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Behind Curtain #1

March 13, 2018

          Remember the old finger exercise? “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.”

          Although some of us might like the idea of going to church without having to be bothered by the people, the church, by definition, does not work that way. And even though we might think the problem is dealing with all the broken, dirty and needy people the opposite is actually the truth. A church is not really the church when everybody is good and has no struggles or problems.

          I was a very independent child. I never asked anybody for any help. My mother likes to tell how when I was little and she would try to help me get dressed I would say, “No, mommy, me do it.” And isn’t that really what we pretend to be even today?

          What we all fail to admit is that I’m not ok and you’re not ok. In spite of bookstores being filled with self-help books and the education mantra of the day insisting we are all winners, deep down inside we know we are not good enough. We do not like to face the thought that we are horrible, terrible, no good people so, for the sake of our self-esteem, we have watered down the very reason why Jesus came. 

          The gospel message has been terribly diluted today. Take, for example, Isaac Watt’s classic hymn, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” which we sang earlier today. Newer hymnbooks say, “Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?  Would He devote that sacred head for sinners such as I?”  Watts’ original words were, “Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?  Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?”

          That is a more disgusting picture isn’t it? Our ego does not want to confess how bad we really are. All of us have hidden sins or secrets we dare not share with anyone here because it could ruin our reputation or cause harm to others or just make us look bad.

          The Tabernacle was the place the children of Abraham met from the time they left Egypt until the Temple was built. Sometimes we equate our church buildings with the Tabernacle.  In fact, some churches use the word Tabernacle in their name.  When I grew up, you were not allowed to run through the halls or to chew gum or bring a drink inside the church building – because this was the place where God dwells.  Now I appreciate the attempts to teach holiness and respect but the New Testament teaches that God does not dwell in a tent or temple or any physical structure but within our hearts.  However, even though we don’t need to build a physical temple today, they are still some lessons we can learn from the Old Testament Tabernacle that we can apply to our lives.

          One of the biggest visuals in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple, was this huge curtain that most people were never allowed to see behind. The curtain symbolized how God was separate from us. Everyone knew that behind that curtain God dwelled and if you could go behind the curtain God would make you whole.

          Remember the old game show, “Let’s Make a Deal?”  Sometimes the contestant had to choose what was behind curtain number 1, 2 or 3.  Behind one of the curtains there was a great prize but behind the other two might be a real loser prize like a cow or a junker car.

          There really wasn’t much skill involved: you traded the nice prize you had just won for something you hoped would be better behind the curtain.  What was interesting was when you had to decide which curtain to choose, the audience would shout words of encouragement and tell you which curtain to pick. And if you chose wrong, the audience would moan with you in disappointment. We do not enter God’s presence by ourselves. We have a crowd that will go with us and encourage us on.

          There is a story about this dad and his son who were at home one night during a storm. As the winds blew and lightning flashed and thunder roared, the little boy became scared and called out for his dad to come to his room. The dad said, “you’re alright. Jesus is with you.” And the boy replied, “I know. I just need somebody with flesh to be with me.” Isn’t that what we all need? God knows that and through the church he has provided that flesh for us.

          The Tabernacle was the worship center of the Israelites for some 500 years – from the time of Moses until Solomon built the Temple.  Although it was a temporary structure (it was basically a tent that could be moved during the Wilderness wanderings of the people) it was the place designated for the Hebrew people to worship God.  It is mentioned a lot throughout the Bible: 13 chapters in the book of Exodus, 2 chapters in Deuteronomy and 4 chapters in the New Testament book of Hebrews plus scattered references throughout the rest of the Bible.

          Tabernacle means tent or dwelling place and its purpose in the Old Testament was to be a sanctuary for God.   And although there is no tabernacle sanctioned by the Bible anymore the idea of a tabernacle can teach us something about Jesus and about how we worship him. 

          After the Israelites left Egypt they stopped near Mt. Sinai and Moses went up to meet God and he was given the Ten Commandments.  After sharing these rules with the people, Moses went back up the mountain and God gave him very specific instructions about building a place where he would dwell and where the Jews would worship.  Exodus 25-27 go into great detail about the furnishings and chapter 28 describes what the priests were to wear and even the kinds of incense to use to make the place smell a certain way.  Last week we talked about how God uses physical symbols and smells to help us focus on him and that is why he also gave Moses these details regarding the Tabernacle. Whenever they would see the tent or smell the smells they would think of God.

          The Tabernacle was built while they were in the Sinai area and they took it wherever they went.  It literally became the center of the Jewish nation and when they made camp, all the families would pitch their tents in assigned areas around the Tabernacle.  The Tabernacle became the place where God would communicate with his people and everything that went on in Israel, both religious and civil, was connected to this place.

