RECIPIENTS OF WONDER
Exodus 25: 1 – 9, 40
Numbers 9: 15
Revelation 5: 6 – 14
Matthew 27: 45 – 54
I’m going to begin by making a statement. “We are recipients of wonder rather than followers of a moral code.” This Sunday, the first in Advent, is about hope and I hope that by the end of it we will be a little less burdened by a sense of duty and a little more freed by a sense of wonder at what God has done and is doing for us.
On 21st October I said you were getting a half sermon and that the second half would be on Advent Sunday. Well here we are. Traditionally on Advent Sunday we awaken to the hope of the coming of God’s Messiah, and we begin to get an inkling of what that hope entails.
The first half-sermon was entitled Hide and Seek Christians and spoke of the necessity we all have to mature in Christ; not to be Peter Pans who avoid taking on the responsibilities of growing in discipleship. In the final prayer I asked God to help us not to be flirting at the threshold of God’s temple, peeking at the wasteland outside, but to turn and engage with the wonders of God’s presence.
About a month after that October sermon, on Sunday 18th November, we looked at a powerful metaphor for discipleship. We looked at discipleship in terms of following Jesus as we progressed through the tabernacle (later the temple) from its Outer Court, into the Holy Place and through the veil or curtain into the Holy of Holies, the place of the very presence of God. We spoke of this priestly progression where, because in going deeper we are entering into the interiority of God, we internalise the character of God.
In other words, because of the blood of Jesus, we have access to God and in spending time in God’s presence, we become more like God.
We saw ourselves following Jesus, with confidence the Scripture says – something unheard of before – from distance from God, to nearness to God. No longer hiding from God but entering a place where we feel the directives of discipleship:
- Sharing the Good News
- Sharing the love of God
- Meeting together in the name of God
In other words, we spoke of the effect Jesus’ priestly ministry has upon us. He takes us into the very presence of God the Father. Only our identification with Jesus can do this. And when, through Jesus, we are exposed to God, we are changed. We want to:
- Share the wonderful experience we have had – our salvation story
- Share the kindness we feel from God
- Share our lives with others who feel and do likewise
Today we are going to have a look at another aspect of the tabernacle (or temple) and how this impacts us.
In doing so, a reminder: As Christians we are recipients of wonder rather than the followers of a moral code.
Have a look at the diagram of the Tabernacle again – there it is with it’s Outer Courtyard. If you were a Hebrew man you had free access to this area. It wasn’t always where people were aware of God. In fact this was the area the priests in Jesus’ time had turned into a market; what Jesus called a den of thieves.
It was often used as a social gathering place – a place of idle conversation. This was in spite of the presence of animal sacrifice – something that reminded people of sin – all the time. People here were in the presence of something to do with God, but that didn’t affect them unless they chose for it to do so.
It was a place, in short, of licence. A place where people did their own thing. They were free to come and go as they pleased. They felt no obligation personally to involve themselves in what was going on.
You still see this to some extent in that successor to the temple – the Jewish synagogue. If you visit a synagogue, you could well see some men chatting quietly and some reading the newspaper; possibly on cell phones these days.
However, when you enter the Holy Place you enter the domain of the busy priesthood. Here is a relatively confined indoor space, with the priests on duty going about their business.
There were distinct obligations associated with the Table of Shewbread, the Golden Lampstand and the Altar of Incense. This was an intentional and busy place, very much about God, about religious duty and activity. Here one became aware of the fact that there was a holy God living beyond the curtain and many of the prayers represented by the incense were about appeasing this holy God. This was a place of obligation, of law.
Can you see where I’m going with this? If you were a Hebrew (an average Israelite) you’d know that there were professional priests doing their thing in there to fulfil the requirements of the Law of Moses.
You hoped they did a good job of both the sacrifice in the Outer Courtyard and the prayers in the Holy Place because God, who ‘lived’ beyond the curtain, was holy and had to be pleased.
But something happened once a year, on the Day of Atonement, which made you hold your breath: the High Priest entered the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. He wore bells on the fringes of his garment and (it is rumoured) a rope tied around one leg in case he was struck dead and his corpse had to be pulled out.
In the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, and between the wings of the solid gold angels that were one with its lid, God’s presence was at its most tangible.
As an Israelite you would hope (and this was not the sure thing that is Christian hope) – you would hope that God accepted the prayers of the High Priest for the forgiveness of the sins of the people.
Now if this was all you hoped for, if your focus was solely on this intense priestly activity within the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, then you would have missed something. God was not confined to a stuffy tent, even then!
Our reading from Numbers tells us 15 On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire.
God was out and about! But the people of Israel were not fooled: they were still focussed on the inside of the Tabernacle because that is where their sin was dealt with, at least as best as the sacrificial system of the time could deal with it.
And so we have a picture of God’s presence in two places for two different reasons. One is God between the golden angels in the Holy of Holies, where sin is dealt with, and the other is God in the form of the Holy Spirit, a cloud of fire hovering above the tabernacle.
Matthew 27: 51 tells us what happened when Jesus was crucified: At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split.
What Jesus, as a sacrifice for sin, achieved here was dealing with our sin and opening the way for us to have a direct relationship with God. No priests or high priests as intermediaries. No curtain keeping us out. The tearing in two of the curtain is a powerful symbol of grace that says we are welcome. Those outstretched angels’ wings that identify where God ‘is’ turn into arms that reach out to embrace us.
In Hebrews we read, We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered (Hebrews 6: 19 – 20a)
When we have free access into the very presence of God, all we can do is respond with awe at the wonder of God’s love and grace. There is no sense of do your own thing. There is no sense of obligation to do this or that. There is only worship in response to the wonder that is God. We are more than anything recipients of wonder, not followers of a moral code.
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’ (Revelation 5)
Worship in awe is the only possible response to an almighty and gracious God. We are recipients of wonder.
But I mentioned a second manifestation of God. For grace-filled forgiveness and love we enter deeper into the presence of God, but we don’t stay there. The only way the High Priest would have stayed there would have been had he died!
If we have truly met God, we overflow with God’s love and turn outward again. There is a good reason God’s presence is in the form of a fiery cloud outside the tabernacle. The cloud moved and the Israelites followed.
The cloud is a symbol of God’s Holy Spirit and is, significantly, not confined to the tabernacle. The work of the Israelites was to be a light to the gentiles – to take the lead in spreading God’s ways into all the earth.
Likewise the work of the Christian is to share the Good News of Jesus to all the world, and we do it, not in our own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit – and here’s the real point – as those who witness to the wonder we have experienced.
If we have not, as it were, entered the Holy of Holies, if we have not fed intimately on the presence of God (which of course because of Jesus’ blood we can) we will have no wonder to which to witness.
I said a few Sundays ago that we all need to work out what the Good News means to us in order that we can authentically share it. We need to go deep in order to go high. When we know Jesus well it is so much easier to witness to what he has done. We are simply reflecting in joy upon the wonder we have experienced.
Otherwise we are carrying out an obligation, or at worst refusing to do so. In other words we are stuck in legalism or at worst in licence. We can only be people of grace if we have experienced the gracious.
At Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ. Our Sentence this morning read, We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered (Hebrews 6: 19 – 20a)
A final challenge to us each one: The wonder lies beyond the curtain. God’s arms are open to receive us into the wonder of his gracious embrace. Enter in, then turn in wonder and witness to what you know.