Next Sunday is a pretty big day. Don’t worry, it’s not yet Valentine’s day, and no, it’s not yet Lent. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Now anyone who knows me knows I’m not one to make many sports analogies when it comes to preaching, but today I think it’s pertinent. Super Bowl Sunday. This is a high holy day in the world of sports. The crowd will stand with hands over their hearts and sing the national anthem along with Kelly Clarkson. There’s the coin toss. People dress up in goofy outfits, cheer at their team’s touchdowns, and boo at the other team. Having not had much involvement in sports while growing up, to me, games like next week’s Giants/Patriot’s game can at times seem like a snapshot of a whole other world. A world with it’s own rules and order. And what is it that they’re doing? Ritual.
This feeling is not unlike the feeling that I get when I read of the rituals surrounding the temple that are presented to us when we hear the passage we read today from Hebrews 9.
If you think that passage was a bit long, or confusing, you should spend some time in the book of Exodus. When God and Moses had their famous mountain top conversation at Mount Sinai he provided Moses with the Ten Commandments, and then spends the next 10 or so chapters providing more guidance of right conduct and worship. Exodus chapters 25 through 27 are simply directions on how the temple should be arranged. When the God’s people were wandering in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt, they were looking for a right way to worship God, and God provided that for them in the instructions God established for how to arrange the temple.
Thanks to Lynn Bova and the Children of God Bible time, we have here a model of what the temple looked like. [Video of sermon]
As we read in our text, there would be a room called the Holy Place that would hold a lampstand and a table with the bread of the Presence. The golden lampstand had seven candles, as a reminder of when one day’s oil lasted for seven days. It might look a bit familiar to you, as it is present in Jewish synagogues and households today. This miracle of God’s provision over seven days is remembered in the Jewish holiday, Hannukah.
The bread of the presence was a collection of 12 loaves of bread, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. This bread symbolizes God’s presence with the people of Israel and serves as a symbol of fellowship and communion. We see also the altar of incense, which welcomed people into the divine presence.
At the back of this room there is a curtain and behind is the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies. It held the ark of the covenant. This ark was formed to contain the tablets of the Ten Commandments, passed to Moses from God’s own self. To enter into the presence of God’s own will manifest, was to be present to the power of God. This was not something to be taken lightly, but something that only high priest could do. And the priest had to wash himself not only physically, but also had to be ritually clean in order to step foot behind that curtain. The construction of the temple itself also had to be carried about in such a way to honor God. The cloths of the fabric surrounding the temple reflected gradations of holiness, with purple, the color of royalty, as the closest to the temple.
And while we can sit here today and wonder why anyone would ascribe such significance to the colors of the temple cloth, let us think about next weekend and the significance of the combinations of red and blue we will see. How we adorn our environment and ourselves has significance. It can show allegiances, reveal wealth, point to function or profession. I guarantee people would have a hard time taking me seriously as a preacher right now if I were wearing a football uniform. Or if one of the football players were wearing this outfit in the game next week, that would garner the same confusion. This room is clearly not a stadium.
Sure there are places to sit, a place where the seats are directed, but that’s about where the comparison ends. And though we are far from the design of the temple, there is still intentionality in the arrangement of our worship spaces. In the chapel and sanctuary we have communion tables, baptismal fonts, organs, and pianos. When you walk into that space you have expectations of what is going to happen there.
In fellowship hall we have projectors that serve to invite us into song, prayer, and listening to the word of God. There are still very apparent rituals that surround how we breathe into this space.
While we are undergoing our renovations, we are not perpetually referring to the Book of Exodus to make sure we have the cubits right, or a color scheme that appropriately reflects a particular verse of scripture, we are still designing and decorating in expectation of something amazing taking place there. We are still making room for God’s presence to show up. That is after all, what the synagogue and the church are all about, making space for God to show up. Making space for us to show up before God. We want to be close to God.
The “Holy of Holies,” which held the ark of the covenant was something only accessed by the chief priest. It was technically something you could get to, but it would cost you. You could train to become a priest, hope to become the chief priest, and be able to access God’s presence. Or, if you dared, you could simply pull away the curtain, but it was said that only the High Priest could survive being so immediately in the presence of God. The Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, interprets this by showing people’s faces melting off in the presence of the ark. A gory thought, indeed.
Proximity to the action is still expensive in modern day rituals. You can attend the Super Bowl, but it will cost you. At the beginning of this past week I was checking ticket prices. The cheapest seats available cost $2785. The best seats available cost $15343. And now, in our worship space? Sitting in this front row here won’t cost your your life. You don’t need to be a high priest. You don’t even need to pay $15,343.
If you look around in any of our worship spaces you will notice some very striking differences between our spaces and the tabernacle of Jesus’s time. While we may burn candles from time to time, there is no fragrant incense. With the exception of communion once a month, there is no bread of presence.
Most importantly, there is no curtain that divides us from God’s presence. Front row interaction with God is always free to us, though it was indeed bought at a great price.
In the time the temple was built, the curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was a safeguard. The rules and regulations surrounding temple life provided a safe way for people to interact with God. Equipped with God’s rules, handed down from Moses, people knew when they had upset God, and knew when they were in God’s favor. And when they needed to get back in God’s favor they would offer up a sacrifice. They will kill an innocent animal to atone for their own guilt. The predictability of this set of pluses and minuses made a relationship with God safe and manageable. But, in the time the temple was built, this was the way that people followed God, this was the way people sought access to God, because this is the way God told them God would be present. As the directions became more and more complex, the people dutifully followed, believing that these rules were what brought them in proximity to God.
To interact with God’s actual presence was so overwhelming, that to truly encounter God was to forfeit life. However, the good news is that the exact opposite has happened. God came to earth to encounter us in the form of Jesus, and in doing so, forfeited His own life.
Hebrews 9 explains this for us saying: “But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”
All those sacrifices of all those animals only served as a bandage. Their death was only a temporary fix, which lasted only until the next sin was committed. And though God’s people tried to follow God, by following every rule and regulation they came across, what we needed was relationship. We needed a living-breathing example of how to welcome God into this world. Our God, who cannot be contained in rules boarded up in a box, however shiny and gold it may be, wants us to help to generate a Kingdom that is larger than any building we can build. We belong to a God brighter than the shiniest gold and deeper than the deepest purple. And so God sent Jesus Christ came to bring us that example and grant us that proximity to the Divine. Jesus Christ came to earth as the ultimate sacrifice. . Jesus came to hand us our very own ticket to a first row relationship with Him.
Jesus eliminates the separation between God and us. When Jesus died on the cross he said, “‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
The curtain was torn. The barrier was removed. God is not contained any longer to the “Holy of Holies,” or even the “Holy Place.” God’s holiness is let loose in this world, restricted only by humankind’s hard heartedness to keep God at bay.
“It is finished,” Christ said on the cross. His sacrifice was finished, his life was finished, but more importantly, any separation between God and humankind was finished. And with all of that finished, our work as followers of Christ had just begun. We are the one’s tasked with being Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are to breathe the love of Christ into our space, and make what is ritual real to those who have yet to encounter God. The living “Holy of Holies,” breathed and moved among us and seeks to breathe and move through us. Let us create space in our spaces, lives, and relationships to make that happen. Amen.