Getting Over Your Barriers With Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst [E001]

We all face barriers in our lives. It may be a job barrier, financial barrier, relationship barrier or some other seemingly impossible gulf between where we are and where we feel God wants us to be. If you wonder how you're going to get to where God would have you to be, then you should know that God has a message for you. And this wonderful Old Testament account from Joshua is just the inspiration you need.

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Photographer: Lance Asper | Source: Unsplash

We all face barriers in our lives. It may be a job barrier, financial barrier, relationship barrier or some other seemingly impossible gulf between where we are and where we feel God wants us to be. If you wonder how you're going to get to where God would have you to be, then you should know that God has a message for you. And this wonderful Old Testament account from Joshua is just the inspiration you need.

Have you ever felt that God was calling you to do something, but you had absolutely no idea how it was gonna happen? Do you feel that way now? Maybe a dead-end job, a relationship in which you know you should forgive but you just don't know how you can? You have trust in God and you know He's powerful but this situation, well it seems impossible. If so, then our guest today is talking to you.

The Scripture comes out of Joshua, chapters three and four. It's a story many folks don't really remember from the Old Testament. It's the other river crossing and it provides inspiration for those barriers in our life. Need some of that inspiration, then stay right here. Life-changing sermons. We've all heard them. They empower us, motivate us, breathe life into us. Exceptionally gifted preachers use their unique, deeper insights to uncover and present the Scriptures in ways that are life-giving, life-altering.

Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst on Crossing Barriers

Getting Over Your Barriers With Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst
Reverend Dr. Mary Hulst

I'm Dr. Bob LeFavi, pastor, researcher, and you are about to be inspired by the best preachers in America. Our guest today received her seminary degree, Master of Divinity, from Calvin Theological Seminary. Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Communication Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, she was the senior pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. That's in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After her Ph.D. work, she went back to Calvin and was assistant professor of communication and then assistant professor of preaching at Calvin. Since 2009, she's been the university pastor at Calvin, now called Calvin University.

She's the author of the 2016 book, "A Little Handbook for Preachers". On this show, we're gonna be discussing her sermon entitled, "Crossing the Jordan". Our guest today is one of the best preachers in America, the Reverend Dr. Mary Hulst. Welcome Pastor Mary.

Mary: Thanks for having me back here.

Bob: You bet. Thank you for taking the time. So I love this sermon, and I think one of the reasons I really like it is because, well it's an Old Testament sermon and sometimes we don't hear a lot about the Old Testament and I can appreciate that.

When I'm preaching, the first thing I look at is the Gospel. But there are so many of these really rich stories from the Old Testament that are just fascinating and they do apply to our daily life and so this is one of them from Joshua three. So Pastor Mary, can you give us the context here? Tell us where we are in the history of the Israelites and how do we get to this point here in Joshua?

The God of Joshua Is the Same God of You and Me

Mary: That's a great question. I love preaching the Old Testament. It's so much fun to go back and remember that the same God of Joshua is the God of you and me. And it's just so much fun to see how God acts then and be reminded that this is still how God acts today. Out of deep love for his people. That's one of the coolest things we see here in Joshua three.

So Joshua one begins and God's really clear with Joshua. He says, "Moses my servant is dead. Now you, you gotta do this." And He says to him again and again, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. I'm with you wherever you go." And we know how the book of Joshua unfolds.

Joshua has no idea what he's stepping into and so we have the assurances that God is with him. Now, what does that actually look like? And in the crossing of the Jordan, which is what happens in Joshua three, we get a really clear image of what it looks like when God's talking about, "I'm with you always to the end of the age." This is what that looks like. Now, not only did Joshua need this reminder but the people of Israel did.

Everybody who saw the crossing of the Red Sea, everybody who was part of the whole Pharaoh experience, they've all died off. They don't have any of those particular memories. They have other memories of how God showed up but the whole crossing of the sea thing.

Crossing the Barriers of Jordan From Edom and Moab

Mary: You know it's like, "Well, I remember my grandpa talking about that, but they didn't have that.” So here they are, they're moving toward the west, they have to cross the Jordan from Edom and Moab across into the next area of land.

They've got this river between where they are and where God wants them to be. And the river is at flood stage. So it's not just like a hike up your pants, lift up your skirt, it's a devastating huge running river.

Bob: And back then, and this river, the Jordan River was a little different than it is today, isn't it?

Mary: Yes. Now it's been siphoned off for agriculture. So by the time you get to the area where the people would have crossed today, most of us could pretty easily get across it, wading, paddling, swimming. You look at that now and you think, "Really? That's the Jordan River? Like that looks like a farmer's creek back home. That's not impressive."

