A Little Taste of Heaven (Exodus 25:1-22)

Last Thursday in our city, the new $37-million Country Music Hall of Fame was opened. It's a veritable storehouse of memorabilia and a tribute to the people who made country music the phenomenon it has become. There are sequins, guitars, sequins, harmonicas, sequins, and dresses. There are re-runs of "Hee-Haw," more sequins, Elvis' gold-plated Cadillac, and lots more sequins. There's even a replica of the famous WSM broadcasting tower — perhaps with sequins on it? The purpose of it all is a bit like the stories told by the Marty Roes, Patty Lovelesses, and Vince Gills. Today's stars tell how they used to get "a little taste of country music" by listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights — and dreaming of standing on that stage themselves with Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, Dolly and Porter, or George Jones.

Certain structures are designed to transport you into an out-of-the-ordinary experience and give you a dream of what could be. The new Frist Museum will plant ideas in the heads of people about their participation in some art form sculpture, painting, or photography. How many girls and boys do you suppose have gone through the NASA exhibit in Huntsville and dreamed that night of space travel and standing on the moon? Exhibits like these not only make you remember. They set you to dreaming. They put you into a frame of mind to experience something wonderful and majestic.

The Tabernacle

Entertain the thought with me for a few minutes of the ancient tabernacle — that portable tent that served Israel for forty years in the wilderness and for about 500 years thereafter, until Solomon built a temple at Jerusalem.

There must be something important for us in the record of its construction, the elaborate furnishings, and the rituals. Otherwise, why did God preserve so many of the details for us? (cf. Rom. 15:4). Thirteen chapters of Exodus are devoted to it. If you total up the materials not only in Exodus but in Leviticus, Numbers, and Hebrews, more than forty chapters of the Bible discuss its construction, priesthood, worship practices, and meaning.

The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it (Ex. 25:1-9).
The tabernacle or "tent of meeting" (cf. 33:7) was composed of a series of frames and curtains. The frames were built of acacia wood overlaid with gold; the curtains were made of fine linen and colored yarn. The drapes and tapestries had figures of angels embroidered on them. "Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them" (Ex. 26:1). Are you beginning to get the picture? The tabernacle was supposed to be a little taste of heaven for these Israelites.

This visible manifestation of God's relationship with and presence among the people would, to follow three suggestions from Terence Fretheim, turn the occasional presence of God on Sinai or in a miraculous rescue into a constant presence with his covenant community. He would no longer be associated with thoughts of a remote presence at the top of the mountain but with a dwelling place in the center of the camp. The divine dwelling place would no longer be a fixed place to visit but a presence on the move with God's people. "Overall, these chapters represent a climax not only in Israel's journey but in God's journey."

Even before the tent itself was constructed, Moses and his artisans were ordered to build its furnishings. The first thing built was the ark of the covenant (25:10-16). It comes first because it is the single most important artifact that symbolized the presence of Yahweh among the people. When they left Mount Sinai, his glory would go with them by means of this precious vestige of his presence. The top of this beautiful box was covered with the "mercy seat" (or, NIV, "atonement cover," 25:17-22). Cherubim at either end faced each other with their wings outstretched, and the blood of a sacrifice was sprinkled there on the Day of Atonement each year — always in the sign of a cross, by some ancient traditions (cf. Lev. 16:1ff). The ark of the covenant was so holy to the God of Israel that it was never to be touched by human hands.

Then there was a beautiful table on which "bread of the Presence" — see that word "presence" again! — was to be kept before Yahweh (25:23-30). There was a light- giving lampstand of pure gold (25:31-39). Between the altar for burnt offerings (27:1-8; cf. 29:38-46) and the tabernacle proper, there was a large bronze basin (30:17-22) for priestly washings. There was also a smaller altar that sat before the entrance to the Holy of Holies and on which fragrant incense was burned morning and evening to God (30:1-10). The artists in Israel had a field day preparing these beautiful things for Yahweh! And they must have been impressive for future generations of Israel to remind them of God's presence with them. It was a little taste of heaven, if you please.

God With Us

Some people have observed how plain most Protestant worship structures are by comparison with the tabernacle, the temple, and even Catholic buildings. I certainly don't think God should be given anything ugly or inferior. Even if the architecture used in as simple and flexible as ours, I believe we should serve God when possible by means of efficient and appealing structures. There is no excuse for shoddy, second- rate, and inefficient things when we are capable of giving God glory through things both beautiful and utilitarian.

I will even admit that those of us in the Protestant tradition may have gone to an extreme at times. We may not have given enough thought to beauty, aesthetics, and artistry. But if we have sometimes gone too far, I think I can both understand and justify the general tendency toward simplicity over grandeur, plainness over elegance, and directness over pageantry.

