Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message on Tabernacle 01; Date: 23 August 09

For more sermons and other writings check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org

 

Progressive Presence

 

How can one of the most exciting books in the Bible end in such a boring fashion? If you ever make the decision to read the entire Bible, you will be hard pressed to make it through the second book, that is: Exodus, because this book finishes with chapter upon chapter upon chapter of detailed building constructions for something that was not even a house or palace but a worship tent. See whether you like the flavour of these lengthy Bible records – chapter 25: “ … Have them make a chest of acacia wood – two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold both inside and out, and make a gold moulding around it. Cast four golden rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it … ” Chapter 26: “Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim worked into them by a skilled craftsman. All the curtains are to be the same size – twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide … ” Chapter 27: “ … For the entrance of the courtyard, provide a curtain twenty cubits long, of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen – the work of an embroiderer – with four posts and four bases. All the posts around the courtyard are to have silver bands and hooks, and bronze bases … ” Do you already have enough of this? Chapters 28 to 30 continue in the same vein and then all of the chapters from chapter 35 to the final chapter 40 share the same excitement of minute – boring – details – chapter 35: “ … gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece … ” Chapter 36: “ … They made curtains of goat hair for the tent over the tabernacle – eleven all together … ” Chapter 37: “ … They made the lampstand of pure gold and hammered it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms were of one piece with it … ” Chapter 38: “ … They made all its utensils of bronze – its pots, shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans. They made a grating for the altar, a bronze network, to be under its ledge, halfway up the altar … ” Chapter 39: “ … They made the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. They hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut strands to be worked into the blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen … ” Chapter 40: “ … Bring in the table and set out what belongs on it. Then bring in the lampstand and set up its lamps. Place the gold altar of incense in front of the ark of the Testimony and put the curtain at the entrance to the tabernacle … ”

Have I lost your attention by now? What is going here? There must be something deliberate in these details – there must be something exciting after all – because the book of Exodus knows how to hold a reader’s attention with fast-paced action. A dynasty changes power – slave people multiply in oppression – midwives refuse an order to kill newborn baby boys – all of that happened in the very first chapter of Exodus and then the action went from there. God appeared in a burning bush – ten plagues destroyed Egypt – signs and wonders – the slave people escaped through the sea – Pharaoh and his army drowned – all of this was breathtaking (swift action – blow by blow) and then the ultimate climax happened when God descended on Mount Sinai where he made a lasting agreement with his chosen people Israel.

I read – Exodus 19:3: “ … the Lord called to Moses from the mountain and said: ‘ … You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt … and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, … you will be my treasured possession … you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ … On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast … Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire … ” Yes – this is more like it. A blockbuster book! Only then – at least according to our modern taste – the climax – the high point of the story – seems to fizzle into a disappointing finish.

It began so well. At the start God had promised his people what no other nation on earth had – his abiding presence. Exodus 3:12 – I read: “ … When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.” Exodus 25:8: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” Exodus 29:45-46: “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” Exodus 33:14: “ … My Presence will go with you … ”

Yes – all right! Only then – when the excitement level should be most intense – there are these boring building descriptions of the worship tent and the worship rituals and the worship utensils.

May I suggest to you that there is a most important lesson in this for us. God is exciting when he moves in a church with signs and wonders – fast-paced action of demonic deliverance and changing the fate of a city – but when it comes to the climax of our faith: his dwelling among us – the privilege of drawing near to his abiding presence among us in worship – then we often lose interest because the build-up seems so slow and boring. Humbling ourselves – sacrificing time and pleasures – prayer meetings that go to midnight – singing – waiting on God – repenting even more – dying to sin – learning his ways – all of this is too slow – too hard – too boring – and therefore many skip reading the end of the book – like I have done for years. Many skip experiencing God’s ultimate promise – his presence in worship – but God said: “I will dwell among them

How are you going with this? Do you like certain aspects of church-life but maybe even this church is a little too boring for your taste. It is too spiritual – too much on prayer – too much on our relationship with God – and therefore not practical enough. But this is quite a serious misunderstanding. Nothing is more practical than the worship of our God and nothing matters more for every practical aspect of your life than drawing near to God in worship. The Bible explains with extreme clarity – Deuteronomy 11:13-17: “ … if you faithfully obey the commands … – to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – then I [your God] will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you” (cf. Deuteronomy 28).