Because it wasn't siphoned off for agriculture by the time it got south it was still a pretty substantial river. At flood stage meant there was just no way. For the people who lived in the land and for the pagans who lived in the land. They very much saw water as a symbol of their gods. And so they thought, "There's no way this ragtag bunch of people who can cross the river at flood stage because Baal has got that. This is impenetrable."

That's what they're thinking.

Symbols of God's Provision to His People

Symbols of God's Provision to His People
Photographer: Kiy Turk | Source: Unsplash

Mary: The people of Israel are thinking the same thing.

They're thinking this is the stupidest idea we've ever had. Like what are we doing? Now.

Bob: So this Jordan River really kind of protected some of the other nations from Israel.

Mary: Absolutely. And so, you know they could be hanging out in Jericho thinking, "Oh, we've heard maybe that there are these people over there, but they're not gaining here." There's no way.

We don't have to worry about them for a few months, at least. Until the water goes down.

So this is what God does. He says to Joshua, "I want everybody to line up.” And they're all really good at lining up, 'cause they've been doing that. Everybody knows exactly which tribe goes where. They all line-up. He puts the ark way in front of them. He has them stand back, away from the river, so that everybody has a view.

Now, you know if you go to a parade, if you end up behind people, you're not seeing anything. So God gets His people back away so that the majority of the people have a really good view of what is about to happen. And then he tells Joshua to put the ark in front.

Now the ark contained the symbols of the relationship between God and God's people: the staff of Aaron, the tablets of the law, the golden pot with manna in it. These symbols of God's provision to His people in a gold box.

Barriers Between Where You Are Now and Where You Want to Be

Mary: Only the priests could touch it. They could only touch it. Very, very precious. This is their most precious thing. Now you would think any other culture, any other group would be like, "Well, that goes last. We're not taking that anywhere near the water."

Bob: Oh, gonna protect it.

Mary: Protect it at all costs.

And in this case, what God says is, you are where you are now and where you want to be. And there's a huge barrier between. I go first. Because God knows that if the Levite steps his foot in there and he is swept away and the ark goes tumbling down. He's gonna look like a fool.

That's on God. It's not the people of Israel that look foolish. God looks bad.

Bob: So God's the one who is vulnerable here. God's the one who's taking the risk.

Mary: Yes, God's the one who takes the risk. God says when you are coming up on something that's a huge barrier between where you are and where I need you to be, I go first. And so we see these guys go into the river and much to their amazement, it stops. It works. And then the people cross at a healthy distance from the ark.

Bob: Right, social distancing.

Mary: Social distancing in Joshua times.

God Goes Not Before You but Beside You

Mary: And they all cross, for some of them this may be the one really good shot they saw of the ark ever in their lives. Because it wasn't protected, it wasn't in a tent, it was right out there.

So they walked across the river, they look up the river, they see this ark, they see the priests. They get across. So it's not just that God goes before, but then God is with them.

Bob: Right. In the middle of it.

Mary: In the middle of it. In the middle of the time when they feel most threatened and most concerned. Like, how much time do we have here?

How long before that water comes back? And so they all get across and only then does He give the commandment to Joshua to have the priests come up and out of the water. So God goes first, God is with us in the middle, and God goes after, and He doesn't get out of the risk until everyone is safe.

Bob: First one in, last one out.

Mary: That's exactly right.

Bob: Well this is fascinating because if you would have talked to, you know the average Christian, a regular Christian who kind of knows the Bible and hears about it on Sunday and comes to church. And you talk to 'em about a river crossing. This is not the river crossing they're thinking of. But what a great story.

Barriers We Face While Trying to Make Our Way to the World

Barriers We Face While Trying to Make Our Way to the World
Photographer: Julian Dufort | Source: Unsplash

Bob: Because it relates to us today. What kinds of barriers, you're at a university.

You're dealing with young folks who are trying to make their way in the world. Figuring out what they're gonna do and how they're gonna use their skills and their talents and all that. What they're gonna do with their lives and relationships and things. And yet other adults, we come across barriers all the time.

What kinds of barriers in your ministry do you see people up against that you think back on this and you try to impress upon them? Look, God's already gone before you. Tell us a little bit about that. Maybe you have a story. Or maybe some anecdotes about how this really relates to us and our barriers.

Mary: Yes, so giving them that, the vision, like you can do this. Or the barrier between, like I gotta get a job.

And I've sent out all these applications and I haven't heard anything back and how do you trust? Well, I've only looked in this area and to be able to say, well maybe God's inviting you to widen your scope.

Maybe He's calling you to go internationally. Maybe He's calling you to do something you've never thought about before and to allow them to say like, "Oh, okay, all right. You know, I can do that.” Or, "My Spanish isn't nearly good enough."

