Ex. 40:17-21, 34-38
Based on the pictures I see on Facebook, it is clear that there are many people who enjoy camping – and that includes a number of members of this congregation. There are many great places in southern Illinois for camping, and so we are blessed in that you don’t have to go very far to find a lovely setting where you can spend some time outdoors.
However, I feel like perhaps I should instead say “camping.” After all, I don’t see many pictures of tents when people go camping. Instead, there is usually a camper involved. And many of these campers are not exactly what I would call “roughing it.” Instead, they take all the comforts of home and bring them to the setting of the outdoors – which I suppose is entirely the point. A person gets to enjoy the setting of nature without giving up any comfort.
In the Old Testament lesson for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord we learn that in a time when Israel lived in tents, Yahweh went camping too. The tabernacle – a temporary and portable structure that was for all intents and purposes a tent – was the means by which Yahweh dwelt in the midst of his people as they journeyed after their time at Mt. Sinai.
In the instructions that Yahweh gave to Israel at Mt. Sinai, part of the Torah, Yahweh said, “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” Yahweh had just approached Israel as he came down on Mt Sinai. It was a terrifying experience as the mountain was wrapped in smoke and Yahweh descended on it in fire. The mountain trembled and the smoke went up from it like the smoke of a kiln.
If this is what it was going to be like, maybe Yahweh dwelling in their midst didn’t sound like such a great idea. However, God did not intend his presence to be a source of terror. Instead it was to be a comfort for his people, knowing that he was there with them – there in their midst.
Yahweh was going to provide located means by which he would dwell in their midst. This was God who was going to be there Israel wasn’t going to make whatever arrangements seemed best to them. Instead, Yahweh provided very specific instructions about what was to be made. He said, “Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.”
The materials for the tabernacle and its implements were to come from offerings given by the Israelites. Yahweh said, “From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me.” And just as the plan for the tabernacle came from God, so also he provided the skill needed to make it. Yahweh said that he had chosen a man named Bezalel from the tribe of Judah, and “filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”
The heart of the tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant. And the key piece of the Ark was its cover – the mercy seat. This lid had two cherubim – angels upon it. The Ark was placed in the rear portion of the tabernacle, the Holy of Holies that the high priest entered only once a year. And Yahweh said that he would be enthroned upon the mercy seat.
In our text from the last chapter of Exodus we hear about how Moses set up the tabernacle for the first time when all its components were completed. When he had done this, something remarkable happened. We hear at the end of our text: “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.”
Yahweh’s glory, his perceptible presence, filled the tabernacle as he demonstrated the truth of his words – the tabernacle would be the means by which he would dwell in the midst of his people. Placed in the very center of the Israelite camp, Yahweh truly was in their midst.
And his presence was the means by which Israel knew whether they were to remain in place or set out on the journey. We are told: “Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.”
Today is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Today we celebrate the birth of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. In our Gospel lesson, John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Greek word John uses for “dwell” is based on the same root that was used to translate “tabernacle” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
John is telling us that all that had been true of the tabernacle as the located presence of God, is now true of Jesus Christ. And Jesus himself makes this point in the next chapter. The temple in Jerusalem was the permanent replacement for the tabernacle. At its dedication, the cloud and the glory of God filled it too.
After Jesus had cleansed the temple the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews were confused, because it had taken forty-six years to build this new version of the temple. They asked, “And will you raise it up in three days?” Yet John tells us, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body.”
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. We learn that the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament were types that pointed forward to an even greater fulfillment in the future. In the Old Testament, God’s people did not have to wonder about where God was present for them. He was there through the located means of the tabernacle and temple.
In the same way, we do not have to wonder where God is present for us. At Christmas, he was present in the located means of the flesh of the baby Jesus lying in the manger. The Son of God himself came to dwell in our world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He came in the flesh – he took on a human nature from Mary – without ceasing to be God. He is true God and true man at the same time.
The tabernacle was more than the place where God dwelt in the midst of Israel and indicated to them when it was time to travel and when they were to stay in place. It was also the location where the sacrifices were offered – sacrifices that delivered forgiveness as God had promised. And in particular, the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant was the location where the high priest on the Day of Atonement sprinkled the blood in order to purify it from contamination of Israel’s sins. The tabernacle and temple were a place of sacrifice by which God removed Israel’s sins. Only in this way could he continue to dwell in their midst as his people.
Like the tabernacle and temple, these sacrifices were also types pointing forward to the great sacrifice that Jesus Christ would provide as he offered himself on the cross. St Paul told the Romans, “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.”
The word “propitiation” is the same Greek word that was used to translate “mercy seat” in the Old Testament. By the shedding of his blood in death, Jesus Christ was the sacrifice that has given us redemption. He has freed us from our slavery to sin by giving us forgiveness. The baby in the manger of Christmas came to be the man nailed to the cross on Good Friday.
The incarnate Lord was like us in all ways, except that he had no sin. One of the ways he was like us was that his flesh could be killed. The wages of sin is death. The One who had no sin came to suffer death for us by taking our sin as his own – by becoming sin for us. But he did not remain dead. On the third day, on Easter, God raised him from the death with flesh that can never die again. He defeated death and has given us the living hope because when he returns in glory on the Last Day he will raise us in bodies transformed to be like his – bodies that can never die again.
God was present with his people in the Old Testament through the located means of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. He was present with his people in the first century A.D. through the located means of the flesh of the baby Jesus in the manger, the man hanging on the cross, and the risen Lord who ate and drank with is disciples.
As we look for the return of our Lord, he continues to be present with us through located means. In the water of the baptismal font we were buried with Christ as we were joined to his saving death. Our sins were washed away and we received the guarantee that we will share in Jesus resurrection. Paul tells us, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
And in the Sacrament of the Altar Jesus uses the located means of bread and wine to give us his true body and blood. The means may appear humble as we confess that it is the true body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But then again, it looked that way too when the creator of the cosmos was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – dependent on Mary and Joseph to provide for him. Yet just as it was true then, so it is now that God is present and at work through these means to give us forgiveness and salvation.
In the Old Testament, God dwelt in the midst of his people and gave them forgiveness through the tabernacle and temple. Now in these last days, he has dwelt in our midst through the incarnate Son of God. By his death and resurrection he has won forgiveness for us and begun the resurrection that will be ours too on the Last Day. And as we look for that day, he continues to be present in our midst through the located means of the Sacraments as he gives us forgiveness and strength to live as his people.