Turning the Tables
Jesus said 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'
The more observant amongst you may have noticed that some Sunday mornings I spend a few moments looking around the congregation during the service. You may wonder what I am doing! Am I checking to make sure you are present - or to see if you are absent? Am I looking to see if I need to speak to anyone about anything in particular after the service?
Well, generally I am reflecting on two things . . . I am noting the many empty places where once sat or stood faithful members who are no longer with us, or who are no longer able to attend worship.
And the second thing I am doing is noting the many who have found their place amongst us in recent years. And, if you look around even this morning, the proportion of regular worshippers who were not part of our fellowship 6, 7 or 8 years ago is actually quite significant, especially so when Young Church join us later, and this is not true only of the 11am service.
It is to the credit of this congregation of St Cuthbert's that so many have felt so welcomed and embraced within our church family.
Good for this congregation! Good for you! This quality of welcome and incorporation is one that has struck me as a significant feature of St Cuthbert's! Yes, I am sure we could all do better. Yes, I am perfectly aware that we are not all as good at others at making people feel welcomed while not overwhelming them. But you really are generally very good at this!
And this is part of what we are called to be and meant to be; a community which is open to others, a family which warmly accepts newcomers and 'outsiders', a people of faith in whose midst others can find a welcome, and a place, and the reality of God's love for them.
And I think this is part of the significance of the incident recorded in John's Gospel - the so called 'Cleansing of the Temple' by Jesus. One aspect of this well known occurrence is a demonstration of Jesus' desire that all people have free access to worship and have a place and a welcome within the worshipping community.
Of course, there are many important meanings of this action by Jesus . . . this outburst of anger and indignation, this extraordinarily disruptive and possibly unexpected response by him to the presence of animal sellers and money changers.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild this is not!
But in overturning the tables he is turning the tables on those who had sought to preserve prayer and worship only for the 'in group' and had effectively excluded the outsider.
To some extent the outsider would include the poor of Jesus' day. When the worshipper came to the Temple, the normal day to day currency would of course bear the image of the Roman Emperor. Naturally, such idolatrous coinage could not be used to pay the various Temple dues. So it was changed into Temple coinage . . . but the money changers would be making a handsome profit at the expense of the pious but poor worshipper.
And again, any animal offered as a sacrifice had to meet certain standards and you could bet your last goat or turtledove that any beast you brought with you to the temple for sacrifice would not be considered acceptable. You had to buy the dove, lamb, goat, or ox there in the Temple . . . and you could be sure that there was a considerable profit being made by the dealers . . . again at the worshippers' expense.
So, rather than making it easy for people to come and worship God, the Temple authorities and practices were making it difficult and putting barriers in the way of people.
And worship and prayer in the Temple would be especially difficult for the Gentiles, those who were not Jews but who may have been pious God-fearers who sought to offer prayer to the one True God there in the Temple. Of course, not being Jews they could not enter into the inner courts of the Temple and could not offer sacrifices. But there was a place where they could offer their prayers, in the outermost of the Temple's four concentric courts; the so-called 'Court of the Gentiles'. And where were the traders, the animals, the money-changers, the noise, the mess and mayhem to which Jesus so dramatically objected? Yes, there in the Court of the Gentiles.
The Jewish worshippers - the 'in group' if you will - did not have their exclusive courts of the temple disturbed by the ungodly cacophony of oxen lowing and goats bleating, the haggling and the arguing, doves cooing and coins rattling. No, this chaos and racket was confined to the Court of the Gentiles; the one and only place in the Temple where the non Jew could pray.
It is therefore significant that in St Mark's version of this story, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah and says 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations' . . . and goes onto assert 'but you have made it a den of robbers'.
A house of prayer for all nations . . . yes, for everyone. None would be barred, none would be excluded, none would be unwelcome. And yet, here in that one part of the temple accessible by people of all nations there is no place or space for prayer, no chance of worship or meditation. Just the unholy din of a market, and the shameful exploitation of the worshipper.
