Just Another Haunted House?

He said to them, “It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!”

Matthew 21:13 (Christian Standard Bible, via Biblehub.com)
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It’s October. Time for apple cider, falling leaves, pumpkin spice cookies, bonfires, corn mazes, and “haunted houses.” I don’t know about other parts of the world, but in my neighborhood, we usually have dozens of local charities decorating barns or old factories or houses, and charging people to visit in the nights leading up to Halloween. They hang cobwebs and mirrors, create mazes and special effects– creaky doors, moving floors, glowing objects, eerie moans, flashing lights, and pop-up creatures , along with volunteers dressed up as ghosts or mummies or zombies to guide them along the way. Hundreds of people tromp and shudder, laugh and scream, as they travel through the house. They come back and bring their friends, eager to watch their reactions, and see if they can remember all the “surprises” to come.

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I’m not a big fan of haunted houses. I don’t like being frightened for “fun.” And I don’t like giving money, time, and thought to making “fun” of death and evil spirits. This year, with COVID still a factor, many of the haunted houses are closed or operating very differently. So are many other venues, including churches.

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Which brings me to a startling thought–have some of our churches become nothing more than a kind of haunted house? People come to be entertained; to feel their pulse beat faster, or get excited about a particularly good worship sequence. They may even come to be “frightened” a little by sermons about hell and death, sort of like watching a spooky movie or listening to ghost stories by the campfire. They meet up with their friends, and go out together afterwards to their favorite restaurant. The service is filled with special effects– lights and videos, booming bass lines and dynamic guitar solos, volunteers dressed up to greet visitors, serve coffee and donuts, collect money, and take attendance; sometimes even gimmicks, and props, and prizes.

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I’m not saying it’s wrong for churches to be warm and welcoming; I don’t think they have to be gloomy and boring. But we’ve spent so much time making our churches “attractive;” put so much of our time and effort into making worship thrilling and fulfilling, that we’ve lost our focus. This isn’t “the people’s house.” It isn’t a “fun house.” It is God’s house. A house of prayer. A house of honor and reverence. A Holy place. We’ve made our churches places of basketball courts and coffee bars; playrooms and gift shops; social networks and small business incubators…

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We read about Jesus chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, but we erect huge signs in front of the church tracking our fundraising efforts for a new roof. We are not a “den of thieves.” But are we a “house of prayer?” Are we meeting together to pray, or to be entertained? To meet with God, or to meet up for fellowship? Are we creating a maze of mirrors and gimmicks, instead of calling out in urgency and humility to Almighty God? Are the pews, or chairs, or stadiums, filled with the (spiritually) walking dead?

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Jesus created a stir when He rebuked the money changers. They hadn’t suddenly appeared and set up shop. They didn’t see themselves as “thieves.” After all, they weren’t stealing from anyone. They were buying and selling items connected with the Temple worship–animals for sacrifice, incense, food for hungry travelers… They weren’t stealing money– not exactly. Maybe they charged extra for their services; for the convenience. Maybe they had bribed someone or used their influence to get a prime marketing spot inside the Temple perimeter. But that’s just business. And, until Jesus kicked up a fuss, no one seemed to notice or mind.

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Jesus wasn’t upset about money– He was upset about those who were stealing from the Father. Cheapening His glory, crowding in on His House, bringing the noise of everyday commerce into the court of contemplation. Bringing dust and pettiness into His Holy presence. Trading the Awe of His Majestic Temple for the “aw, shucks” of a day at the mall– or a trip to the Haunted House.

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We have a real opportunity as “The Church” to take a close look at what we have become, and how we want to adjust to “life after the pandemic.” If Jesus were to visit our church, would He find it a House of Prayer, or a Haunted House?

Holy Terror

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people.  Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.

I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms.  I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened.  I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.

So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear.  Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact.  We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4),  actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6).  But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.

metal vintage old antique
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There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT.  There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God.  There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous.  In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us.  Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.

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This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence.  And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves.  And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!

ash background beautiful blaze
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Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences.  No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.”  Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there.  The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future.  All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal.  When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it.  While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death.  But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt,  and destruction.

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