Ex 40: 17-21, 34-38
Recently Timothy asked me about what happened to the ark of the covenant. Now admittedly I was a little surprised by this, because certainly, he already knew the answer. An Egyptian Pharaoh took it from Jerusalem back to Egypt to the city of Tanis. He had the Well of Souls built deep in the ground and entombed the Ark there. However soon after this a sandstorm that lasted an entire year destroyed the city.
Around 1936 Tanis was rediscovered and a German archaeological team sought to find the Well of Souls and recover the ark of the covenant. However, the American archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones obtained the ark and it was brought to the United States where the U.S. government crated it up and stored it – presumably to this day – at Hanger 51 in Nevada.
Of course, none of that is really true and comes from the Indiana Jones movies. In fact the 1981 movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” got just about everything wrong. An army that carries the ark with it is not invincible – the Israelites tried that and were defeated by the Philistines, who in fact captured the ark. While the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak did loot the temple in the tenth century B.C., he didn’t take the Ark. 2 Chronicles tells us that the ark of the covenant was still at the temple during the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century B.C.
What happened to the ark of the covenant is in fact a mystery. In 587 B.C. the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, destroyed the temple and took the people of Judah into exile in Babylon. After this, the Ark is never heard of again. Most likely the ark of the covenant was destroyed or taken back to Babylon where it later perished in the course of the wars and conquests that swept through Mesopotamia over the centuries. Legends later arose that Jeremiah buried it, or that the ark was taken to Ethiopia, but we have no evidence that these are anything more than just stories.
Today, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord teaches us that it really doesn’t matter what happened to the ark of the covenant. It doesn’t because all of the things the ark meant and did for Israel have been fulfilled in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. The baby in the manger in Bethlehm is the ark of the covenant for us … and more.
Our text describes what happened when Moses first set up the tabernacle. Earlier in Exodus Yahweh had said, “Then have them make a tabernacle for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” God said that a tabernacle would be the means by which he would dwell in the midst of his people. Moses didn’t have to figure out what this would be like. Instead, Yahweh gave very specific designs – a pattern that they were to follow. The Holy Spirit endowed certain craftsman with skill to carry out this work.
The heart of the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant. And while we often just speak about “the ark,” the biblical text very clearly identifies one part of the ark as being unique and significant. This was the lid of the ark which had cherubim on each end. The lid was called the mercy seat. It was the part that was particularly associated with Yahweh’s presence. In the Psalms, Yahweh is often described as beings enthroned above the cherubim of the mercy seat.
We learn that when all was completed, the mercy seat was placed on the ark and the tabernacle was set up. The ark of the covenant was screened off from the rest of the tabernacle in the holy of holies. Next we hear, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”
A cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of Yahweh filled it. This glory was the perceptible presence of God. The holy God was there, and because of the presence of this glory Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle. When the temple was dedicated in Jerusalem by King Solomon as a replacement for the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant had been brought inside the holy of holies, the exact same thing happened again. The ark of the covenant was the located presence of Yahweh. God’s people knew for sure where God was present for them.
On that first Christmas morning, Mary and Joseph awoke in a stable. Their first born son, Jesus was with them. He was, as we heard in last night’s Gospel lesson, lying in a manger. Just as Gabriel had announced to Mary, the Holy Spirit had come upon her; the power of the Most High had overshadowed her, and though a virgin she had conceived and given birth to the Son of God. John describes this for us in today’s Gospel lesson when he refers to the Son of God as the Word and says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is God from all eternity. John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ in the manger was true God and true man. His flesh was the located means by which God was now present, just as the ark of the covenant was the located means by which God was present with Israel in the Old Testament. John makes this connection impossible to miss when he uses the language of “dwells” and refers to “glory.”
But there was more going on than just the fact that God was now present in this way. In the Old Testament the cover of the ark – the mercy seat – was the central piece in the Day of Atonement. Once a year the high priest entered the holy of holies and sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat on the mercy seat. Yahweh told them, “In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.”
God is holy. He had told the people “Therefore you shall be holy as the Lord your God is holy” – but they were not. Their sin had to be atoned – the contagion of their sin removed – in order for the holy God to continue to dwell in midst of Israel.
God has not changed. He is still the holy God. And you are no different than Israel. You are sinners who complain about what God is or is not doing. You are sinners who doubt God. You are sinners who create false gods whom you serve. This sin clings to you from the moment of your conception. It remains an infection until the day you die. And because of this you can’t have fellowship with God. You can’t be in the presence of the holy God. Instead, the only thing you can deserve is quite the opposite – you deserve God’s wrath and eternal judgment.
But that is why the Son of God had entered into our world. He came to be the means by which our sin was atoned for once and for all. He himself was the means by which the sin that separated us from God was removed. The writer to the Hebrews develops this fact at some length. He says, “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”
Jesus offered himself has the sacrifice to remove our sin. He used his own blood to cleanse us. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, “But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The flesh of the baby in the manger will grow to be the flesh of the man nailed to the cross. This is why the Father sent the Son into the world. Jesus Christ was born to die – a death that has freed you from sin.
However the writer to the Hebrews also goes on to tell us, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Jesus will appear a second time because he did not stay dead the first time. Instead, he defeated death as he rose on the third day. This too was why the Son of God became flesh. He became flesh not only to die as a sacrifice, but also to begin the resurrection of the last day – to transform flesh so that it will never die again. This is what he will give to us when he returns in glory on the last day.
The Son of God entered into our world and dwelt among us. He has made atonement for our sin by giving himself as the sacrifice on the cross. He has given us the living hope of the resurrection. He has done all this for us – people who dwell in the midst of others. He has done this so that we can now live for them. You have been freed from sin so that instead of spending time worrying about your standing before God, you can serve the neighbor who stands before you.
This is not something you can do on your own. So in order to make this possible, Jesus Christ still uses located means to dwell in our midst. He no longer lies as a baby in a manger, yet he does this in way that is no less located and tangible; no less bodily. In the Sacrament of the Altar Jesus Christ is present with you in his true body and blood. He comes to you bodily and sustains you in faith so that you can serve your neighbor with your body. He gives us forgiveness for the times we have chosen to ignore these others. He feeds us so that we can continue in the life of faith, forgiven by God and loving one another.