The worship of our God – loving and serving him with all that we have – that kind of spiritual work determines all of the practical aspects of our lives – whether we have food on the table, whether we prosper in our work, whether a marriage survives and everything else. “ … if you … love the Lord your God and . serve him with all your heart, then I [your God] will send rain … and you will … be satisfied … ”

Are we prepared to take another look at these “boring” building instructions at the end of Exodus. They are actually not “boring” at all when you begin to realize the nature of the worship tent and the preciousness of every little detail. It is like giving an engineer all of the precious components of a Ferrari motor. An expert enthusiast is going to linger on every piece of superb equipment – the gearbox, the fourstroke V8 engine, pneumatic valve springs, 25 m/s mean piston speed, 14 bar mean effective pressure – none of these details is boring – to an engineer – because they make the car fast. In the same way none of the worship tent details are boring – to a worshipper – because they make us draw near to God into the very heart of his presence. In fact, every elaborate building detail is not of human origin but made in heaven.

And this is where it gets very exciting. The Lord said to Moses – I read from Exodus 25:9: “Make this tabernacle [that is the worship tent or dwelling place] and all its furnishing exactly like the pattern I will show youGod insisted on this request – Exodus 25:40: “See that you make them [the entire tent and all of the worship utensils] according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” Exodus 26:30: “Set up the tabernacle according to the plan shown you on the mountain.” Exodus 27:8: “Make the altar hollow, out of boards. It is to be made just as you were shown on the mountain.” Cf. Exodus 31:11; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44.

God himself provided the precise blueprint for worship at the tabernacle because – and this is where it gets even more exciting – this blueprint was according to the existing – eternal – realities of heaven itself which are not superseded even today. This means: The principles of the tabernacle – the deep truths of this ancient worship tent – the patterns which God showed to Moses – are still in force today and therefore apply to us – here and now – this morning. The Bible explains – Hebrews 8:5: “They [human priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’” Another person actually had a vision of the tabernacle in heaven – Revelations 15:5: “After this I looked and in heaven the temple, that is, the tabernacle of the Testimony was opened[Cf. Revelations 11:19: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.”]

In practical terms this means for us that if we want to learn about worship, we cannot do anything better than study the tabernacle – how worship worked in this worship tent. Even at the time of Moses – long before Jesus came into this world as our Saviour – the tabernacle already foreshadowed his coming and foreshadowed how the worship of our God would come to completion through him. The principles – even at this early stage – are all there – for us to learn today.

Therefore, I encourage you to hang in there. Learn to appreciate the “boring” details. God is worth the effort. Now, let’s have a look at the worship tent construction.

 

[Show powerpoint slides and give a running commentary. Maybe point out its “unattractiveness” from the outside and make a connection with Jesus who “tabernacled” among the people on earth and was also considered unattractive.]

 

We will investigate some of the tabernacle details over the next few Sundays but for now we concentrate on the main concept behind the worship tent – the top feature – which today among so many Christians is not understood: Access to God is progressive. You start at the Outer Court but then the presence of God intensifies the further you go into the Holy Place and then the Holy of Holies.

Only a few weeks ago I was at a prayer meeting with other pastors when the claim was made at the beginning of the meeting – with the taste of coffee still in our mouths and sleepy eyes (at least I was still tired) – that we Christians – by grace – through Jesus – are already present in the Holy of Holies. This was wrong – certainly for me. I was not yet in the Holy of Holies. I was not yet in the presence of God as it is in the Holy of Holies. Yes – Christians have unrestricted access to God and the Bible, therefore, encourages us – Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence … ” and Hebrews 10:19: “Therefore . having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus … ” But – even according to these references – there is an approach to God and there is an entering before we get there.

