Ex 40:17-21, 34-38
Camping was not part of my experience in growing up. It think I only did it on two occasions – once with the church youth group and then on a train watching trip to Wyoming and Colorado that my dad and I took with my best friend and his dad. And we only went camping on that trip because it was something that my best friend’s family did all the time.
Now the reason for the absence of camping is not hard to understand when you look back at the previous generations in the Surburg family. My Grandpa Surburg grew up on the north side of Chicago, within walking distance of Wrigley Field. His family lived in the city – a world of the “L” and streetcars – and so camping was just not part of their life.
Things were the same for my dad during his years of growing up. Before going on to teach at Concordia, Seward and Concordia Theological Seminary in Springfield and Fort Wayne, Grandpa Surburg was pastor for many years in Brooklyn, NY. Like his father before him, my dad lived in the city – a world of the subway, elevated lines, streetcars and stick ball in the city streets – and so camping was just not part of my dad’s life either.
The experiences in Chicago and Brooklyn had shaped the way the Surburgs lived. And so camping was simply not part of our family life. We didn’t do it for recreation, or even as inexpensive lodging while traveling. Our idea of “roughing it” was a hotel that didn’t have a swimming pool.
In our Old Testament lesson for Christmas Day, we find that God – the creator of the cosmos – “goes camping.” He commands Israel to make a tabernacle – a tent – for him so that he can dwell in their midst. This choice of using humble located means to dwell with his people points forward to and finds fulfillment in what we are celebrating on Christmas Day. And in the description of the tabernacle in our text for today, we also find the reason that the Son of God came to dwell with us in the incarnation.
In the book of Exodus, God rescues Israel from slavery. He frees them from the Egyptians as in the tenth and final plague of the Passover he forces Pharaoh to let Yahweh’s people go. When Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army to pursue Israel, Yahweh wins victory over the Egyptians as the people of Israel crosses through the midst of the Red Sea on dry ground, while the Egyptians are drowned in the midst of it.
After bringing Israel to Mt Sinai, Yahweh enters into a covenant with Israel. He declares that they are his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. He gives them the Book of the Covenant that begins with the Ten Commandments and describes how they are to live with God in the new relationship. And then in chapter twenty four the covenant is set in place. Moses reads the Book of the Covenant in the hearing of the people and they respond, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses makes an offering to the Lord and throws some of the blood on the people saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” In this way the people are included in the covenant.
Next, beginning with chapter twenty five all the way through to the end of the book, Exodus focuses on the tabernacle. Yahweh calls for a contribution by the people to build a tabernacle. He then says, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” He provides directions about the construction of the tabernacle, its furniture and all that will be worn by the priests who serve there.
At the heart of the tabernacle – which itself was a tent sent within a courtyard that was marked off by a fabric fence - was the ark of the covenant. This wood box overlayed with gold had poles on each side for carrying it. The most significant part of the ark as the cover which had the cherubim – angelic figures – stretching out their wings over the ark.
The cover itself was called the mercy seat. It was called the seat because Yahweh announced that it would be his throne when he said, “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” It bore the name mercy because once a year on the Day of Atonement blood was sprinkled on it that cleansed the tabernacle of all of the people’s sins so that Yahweh remained in their midst.
The tabernacle wasn’t much to look at – certainly not when compared to the permanent temple structures that were found in the ancient near eastern world. However, as our text narrates, it was unlike anything else because it was the place where the glory of Yahweh – the perceptible presence of God – dwelt. When it had been set up a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of Yahweh filled it. This cloud over the tabernacle then became the sign that signaled whether Israel was to move on or stay put.
The tabernacle was the means by which God dwelt in the midst of his people and gave them forgiveness through the sacrifices that went on there. Though Israel knew that Yahweh - the creator of the heavens and the earth - was everywhere, his promise was the he was located there for them. Through the tabernacle he comforted them with this saving presence and provided forgiveness.
The tabernacle was a type. A type, as I have mentioned recently and as our catechumens know so well, is something in the Old Testament that points forward to what God is going to do in the New Testament. It was a type of the incarnation of the Son of God. The Gospel lesson for Christmas Day from John chapter one is absolutely clear on this point.
John begins the Gospel lesson by talking about the Word – the Son of God. He says that the Word is God and was active in creation. And then he tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Greek verb “dwelt” that is used here has the same word root that provides the translation for tabernacle. We could just as easily translate it as, “he tabernacled among us.” John says that we have seen God’s glory in him. He tells us that what had been true of the tabernacle is now true of Jesus Christ, the infant who lay in the manger on Christmas morning.
In the incarnation, the Son of God became human without ceasing to be God. God came to dwell with us. Yet he didn’t just come to be here. He came to do something. He came to provide the final and complete answer to sin.
We were created for fellowship with God – that is what it meant to be created in God’s image. Yet the fall has robbed us of the ability to live there. Instead now as sinners the presence of the holy God brings fear and death. When Isaiah encountered Yahweh in the temple he exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
This reality has not changed, even if our world chooses to ignore it. The world says that you can do what you want and there aren’t really any consequences. Where actions produce unwanted consequences, the reaction often is to claim victimhood and blame another. The line is that now we are “owed” something.
Yet God says otherwise. He says that there is right and wrong and that your sin is sin committed against him. He says that sin has consequences, and that you are to blame for them. Instead of making excuses, he calls you to confess your sin and repent of all the ways you put God second. He calls you to confess and repent of the anger, and lust, and jealousy and coveting that infects your life.
It is because of those things – it is because sin prevents fellowship with God – that the Son of God entered into the world in the incarnation. The cover of the ark of the covenant was called the mercy seat and was the focus of the day of atonement. In Romans Paul uses this very word – usually translated in the context as “propitiation” - in order to describe what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. He writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Jesus Christ - the Word become flesh – was given as the sacrifice that removes sin and restores fellowship with God. Because of his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead we are now justified. We have been declared “not guilty” and we know that this is the verdict that will be declared on the Last Day.
In doing so Jesus has begun the new covenant. Just has there was a blood of the first covenant, so there is also blood of the new covenant – the blood of Jesus Christ poured out on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. And just as the sprinkling of the blood of the first covenant meant that Israel was included, so now the reception of the blood of the covenant in the Sacrament of the Altar means that you are included and are God’s forgiven people.
In the Sacrament the One who rested in the manger on Christmas, now rests on the altar in his body and blood in order to give you the benefits that he won through the incarnation. And in the Sacrament he also provides the guarantee of what awaits you. The Son of God became man in the incarnation as the second Adam who came to put all things right. As the risen Lord gives you his true body and blood, he provides the assurance that your body will be raised too – changed and renewed to be like his glorious resurrected body.
On this Christmas Day, we hear in our Old Testament lesson about how God dwelt with his people through the tabernacle. This action by God found its ultimate fulfillment in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his first coming at Christmas, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in order to give us forgiveness and renewed fellowship with God. It is the blessing that the incarnate One continues to impart to us as he comes to us through the Sacrament of the Altar. And in each celebration of the Sacrament we are reminded that we are expectantly awaiting our Lord’s second coming on the Last Day.