God Goes First

Mary: And be like, "Your Spanish "is better than you think and you can do this." Then, you know for all of us, when we think of a relationship that's broken and from where we are to where we know God is calling us to be, it feels like an impossibility. Like, I can't cross that, you know? We have been estranged for too long and to remember, God goes first.

He's not asking you to do anything that He Himself hasn't done. You don't do this alone. He's going with you. You pay attention, He'll show you how to do it. Those kinds of barriers from wherever we are, where God needs us to be, He's with us.

Bob: Yes. And what I love about this is, it really kind of drives home the importance of step one. It is to trust that God has already gone there.

Then you see those doors open. It's not gonna be that God taps you on the shoulders and says, "Hey, look I'm here. I've already gone before you." But through His actions with other people, those doors open or forgiveness. You may have even mentioned this in your sermon. You know, God leading you to forgive and you think, "How am I ever gonna get there?"

How can I ever, step one is to trust that God brings you there, and even if you say, "Look, I'm not even sure I'm willing to forgive right now."

The Huge Barriers That God Has Already Passed

Bob: To be willing to forgive is step one.

God, help me here. Can't do this on my own, help me there. But You've gone first, particularly when it comes to forgiveness. God, You've gone first.

You've gone first. And I think what I also love about your sermon is you take it not just from the practical, but also to the theological. You talk about this huge barrier that God has already passed. That there is, there was a barrier for us too.

The barrier that was impossible for us to go from where we were to where we needed to be in communion with God and that barrier was sin. Remind our listeners about the relationship between the barriers that we see in the Jordan and the barriers that ultimately Jesus comes to fix.

Mary: You know, we all have these smaller barriers of brokenness. Of sin that keep us from where God wants us to be. But as humanity, we all share the big barrier between who God created us to be and who we are.

The fallenness of our own humanity is a barrier between us and God, and God sends Jesus Christ to be the bridge and what's beautiful is to link the people's crossing of the Jordan here and Jesus' baptism into the Jordan which happens miles upstream from this location.

And when Jesus goes into the Jordan, John the Baptist says, "Whoa, hey now, no. This isn't how this is supposed to go." And He says, "No, this is how I fulfill all righteousness."

Taking Down the Barriers That Prevents Us From Being in a Relationship With God

Mary: It's a symbol of Jesus saying, "I'm taking on this barrier. I am taking on the brokenness of humanity that prevents you from being in a relationship with the most high God. I take that on in Me and I destroy the barrier of sin, and death, and hell so that you're in relationship with God."

So when the biggest barrier has been overcome, you know God can show us how He can empower us to get across all the little barriers. Whether that's in a relationship or with addiction, or with our futures. To be able to say, "That's right, Jesus came. He bore our sins in His body on the cross. He rose from the dead, and so I can do hard things too. Because God has shown me how."

Bob: I think that's what's so inspirational about this discussion and your sermon. Because God did this for the people at the Jordan River, and because God did this for us in the person of Jesus Christ, we can now trust that God will help us through our barriers.

And every single person listening to this podcast has a barrier.

A barrier that they know where God's calling them to be, but they just think there's just no way. There's no way. I can't leave my job and go back to school to become qualified for another job. I feel, or I'm stuck in an abusive relationship and I can't leave.

What Is Holding Us Back From That Abundant Life

What Is Holding Us Back From That Abundant Life
Photographer: Mohamed Masaau | Source: Unsplash

Bob: There are no doors that are open, but we have to be able to trust because of what God already shows us is His character. This is His MO, this is what He does. He's already gone before you. He's the first one in and the last one out, that's why I love this sermon.

I think it's inspirational, it gets us thinking about our barriers. What is holding us back from that abundant life and then at the end of the sermon, you mention it's even death, the thing we fear the most.

Mary: That's right. We're recording this right now in the middle of the pandemic and we've all had a very clear understanding of our own mortality and how vulnerable. And to be reminded, like oh God conquered this too.

Like, this is all part of what goes down at the end of time. It's just such a great reminder. Like those big barriers have already been dealt with. So I can deal with the little deaths because the big death has been taken care of.

Bob: This kind of thing inspires me to be able to look at my barriers. Inspires me to be able to really put my trust in God and realize that what we hear in this passage, "Have I not commanded you, be strong and be courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

The Decision to Be a Pastor

Bob: He's already gone before you. He's the first one in and the last one out. I think this is just a wonderful thing for our listeners to remember and it really speaks to our ability to trust God with who He is because this is what He does, right?

Mary: That's what He does.

Bob: The last one out and certainly He's the one who went before us into death and resurrection. I'd love for our listeners to hear more about you. Let's say you were a little girl. When all your friends were talking about being doctors and nurses, you decided that you were gonna be a preacher? Is that the way it went?