          The Tabernacle was the gathering place of the people of God.  Modern Christianity has stifled this very important aspect of God’s plan for his people when we emphasize our “personal” relationship with Him and talk about meeting him alone or praying by ourselves, or singing in the privacy of our home or independent Bible study.

          Now, there is nothing wrong with those things and part of the beauty of our salvation is that God does save each of us individually.  But we have been made to need each other as well.  Notice how the description of worship in the book of Revelation is always a corporate thing – a thing where more than one person at a time participates.  God wants and expects us to gather as a group to praise him. 

          When you think about that it makes since: why else would he give Moses specific instructions on how to build a place of worship that had to be torn down and hauled across the desert?  Why not wait until they were settled in the Promised Land and build a monument that could be a permanent marker to Him? God is not so much interested in buildings that stand as memorials to him as much as he is interested in those buildings being filled with his people worshipping him.  Remember: “here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and…”

          And more specifically, there is that curtain we have been trying to look behind.  Look at Exodus 26:31-34.   31 "Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. 32 Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. 33 Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. 34 Put the atonement cover on the ark of the Testimony in the Most Holy Place.

          God made a barrier in the Tabernacle between the place everyone could go and the place only those who had been purified could go.  This curtain was a very symbolic representation of the barrier that exists between God and man.  That is why elsewhere in the Old Testament there are specific things a priest must do before he could enter and then he would only enter once a year. 

          The curtain was a very heavy divider that could not be easily torn or seen through.  The purpose was obvious: sin has become a barrier between God and us.  That is an important lesson for us to remember because we have no right to go behind that curtain.  We have no right to enter the presence of God and because of our sin we have been separated from him.

          This was no ordinary curtain that separated the people from the Most Holy Place. The curtain was understood to represent the Messiah even by the people in Old Testament days.  That’s why Hebrews 10:19 and 20 says,19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body,

          God gave Moses specific instructions on how to make this curtain and the people of his day would not fail to see the symbolism.  Unless you are a designer, when we read passages that go into detail about the design of something our minds go blank and our eyes glaze over.  But notice the purpose of the materials used to build the curtain.

          First, the inner lining of the curtain was to be made of linen and yarn.  Linen was always reserved to be used for holy or religious purposes in the Old Testament.  So the wearing of linen represents righteousness and they knew the only real righteous one was God.  Our unrighteousness separates us from the righteousness of God so we need to stop thinking that we are good people because in the sight of God we are not. The book of Romans reminds us, “there is no one righteous, no not one.”

          The yarn used was to be blue, purple and scarlet.  In Jewish tradition, blue is associated with heaven, purple with royalty, and scarlet with glory.  Therefore, the curtain represented their salvation because it protected them from the wrath of God and led them to him. What represents our salvation today? How do we know we are saved? How do we know we are allowed to go behind the curtain and be with God? It is not because of a prayer we pray or the good things we do. We are saved by the blood of Jesus through baptism.  1 Peter 3:21 says, …this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also.

          Also, the outer curtain that surrounded the Tabernacle was covered with goat hair, ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows.  The inner lining of this curtain which was made of linen also had cherubim’s or angels embroidered on it.  This curtain symbolized the divine and human nature of the coming Messiah.

          God was not just being picky about the materials used for the curtain but was setting up a symbol for the people.  Whenever they saw the curtain they should be aware of their separation from God but also remember that God was going to send a savior to rescue them as well.

          Did you know that we confess that in baptism?  When we go down into the water it is like we are being buried.  Our old life dies.  For the brief moment we are under the water it is like we are dead.  We are dead to the ways of this world.  And when we come up out of the water, we are rising up into a new life.  We have been resurrected just as Christ rose from the dead.

          The people of Moses’ day could only look forward to that.  They saw the symbol but were not able to enjoy the actual fulfillment.  And when Jesus died he fulfilled the promise of the curtain and changed things forever.

          Matthew makes a curious statement in his gospel about the death of Jesus.  Look at Matthew 27:51 - 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.

          As I said, God loves symbolism and the curtain tearing from top to bottom was a very powerful symbolic act.  It symbolized the end of the Old Covenant where the priest had to go and offer a sacrifice for your sin.  It symbolized how the barrier that had separated man from God had now been torn asunder and we can enter His presence.

          The sacrifice of the Holy Lamb of God has superseded the need for regular animal sacrifices, the requirement of legalistic law keeping, and the fear that we have in being sinners in the hands of an angry God.

          But what do we do instead?  We try to gain access to God by what we do and who we are.  We try to obtain salvation by our works.  But we have done nothing to earn our salvation – it is a free gift from God.

          The good news for us today is that God does not play games with us nor does he roll the dice to see if we win.  We can have complete, total and free salvation right now.  God has opened the curtain wide and simply asks this morning, do you want what is behind the curtain?

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