A House of Prayer

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Our great need as a church at the moment, it seems to me, is to learn to pray with faith. It’s not that we know nothing about such prayer, and it’s not that we don’t do it. We do. But we need to know more. And if we’re serious about wanting to learn to pray with faith, then our passage this morning can help us. It’s Mark 11.15-26, and you’ll find it on page 1016 in the Bibles in the pews. My outline is on the service sheet, and you’ll see there four lessons for us to learn from this passage.


I’m drawing this lesson from verses 15 to 19 – the account of Jesus clearing the temple in Jerusalem:

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered into the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’.”

Why does Jesus do this? That little phrase ‘on reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area’ is heavily loaded. Here is the Son of God arriving at the place which represents the very heart of the relationship of God’s people with God – the Jerusalem temple. He is like a surgeon probing with a scalpel to uncover disease. His reaction is not just about what’s going on in that temple building – though it is that. His reaction is an indictment of the whole life of the nation.

The abuse of the temple is the tip of an iceberg. Jesus is exposing the failure of God’s people to be what God wants them to be and to do what God wants them to do. And what is that? They should be “a house of prayer for all nations”. Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 56. In Isaiah 56 God describes how he is going to gather to himself people not just from Israel but from all nations. He says:

“… to them I will give a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters…”

And he says:

“… I will … give them joy in my house of prayer… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Israel should have been the channel of the blessing of salvation by faith to all the nations of the world – but it had failed in its calling. Its leaders were in the process of rejecting and killing the Son of God himself. As a result, it was under judgement.

But God’s plan of salvation for the nations of the world is not lost. Jesus is going to make it happen. And he is going to use the church. The church is now the temple, the dwelling place of God. So it is our calling as those who believe in Jesus to be a house of prayer for all nations. The opposition is ferocious, but the task is clear.

We are to reach out to all the nations of the world. We are to welcome people in from all the nations of the world. We are pray for the salvation of all the nations, and we are to be a place where people from all nations can themselves pray, and find faith in Christ as their Lord and their Saviour. To put it in a nutshell, we are to be a Great Commission church. We are to play our part in making disciples of all nations. And prayer is key, because that can only happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This church must be a house of prayer for all nations. The illustration that I want to give you here relates to William Carey. One of the most significant and influential documents in the history of the worldwide missionary movement was written in 1792 by William Carey. It is known as ‘The Enquiry’. Its opening words summarise its theme:

As our blessed Lord has required us to pray that his kingdom may come, and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, it becomes us to use every lawful method to spread the knowledge of his name.

He has an astonishing survey, country by country, of the nations of the whole world and their need for gospel. And he says:

One of the first and most important of those duties which are incumbent upon is fervent and united prayer. However the influence of the Holy Spirit may be set at nought and run down by many, it will be found upon trial that all means which we can use will be ineffectual without it… We must therefore be in real earnest in supplicating his blessing upon our labours.

And he continues:

The most glorious works of grace that have ever taken place have been in answer to prayer… we have within these few years been favoured with some tokens for good, granted in answer to prayer, which should encourage us to persist and increase in that important duty… It is true a want of importunity generally attends our prayers; yet unimportunate and feeble as they have been, it is to be believed that God has heard, and in a measure answered them.

And he tells how, among other things, in answer to their prayers, their churches have been growing, opportunities for evangelism have been increasing, and as he puts it “a noble effort has been made to abolish the inhuman Slave Trade. “Many,” he says, “can do nothing but pray.” But he warns:

We must not be contented however with praying without exerting ourselves in the use of means for the obtaining of those things we pray for.

Here is someone who is putting into practice the lessons of Mark 11 – and he followed through what he wrote, expending his life in taking the gospel to India. Surely we need to follow his example. This church must be a house of prayer for all nations.


To understand verses 20-21, we need to back up a bit to what happened just before the clearing of the temple. So let me read from verse 12:

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig-tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no-one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

Then the second instalment of this is there in 20-21:

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig-tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig-tree you cursed has withered!”

