Then and Now—God in Unknown Places and Experiences, III: The Ark and the Tent

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August 21, 2022

Then and Now—God in Unknown Places and Experiences, III: The Ark and the Tent

Passage: Exodus 25–31, 35–40

This is a piece of the desert. The desert is a wild and dangerous place with very little food and water. It’s easy to get lost in the desert because the sand shifts and moves. People do not often go into the desert unless they have to.

God brought the people through the waters into freedom. Myriam led them in the dancing. Now that they could do anything they wanted, and go anyplace they wanted to go, what would be the best way?

They traveled through the wilderness. It was hot, people got hungry and thirsty, they even complained “perhaps they should go back to Egypt and Pharaoh.” But God showed them how to find what they needed.

The people arrived at the great mountain, it was covered with fire and smoke. The people did not dare touch the mountain. Moses was able to go up the mountain and meet God. At the top of Mt. Sinai in the smoke and fire, God came so close to Moses, and Moses came so close to God, that Moses knew what God wanted him to do.

Moses took the Ten Best Ways or The Ten Commandments back to the people. Now the Ten Commandments are precious, and you cannot come close to them without getting ready. God told the people to create a golden box with holes for carrying so the box called an ark could hold the Ten commandment and go with them wherever they went.

They needed something else to help them get ready, so God showed them how to make an altar for incense. They burned the incense and the sweet smelling smoke would rise so they could walk through towards the ark.

Even that was not enough. God instructed them to make a table with 12 pieces of bread, one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel, and a seven branch lamp stand. Now the people could walk in between the table and the lampstand then through the smoke to come close to the ark.

They made a tent around these items and created a holy of holies, a special place for the ark. They did more to get ready, they covered the tent with goat leather, goat fur, fine linen cloth woven with images of cherubim, and more goat skin dyed red.

Now only the priests could go into the tent, but there was more they needed to do to get ready. God had them build and altar and basin covered in bronze for the priests to wash and get ready for prayer. Around the whole tent they made a fence that they could roll up and carry it with them wherever they went. The whole place was called a tabernacle.  

When it was finished Moses blessed the tabernacle, Aaron and his sons became the priests, and God made Aaron and his sons these special words to bless the people “May God bless you and keep you, may God make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you, may God lift his countenance upon you and give you peace. 

This August Katie and I are preaching a sermon series using a wide-angle lens to explore Old Testament stories in Genesis and Exodus. We are seeking God in the Unknown and the Unexpected. Katie compared our exploration to a visit to the Impressionist gallery at the art institute. Sometimes we focus in on the brush strokes, but in this series we will step back, and take in the whole painting.

Today we are stepping even farther back, away from painting, and out of the gallery for a panoramic view of 13 chapters of text. Nearly one-third of the entire book of Exodus is dedicated to an excruciatingly detailed description of the ark, priestly vestments, and tent for God in the wilderness. What we have is not a painting, but a precise blueprint and interior design renderings for the tabernacle, the ancient dwelling place for God. Perhaps because they are more IKEA assembly manuals than narrative arcs, these chapters aren't included in the lectionary cycle of worship readings. In all my years of church I can’t recall a single sermon about the tabernacle.

This might be dry reading unless you are fascinated by ancient design details. For example “The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides…” You get the idea the lamp description goes on for another paragraph or more.

But if you've been to St. Peters in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, the National Cathedral, or even the little country church you go back to when visiting family, you know that ecclesiastical architecture teaches us, shapes us, and forms the community of faith. The design of the tabernacle, which inspires elements of our modern church buildings, reflects who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. Within the tabernacle description we hear God’s salvific intention “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the Lord their God. (Exodus 29:45–46)

In Hebrew the verb for tabernacle means “dwell.” It refers to a sojourning, nomadic dwelling rather than a permanent, stationary residence.[1] In Exodus God is on the move. God moves from the shrouded, occasional presence on Mt Sinai to the portable tent right into the center of camp. God’s invisible presence will rest on the winged throne on top of the ark. The wooden chest is to be covered in gold and have poles for carrying God’s throne wherever the people go. The ark will hold the covenant and will be God’s footstool. The winged throne and footrest resemble images of other ancient thrones, like this relief on this sarcophagus of a king which dates from sometime around 1000 BCE.

God is close but make no mistake; God doesn’t design a cozy family room furnished with comfy sofas for people to come hang out, eat pizza, and stream movies. The people were restricted to the outer courtyard. Only priests could enter the holy place. Only once a year on the day of atonement were priests allowed to go into the holy of holies, the inner sanctum where the ark was located. God who in the beginning creates an intricately ordered universe out of chaos, creates a divinely ordered environment for worship in the wilderness.

The people are on the move as well. God moves them from Egypt to the wilderness. Their response should be a movement from liberation to worship. The tabernacle should be the first thing that the people forced to make bricks for pharaoh would create in freedom.[2] But instead they build a golden calf.

