All the People Hung on His Words
“I can pray out in the woods so much better than in a church!” But do you do that? Seriously, I hear so many excuses as a priest from folks who can’t seem to make regular church attendance a priority in their lives. And most of those lives are marked by a consistent inattentiveness to God in their everyday lives.
We struggle with the space between our “good intentions” and the actual habits of our lives. Believe it or not, that’s a “good” thing because confronting this reality in our lives is the first step in true repentance and serious spiritual growth.
That’s why holy places are so very important to make all places holy! Setting apart a Prayer Corner in your home, investing to build a church where you and others can focus your prayers together, and making one place holy so that all places can become holy, is the reason for sacred space.
But how do we keep Holy Places Holy?
Look at our lesson today in Luke 19:45-48:
At that time, Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people hung upon his words.
The 2nd Jewish Temple built by Herod was one of the wonders of the Ancient World. It was magnificent to behold! It was the center of worship for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was also the center of life for people living in Jerusalem and people making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. So, the Temple was also a place of commerce and trade as the pilgrims needed items for the sacrificial system of worship. The old “find a need and fill it” entrepreneurial spirit at work!
But something happens to a holy place when most of the people around it start taking the holy place for granted, or, worse yet, reduce the holy place to some magical mind game where I give God something and then He’s obligated to give me something. When Jesus was teaching in Jerusalem He found this to be happening to His Father’s House. So Jesus “reholyed” the place!
First, the Lord reminded the people of the purpose of the Holy Place. This was to be a House of Prayer. By the way, as we’ve talked about before, the word “holy” literally means “set apart for a specific and exclusive use.” And the Temple had become a noisy, crowded, place where it seems prayer had been reduced to simply going through the motions, and being there was more for the visiting of friends and “coffee hour” rather than a turning toward God. This made Jesus angry. Because the misuse of the Temple was a grave spiritual danger to everyone there! Jesus wasn’t “defending” the Father so much as He was trying to reorient the people toward the Father. The people of the Temple had forgotten the “why” of this Holy Place, and when you forget your “why” you lose your way!
Next, Jesus confronts the people with the spot where they went wrong. They had turned the House of Prayer into a “den of robbers.” The first step toward losing holiness is inattentiveness to purpose! Every time. Without exception. Then the “holy place” becomes something it was never intended to be, and usually what it becomes is the exact opposite of what it was supposed to be! The Temple was to bring people closer to God, and when the people forgot that purpose the Temple became a place where people weren’t coming close to God AND they were even becoming distant from each other in spirit! The Temple was to be a place of meeting between God and Man, and it devolved into the exact opposite!
Our Lord then “restores” the Temple to its original purpose by physically driving out those who would serve the purpose of inattentiveness. And He reorients the People back toward being attentive to the original purpose! If you want a true picture of Authentic Love being Judgement and punishment, here it is. Jesus loves these “money changers” and He loves them so much He refuses to help them stay sick! That’s what the hard work of love looks like.
And that’s how we restore a sense of holiness, a sense of attentiveness to our need for holiness in our everyday lives. We actively remove those focuses that feed inattentiveness to God and we return our lives to their original purpose which is to become by grace what Christ is by nature. The whole purpose of worship, of liturgy, of the disciplines of the faith is to drive out inattentiveness and reorient us toward exclusive devotion to God.
St. Stephen the New was a saint who contested for the Lord in the early 8th century when iconoclasm was beginning to rage through the Eastern Roman Empire. St. Stephen’s mother, Anna, had asked the Theotokos for a son, and God granted her request. Anna approached the new Patriarch of Constantinople, St. Germanus, to bless her son in the womb, and St. Germanus said “May God bless him through the prayers of the holy First Martyr Stephen.” True to his namesake, St. Stephen was a devout follower of Jesus. He was strict with himself but patient and generous with others. His devotion to strict spiritual disciplines for himself led the brothers of Mount Auxentius hermitages to name him as their leader. St. Stephen opposed the heresy of iconoclasm, so much so, that the evil Emperor Constantine V, who was not only against the icons, but a fierce hater of monasticism, punished him severely when St. Stephen rejected the false council the emperor had conveigned. While exiled St. Stephen saw many people turned from iconoclasm by the miracles God worked through him. Finally, the wicked and insane emperor ordered St. Stephen to be brought before him again to face the threat of death if he didn’t abandon the True Faith. When St. Stephen confronted the Emperor with a coin with his likeness on it, he asked all there in the court “If any man trampled on this image, is he liable to punishment?” All in the room said yes, someone trampling the image of the emperor should be punished. The saint groaned at their blindness and immediately threw the coin on the ground and stepped on it. After much torture, St. Stephen was stoned, just like his namesake, and received the crown of a true witness for Christ.
Today, are you struggling with inattentiveness to the purpose of your life? You were made to be God’s eternal companion and anything less than that purpose is always going to sell your true self short! By embracing a Normal Orthodox Life you can create a “holy place” in your own heart!
P.S. Trained on the mountain in ascetical labors, with the whole armor of the Cross you did vanquish the spiritual arrays of unseen enemies; and when you had stripped yourself with great courage for contest, you did slay Copronymus with the sword of the true Faith. For both these things have you been crowned by God, O righteous Martyr, blessed Stephen of great renown.