What’s this all about? Some people seem to find this incident disturbing because they feel sorry for the poor fig tree. They think Jesus is being unjust to the fig tree. But we mustn’t lose sight of the obvious here. Fig trees don’t have feelings. Please don’t get hung up about the fig tree. What Jesus does here is a simple visual aid. So what are we supposed to learn?

One thing, clearly, is the power of God’s word. Jesus speaks a word to the tree and it withers and dies. Like the stilling of the storm, here is direct evidence of Jesus’ total sovereign control. If we’re going to pray with faith, we must understand that power.

But there is more than that. A fig tree was an Old Testament symbol of Israel – of God’s people. If I speak about a red rose with a green stalk, a yellow bird, and a green tree with a blue trunk, then if you’re into politics you’ll know that I’m talking about the Labour party, the Lib dems and the Conservatives. In a similar way, the fig tree represents the people of God.

What does Jesus look for on the fig tree? Fruit. A fruit tree that bears no fruit is destroyed. God’s people must bear fruit. What fruit? The fruit of godliness, and the fruit of growth. That is God’s purpose for his people, the church.

So, let’s apply this directly to JPC. Jesus requires this church to grow in godliness and in numbers. And since it is God – and only God – who can give growth, then this growth comes by believing prayer. This is not an optional extra. This is what we’re here for.

We’ve seen the beginnings of this. We too, as William Carey put it, “have within these few years been favoured with some tokens for good, granted in answer to prayer, which should encourage us to persist and increase” in prayer.

We’ve lived through a generation during which across the nation church attendances have halved. But we’ve seen God answering the prayers that he has put into our hearts. Back in 1982, David wrote:

We are praying for the church to double – to get to 1000 – by 1987. That prayer, says Jesus, will be answered if we believe ‘that we have received it’… We must pray and plan accordingly.

Well, maybe if we had prayed and worked with more faith, it would have happened sooner – only God knows. But, praise God, that prayer has been wonderfully answered.

In 1991 we prayed that God would provide us with £250,000 to buy and refurbish Eslington House. He did. In 2003 we prayed that God would give us £725,000 for 3 Osborne Road. He gave us £900,000. In 2005 we prayed that God would give us £1.6 million for the Gateshead project. In gifts and pledges he has so far given us £1.3 million and reduced the potential costs by £300,000.

These are surely what William Carey would call ‘tokens’ from God, which should ‘encourage us to persist and increase’ in prayer. We’re now praying that God will grow this church to 5000 over the coming generation, and that we’ll see another 5000 in churches planted from JPC – in this region, in this country and indeed around the world. The new Gateshead church is going to be the first fruits of that.

We have to ask ourselves whether we believe that God can and will answer these prayers. And if we do believe that, then we’ll need to exert ourselves. We’ll have to lay down our lives in the service of this vision. It’s not that we can make this happen without the Holy Spirit. There’s no way. None of us has the power to convert one person let alone another 9,000. But if we pray believing, then we’ll work too. And God will answer.

Jesus says to us: “Have faith in God”. William Carey picked up that theme and memorably expressed it in the saying that captures his heart and approach: “Expect Great Things; Attempt Great Things”. So:


This is Jesus’ follow up teaching to the fig-tree miracle. It’s there in verses 22-24:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

We mustn’t lose sight of the Great Commission context of this challenge and promise. This promise does not apply to self-centred prayer. This applies to prayer that is directed towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission. Have faith in God. Ask. And what you ask for will happen. The key is to know God, to know his purposes and his promises, and to trust him.

I am profoundly challenged by what Jesus says here in relation to my own praying. Surely here is the very heart of what we all need to learn: have faith in God; ask; and what you ask for will happen. We mustn’t let all the questions that arise in our minds distract us from that direct challenge, command and promise.

Dixon Hoste and the China Inland Mission are a great example of the kind of faith we need. Dixon Hoste was the second General Director of the China Inland Mission (now OMF). He took over from Hudson Taylor at the turn of the 20th Century. Let me tell part of that story, in the words of Dixon Hoste’s biography.

The Boxer Rising of 1900 will never be forgotten in the history of the China Inland Mission… before the terrible rising was eventually suppressed, fifty-eight members of the Mission and twenty-one children had been brutally murdered.