At the prayer meeting with the other pastors I had to fight my disappointment because when you make the claim that we are in the Holy of Holies and enjoying God to the fullest when we have not even made a proper start in worship, then we suffer a number of tragic results: 1) We are not even attempting to go further. If we think that we are already in the Holy of Holies, then we are not going to persevere for anything more. 2) We settle for less than we can have and may never know – even as pastors – that the fullness of God feels so different in the Holy of Holies. 3) We remain less than effective in our worship because we pray and present all of our requests to God before we have actually drawn near to him in repentance and the other actions which happen in the Outer Court. The Bible teaches that – James 5:16: “ … the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effectivebut righteousness takes some preparation – humbling yourself, letting God search your conscience, receiving forgiveness in Jesus’ name and making a commitment to obedience. Only then are you ready for more in worship – powerful intercession and hearing from God.

However, even if you understand that the presence of God intensifies in worship, there remains another danger. We focus on the instrument of access rather than God himself and then we try to take possession and control the instrument of access, that is in this case the tabernacle. This is very easily done and a most common mistake of religious people.

The tabernacle was fashioned after the pattern of the tabernacle in heaven – therefore, in a sense there was heaven itself in the tabernacle – it was holy – and then God promised access to himself through this worship tent and so it happened as the last verses of Exodus confirm – Exodus 40:33-38: “ … so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out – until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels

Thus – in the observation of certain people (a common mistake) – it was the tabernacle that seemed to guarantee the presence of God and therefore – in time – people were in danger of putting more trust in the tabernacle than God which for them – at first – had the advantage that you can control the tabernacle far better than God.

At one time God’s people went out to fight against the Philistines but they were defeated and about four thousand of them died on the battlefield. Then they thought that if the ark of the covenant – the holiest piece of furniture in the tabernacle – was with them in battle, victory would be assured. But they suffered another defeat – thirty thousand foot soldiers died – and the ark was captured by the Philistines. God cannot be controlled by controlling the ark. You can take the ark with you into battle but this does not guarantee the favour of God in your life (1 Kings 4). [However, God’s presence was still with the ark and it wrought havoc among the Philistines until it was returned. Cf. 1 Kings 5-6.]

In the same vein we may put our faith in other ways of accessing God. For instance, we may seek to control the presence of God by controlling the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. We may think that as long as we partake of the holy meal (after all this is the body and blood of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine), we should enjoy the fullness of God. Alternatively, we may put our trust in the church and the leadership functions which God has given to the church. [Quite a few Lutheran pastors became Catholics in the recent past because they love the certain spiritual authority of the pope.] Or we seek to control the presence of God with flawless theology and the perfect worship structure. If we keep saying the right words – the right prayers (a bit of repentance here, a bit of praise there) – sound sermons – the reading out of the right amount of Scripture passages (one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, one from a New Testament letter and also a Psalm) – the pronouncement of the right blessing – then we should have the glory of God in the Holy of Holies.

But this is not looking to God. This is looking at the tabernacle and other means of access to God. This is not worship but control. When the tabernacle became a temple building in Jerusalem, the king was careful not to put his faith in the worship location. He said – 1 Kings 8:27-30: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place … ” So there was a promise of God’s presence in the temple but no control because not even the highest heavens can contain God. [Cf. Luke 19:45-48 => Mark 14:57-58 => Mark 15:38-39 => Acts 6:13-14 (Acts 7:44-50).]

Right! With these words of caution we can now again marvel at the tabernacle and what it teaches us about worship. Access to God is progressive. You start at the Outer Court but then the presence of God intensifies the further you go into the Holy Place and then the Holy of Holies. The good news about this is – for all of us here – there is more. You can have more of God. What you enjoy of God at present can intensify and will intensify. There is always more of him. He is God and we will never reach the end of comprehending more and more of his glory because the Bible talks about “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). There is so much that here in earth we cannot even bear beholding something so pure and powerful. After Moses had been in the presence of God on the mountain, his face was shining with the reflected glory of God and the people could not bear the glow (even though Moses himself could only bear to see the backside of God – no human can actually see all of God and live). He had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34). I find this exciting. Who is glowing with more among us here today? Who’s had an encounter with God like this over the weekend?

