The Preaching Conference’s featured speaker, Dr. Mary Hulst, is our guest speaker. The title of Dr. Hulst’s message is “Why Did Jesus Flip the Tables?”.
Dr. Hulst has served since 2009 as University Pastor of Calvin University. Mary spent eight years serving as the senior pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before leaving to pursue a PhD in communication ethics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After earning her degree, Dr. Hulst taught for one year in the Communication Arts and Sciences Department at Calvin College and then for two years at Calvin Theological Seminary as Assistant Professor of Preaching before coming to Calvin University.
So our text this morning came from the scene on Palm Sunday. Right after the triumphal entrance, we have this scene where Jesus is so upset. Why is Jesus so upset? In the other stories of the gospel, we see him to be pretty self contained, most of the time. He's practicing good self control. He's kind. He's measured. He's wise. But here, there is something going on in the temple courts that just sets him off.
Well, in that the temple courts, the Jews had made it so that it was very efficient. You see, if you're going to go to the temple and do business with the temple, you had to use temple money. So you had to take the money from wherever you were, and go through the currency exchange in the temple before you could buy your animal for sacrifice. And since the animal most usually purchased was a dove, the Jews figured out, you know what, we can make this efficient for everyone. Let's just, right when people come out of the ritual baths, we're going to set it up so that they can exchange their money, they can buy their dove, they can make their sacrifice. One stop shopping, this is gonna work great. And it worked great for many of them. But that's not what these courts were designed to do.
If you look at the image, on the screen, you'll see there the temple court, in the middle, the Holy of Holies, the tall gold part, and then you have the court of the Israelites, the Court of Jewish men, and then the Court of the Women. And these were the courtyards for people, Jewish people who were whole, and healthy, and ceremonially clean. And you became ceremonially clean by coming up the Mikvaot to the ritual bounds, up under the covered stairways to the left. Now, the big area all around it is called the Gentiles courtyard. This was space that was designed for Gentiles, or for any Jew who wasn't whole, or healthy, or ceremonially clean. So God had them design a space that was for everyone. Thank you, you can take the image down. God wanted his temple to be a space where people could be welcomed, people from all over the place could come together, and worship. And what had happened, was the Jews had pushed those folks out, to make it easier for them, to make it more efficient for them. They're the ones who really mattered. So let's just set this whole system up to benefit ourselves. And this is what Jesus is so upset about. And we can look at the Jews of the first century. And we could say, "Come on people. You knew better. I mean, God told you this is how design, how many cubits, all the things, this is how you're supposed to set it up. You knew this." But this text invites us to look at the ways that our worship, or our space, or our churches, do the same kinds of things.
I get to worship in a lot of spaces, because I preach around, particularly in the summers. And I can't tell you how many buildings are designed, assuming that people know where they're going. People will say, "We will meet you in the church council room" and I'm like, "I, no idea where that is". I usually have to ask, Where is the bathroom? Sometimes I come into the sanctuary, and I think I'm in the back, and I'm actually in the front. The church that I worship in, probably like some of the churches you worship in most regularly, is an older building. And anybody who's ever been on a, in a wheelchair, or on one of those knee scooters, or crutches, they are very well aware of how that space was not designed for people with disabilities.
And then, we do some things in worship, just kind of assuming that people know how to worship, that they'll know when to stand up or sit down. That they'll know that this pew is for this person. Don't sit in that pew. That if we just sing the tune enough, people will catch on. That they can read, that they can understand the language that's being spoken most. We make these assumptions about people. We make it convenient and easy for us. There's a church that just started in Grand Rapids called City Hope GR. And the reason they started was to make it very easy for anybody who had any kind of disability to come and worship. So their service is in the evening, because they know a lot of people with disabilities have to do their exercises and different things in the morning. They make it so that if you have an autistic child who gets overwhelmed easily by sensory overload, that there's a space dedicated for that. You, there is no step from the parking lot all the way into the worship space. If you have trouble reading, seeing, hearing, there are accommodations made. Now on one level, that is a beautiful thing. And on a level level, another level that is deeply tragic. How have all of the churches in Grand Rapids failed so miserably, that all of our disabled members and family and friends say "You know what, instead of trying to get y'all to figure this out, we're just gonna go over here and start." That's not God's vision.
I listened to NT Wright, the British theologian, recently, and he was doing a presentation and he talked about the vision that God has in Revelation 7 of every tongue, tribe and nation gathering together before the throne of God. And Dr. Wright said, one of the big reasons why we have failed at this, is because when Christians from one country emigrate to another country where there are Christians, the Christians in the majority culture rarely adapt their worship, so that the immigrants feel most comfortable. Instead, the majority culture Christians are very happy to help the new immigrant group set up their own space. And so instead of having a church that's Korean, and Chinese, and Dutch, and Indian, and Pakistani, all worshiping together, we have a church that's Dutch, and a church that's Korean, and a church that's Indian, and a church, that's Pakistani. And that's not God's vision. And we get it, like it's easier to sing songs in the language of our heart. And it's it's easier to have the, you know, the potluck with people who all, you know, eat the same kind of food, we get it. But that wasn't God's vision. God's vision was that the Court of the Gentiles would be actually a whole lot bigger, and full of life. And that's why Jesus is so upset. Because in this story, God's people have pushed out God's people. And so he throws down scripture passages. And in Jewish debate, you only had to use a little bit of a passage, because everybody knew the rest of the passage. So when he says, "My house shall be called a house of prayer", everybody within earshot would have known the next line is "for all nations". He's quoting there from Isaiah 56, where God says, "Any Gentile who wants to attach themselves to me, any who want to worship on my altar, any who want to practice Sabbath and be part of, I will welcome them in, I will gather together all the exiles and the outcasts, in addition to those already gathered".
