A sermon on Exodus 40 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 17 January 2021
We show how important something is in different ways. We show how important people are to us by spending time with them. We show how important things are to us by how much money we spend on them.
Today our message is about the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the tent built at Mt Sinai under the leadership of Moses. It was a transportable temple. Instead of building a temple of wood and stone that had to stay where it was, the people of Israel built a tent of poles and animal skins that could be pulled down and moved and reassembled.
It is hard to exaggerate just how important the tabernacle was. And I want to try and show that in four different ways. Firstly, inside the tabernacle there was a curtain that hung from the ceiling and divided the tabernacle in half. It created a chamber, a room in the tent behind the curtain. In that room they put the ark of the covenant, a box that contained the two stone tablets of the ten commandments. Only one person, the high priest, was allowed into that room for a couple of brief moments on only one day of the year. The most solemn day of the year. Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. That’s how important the tabernacle was.
Let me try another way to explain it. In the book of Exodus, which is 40 chapters long, in chapters 25 to 31, the Lord tells Moses to make all the equipment for the tabernacle. The ark of the covenant. The altar. The lampstand. The tent itself. In chapters 36 to 39, another 4 chapters describe Moses doing what the Lord said. Pretty much going over the same material, but instead of the Lord telling Moses, “Do this,” it describes how Moses did it. That’s eleven chapters, more than a quarter of the whole book. And then another chapter, in chapter 40, verses 1 to 16, the Lord tells Moses to take the different bits and put them together to make the tabernacle and its courtyard. And then verses 17 to 32 describe again Moses doing what the Lord said.
That’s 12 chapters out of 40, 30% of the whole book devoted to this tent. When you spend 30% of your time with someone, they are important. When a book spends 30% of its pages on one topic, it’s important. That’s how important the tabernacle is.
Let me try another way. Last week we saw how the people of Israel built the golden calf. The Lord threatened not to go with them to the Promised Land. He was afraid that he might destroy them. Moses said,
If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.
And the Lord relented. He changed his mind. He said,
My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.
The tabernacle is the answer to that promise. This portable temple was to be the dwelling place of the Lord who rescued them. This is how he will be with them. That’s how important the tabernacle was.
And lastly, remember that the book of Exodus begins with the people of Israel in slavery in Egypt. And then it ends with this tent. This tabernacle. The people of Israel camped around it at the base of Mt Sinai. The presence of the glory of the Lord dwelling in the tabernacle and only leaving it to guide them through the wilderness. Well, then you’ll realise that this tabernacle, this tent with all that it symbolises, this dwelling place of the presence of God’s blessing lying at the centre of Israel’s camp, this is what the book of Exodus is all about. That’s how important the tabernacle was.
And even more importantly it gives a clue to what our life is all about, and how we can have a share in that life of blessing.
The tabernacle was to be constructed on the first day of the first month. The Jewish New Year’s Day. Twelve months after Israel was released from their slavery the new year began with this new home for the presence of the glory of the Lord’s blessing. God was coming to be with them. Not far off in a remote paradise that they might one day hope to go to. But there and then, with them and among them.
Now it’s also only a few weeks since Christmas when we talked about the name given to Jesus: Emmanuel, which means God with us. And people who know their Bibles might remember the words in John’s Gospel,
The Word of God became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
And remember Jesus’ promise,
Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.
And remember his last words to his disciples,
Go and make disciples of all nations. And surely I will be with you to the very end of the age.
The Lord is not far away. He is not absent and has to be summoned. He is not gone so that my job is to be his substitute, his priest, his matchmaker, calling God down from heaven to meet with his people. Because we don’t have to trudge through life without him. The Lord is present and close to his people. He is with us.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even then you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
That’s why the tabernacle was built to be portable. It was a tent, not a temple of stone, rooted in place. It was made of fabric and hides supported by poles of acacia wood. It’s furnishings, the ark, the table, the altar, were constructed with rings of gold through which wooden poles would go so they could be carried without touching them. The whole sacred enclosure could be disassembled, transported and then set up again at the end of the journey. Because the Lord was with them and went with them. He went with them, because he went ahead of them. Israel was the Lord’s long term investment. He was in it for the long haul. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. He went where they went, to green pastures, beside still waters, and through the valley of the shadow of death and out again, because he went with them, because he led them.