Mary: When I was in seventh grade, my pastor Terry Lapinsky said to me at the time "You're gonna be a pastor when you grow up."

And in our denomination, we weren't ordaining women as deacons, or elders, let alone pastors. When I was in seventh grade, he just had a vision. He planted that seed in me. In seventh grade I was on the swimming team and playing soccer and you know, like, "Huh, pastor, interesting."

He left our church. He took a call away from our church when I was in eighth grade but he would come back every summer. To preach, to go to a cottage in Michigan and he would shake my hand and say, "You gettin' ready to go to seminary? Because you're gonna do this."

What Encouraging Words Can Do

Mary: So when I was in high school, I got involved in ministry things. I really started to pay attention to what do pastors do. I'd always loved the church, I'd always loved Scripture. I was one of the kids who when I was a little girl, I said to my mom, "I don't want to be a nursery volunteer anymore. I actually want to be in church."

There were so many things about it that I thought, "Oh, this really lines up." And I did my own acts of Jesus and hermeneutical work in high school to see why doesn't my denomination does this yet. The reformed perspective, I think not only allows it but actually requires it with joy. To say men and women get to work side by side in the kingdom. We're all about that.

By the time I went to college and I went to Calvin, I was pre-sem and I majored in classics and took Greek. I got really involved in the chapel program there, and now my denomination. It was two steps forward, one step back for a long time.

I was ordained in '96 and just so grateful that my seventh-grade pastor planted that seed. So for all of you who are dealing with middle schoolers who may be driving you crazy right now, keep an eye open.

Bob: Show them, encourage them.

Mary: Speak a word over them, because you just don't know.

Bob: Look what that encouragement did.

The Barriers That Mary Had to Cross

The Barriers That Mary Had to Cross
Photographer: Dustin Humes | Source: Unsplash

Bob: You think about it, what a barrier that was for you to cross.

Mary: Yes.

Bob: God went there first and I'm sure through that time, you probably questioned. Then you saw doors open and you took those chances. You trusted this is where God wants me to be.

Mary: Yes.

Bob: When you were a teenager and you said, "Look, I'd rather be in church," was the sermon the most important thing for you? Was the sermon the thing that fed you or it was just part of it?

Mary: I love listening to sermons. Now we didn't have nearly as many ways to listen to sermons as we do today. But my mom always listened to Chuck Swindoll every day. So when I was home in the summer and she was, you know we'd be cleaning the house, or doing whatever, that would be on.

Christian radio was on in our house and so we would talk. She and I would talk about the sermons and what did we like about Chuck Swindoll and wasn't that interesting today. I began to really listen to my preachers, but I was also a singer. I was in choirs, I loved the singing, but I loved, really I just loved all of it.

I loved the whole service. For me, the sermon is, it's maybe the jewel, but the setting has to be good to really make it sparkle.

A God-Given Talent

Bob: That's a good point. Clearly you've got some God-given talents that enabled you to connect to people and that's important. For the pastors who are listening, if I had to try to pin you down and say Pastor Mary, what is the one attribute that you think is most important in the development of a really life-changing sermon.

Or at least a powerful sermon. Or maybe the question might be, what is the question that you ask when you're approaching a text, thinking about how am I gonna make this hit home on Sunday?

Mary: My first centering question that really allows me to focus is, what is God up to in this passage? Because then I approach it both with curiosity and humility.

I think a curious preacher is often a good preacher. 'Cause he or she is looking at the text and thinking, "What's going on here?" They're looking at their people and thinking, "What's going on with you? How do I connect this passage with your life?"

There's a delight and a joy in the writing of sermons when you get to say, "Look at this cool thing I found in the passage." The God who did that is the same God who's working in your life right now. I think that's just pure joy. So if I can figure out what is God up to in this passage, that also gets me out of the way. It's not like, "Well here's what I think this passage is about and you all should listen."

It's God's up to something in here. I get to discover that, and show that to the people that I love.


Bob: Well, Pastor Mary, I can't thank you enough. This is the kind of conversation I really love having on this podcast. I appreciate you joining us on Inspirational Sermons.

Pastor Mary's sermon is available in its entirety on the Calvin University LOFT, Living Our Faith Together podcast, or through a link in the Inspirational Sermons website, Pastor Mary, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you all for listening. May God richly bless each and every one of you.

Love this episode of Inspirational Sermons? Join us and we'd really appreciate it if you'd head over to wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe, rate, leave us a review. See you next time as we continue to explore epic, life-changing sermons by the best preachers in America.

About the author

Bob LeFavi

As pastor, professor and researcher, Dr. Bob is dedicated to exploring sermons that inspire people and breathe life into them. His passion is to seek out the best preachers in America, highlighting how they use their insights to change lives.

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