[But, through all this opposition and suffering…] The foundations so faithfully laid by Hudson Taylor and the early workers were being built upon. In 1905, after forty years of missionary work, there were 12,000 baptized members of the China Inland Mission churches. By 1910 that number had doubled, and by 1920 there were 52,000 in membership…

A sub-committee was appointed to make an estimate of the number of new workers that would be required to begin a further movement forward, and they came back with the report that one hundred and ninety-nine were needed.… so it was decided to make an appeal for two hundred new workers… Prayer was being made definitely for two hundred new recruits to be on their way to China before the end of 1931. What would be answer of God?

D.E.Hoste well knew that a big thing was being asked… “It will involve perhaps the most tremendous conflict which we have yet had as a Mission,” he said, “and every part of it will need to be… steeped in prayer.”

The urgent necessity for prayer became apparent as the months passed… By the end of 1930 less than half the required number of new workers had sailed for China… just one more year remained... the answer was being delayed.

“We must have a day of prayer,” [D.E. Hoste] said. Tuesday, February 10th was set aside to be given up entirely to prayer that God would yet grant their request for the full number of two hundred new workers to be sent out before the end of the year… And God answered! … Although there were many disappointments and unforeseen hindrances put in the way of the recruits, by the end of the year two hundred and three new workers had set sail for China – the last party, six young men, leaving England on December 31st!

That sums up an account written in 1947. Three years later, in 1950, as it became impossible for foreign missionaries to work in China, all CIM missionaries were ordered to leave. And we know what has happened since. Recently the BBC reported that there are over 50 million Christians in China. To quote the BBC:

Human rights groups say that persecution against Chinese Christians is growing - but so too is the number of converts.

When we pray in faith, God will do great things.


This, it seems to me, is the point of what Jesus says next, in verses 25-26:

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Finding forgiveness, and forgiving others, is at the very heart of the gospel that’s needed by the nations of the world. Wrapped up in forgiveness is the fact that we need to be forgiven; that our sin is against God; that atonement is provided; that we must have a change of heart; and that our experience of forgiveness must transform the way we behave towards others. Forgiveness is the gospel of God’s grace in a nutshell.

Faith and prayer is nothing without forgiveness. No amount of believing, and no amount of praying, will accomplish anything for the Kingdom of God if we are not living the gospel. Our praying must be directed towards the fulfilment of the Great Commission because we want others to find what we have found. Our lives must be driven by the gospel of grace.

So there are four lessons to change JPC. This church must be a house of prayer for all nations. Jesus requires this church to grow. When we pray in faith, God will do great things. And our lives must be driven by the gospel of grace.

This autumn we’re focusing on our need to pray more faithfully. We’ve seen God do amazing things in answer to the prayers he’s inspired in us. But for the glory of God and for sake of the world for which he gave his Son, we need more. We need to grow in faith. We need to grow in the praying that flows from that faith.

Here is one very practical and do-able application. In this church, prayer goes on in all kinds of settings, at many different times, and in a wide variety of groups. One of those – and a very important one – is the Central Prayer Meeting. This generally takes place fortnightly on Wednesdays at 8.00pm in the church hall. The details of dates and times are on the back of the Programme Card. We sing, we hear some Bible teaching, and then we pray in small groups of half a dozen or so.

For this term, we’re going to do things a bit differently. So each Central Prayer Meeting will focus on one particular area of ministry. Our next Central Prayer Meeting is this coming Wednesday, and we’ll be focusing on pastoral ministry. That covers Transit to Monday Group and everything in between, including home groups, mothers and toddlers and more.

My prayer is that during this prayer-focus term we will have difficulty fitting into the hall everyone who comes to the Central Prayer Meetings. On William Carey’s urging, I am not content to pray without exerting myself in the use of means for the obtaining of those things I pray for. So the means I am using is to ask you to come along and join with us. Many, I know, will have good and valid reasons why you can’t come – and that’s fine. We all need to be praying, but that doesn’t have to be at the Central Prayer Meetings. However, many of us can come. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to pray out loud – you can join in the ‘Amens’. So if you can come, please do.

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