It reminds us that we gather in the Lord’s name each Sunday. We come to worship. We come to pray. We come to listen. But we do not come to meet him as if this was where he lives. The Lord is a nomad. He journeys with us. He leads and guides us. And he never leaves us. We remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians chapter 6
Don’t you know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
and in 2 Corinthians chapter 6
We are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’
The Lord walks among us, because he dwells within us. He has found a new portable temple. A new tabernacle. One that does not have to be carried on poles. Because he dwells in us, his children, we who trust in Christ and are blessed by the presence of his Spirit. We do not leave him when we walk out the door. The Lord travels with us. He is a pillar of strength in the time of temptation. He is close to help in our time of need.
The presence of the Lord, however, is a potent and dangerous power. Like x-rays. Think about how useful x-rays are. What secrets about our insides they reveal. How many lives they save. But we rarely think about how dangerous they are, until we are having one, and the radiographer gives us lead plate to protect our vital bits and then goes behind a screen. We might have 10 or 20 x-rays in our whole life. But the radiographer is taking 10 or 20 each day. They must shield themselves every time or suffer terrible consequences.
In the same way, the Lord came down to the tabernacle in a cloud and his glory filled the tent. It shone so bright that Moses could not go in. For the Lord is a great power. The power behind all powers. And he is strong to save but terrible in his judgment. For he has declared his law, his way of love, and he shows no favourites to those who despise him or harm others, to those who sell justice for a bribe or spread lies.
And so the tabernacle served as a shield. The tent itself was made of different layers of fabric and hide. Linen and blue and read and purple thread on the inside. But then a layer of goat hide, then of sheep hide, and then a covering of hide from sea cows. The entrance to the tabernacle was obscured by a thick curtain. The tabernacle itself was surrounded by a courtyard made of fabric hanging from poles and another curtain obscured its entrance. Movement in and out was restricted. The priests washed and wore ritual clothes. They did not dare come close without offering a sacrifice. Within the tent lamps were lit and incense burned continually. The ritual was designed to remind the worshipers of the holiness and mercy of God. Sin is darkness. Sin is blindness. Sin is like the stench of death. It warps the truth and harms life. But within the tent there was light and the scent of perfume. The Lord was shielded from his people’s sordid lives. And they were shielded from his swift judgment.
And if that were the end of the story, it would be bad news. That the presence of God was a treasure that could never be opened. That was too precious to ever be enjoyed. But the ritual promised more. It promised access. It promised pardon. It promised peace. The judgment of sin is death, but through sacrifice that judgment was turned aside. It fell on another so that the worshiper could come near. And so on the great Day of Atonement the high priest entered the most holy place within the tabernacle. After offering the blood of bulls and sheep and goats, he gained an entrance and worshiped in the very presence of the blessing of God.
It wasn’t much. One man. One day each year. But it was the promise of more. It was the promise that human beings could see the presence of the living God and live.
Hebrews chapter 9 reminds us that what the tabernacle promised, the Lord Jesus delivered. He is our high priest who offered not the blood of animals, but his own life on the cross. By his sacrifice, Jesus won his way, not into a tent, an earthly copy of heavenly things, but into his Father’s presence in heaven. There he sits, his work done, salvation bought and delivered, and prays for us at the Father’s right hand. And by his blood we too may enter that holy place in prayer, and by the gift of his Spirit we may become that holy place, the dwelling of the true and living God.
And it is the promise that when our earthly wondering is over and our journey done and we return to the Lord from whom we came that just as Jesus, our Emmanuel, God who was with us, just as he was with us and journeyed with us, we may be with God behind the curtain of death and be in the presence of the living God and live.
The book of Exodus tells us that this is what Israel was rescued for. They had been slaves. In Egypt. Living short and brutal lives without hope. Their whole race was on the edge of extinction. But God rescued them. He judged the Egyptians and set his people free. He brought them to himself at the mountain and he gave them his law. And even though they sinned against him and built their golden calf, he still made arrangements to dwell with them at the very centre of their camp and to guide them on their journey. For he was their God, their source of life, their only hope. And they were his people, saved by him, called by him to live for him, guided and protected by him and yet with the hope of redemption if they stumbled.
It reminds us that this is what we have been saved for. Saved by the blood of Christ from the penalty, power and presence of sin. God has brought us to himself and given us his way of love. And he lives in the centre of our lives. We may approach him in prayer and he dwells within by his Spirit. And he is with us and guides us on our life’s journey to live in the presence of God.
The tabernacle. It’s not just a tent. It’s the promise of Christ, our Emmanuel, who is God with us, the promise of us with God.