive individualism that is causing so many societal problems. Expressive individualism emphasizes the importance of self-expression and individual choice, but it leads to social fragmentation and self-indulgence. It’s one of the reasons so many people are pursuing sex instead of authentic relationships, drugs – or other addictions like work instead of the God’s presence, and entertainment instead of worship and prayer.
I see the fruits of individualism in my conversations with people about faith quite often. The other week a friend of mine at the gym told me how she stopped going to church after COVID and didn’t feel the need to go back because she could practice her faith by herself. So many people today feel they can be “spiritual on their own.” And they are leaving or ignoring churches as a combination of this narrative combined with the way churches would use money or many of the other abuses they’ve seen, and simply lack genuine spiritual vibrancy.
I want to leave you with three reasons why, from what Jesus models and teaches here in Matthew 21:12-17, it’s essential that every follower of Jesus needs to be an active participant in a praying community, or as Jesus referred to it as: a House of Prayer.
Firstly, children need a community to teach them how to pray. I’m inspired the picture of children praising God in this story. That happened in community worship setting. Children need more than their own family has to offer. The old adage “It takes a village” is true.
My wife and I have given our lives to ministry, and we do Bible studies and pray with our children at home, but we still depend on the church. Our children need to experience the house of prayer in order for their faith to become their own and not just be the faith of their parents.
In fact, we all need a church community for the same reason, especially for people young believers, because it provides a place for understanding and putting God’s word into practice. The church helps us see how what is read from the scriptures comes to life.
Secondly, we need to be part of a house of prayer because it creates a context where people can come and be healed by Jesus. God’s power is present when God’s people pray. This is our invitation: come as you are and be restored. We’ve seen God bring healing to people physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The mission of Jesus is to seek and save the lost. So whether it’s a big group on Sunday, a small group on Wednesday, or a couple going out to share their faith in two’s, God’s people are the dwelling place of his presence where people can come to be healed.
Lastly, we need to be part of a praying community because God designed prayer to be both individual and communal. You can’t do what Jesus taught if you only pray by yourself. The church is a community where God’s people come together to pray in order to live out God’s purposes for their community.
Prayer in not an obligation as some see it, but it is an invitation that leads to transformation in the hearts of those who pray together and in the lives we are called to serve. Prayer is the natural consequence of those who believe the good news of Jesus. The good news is that God wants a relationship with us, his family. God’s family lives out their relationship with God in prayer.
As we see here, Jesus often left his public ministry life to spend time alone praying. But most of his time was spent with people. The pattern of Jesus is to live in community, to pray in community, and serve others in community, and to punctuate those times in community with times of solitude and rest in order to be sustained for God’s long-term purposes to seek and save those who are far away from Him.
God’s vision for the church is that we would be a house of prayer with a purpose (in the gospel of Mark he adds “for all nations”). To bring about a Jesus revolution in our day and our time. Oh God, let it be so!
So how is our church doing this? From the beginning, we’ve been intentional about keeping prayer infused into everything we do. In our Sunday services, everyone is invited to pray beforehand at 9:45am with one of the teams. During our services we create space to worship and pray and quiet ourselves to listen to him. Conversation goes two ways. After our service, we leave room for people to receive prayer for healing or whatever else they need. And the final Sundays of the month we’ve now dedicated to mostly prayer and worship to pursue this vision to be a house of prayer with a purpose full of God’s presence.
If we want to experience the awesome wonder of God’s presence, we need to interrupt our busy schedules and slow down. For example, when you wake up the morning, do you first check your phone or first pray? How often do you pray while you are at work?
Don’t let productivity & profitability rob you of God’s presence.
I’d encourage you: ask the Holy Spirit: “what do you want to clear out in my life to make more room for pursuing your presence in prayer?”