Of Temples and Curtains

[reprinted from December 12, 2008]

– Henry Neufeld

5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; 6and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”        Exodus 19:5-6 (HN)

9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: 10who in time past were no people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy. – 1 Peter 2:9-10 (HN)

On Wednesday Jody talked about Zechariah in the temple, and how he kept the symbols of worship and of God’s presence going as was his duty as a priest, while the people stood outside and were separated from all of this.  Jody promised that I would write this yesterday, and she did indeed ask me to do so.  I forgot.  I apologize.  I also apologize for how late it is this morning.

In Matthew 27:51 we’re told that when Jesus died, the veil in the temple was torn in two, and this theme is picked up in Hebrews 10:20 (and a couple of chapters on either side) where we are told that Jesus opened up a new way and thus we can enter with boldness into God’s presence.

The tabernacle and the sanctuary are often taught as symbols of God’s presence with his people, and there is a sense in which they were. God showed himself there and centered worship around that point. It was a place to which people could look for understanding of God and for worship. It is important to remember that, unlike other temples in the ancient world, when one got to the center there was no image. In fact, there was nothing. You had cherubim over the ark. On the ark, one would have expected an image of the God, but the space was empty.

That was a constant reminder to priests and people not only that God couldn’t be represented, but that God couldn’t be contained. He chose for a moment of time to present himself at that place and in that way, but he was not limited to the way in which he had done it.

There’s another important way in which the temple was a symbol of God’s absence. There was an outer curtain around the courtyard, then there was a curtain leading into the first chamber, then another curtain leading into the holiest of holies. The restrictions on who could enter became greater and greater with each veil. Actually being in the presence—to see the empty space between the cherubim filled with God’s glory—was a rare occasion indeed.

Why was this? Did God not want to be present with his people? Hardly! In fact, in our first text from Exodus 19, we have God’s vision for his people as a nation of priests. Restricting some portion of the temple to “priests only” would hardly be meaningful if everyone was a priest! But that is what God wanted—everyone coming into his presence.

Ultimately, Israel was chosen to be in God’s presence and to lead others (us, the gentiles) into that presence as priests. But something stood in the way, and that something was simply fear. When God appeared on the mountain with all the restrictions and rules, all the noise, the earth shaking, the thunder, and the dark cloud, the people were afraid.

The largest and thickest veil that separates us from God, the one hardest to tear open, is our fear. Many people claim to enter God’s presence without fear or awe. I hope that it is true, and that perfect love has, for them, cast out all fear. But for most of us, I would suggest that if there is no fear, we are just pretending, and not really experiencing God’s presence.

We come with the fear, but the one who casts out that fear is Jesus, who experienced himself all the fearfulness of being in God’s presence. Jesus tore open the veil and made it possible for us to be in God’s presence and lose that fear. He did it when he died on the cross.

Now, as we wait in advent expectation, our need is to let Jesus tear open the veil that remains in our own heart. He’s not going to tell you it’s safe. Going into God’s presence will always be the most dangerous thing you can do. It will twist your universe into unimaginable shapes and shatter your vision of life and of who you are. It’s frightening.

But it’s also the safest thing you will ever do—Jesus came as a baby to tell you so!

Breath of Heaven written and sung by Amy Grant

 

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