Perhaps you noticed that the chapters about the tabernacle are split into two chunks. What lies between them is the familiar story of idolatry and disobedience. Moses receives the ten commandments and the people agree verbally. Then God calls Moses back to the mountain to receive the stone tablets. During his 40 day and 40 night stay at the Mt. Sinai motel, God also gives Moses the blueprints for the tabernacle; this is the first chunk of text, chapters 25–31.

Their design session is interrupted when God tells Moses that the people in camp are worshiping a golden calf. The chisel marks are still fresh on the stone tablets already the people violate the covenant. So Moses rushes down, destroys the tablets, and the calf. God is enraged and threatens to call off the agreement. With persistence Moses convinces God to remain in covenant with these “stiff necked” people.

With this fragile agreement restored, the actual tabernacle is built as described in the second set of nearly identical chapters. Interspersed throughout are instructions for the sabbath. Just as the tabernacle creates a holy place for worship, sabbath creates holy time. The creation narrative is woven into this text; in Exodus 31 we read, “it is a sign for all time, that for six days, God made heaven and earth, on the seventh day God stopped, and was refreshed.”

God saves the people twice, first from Egyptian oppression and then from themselves. The story of the tabernacle is one of many that illustrates the ancient cycle of God’s creation, human separation, and God’s recreation. It is a text that provides both instruction and hope.

Zooming even further from the text, look at the arc of ancient history. We discover that this part of the text was likely inserted by priestly writers living in the time of exile, when the people of Israel are forcibly separated from their community, and their Temple by a foreign power. With longing those who could not access their holy spaces and rituals wrote this detailed account of a sacred space from communal memory or imagination.

The familiarity of the cycle creation, separation, and recreation speaks to every age.  God’s liberates, God dwells with us, and God is Lord, so the divine work of redemption and recreation doesn’t stop despite human failings. Thanks be to God.

This text speaks to the tender hearts of those who long for the restoration of Notre Dame which is now on track to open in 2024. It speaks to all of us who have been separated from our sacred spaces and rituals in some way shape or form for two and a half years of pandemic life. Doing the best we could to keep one another safe was good and right. We learned to worship online at home (or wherever) and to worship outside. And we find God is there too because God dwells with the people and moves with the camp. Thanks be to God.

Pastors continue to wrestle with pandemic-related challenges of gathering people in church buildings. The stories of exodus and exile can be a guide to making sense of a world where online worship is very real and very necessary.

At the same time church buildings are being sold and transformed into everything from trapeze schools to affordable housing. Some of us like Bill, Katie, and me still get to preach from beautiful buildings. Responding to an increasingly digital world, one colleague dared to write “What is the purpose of all that church beauty?” and then boldly answered, “If God uses beauty for transformative purposes, then beauty must change us…. Sacred spaces echo heavenly beauty into our imaginations…. The world within a sanctuary shapes the way we understand the world outside it and the way we act in it.”[3]

Look at our tabernacle-like-three-part-structure which moves us from the secular world at the narthex, into the sanctuary where we walk a long aisle of pilgrimage toward the chancel, where we lift our eyes to adore God. Could our paraments still remind us of the thin veil between heaven and earth?

After worship come and take a closer look at the intricate and ornate carvings of vines—double symbols of creation and Jesus the true vine. Look at the beautiful stone of the altar where we offer our gifts to God. Look up to the perfect symmetry of the roofline which draws our attention away from the chaos of our lives toward God's order. And look around you to the people gathered here, each of them carrying a portion of the light of God into our presence.

Since ancient times access to our sanctuaries is never guaranteed. I know many of you online long to join us in this sacred space and I pray with you that day will be possible. You our online worshipers are an essential part of this church community. God is a God on the move. God will always find a way to dwell near.

When we have the freedom, privilege, and ability to worship God in church buildings, may they remind us that God is a magnificent architect. Our sanctuary is the sacred space where every candle and carving points to God’s presence. Every pew and liturgical pattern meant to evoke God’s beautiful, ordered cosmos. Every window radiating with wonder and awe for God whose ongoing restoration and redemption of all creation will not cease until earth becomes heaven’s tabernacle of worship and praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Bibliography:

Brueggemann, Walter, Delivered Into Covenant, Louisville: Westiminster John Knox, 2021.

Davis, Ellen, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Fretheim, Terence,  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for teaching and Preaching: Exodus, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. 

Hess, Zen, “What is a beautiful church building for?”, Christian Century, March 24, 2021. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/what-beautiful-church-building

McNamara, Denis R., How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Ecclesiastical Architecture, New York: Rizzoli, 2017.


[1] Brueggemann, Walter, Delivered Into Covenant, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2021.

[2] Davis, Ellen, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[3] Hess, Zen, “What is a beautiful church building for?,” Christian Century,  March 24, 2021.

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