image by Belle Hunt from Unsplash
Matthew 21:12-1412 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[a] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[b]”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
I remember my first introduction to this particular event in the Bible, helpfully illustrated in a children's Bible, one of those big glossy luxe editions where all the folds of the tunics, the feathers of the doves, the shininess of the flying coins, were painstakingly drawn for children like me to pour over for hours. It was with a sense of shock and secret admiration that I realized here was a lesser known, and more conventionally badass, side of Jesus, that challenged the largely passive idea I'd formed of Him. Jesus looked anything but passive flinging those tables over, releasing clouds of fluttering doves, in a reckless whirlwind of action that evoked childhood memories of jumping on sofas, rolling on the ground, screaming at the top of your lungs in wild abandon. Chaos in the midst of manmade order, control, polish, of institutionalized formality.
I have grown up all my life in a small church. We've always struggled with the same challenges--not enough manpower; struggling to maintain the basic logistical work of every Sunday's worship, let alone mission work and outreach work and additional activities. Looking for a pastor. For more Sunday School and Bible Study teachers. For people to help with setting up the worship room every Sunday, with bringing refreshments, with hosting prayer meetings. Dealing with the discouragement of having a scant handful of people turn up for the weekly prayer meetings, watching the numbers dwindle. And the list goes on; many of you can doubtless add to it...
It's easy to wallow in self-pity and discouragement. It's also easy to become overly focused on the tasks that need to be done--just as it would perhaps in a big church. To come up with the most efficient, productive strategy for growth, to race from one activity to another, to outline more SOPs for better organization...
...none of which are wrong, of course, but when they become the main thing we're doing? When we're more preoccupied with running this church (/business/company/startup...) more successfully, more efficiently, more impressively, more productively?
Jesus entered the Temple, a huge impressive tangible symbol of religion as an institution, with all its rites and man-made glamour, with the smooth efficient methods and structure of every successful organization. Read: church services without AV problems or crying babies or embarrassing ringtones; worship where the congregation comes on time, where the preacher is a great speaker with just the right amount of emotional appeal, flawless rhetoric, academic theological references, and anecdotes for that personal touch. Where smiling ushers that look like they were born and bred in aircon and fed on ice cream all their life come swooping effortlessly towards you to escort you to your seat (don't get me wrong, I've nothing against smiling ushers, but I speak from memories of waiting outside the church doors, feeling the sweat gathering on you like a moist second skin, and yourself visibly wilting in the heat even as you clutch a sticky hymnbook and try to look welcoming while melting) Where the venue is beautiful, impressive; modern enough for all the conveniences, yet classic enough to enhance the atmosphere for worship...
So ideal, isn't it? Wouldn't you feel impressed if you attended a church with a service like that? That's the kind of response we'd want our churches to produce on visitors!
My church doesn't even have our own premise; we rent classrooms, like many other small churches in land-scarce Singapore who don't have the funds to purchase and build a venue. Every Sunday we have to drag all our barang (baggage) up from a rickety cupboard and go about the process of converting a messy secondary school classroom with graffiti on chairs, socks and Shakespeare huddled together under desks, and wads of folded paper tucked under uneven table legs, into a place of worship. If I was a preacher I'd probably draw a parallel how, like modern day Abrahams, we are reminded in this way every week how temporary our current state is--aliens in a foreign land; journeying towards a final destination, relying on our faith and purpose rather than a settled place/concrete location for our identity. But I'll spare you the sermon seedling.
From this background, I can easily imagine how, staring up in awe at that beautiful building, you would feel a very man-centric sense of pride and identity--based not so much on God Himself but more on what we have done for Him and how our worship of Him, like culture and language and race and achievements, contributes to our overarching sense of identity and purpose. Not as a faith, in the proper sense of the word, but rather as an accessory. One of many slices in the pie graph of how we define ourselves. Part of community life.
And Jesus resisted this. He resisted the smooth, efficient clock-work structure and system, the successful organization, the institutionalized man-centric idea of God and worship. Deliberately channeling all that was most oppositional to everything the Temple had become--its specific list of what you had to do, to give, to be in the name of worshiping God, converting deeds into spiritual bonus points the way the money changers and dove sellers carried out their business--He became an agent of disruption, as aptly symbolized in how He overturned tables and set the doves free. Can you imagine a more visually effective image than that?
Instead, the blind and the lame entered the Temple, and Jesus healed them. The Temple became a place where real, personal needs were met in a life-changing way, for healing, for joy; "and the children shout[ed] in the Temple courts, Hosanna..."
And after that, the next morning, Jesus comes across the fig tree.
18 Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
I've always seen these two events in isolation, and it was the first time I realized they took place one after the other. Search the Scriptures pointed this out, identifying how Jesus's actions addressed the church and what it should be aspiring towards.
As a church, are we busy creating our own idea of what worship should be like? Our own definition of God, which fits nicely into, and in fact relies on the systems and structures we are preoccupied with maintaining? Which, in turn, enable us to present this polished, impressive, seemingly flawless idea of religion--where everyone is nice and polite and agrees with each other, where everything runs smoothly and everyone knows what to do, how to behave, what to say--one that seems like a very convincing way of glorifying God, at first glance, but really does a better job at reflecting well on us, the organizers.
I tell myself this every time something "goes wrong," every time something is less than ideal and we're reminded that we are messy, that things don't turn out as ideally as we might like. Every time I'm tempted to cringe or feel embarrassed or even discouraged.
What is my focus? Why am I feeling like this? Why am I more concerned about the front we're presenting, about how we "come across" to others, about how well or how smoothly or how impressively we manage to do something?
Instead, remember the second event, which took place the day after, and consider--
like the barren fig tree--
how much fruit--the real fruit which matters--are we producing as a church?
Or are we doing a good job at looking like we're thriving, flourishing--plenty of leaves, pretty flowers, nice straight trunks, the kind of tree that would have been picked for a stock image--
but fruitless, under all that.
Like the barren fig tree that disappointed Jesus, and earned His curse.
Christ's example reminds us to remember what we were meant for.
Remember: this is the "season for fruit."
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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