Turning the Tables
The Woodstock music festival was legendary for good music, rainy weather, an attitude of cooperation, and a hope for peace. Jennifer and I have both heard stories from our parents which describe a partial trip toward Woodstock, and then a decision to turn around and not attend due to heavy traffic and rumors of huge crowd. Woodstock, having taken place in the summer of 1969, was an iconic image of the countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s. It is an event that current and former hippies even get a little wistful about today.
In 1999, a number of promoters tried to piggy-back on the nostalgic feelings America had about Woodstock, which had a strong tug on people in my parent’s generation (my mom graduated from high school in 1967), as well as my own (my sister, who graduated from college in 1997, had about every Jimmy Hendrix album known to man, and posters of him pasted all over her wall in high school).
Instead of hosting the event in the town of Woodstock, the event was hosted on a closed Air Force base in Rome, NY. Instead of celebrating the values of peace, cooperation and freedom, it was known for its commercialization, greed, and violent behavior. The facility was guarded by large fences. The weather began to spike to over 100 degrees. Unlike the pastoral environment of the original Woodstock, there were no trees anywhere. No shade. In addition to this, there was no water to be found anywhere. No faucets. No tap water. There was simply bottled water sold by a vendor for $4.
Soon riots broke out. Fires started. Fences were torn down. Most people blame the failure of Woodstock 99’s failure on its effort to maximize profit at any cost. People were charged too much, and then received little in the way of facilities and such. Vendors were selling slices of pizza for $12, running up prices beyond what most people expected or could afford. A place that was supposed to celebrate peace love and cooperation became known for violence, greed, and rage. As a result, amusement parks everywhere were putting out coolers with cold water and little paper cones or cups. Many still do.
The Bible also tells a story where the original intent of one of its most important places and events had been distorted. People came all over to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem year around. People especially made a pilgrimage to the Holy City during Passover. And it is during the week of Passover that the events that we read about take place.
Last week we talked about Jesus heading toward Jerusalem. After the teaching on service, Jesus heals a blind man, and then makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. We are now looking at the day after Palm Sunday in the middle of holy week in the book of Mark.
It was a Monday morning. Jesus goes to the temple. And what he sees at the Temple is not what God intended. What he sees is people selling animals to sacrifice for excessively high prices. What he sees is a holy place of worship turned into a spiritual amusement park. And as a result, people were being denied the opportunity to worship. Let me explain.
Put yourself in the place of a peasant in the Ancient World. You are a Jew. You are planning on making a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Let’s say you live in somewhere like Syria. You are most likely going to walk for at least a week.
Now, when you get to Jerusalem, and you go to the Temple, you are going to need to have something to sacrifice. You may have a cow. You most likely do not. Rich people own cattle. Most poor folks do not. Nor will you have a lamb. They most likely can afford to buy a dove or two. But doves are difficult to bring along on a trip over rugged terrain. So, what most people would do is what you and I might do in a similar situation even today. Instead of packing the doves for the trip, they plan on buying the doves once they get to Jerusalem.
And there is the rub. Because as soon as they get to Jerusalem, and they get to the temple, and they inquire about purchasing doves for sacrifice, what they find is that the price of doves for sacrifice has inflated. Thus, the poorer Hebrews, who have come for a special time of worship and praise of the Lord, are being ripped off by the gatekeepers of the worship complex. Furthermore, many, not anticipating the exorbinent cost, and not only being ripped off, they are being excluded from worship by the folks running the temple because their worship needs don’t fit the cost/benefit ratio of the Temple.
And this is what makes Jesus angry. This kind of thing is what stirs Jesus to action. He sees that what God intended as a place for his children to worship, his rich children and poor children alike, has now become a political and religious marketing scheme that has nothing to do with the kind of grace, love and calling that God is trying to communicate to his people.
So Jesus begins to overturn tables. He begins to let the doves free. He keeps the people from running through the temple to get people more saleable items. He makes a scene. He does not really hurt anyone. But he does make a statement. And people notice. They notice that Jesus’ action is a direct attack on the powers that be, and their inability to faithfully lead the people spiritually. They centralize their power in the Temple. Jesus goes about destroying what they have worked so hard to build up.
Jesus said that he had come to proclaim the good news to the poor, as was promised in Isaiah 61, and commanded in Leviticus 25. These people were standing against this cause. Against the good news of the gospel. Against inclusion of those who were poor into the family of God.
The people are amazed at his teaching. The leaders start plotting to kill Jesus.
Now people misuse this passage all the time. They use it to justify violence, saying that Jesus was violent in the temple.
There is no evidence of violence here against another person. What we are looking at is more civil disobedience.
Others use this passage to keep people from selling anything in churches. When I was at my last church there were some people who had objections to having a garage sale in the front yard of the parsonage to raise money to send kids to camp. This is also a misuse of this passage, I believe.
There are a lot of ways I could talk about what is going on here in the Temple in Jerusalem. The way I think I will speak about what is going on here is this. Jesus wants to tear down the barriers that are going to keep you from God, and keep you from getting close to him, giving your life to him, and worshipping him. And, Jesus is going to take very seriously any attempt, especially by those who call themselves believers, that people make to keep people from worship and Jesus.
There are some barriers that we erect ourselves that keep us from Jesus. For instance, some of us simply believe that we are unforgivable. Somehow, somewhere we have declared ourselves ineligible for worship because of something that we have done somewhere in the past. We have heard the part of the gospel that correctly describes us as sinful, and unable to earn God’s grace. But we miss the part of the message where God freely offers his grace in and forgiveness in spite of the things that we have done, and that this forgiveness and grace in spite of our failings is what the gospel is all about.
Others of us make all sorts of excuses as to why the church is not the place for us. Again, the door is open to all of us.
There are also barriers that others have placed in our path. They have told us that we have to dress a certain way, look a certain way, and do something to make ourselves worthy to approach God in worship. Or perhaps people have communicated that church is like a club where we have to pay our dues in order to attend and belong in the club called the church.
If that has happened to you, I am sorry. Let me assure you, this church is open to you, and it belongs to you as much as it does anyone else.
Furthermore, church, if we are not careful, we can begin to believe that we own God’s church instead of God owning God’s church. We can start believing that the ministry is ours, the building is ours, the stuff is ours. And when we have this kind of attitude, we are missing the point.
The church is the one institution in all the world that exists for its nonmembers. Our purpose is to open doors to strangers, to give away our church to newcomers, to provide a place of worship for those who are seeking God and and are hungry for grace, and to not make those who come in the doors like us, but rather to give ourselves to them.
As we come to the Lord’s Table today, I want you to think of the life of the church like a large meal in a home. Most of the family is seated and has begun their meal. Someone comes and knocks on the door. They peek in. The table is full. Your guest is about to leave. He says, there is not a place for him, and he worries there is not enough food. And it might be easy to turn him away. He reeks of cigarettes and body odor. But you won’t do it. No, you say to him. There is always room at the table. There is always enough for one more. And so the man joins you, and you make a place for him.
This is what the kingdom of God is like. That Is what this table is like. The door Is always open. And for those who would chose to put their trust in the Lord Jesus, there is always room for one more.