Vespers for the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, July 1, 2017
Mark 11:17, Isaiah 56:1-8
Very Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Eastern Dioceses Parish Life Conference, Morristown, New Jersey
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
After the Lord Jesus upends the tables of the money changers in the Temple in Mark 11, He makes reference (Mark 11:17) to a line from the fifty-sixth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7b). In this context, He is contrasting the money changers’ use of the Temple, that by their exploitation they have made it a “den of thieves” rather than a “house of prayer.”
If you’ve not read the whole of that chapter from Isaiah 56, I encourage you to read it as soon as you are able, particularly the first eight verses. It is a beautiful, poetic work of prophecy from this great prophet, and it is concerned with the gathering of the Gentiles into the worship of the one true God.
It begins this way: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, For My salvation is about to come, And My righteousness to be revealed’” (Is. 56:1). We heard something similar this past Sunday with the proverbial saying from Matthew 6:33: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” Just as Jesus was in Matthew 6, the prophet, speaking on behalf of God, is concerned here with the righteousness of God, and with aligning his listeners with that righteousness, because salvation is coming, the salvation which is the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah speaks here specifically of those who choose to live righteously according to God’s ways: “Blessed is the man who does this, And the son of man who lays hold on it; Who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, And keeps his hand from doing any evil” (Is. 56:2). It is the man who keeps justice and does righteousness who is blessed. But is the prophet speaking here of the nation of Israel who have been given the Law of Moses?
This passage is actually a prophecy of the nations being brought into the house of God. The prophet says further, again, speaking for God: “Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’; nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree’” (Is. 56:3). That is, there are people from outside of Israel who have joined themselves to God, and they should not have the sense that they are cut off from the people of God or that they are unfruitful among them.
Yet God goes further here. It is not only that these outsiders who obey God should be included. What does God say? “For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, even to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off’” (Is. 56:4-5).
God not only says that He will include these outsiders who are obedient to His covenant. And He not only says that He will bring them into His house and give them a place. He then says that He will give them a name better than that of sons and daughters, “an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
This prophecy is astounding, almost an utter subversion of the self-understanding of Israel at this point in its history. Here the Lord God of Israel is saying through the great Isaiah that foreigners and outsiders who join themselves to Him and obey His covenant will be brought into His house and be placed even above the sons and daughters of His house. They will never be cut off. They are now part of His covenant.
Yet if this were not enough, God goes even further here: “Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants— everyone who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and holds fast My covenant—even them I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifice will be accepted on My altar” (Is. 56:6-7a).
We see here the consummation of this narrative. The Lord of Israel is bringing obedient Gentiles into His house, even to the very heart of His worship. Because they keep the Sabbath holy and hold fast to His covenant, He brings them to His “holy mountain,” where they are “joyful” in His house of prayer.
And then? “Their burnt offerings and their sacrifice will be accepted on My altar.” He accepts their sacrifices. This is preposterous according to the traditions of the Jewish Temple, that Gentiles should offer up sacrifices on its altar, that they should participate in the holy nation and royal priesthood of Israel, yet here it is.
And then this is where we get the line Jesus quotes: “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56:7b). In other words, this house of God is unlike the houses of prayer that exist anywhere else in the world at that point. Every other house of prayer is a house of prayer for only a certain nation, a particular people. But the house of the one true God “shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The doors have been thrown open, and entrance is obtained not by birth but by obedience to the covenant, an obedience that places those who obey even above those born to it.
We then read this final denouement: “The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says, ‘Yet I will gather to him others besides those who are gathered to him’” (Is. 56.8). It is the Lord Himself Who will gather “the outcasts of Israel” into Israel. He is the One Who is bringing them Himself.
These words from Isaiah offer a powerful prophecy of the action of God in bringing Gentiles into Israel, which is the formation of the New Israel, the Church. Standing some 2,000 years from the times when He began to make this happen, we see clearly with the eyes of faith what it is Isaiah meant in his vision of the gathering of the nations into what Paul called “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, when speaking of those who “walk” according to the “rule” of the New Covenant.
So then, what are we to do? First, we see ourselves as participating in this action of God. If we are obedient to the covenant, He will gather us into His house, the house of prayer for all nations, and receive our sacrifices. This is the consummation of this gathering-in, that we should commune with Him in the priestly sacrifice.
At the same time, remembering that it is God Who is at work here in this gathering-in of the nations, we should participate in the act of gathering, as well. His holy house is a house of prayer for all nations, not only for people who look like me, think like me, have the same opinions as I, have the same cultural associations as I, and so forth. It is a universal call, a call of catholicity for all to participate in the royal priesthood, the holy nation. And I do not dare stand in the way.
For if I were to try, I would fail. And I would then be relegated to the same place as those sons and daughters who are placed below the outsiders who are obedient to the covenant and given a name above the names of those who thought they were part of it.
All of us who are part of this covenant remain part of it because of our faith, which is expressed in faithfulness, in obedience to the covenant. And so we obey. And we also welcome all those who obey. For any who obey will be given that “everlasting name that shall not be cut off,” offering up sacrifices together in the house of prayer which is truly for all nations.
“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11) and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.