And then he drops Jeremiah 7, the den of robbers line. In Jeremiah 7, the people are like "we got the temple, we got the temple, the temple is ours, the temple is awesome, we're awesome". And God says, "No, you've made it a den of robbers", and the next line is "and God is watching you". And then he does Psalm 8, which sounds like so beautiful, you know, "Out of the mouths of infants, he's ordained praise", except the next line is "to establish a stronghold to silence the foe and the avenger". Jesus is making it very clear, that by setting up a system that served themselves, they were setting themselves up against God. And that's why he's so upset. And so he physically flips the tables, he clears out the space, so that people who have not had access can now have access, that they can come in and worship and be valued. He doesn't want anything to stand in the way of someone's relationship with his Father. And so he physically clears out the tables. And then Matthew tells us what happens next. He says, the blind and the lame came to him. And we think well, of course, the blind and the lame come to him, because he's Jesus. But Matthew, the Jew, is writing to Jews. And he's referring very intentionally to something that happened centuries before. When David was slowly coming into power, before he was the king of all of Israel, he wanted to have Jerusalem as its capital city. It was only a problem, the Jebusites lived in Jerusalem, and they liked it. And Jerusalem was fortified, it was on a hill, nobody had been able to take it. And the Jebusites were cocky. So when David and his merry men come toward Jerusalem to take it, the Jebusites are like, yeah, good luck, buddy. We're awesome. Nobody can take us. In fact, we're so awesome, that our blind and lame people could take you out. And David was so mad. Oh, he was so mad. He figured out that the way to take Jerusalem was to go through the water shaft. And he said to his team, listen, whoever gets through the water shaft, I want you to kill those blind and lame people who David hates. And he was so annoyed by the Jebusites that this became a saying "The blind and the lame are not welcomed in the house". Which could mean palace, could mean temple. The blind and the lame are not welcomed. Second Samuel 5 for you, Bible nerds. And so what is Matthew saying? Here we are centuries later, and the children say Hosanna to the who? Son of David. It's the son of David now who is welcoming in the blind and the lame, and then he heals them. So that if they are Jewish, they now have access to the inner courts. Jesus continues to make access for people who don't have access. This is what he does. And it doesn't just stop on Palm Sunday. We know how the rest of the week unfolds. He's betrayed, arrested, tried. He lays down anything that's efficient, or comfortable, or pleasant so that he can make access for people who have no access. He takes on pain and sin and suffering. He takes the deep questions and doubts of our lives. He takes anything that would get between us and his Father and he takes it to the cross. Because Jesus wants you to have access to the Father. That stubborn sin that you can't shake, that addiction that just won't go away. Jesus says no, I flipped that on its head. You are welcome here. You have access now. This is the gift that Jesus gives to all of us. We have access. We have space, and this is the gift that He invites us then to give other people.
One of the questions I get a lot, because of my work, is how do we get college students to come to our church. And college students are hungry. For real church. They're hungry for people who can show them how to follow Jesus. They're hungry for mentors. But there's some things they wonder about. They wonder about the wealth they see displayed in our churches, and in our church parking lots. They wonder why worship is still one of the most segregated hours of the week. They wonder why any church would ever use Styrofoam cups. They hesitate to join any church where their gay friend might not be welcomed. So the question for us today is, "What do we do, that gets between them and Jesus?"
Are we willing to ask our children, our young adults, nieces, nephews, or co workers? Are we willing to ask, "What does our church do, or what does the church do that gets in the way between you and Jesus?" And even more personally, are we willing to ask what, is there anything that I do that gets in the way between you and Jesus? Because I want you to have access, I want you to know that you are welcome. Because church is the one institution that exists for people who are not currently members. Church isn't for you, you're fine. It's a Tuesday morning, and you're in Chapel. You're fine. Church doesn't exist for us. It exists for them. It exists for those who are hobbling around, and they're not sure if they have access. It exists for those who look, and all they see is tables and busyness cluttering their way. It exists for those who are desperate for access to the Father through Jesus Christ the Son, and we cannot get in the way.
This is what God in Christ has done for us. He has said "I will flip any table that gets between us. And now you, you do the same thing". Jesus equips us for this. He empowers us for this. He provokes us for this. He gives us the Holy Spirit for this. Jesus says, "I've done it for you, and now you get to do it for other people. Go flip the tables". Amen.
Will you pray with me? God, we give you praise and thanks today. For You made a way where there was no way. You cleared out our sin and our shame. You forgive us, you show mercy, so that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. Forgive us, Lord, when we try to make systems easier for ourselves, and we forget that we're supposed to make them easier for others. Help us to get out of the way, so people can get to you. And we pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.
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