Monday, September 3, 2012

The God Who Tabernacles

Before you read this post, you should read Exodus 25-26. OK... if not read it, at least take a glance at it. I'm pretty sure this passage isn't anyone's "life verse." In these chapters we hear God's instructions, ones which are approaching obsessive in their intricate detail, to Moses for constructing the tabernacle, the tent where God's presence will dwell with Israel as they journey through the wilderness.

So what's your honest reaction to a passage of scripture like this one? Boring? Irrelevant? Why all the bother with such detail?

I'm sure at least one of the reasons it can be difficult to stick with reading chapters like these is that its just not easy to get excited about the construction blueprint of... well, any blueprint isn't exactly edge of your seat drama but especially the blueprint of a building that we've never seen and isn't a part of our everyday life. But I think there is also a theological reason why we often fail to recognize the truly great significance of the tabernacle at this point in Israel's story.

As modern Christians, I think we pretty much take the presence of God for granted. After all, along with being all-powerful and all-knowing isn't God also ever-present? There is no place that God is not.  Furthermore, we believe that God's presence is always among us as a church.  We believe that God's Spirit goes with us in our everyday lives. Of course, I believe those statements to be true but I also think that in a world of fast food and faster computers where everything is available to us at our convenience we have come to think of God's presence in the same way: always readily available to us and therefore not particularly special.

This was not the experience of the Israelites. We must remember that it was not so many chapters ago in this story that the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. The experience of a slave - the experience of 430 years of slavery- is not the experience of a God who is near but of one who is distant and dispassionate. What is the cry of the abused and oppressed if not "Where is God now?" or "Is there a God at all?". Even once God has delivered the people of Israel and even as God is giving these very laws to Moses, the people's experience of God is still one of distance. This is the God who envelopes the mountain with smoke and storm and says that anyone who comes too close will die.  This is the God of whom the people essentially say to Moses "That's close enough! You speak to God for us!".

It is within this story of a God who is so tremendously and wholly other that this transcendent One begins to give instructions for how his house should be built. A house! A dwelling for God! A place where God's presence can reside with the people of Israel. Its not enough that God delivered this battered and abused slave nation.  Its not enough that God has covenanted with these people and promised to be their God and they be God's people.  Now God is going to shack up with them as well! And not even on some high mountain but in a tent right in the middle of Israel's camp that can go with them where they go. God is drawing up plans to be present right in the midst of God's people.

But the tabernacle is even more than that. It also is another step in God's rehabilitation project with these former slaves as God continues the work of transforming them into a free and holy people. I believe that is why instructions are so obsessive in their detail.  Although we are not told the explicit purpose or symbolic nature of every instruction, we are told that Moses was instructed to build everything according to the pattern he had seen on the mountain. This tabernacle was not to be modeled after temples of Egypt or any other culture or left up to the Israelite imagination which was still largely held captive by the realities of Egypt. The tabernacle was to be by God's instruction alone, every last a detail a reminder that this was not any God but the liberating God of the exodus who was dwelling with these people. The tabernacle itself was to become a means of converting Israel's imagination from the way of Pharaoh to the way of Yahweh.  Like stain-glass windows telling the story of Jesus for illiterate church-goers in the middle ages, the tabernacle would be a beautifully ornate and tangible picture of the God who had delivered them and continued to dwell with them.

In the first chapter of John's gospel, we hear that "the word became flesh and dwelt among us." The word translated as "dwelt" in this verse is the very same word used to describe God's dwelling in the tabernacle, the clear sense of John's words being that Jesus is now the place of God's "tabernacling" with    his people. Likewise, in Mark's gospel we see at Jesus' baptism that God's own Spirit descends upon and into Jesus in the form of a dove. Each of the gospels and Acts also tell us, each in their own way, that Jesus would also pour out this same Spirit on his followers. Paul goes so far as to call the Corinthians the "temple of God," the very place where God's Spirit dwells. And in his first epistle, Peter calls the churches of Asia Minor "living stones...being built up into a spiritual house." Hebrews describes Jesus as the pioneer of our faith who has opened up and new and living way for us into the holy of holies, that is, into the very presence of God.  And Revelation reaches the apex of its vision of new creation when it says that in the new Jerusalem there will be no temple because God has finally made his dwelling fully and completely, directly and unmediated with God's people for all eternity.

The consistent witness of scripture, even with its many voices and varied images, is that we serve a God whose goal throughout all of eternity has been and will be to dwell among us. The instructions for the tabernacle in Exodus remind us that this is no small thing. This is a holy God whose presence is not to be taken for granted. But we also believe that presence is no longer limited by tabernacle or temple. It was made available to us in the beautifully ornate and tangible presence of Jesus who helps us to re-imagine what is possible with God in this world and thereby shapes us into a people where the Spirit of God tabernacles until that day of new creation when we will dwell fully and completely in the presence of our liberating and tabernaling God.


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