The prophets of old may have foretold the day when all people would be welcome to worship, when all would be included, when all would be able to come to know God . . . but the Temple authorities of Jesus' day seem to have acted as if those whom they considered outsiders did not really matter, and most certainly did not belong. The fact that there was no realistic possibility of worship or prayer in the surroundings of this bazaar that the Court of the Gentiles had become seemed to be of no concern whatsoever to the Temple authorities . . . just as long as the Jewish people could still get on with their worship.
It may have been of no concern to them, but it was of great concern to Jesus who was indignant and angry. Jesus actions are to safeguard the rights the Gentiles - the outsiders in this context. He seeks to remove all that prevented them from worshipping in that one part of the Temple to which they had access.
This is a prophetic action. It is the action of a Messianic King in and through whom the way to God would be open to all peoples, and all peoples, Jew and Gentile, would be gathered into the life and worship of the people of God.
Whatever stands in the way of the outsider, whatever bars access to worship for those who are not part of 'us', whatever excludes others from prayer, whatever makes it difficult for anyone to connect with the living God must be swept away, for it makes Jesus angry and it should make us angry too.
But then, what about us . . . the church . . . our attitude to those who are not on the inside . . . part of our congregation, one of us, our kind?
Well, I began by pointing out that in my opinion, we in St Cuthbert's are actually very good at accommodating and accepting others and extending to them a welcome.
I am not about to take that back or change my mind!
But we will all have blind spots. I wonder what attitudes or actions (of which we may be unconscious or unaware) could be putting barriers in the way of others finding here the love of God and the hope of faith in him?
Do we think about how what we do or how we act or even aspects of our worship or building come across to those not used to church? Do we care?
Well we should! And not least because it is clear that any barriers or obstacles to folks who are seeking connection with God makes Jesus very angry!
There is a saying attributed to Archbishop William Temple 'the church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members'. In fact, that is not strictly speaking true, but it is certainly well worth considering the very real truth it contains!
As a teenager and a new Christian, I was very enthusiastic about my new found faith and I was eager to share this faith with others. With a group of equally enthusiastic young Christian friends, I got involved in a mission. This was very significant for me not least as it was my first steps towards ministry and it was also the context in which I met she who would become my wife!
However, one idea that our little band of enthusiastic Christians on a mission hatched that summer was to run some evenings for other young people with whom we could share our new found faith! And I decided that the perfect place to hold these would be one of the small halls in my church which we could decorate with posters and soft furnishings for a week, play loud rock music, serve coffee and chat to people about the Gospel.
Just one thing stood in the way.
The Kirk Session!
A trembling 17 year old, I presented my case but, naturally, was not at the Kirk Session meeting itself. I heard later from one of the elders present just what happened. There were indignant protests. Would these young people not be rowdy? Might they not damage the fabric of the building? We have just redecorated the hall! Will posters and the like not spoil the paintwork? We didn't spend all this money for outsiders to come in and spoil it . . . and so on and so forth.
The senior elder of the congregation, 90 year old Jimmy Annand slowly stood and in his gentle way said 'if the church does not exist to share the message of Christ with those outside its walls, then it has no purpose. We should not put any barriers in the way of young people discovering the love of God and nor should we put obstacles in the way of those of our own young people who put us to shame by their enthusiasm for sharing the Good News of God's love in Christ'.
He sat down . . . and permission was granted!
I rather fancy that Jesus smiled upon dear old Mr Annand that day.
The tables were overturned by an angry Jesus, who would not tolerate obstacles placed in the way of those who would pray and seek God. And the tables were turned on the Temple authorities who had a narrow and exclusive understanding of who mattered, who belonged and who was 'in'.
Whenever we erect barriers, prevent seekers finding, restrict access to God or prayer because of our own convenience or preference or self-interest, the angry and indignant Jesus is still ready to overturn the tables.
Let us pray for sight for our blind spots and the ability to see those unconscious and unintended obstacles that we may put in way of others, and ask for a deeper awareness of any tendency to be so focussed on those already 'in' that we fail to take account of those beyond our walls.
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