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The Tabernacle: God on the Move

Sunday, January 19, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Exodus 40:34-38; Exodus 33:7-11; John 1:14

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One of the core questions that the Bible probes and ponders is, What is the relationship between heaven and earth? How is the life of heaven related to the life of earth? In our world and in our own lives, some people wonder where God is, how is God present. Some people can feel the absence of God more acutely than they can feel the presence of God. Sometimes, people will experience the presence of God in a transcendent moment, a ‘mountaintop experience’ of some sort, but then when they’re back in the push and grind of daily life, they can have a harder time experiencing God’s presence in the mundane.  Some people observe the injustice, the dishonesty, the oppression, the violence of the world, and wonder whether God has simply walked away from the whole sorry lot of us.

Yet, every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.” We want the life of earth to reflect and correspond to the life of heaven. But how does that happen? How do you encounter God in your life, so that God can guide you in your life?

Today we’re beginning a 4-week sermon series entitled “The Intersection Between Heaven and Earth.” In the Thursday email update, we sent around a YouTube link to a short video from the Bible Project that is entitled “Heaven and Earth.” If you didn’t see it this past week, we’ll send it around again this coming week. It helps to lay out some of the framework for this series. The video describes how the Bible begins and ends with a vision of unity between heaven and earth. In Genesis 2, the depiction of this unity is the Garden of Eden. God created humanity and put them to work in the garden, and there is a beauty there, a unity, and there is no shame. Heaven and earth are united. When sin enters the picture in Genesis 3, however, that unity is broken, and heaven and earth are driven apart. Then at the very end of the Bible, in Revelation 21, there is a new heaven and a new earth, where death and pain and crying are no more. Heaven and earth are reunited. Unity at the beginning, unity at the end. In between, we find the tragic story of sin and violence and corruption and death, what some might call “life in the real world.”

What the Bible shows, however, is that God doesn’t simply check out in Genesis 3, and then wait until Revelation 21 to interact with the earth. There are key ways – “means of grace” – that God provides for the life of heaven to intersect with, transform, and heal life on earth. In these four weeks, we’re going to look at four key intersections of heaven and earth: the tabernacle, the temple, Jesus, and the church. The Bible does not say that God can only interact with earth in these places, but they are four primary, regular, grace-filled ways that God’s life comes to, and is made available to, the world.

Another way that we can talk about the intersection of heaven and earth, a way that comes to us from the Celtic spirituality of Ireland and Britain, is the language of “thin places.” “Thin places” are where it seems as though the thick boundary or veil between us and God, between life and death, between heaven and earth, becomes thin and almost transparent. You may have had some kind of experience in the course of your life where you felt that you came really close to God. The ocean or a mountain can be this for some people, places in nature often function this way for many people, being present with someone at the time of death, or being present at the moment of birth, can be thin places for some people. ‘Thin places’ have an extraordinary quality to them, acquiring an almost-numinous quality where one senses the presence of the holy.

This week, we are focusing our attention on the Old Testament symbol of the tabernacle, a carefully designed, mobile, tent that contained a holy box called the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of God’s covenant with Israel. The tabernacle would move about with the people of Israel, especially during the period when they had been liberated from slavery in Egypt, were wandering in the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. How would God be present with the people during this vulnerable time? Our text from Exodus 40 describes the moment when Moses and his team had finished constructing the tabernacle with all of its carefully designed components, which is in the verse just before our text, and “then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The ‘glory of the Lord’ is a way of talking about God’s palpable presence with the people. God’s presence was so real, so abundant, so thick in the tabernacle, that Moses couldn’t even get in. In Exodus 33, we get a description of how God would be available to the people in the ‘tent of meeting,’ Moses would go into the tent, and the Lord would “speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” While they were in the wilderness, God was present and available to the people, in the midst of their anxieties, in the midst of their confusion, in the midst of their fears and conflicts. They could bring their anxieties to God, to a regularized place in the tent of meeting, and God would meet with them. God was available and accessible to them.

But a funny thing happens to humans when they find that they have encounters with God. When we have an experience of God, we tend to want to build some kind of a shrine there to commemorate it because we want it to happen again, which is to say that we’d like to control it, we want to be able to reproduce it on command. Temples and churches and institutional religion of every kind have been notorious for trying to manage and control the presence of God, to act as though we could dispense God, as though God were at our beck and call, as though people had to come through the institution in order to get to God.

That’s the key thing about the tabernacle and the tent of meeting. The tabernacle was not fixed to one place. It would move. In the symbolism of the tabernacle, God was a camper, a nomad, who would move freely about whenever God wanted. You could not put God in a box. God was available to the people, but God was also free. That is where you get the language in Exodus 40 about how the cloud would be taken up and the Israelites would then set out on the next stage of their journey. The cloud of God’s presence would go before them on their journey.

God was available to the people, and present with them in the tabernacle, but God was also free and going before them with the tabernacle.

The imagery of the tabernacle is rich and suggestive for us in our individual lives and in our lives together, as we make our way forward as a congregation and as a community. On this Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend, when we are summoned to pick up the mantle of justice, the mantle of neighborliness, during this time when we have newly affirmed the equality of women in the state of Virginia, during this time when we continue to have all kinds of energetic and vigorous disagreements and conflicts with each other, the tabernacle wants to tell us that God is available to people, present with us. We may all be sinners, tempted to idolatry in a thousand different ways, just as our Israelite ancestors before us, but that does not keep God from being available to us. We may be living in a time of contention and disagreement and confusion and fear, just as our Israelite ancestors before us, but that does not keep God from being available to us. God comes to us and is available to us, in prayer, in our small groups, in worship, in our spiritual practices.

But the tabernacle is not only about how God is with us. The tabernacle is also about how God is free from us, and goes before us. God is already moving into our future, as a society, as a congregation, as individuals. We have to discern what God is doing, when God is doing it, and where God is taking us. You will notice that, in Exodus 40, the people of Israel did not just barge ahead and say, “Hey God! See if you can keep up with us!” They waited for God’s presence in the cloud to be taken up before they moved, which means they had to wait on God’s presence, they had to watch carefully, they had to discern when it was time to act, and when it was time to move.

Our New Testament text from John 1, which may be well-known to you, tells us that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus. We’ll be reflecting on Jesus in a couple of weeks, but what we should notice today is that when John wanted to talk about Jesus, he said that the Word of God dwelt with us. The word for dwelt is derived from the word for ‘tent’ or ‘tabernacle.’ Jesus, the Word of God, ‘tabernacled’ with us. He is present with us, but he is not controlled by us. He goes before us into our future.

Friends, where in your life do you encounter God? What is your “tabernacle”? Where do you go where you sense that God is available to you, present to you? The imagery of the tabernacle teaches us that God wants to be available to you, in the midst of whatever difficulties, fears, conflicts, wilderness wanderings you are in right now. God is available to you, even though God cannot be controlled by you. God goes before you, as in a cloud by day and fire by night, in your life. To the triune God, and to God alone, be all the glory. Amen.