There is more. One pastor described his own experience of drawing closer to God in worship. This is how it feels for him to progress from the Outer Court to the Holy Place and then the Holy of Holies. Everyone begins to pray in the flesh which means that you are pretty much starting in your own strength. You begin with what you know (prayer lists, immediate concerns). You are busy confessing your sin and at this stage you suffer from distractions – your emotions and then also your natural senses are getting in the way. The body is tired – worn out. The legs hurt. You get up and move around. Then you are back on your knees. Prayer is repetitious: “O Jesus, where are you. O JesusNothing seems to happen. The clock is ticking so slowly. The dog barks. The phone rings. Muscles ache. You just have to get something to eat.

If you haven’t prayed in a while, this phase in the Outer Court may last for two hours before you feel anything or even three hours. It may take longer than most of us are prepared to pray. However, if you are in the habit of praying, then it may take you only fifteen minutes to move on to the next stage. According to this pastor while you are in the Outer Court you do not actually know how much you have progressed to the Holy Place because the flesh – your natural senses – cannot discern the spiritual progress. You may only be minutes away from your breakthrough in prayer but you don’t know and therefore you go and fix yourself a sandwich.

When you come to the Holy Place there is suddenly an explosion of praise. The flesh no longer fights you. You are no longer aware of distractions or the clock. The words become wealthy. God begins to talk to you. Worship comes in. Tears begin to flow. There are no longer repetitious prayer but we quit talking to him according to what we seem to know and let him take over. Jesus becomes so real to us. Everything is just right. There is the peace that surpasses all understanding. Feels so good.

According to this pastor most Christian think that this is it but there is more. If they stayed just a little longer – maybe another half hour in prayer – then Jesus would bring them into the Holy of Holies where it is indescribable. One minute in there changes your life forever and – maybe the estimate is right – only very few people have ever entered into this place. There words are inadequate. God sits on his throne and we are on our knees. This is no longer the time where we say: “I need this. I need thatBut God speaks and says: “I need this. Go and tell them this. Go and do thatThis is also the place of silence where we are still and know that he is God. He satisfies our souls. Deep communicates unto deep (Psalm 42:7).

The pastor had one experience where he was in the Holy of Holies for the very first time. He was surprised and amazed and he just mouthed the word: “HallelujahBut when he did so, the presence of God withdrew – at once – which puzzled him and frightened him. Didn’t God want praise. Immediately the Spirit said to him: “In here even your words are unacceptableThis was not the place for the mind to function – for words or feelings to be expressed. Here heart talks to heart – spirit to spirit. The soul finds rest and is satisfied.

Do you want to go there? You can. I close with the best news in the world. In the past God began by choosing one nation as his people and from this one nation – the people of Israel – only one person – the high priest – was ever allowed in the Holy of Holies and that only once every year (on the day of atonement). There were animal sacrifices every day in the tabernacle and there was lots of blood flowing but these animal sacrifices – in that time – could not completely deal with the sin that kept us separated from God. Only when Jesus Christ – God’s only begotten Son – came from heaven to earth and offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world on a cross, the power of sin was completely broken and overcome. What the animal sacrifices foreshadowed came to fulfillment in Jesus Christ with the consequence that now not only one person from one particular nation can enter into the Holy of Holies but everyone (who believes in Jesus Christ and receives forgiveness in his name) is welcome in that place – every day.

This is what happened when Jesus died. I read from Mark 15:37-38: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottomDo we understand? As soon as Jesus died, God ripped up the barrier curtain to the Holy of Holies in the temple. The veil that was to keep everyone unclean out was no longer needed because in Jesus we all have the forgiveness of sins and are completely clean – without any blemish – on account of his blood that was shed for us.

You are allowed to get close – to God. He loves you. From this morning take away this one thought – just one key principle which the tabernacle teaches us about worship. Access to God is progressive. Don’t give up when at first your prayer time feels tough and seems to be hard work. There is more to come. You are on the right track and the Holy of Holies is open to you. Amen.