Take the matter of Aaron's role as the high priest for Israel. When he acted on official occasions for Yahweh, we had to be dressed in ornate robes that were customary for that time to identify him as the representative both of God to Israel and Israel to God (28:1—29:9). The New Testament book of Hebrews makes a great deal of the fact that the high priest for the church is Jesus Christ. Aaron was a mortal and flawed man serving in an exalted role, so he was dressed to be set apart. The one time that God sent his perfect representative among us, he came as a Galilean peasant. Therefore I question the need — though I certainly would not go so far as to say that robes and vestments are sinful — for ornate ecclesiastical robes.

The Pattern

In our tradition, a great deal has been made of the "pattern" (25:9) language in this text. Coupled with a verse in the New Testament, this is supposed to be a clear call for us to follow a "scriptural blueprint" to the letter: "They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one; for Moses, when he was about to erect the tent, was warned, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain'" (Heb. 8:5).

The fact is that the Hebrew word for "pattern" at Exodus 25:9 does not denote a blueprint or set of instructions. It refers to a heavenly model — a completed, already- erected structure — that Moses was permitted to see in a vision on the mountain. This is surely why he was able to superintend the construction of the tent personally and guide the outcomes being sought by the men and women working on it. Hebrews seems to identify what Moses saw with heaven itself. So the earthly tabernacle Moses built was no better than a "sketch and shadow of the heavenly one." Indeed, the heavenly one is "the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up" (Heb. 8:2). Nothing we mortals ever set up — whether tabernacle, temple, or church experience — is the true reality. We can only strive toward the heavenly "pattern" that has been shown us. Moses saw the heavenly tent and was told to use it as his pattern; we have seen Christ and are to use him as our pattern.

Written instructions are not the pattern. Something visual that dramatizes the divine ideal is the pattern. The written instructions move us in the direction of the pattern. They encourage us to seek the pattern. But the real object external both to ourselves and Scripture is the "pattern" we seek. In our case, we worship Christ. We seek Christ. We keep our eyes focused on him. And the focus of our obedience is not so much worship forms but all of life. "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith . . ." (Heb. 12:2).

God has chosen to narrow the gap, to draw very near to his people, and to invite us to draw close to him in Jesus Christ. And today our little taste of heaven is through our shared experience of Christ with one another in this holy community called the church.

Did you know that John used tabernacle imagery of Jesus in his prologue? "And the Word became flesh and lived (Gk, eskenosen = tabernacled) among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). How is God's presence with us now? In Jesus! He is Immanuel — God with us! And we are — by his grace and Spirit-presence in us — God's dwelling place both collectively (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19) in order to show his glory to the world. When do we reach our Promised Land?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away." (Rev. 21:1-4).
The effect of this for us is traced by the author of Hebrews in these words:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:19-25).
Since God has come near to us in Christ, we are free to "approach" (NRSV) or "draw near to" (NIV) him in faith. No, we are invited to draw near and experience Christ — by his Spirit presence in the church, through spiritual fellowship with one another in good and bad times, and in the spiritual activities of good deeds and worship.

Conclusion

The tabernacle and its successor, the temple, were part of the total scheme of things God used to declare his presence and glory to humankind long ago. Now he declares himself even more directly and personally in Jesus Christ. He has become incarnate for our sakes. He stands with us as our Redeemer, Guide, and Savior — until we are safe at home in the Promised Land. Our God is not like the pagan deities who remain in some remote place in order to stay safe from a messy world. He does not enjoy his perfect existence — unmoved and oblivious to our troubles. Simply because we can'tgo up to God's heaven (cf. Tower of Babel), he has come down to us! The Holy One is among us!

We are assembled today to come into and experience his presence. But what we do today is not an end itself. It is the act of inviting God to be present with us at all times. It is our acknowledgment of the need for his constant presence. And it is an experience in which he comes to us to renew his promise to be with us always. "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1). Please don't let the meaning of this day fade as the week continues.

We've had a little taste of heaven by being together. Let it fan the flame of desire for God's perpetual presence in your life. Let him be in your home this afternoon to sanctify your relationship with your children, and tonight to bring you to sweet rest. Let his glory be seen in you at work tomorrow. Let his glory be seen in you at school or at play. Go with God's presence to your tests and temptations that lie ahead this week. You will not be alone, and he will give you the power you need to struggle, to cope, to conquer. You'll make it all the way — with him.

Tell me: If God wanted to let you know that he really loves you and wants you in heaven with him, what would he do? Wouldn't he come to you? Make his presence known to you? Give you a little taste of heaven? Even meet with you and give you a sense of his very own person? That is exactly what he has done!

So do you understand more clearly now what the tabernacle means? Do you get the message it gives about God and how he deals with his people? He comes to his people and wants to dwell with them. What fools we are when we push him away!

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[1] Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), p. 264. 

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