Saturday, June 13, 2015

Praise the Lord with Symbols: The Sanctuary

Offering Spiritual Sacrifices                           6/14/15

2nd sermon in Praise the Lord with Symbols series

Exodus 40, I Peter 2:4-12


My first call was to the East Bethany, New York Presbyterian Church.  East Bethany is rural land, half way between Rochester and Buffalo, NY.  There was a post office, and a general store, and a few hundred people, but more cows that lived in East Bethany than people.


One day, as part of my presbytery responsibilities, I had to drive down to the church in Ossian.  Ossian was in the hills about 40 miles south of East Bethany.  I found the church, a building on top of a hill, also in rural land.  I went in the building and was introduced to the people at the table.  When going around the table introducing ourselves, one elderly woman proudly told me:  Welcome to Ossian, this is God’s country.


I didn’t disagree with her, but I often wondered where she thought I had come from:  East Bethany was no city, unless, having a post office and a general store made one a city slicker.  And maybe to this women, I was just that J.


There are times when the landscape is so beautiful that I join my kindred spirit from Ossian:  Yes, this is God’s country.  Jacob called it Beth-El; the House of God.


This summer, we will be looking at different symbols from Scripture.  Last week we talked of bread and wine, the symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his presence at his table.  Today, we are talking about the sanctuary.  When we think of a sanctuary, we think of the place where God dwells.  We think of God’s house.


Webster’s defines the word symbol in this way:

--A token of identity verified by comparing its other half

--A symbol is a visible sign of something invisible


Sanctuary is defined as

--a place of refuge or safety

--a sacred or holy place

--a consecrated place


For believers, sanctuaries become space devoted to worship and praise.  It is a place we can go to meet the Lord.  We know that God doesn’t need these spaces:  the whole heavens cannot contain him, let alone the small dimensions of any worship space.  We also know that the Lord is omnipresent, everywhere:  God is with us in the different places we go to work and play and relate and relax.  God is always with us: not just when we go to a building to worship.


 The invisible reality is that God is holy, set apart, special and different than anything else that we know.  The sanctuary becomes a place we can see, and sit and stand, and cry and laugh, rejoice and pray.  It is a place where we meet the Lord.  The sanctuary is consecrated space that helps you and your neighbor, and all that the Lord God will call, to worship, serve and adore.


In the story of Scripture; there are 5 main ways that we see consecrated, holy space:

  • In many of the patriarchal stories of Genesis, we see people setting up stones as a commemoration of where people had met God.  Jacob sets up one such pillar and names it Bethel, the house of God.
  • Israel, after it leaves Egypt, is given a tabernacle, the tent of Meeting, which also becomes the model for the temple.  There was the temple built by Solomon, rebuilt during the return from exile, and rebuilt once again by Herod, Roman ruler.
  • The synagogue, which emerges after the destruction of the temple, and the early Christian Churches, are very similar in their understanding of the use of space.
  • Congregation’s, not the physical structure, but the people who make them up, are like sanctuaries to those they help.  The congregation becomes a people of welcome to those who hurt, and need rest from the storms of life.
  • Finally, each individual believer is like a sanctuary.  The Holy Spirit dwells in each person when they acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Our lives become consecrated to the Lord, and the Lord lives alongside of us throughout our days.


The Exodus story tells of the first set up of the Tabernacle.  Israel had been led out of the slavery from Egypt.  They had crossed the sea, they had started their journey.  Moses receives the Law from God, and God confirms his covenant with his people.  All of these events take place in Exodus 1-24.  Exodus 25-40 is the description of how to build and construct the pieces of the Tabernacle. 


The Tabernacle will become the visible sign of the invisible LORD.  The Lord took great care in explaining how this space was to be constructed.  Each detail seems to tell a story.  And when the pieces are constructed, and the walls are ready to go up, everything had its place and importance.  Moses put the space together as the LORD commanded him.  Did you hear the richness of these symbols in our morning reading?


Within the courtyard of the tabernacle, but not yet in the inner tent of meeting, there was a place for preparing the offerings, and there was space for a basin.  Upon entering, offerings were made to the Lord, and worshippers would wash themselves.  They were to be clean as they worshipped.  There was a table with bread, God wanted to share meal with his people.  God is a God of fellowship, not isolation.  There was a lamp stand with lamps:  God is light, he isn’t darkness.  An altar of incense went up continually before the Ark, just as our prayers go up continually before God.  And the Ark, stationed within the curtain of the tent, held the law (it would later hold some of the manna that God provided the people).  The Ark could not touched directly, but rather poles were used to carry it.  And an atonement cover was put over the ark itself  (Jesus provides our atonement from our transgression against the law).   The space told a story; of the God who had made covenant with his people, who was in relationship with his people, who had a plan for salvation for his people. 


The Christian faith is about approaching God, breaking bread and celebrating his light, and offering ourselves to live purely.  The Christian faith is about offering up all our prayers to the Lord, and acknowledging the law, but also falling upon the grace of Christ’s work of salvation.  The Tabernacle is a symbol of the life that God wants his people to live.


And when Moses did everything that the LORD commanded, the glory of God stayed in that place.  It filled the space completely.  The cloud by day, and the fire within the cloud by night stay over the tabernacle--both are noticeable because of how they contrast with their surroundings.  And as long as God’s power and Spirit stay in that place, the people stay.  When God’s power and Spirit go to another place, the people follow.  The cloud and fire were accessible to everyone:  “in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels”.  What a wonderful symbol of our life of faith. 


In Christ, the tabernacle found its fulfillment.  Jesus was the consecrated and holy presence of his heavenly Father.  And after his resurrection, the plan expands.  No longer will the tabernacle (temple) be the primary expression of worship.  God’s people will become the temple, the tabernacle, the sanctuary, the holy and consecrated.  Built upon the solid foundation of Jesus Christ, we become the living stones that fit together and are built upon Christ, and He is the cornerstone.  We are not our own buildings.  We work alongside each other to fit together as a expression of praise.  We offer the spiritual sacrifices that God accepts because he accepted Jesus Christ.  We belong to God and give our praise.  We are chosen by grace and are a holy nation living within historical and national boundaries.  Because of God’s all consuming call upon our lives, we even become aliens and strangers within this world, because our eternal home is with the Lord.


Through the Lord’s kindness, and by the roots of Christian faith that have grown throughout world history and American history, we have spaces that exist as sanctuaries.  They are visible:  for worship isn’t simply a private, personal experience, but a public expression of God’s praise and glory.  Stockton has three buildings, each with their own stories.  Our story will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017.  Praise to God!


150 years is some significant staying power.  And that is what a sanctuary does while it exists:  it stays in one place, even as the world around it changes.  People drive by and think about their lives as they glance at the building.  People come in occasionally for celebrations and funerals.  People come Sunday after Sunday for that most important time of public worship.  People come in alone during quiet times to pray and cry out to God.  This staying power gives its own praise to the Lord, and its story joins together with our witness as a congregation, and our individual stories of God’s praise.


My reflections on the space might not be much different than yours.  It is the place where I pray.  Our daughters have been baptized here, and our son will soon be.  There hasn’t been a significant challenge, obstacle, anxiety or triumph during the last 7 years that did not receive at least some consideration while in this space.  I have had conversations with people dear to me.  We’ve had a variety of experiences, some are memorable, and many are ordinary.  The main character in all of these memories and experiences is the Lord God Almighty!

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