Preached Sunday, May 26, 2013
Exodus 35:4-10, 20-22
On first glance, these two passages – one from Exodus, as the people make plans for the building of the Tabernacle, and one from Acts, just after Pentecost as the Spirit begins to build the church – seem unrelated. But in fact, they are both about making space for God to be with God’s people.
In Exodus 35, the time has come for the building of the Tabernacle. Moses calls people to give, and give they do: gold, silver and bronze; fine linen and leather; beautiful yarns and ornate tapestry; gemstones and oils and carved wood. The list goes on and on! It’s one big offering. The “Miracle Sunday” of the Old Testament!
When I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor taught at length about the “types” that appeared in Scripture. And the Tabernacle – built from the gifts received by offering in Ex 35 – was Exhibit A of the “types” of the Old Testament.
A type, in this usage, is a thing that has the same function as the real thing, but is limited in its scope or size. A model airplane, for example, is a type. It can perform the primary function of a real airplane – it can fly. But the model is limited by its size; it can fly, but it cannot carry people or cargo when it flies. It is a type, a real, functioning airplane, but limited in size and scope.
The Tabernacle in Exodus is a ‘type’ too. In Exodus (and throughout the Old Testament, really), it acts as the place where people encounter God, and God draws near to them. It is a meeting place between earth and heaven; the place where people go when they want to feel God near them.
And it works! The Tabernacle is regularly the location of revelations from God; the people experience God’s presence when they are within its walls.
But there are a few limitations. Entering the Tabernacle required careful adherence to elaborate purification laws. And that was assuming that you were male and considered ritually ‘clean’ – for women and others who were ritually unclean because of their work or their status, then the purification laws were irrelevant; you simply weren’t entering, ever.
And then, of course, there is the matter of geography. The Tabernacle was, after all, only one place – and there was no possible way that you could wander through its doors for a chat with God if you happened to be from a distant tribe.
The Tabernacle functioned well – it provided a space in which human beings could experience God’s presence. But it was limited by its scope and its size. It didn’t cover the whole earth; it couldn’t stretch through time to invite other generations to encounter God. It wasn’t enough.
When we fast forward to the New Testament, we find the fulfillment of the type – the full-scale version of the model. Any guesses at what – or who – functions as the meeting place between God and human beings in the New Testament?
Ah – many of you gave the always-safe Sunday School answer: Jesus! In a sense, yes, God and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus. And Jesus certainly acts as the fulfillment of the sacrifices that were made in the Tabernacle – Jesus is, in technical language, the antitype of the sacrificial lamb, which was the type.
But there is also another answer to the question. See if you can figure it out from these verses:
1Cor. 3:9-10 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it…
1Cor. 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
1Pet. 2:5 Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…
Eph. 2:19-22 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the house[hold] of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Did you get it? Who is the Temple of God, where God and humanity meet?
YOU ARE! We are. Christian people who have received the gift of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit are the ones who are built together into places where God dwells by God’s Spirit.
Christian community, at its best, serves the same function as the Tabernacle: it provides a place where people come to experience God, where people can go when they need to know God is near; a place where God can speak to a world that needs to hear. Churches and congregations are, by God’s grace, those places in our world today. And think about it: the limitations of the Tabernacle – its fixed position and strident entry requirements and limited audience – all of those limits are expanded, barriers broken down by the Holy Spirit working through Christian people in community all across our globe.
That’s what we celebrate on Pentecost, which we celebrated last Sunday – the breaking down of barriers, the Holy Spirit sweeping through human lives and transforming them so that they are God-bearers, people who carry God’s presence with them into the world.
How does that happen? How are churches transformed from social clubs to outposts of God’s presence in the world?
Acts 2:42 tells us how. It provides the blueprints for a ‘spiritual dwelling place for God’ (Eph 2:22).
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
That’s what makes a church more than a social club. That’s what prepares a church to be formed by the Holy Spirit into a dwelling place for God.
When we think of the church in Acts, we often think of miraculous evidence of the Spirit’s presence. We think of speaking in tongues – of healings by the apostles – of dramatic jailbreaks and inspired preaching to thousands.
Those are the works of the Spirit among the Christian community. Those are evidence of God’s presence working through and within them.
But first: the church has to be ready when God shows up. Believers have to make space in their life together for God’s presence to dwell.
That’s where the practices of the church come in. Before every dramatic Spirit-led event in the book of Acts is a gathering of people dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teaching – regular study of the Scriptures. To fellowship – to healthy and loving relationships. To breaking of bread – sharing of meals and especially the Communion meal. And prayer – cultivating a regular, constant practice of prayer. When churches do that, God’s Spirit shows up!
In Acts 2:43-44 we see the results: wonders and signs are done, and needs are provided for and justice lives among the people of God. God’s Spirit has filled the space created by the practice of the early church.
Our calling as “church” is the same – to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. To make space for the presence of God to dwell with us. And when we do – God will show up, and who knows what might happen next!