Once upon a time, God chose a people to be set apart, and made a covenant with them. They would be God's people, and God would be their God. God gave Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. They were God's people, chosen and precious, set apart from all others. First Abraham and Sarah, then Ishmael and Isaac, then Jacob and Esau, then the 12 sons of Jacob, the tribes of Israel.
God promised this special people that he would be with them always. He was with them in Egypt. He led them through the desert. With the help of God, the children of Israel came at last into the land of Canaan. There, God set up judges, kings, priests and prophets to watch over them.
Even when the people strayed from God's ways, God never left them. When their land fell and they went into exile, God was with them. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, and many others remembered God's covenant never to leave the chosen people, even in foreign lands, even when singing the Lord's songs brought only sadness. And in time, God watched over Ezra and Nehemiah, as they led God's people back to the land God had given them and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple.
But a funny thing had happened. When God's people were spread to the corners of the earth, others, with whom God had no covenant, came to believe in God. Foreigners joined themselves to the Lord, and came to love God's name. Strangers began to keep the Sabbath, and to cling to a Covenant not theirs.
Often the children of Israel sent them away or made them worship apart. But God had other ideas. God's house was bigger than that. God welcomed every person who came. God, who had gathered the outcasts of Israel, gathered many others besides. He accepted their sacrifices, and promised them a place on the holy mountain.
And so God's house is a house of prayer not only for those chosen and precious but for all people. Because God's love is broader than his people thought.
Years later, God chose a different people. They were the followers of Jesus, the Church. They, too, were chosen and precious in God's eyes. A new people, a people that arose from among God's first chosen, but differed from them. Jesus promised to be with them always, even to the end of the age.
But Jesus also sent them into all the world. In the Spirit of God they spoke in the languages of all people. Soon, those who were not the children of Abraham, those who had no part in the covenant, came to believe in Jesus, and to know and love the Father.
Often God's new people sent them away or made them worship apart. But God had other ideas. God's house was bigger than that. God welcomed every person who came.
God sent Paul to teach the people and showed Peter that all are clean, if God declared them clean. God accepted the prayers of foreigners, and promised them a place in the kingdom. The Church became a house of prayer, not only for those chosen, but for all people.
Soon God's new people began to condemn God's first chosen, the people of the covenant. They declared the children of Israel unclean, and told them they had no part in God's promises.
But God had other ideas. God's house was bigger than that.
God had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants for ever. And God sent Paul to remind his new and proud chosen people, that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, that they were not God's only people, that God had not rejected the people he foreknew.
God's house of prayer is bigger than the Temple. God's house is bigger than the Church. It is a house of prayer for the children the Covenant, the children of Isaac and of Ishmael, the children of the Book, the children of Christ. and for a people yet unborn.
God's house is a house of prayer for all people. And it is bigger even than that.
The Rev. Birch Rambo is rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.