12th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 20)
August 15, 2010
Exodus 25 through 40
Several months after the People of Israel left Egypt by crossing the Red Sea, they came to the base of Mount Sinai. God had travelled with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so they could continue to travel day and night. They ate manna and quail and drank water from the rock on the way.
At the bottom of Sinai, God called Moses up to the top of the mountain and gave instructions – among them the Ten Commandments. God made a covenant with the people: God would lead them and always be with them, and they would honor God’s teachings. God called Moses up the mountain again in order to inscribe the Torah, the teachings of God’s commands on stone tablets. Moses was gone for 40 days and 40 nights – a really long time.
As part of the teaching, God instructed Moses to build a tent especially designed to be a dwelling for God. Tabernacle means “dwelling place.” It is the same word used in John’s Gospel when it says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It is the same word Jesus used when he said “Abide in me and I will abide in you.” God’s instructions were specific: how big, what it would be made of, how it would be arranged, who could come into which parts, down to the tiniest detail.
In a special enclosure, “The Most Holy Place,” they were to place a box – a big chest, often called an ark. The ark would contain the tablets of the Commandments, which God had inscribed with his own finger on the stone. On the lid of the ark were two angels – cherubim – whose wings reached across the top of the box. The area under the wings was called the Mercy Seat – and it was where God would meet Moses to give commands for God’s people.
In the enclosed area in front of the Most Holy Place – the Holy of Holies – was the place where the priests offered prayers. There was a table and lampstands. On the table was bread, specially baked each day, called the Bread of God’s Presence.
This Holy Place was framed and curtained to contain these items, all made of acacia wood and covered with gold. The table, the ark and the altar which would be outside in the courtyard were fitted with rings on the sides and acacia wood poles were fashioned to run through the poles so that the items could be carried without being touched. Ordinary people did not touch the things of God, only those who were designated and trained could handle them.
All of this was gathered into a curtained courtyard, whose measurements God specified. The entrance was specified and the robes of the priests and the purification of the oil for the lamps. The people were instructed to contribute the materials which would make this tabernacle. The gold for the lampstands and the covering of the ark and the table and the altar; the red and purple and blue linen for the curtains which made the courtyard and the Holy Place and the curtain between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies; the red and blue ram’s skins which made the roof of the Holiest enclosures;the silver and bronze fittings for the frames from which the curtains hung, the linen and bronze and gold for the priestly robes, and the labor to make everything. Where would they get all this stuff in the desert? They were asked to give all the beautiful appointments they had brought from Egypt to adorn God’s Tent. God even appointed the designer and builder who had the gifts to build it. God was eager to dwell with the people, and to have a place to live among them.
While all of this detailed instruction of Moses was going on, the people at the foot of they began to fear: they were afraid that Moses was never coming back, they were afraid they were lost in the desert forever. They convinced Aaron, Moses’ brother, the priest, to help them create a new god for them. They melted down their earrings and cast them into the form of a calf, and they began to worship it with all kinds of immorality.
When God saw the people’s idolatry and wild orgies he sent Moses down to them, promising to consume them in his wrath. But Moses pleaded for them by reminding God of all that he had done for them, by reminding God that the world was watching. “The Egyptians will say that you brought these people into the desert to destroy them.” He begged that God would turn from his wrath and remember his promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to create a great nation.
And God relented. But Moses was angry, too, and sent armed priests among them killing a son or brother of all the worshippers. 3,000 died that day, and the people repented promising to put off all their celebratory clothes and jewelry.
The covenant was restored, the tablets were recreated, and the tabernacle was built according to plan. The cloud which had led them covered the Tent of Meeting – the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord filled it.
“In all the travels of the Iraelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tabernacle, they 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 houses of Israel during all their travels.” Exodus 40: 36, 38. This ‘tent’ was God’s house from the Exodus period 1290 BCE, until the temple which Solomon built in 961 BCE
Here is one place where you hear the Gospel in the Hebrew Bible. God had every right to kill those who turned to another god. But God chose to bless them with his presence instead. It is necessary to understand God’s justified anger and jealousy in order to appreciate God’s mercy. And it is the way God has treated humans since the very beginning – not with destruction but with love. In spite of people’s betrayal, God continues to want to dwell with us.
And now may the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.