Exodus 40 : 34–38
David A. Davis
November 3, 2019
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“For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and the fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” Each stage of their journey. As we conclude our reading, study, and preaching on the Book of Exodus this morning, I would like to invite you to ponder with me the promise and presence of God at each stage of the journey. Each and every stage.
After that low point in the Book of Exodus in terms of the relationship between God and the whole congregation of the people of Israel, the low point being the golden calf, Moses convinced God to go with God’s people on the journey to the Promised Land. Moses pleaded with God, pointing out that what made them God’s people was God’s presence. “Don’t send us out there if you’re not going to go!’” God agreed to go with them. God shows Moses a bit of God’s glory. And then God and Moses together come up with stone tablets 2.0. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai tablets in hand with a face so shiny that people were afraid to come near. Moses started to wear a veil because of that radiance of being in the presence of God’s glory. What comes next in Exodus is the building of the tabernacle. Six chapters that tell of detail after detail after detail. If you thought the part I just read about Moses putting the finishing touches on the tabernacle had a lot of detail, you should take a look at the preceding chapters. Detail. Fine detail. It is quite the level of detail and a huge chunk of what makes up the Book of Exodus. That level of detail also comes in the God-given instructions to Moses on how to build the tabernacle in chapters 25, 26, 27, 28 and 29. The instruction and the construction, all of it summarized, concluded with the narrator’s comment that started the reading for today: “Moses did everything just as the Lord had commanded him”.
You will remember that Exodus begins with the enslaved people of Israel being mercilessly worked to death at the hands of Pharaoh making bricks. Now all the congregation of the Israelites brought the best of what they had to contribute to the making of tabernacle. It wasn’t just Moses who obeyed, it was all the people of God. And as if to emphasize that contrast to slavery, Exodus tells of how everyone whose heart was stirred and everyone whose spirit was willing brought their offerings to be used for the tabernacle, for the tent of meeting. They were no longer being tortured in the presence of Pharaoh. Their heart was moved as they toiled in the presence of God. They were no longer shackled with the demand to obey and follow Pharaoh. They were longing to obey and follow God. These significant chunks of Exodus, so easy to skim past, all intended to testify to the formation of the people of God and their worship of God in the presence of God.
This is how God starts the instructions to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering, from all whose hearts prompt them to give…..and have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” Tabernacle: a moveable sanctuary. Tabernacle: A place for God to dwell. Tabernacle: A place for God to dwell with a people on the move. Tabernacle: God’s dwelling place along the journey. Tabernacle: More than a sign, more than a symbol. God’s promised dwelling place. “Have the people make me a sanctuary so that I may tabernacle with them”. A forty-year journey for the people and the tabernacling of God along the way.
After Moses and the people did everything just as the Lord had commanded, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. .. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and the fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” Each stage of their journey. Each and every stage. The tabernacling of God at each and every stage of the journey.
One day this summer I was standing all by myself on a putting green doing some practicing. All of a sudden I heard my name. It wasn’t somebody calling my name. It was someone invoking my name; as in Rev. Dave Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church. It actually took me a minute to figure out where it was coming from. Two men were walking by the putting green talking about me, not looking for me. In fairness, I was in shorts, wearing a hat, holding a putter. It is far from what I look like around here. But the two passed me as close as I am to the folks just a few pews away. And they kept talking about me. And you know what, I didn’t say a word. I just listened hoping they weren’t going to say something bad about me! Turns out, they were talking about maybe inviting me to play golf someday. But it was one of those occasions that I bet you have had before, like when you’re driving your kids around in the car with some of their friends and your learn all kinds of new stuff because they forgot you were there, or when one of your in-laws is talking about you to your spouse in what they thought was a whisper and you are nearby in the kitchen doing dishes, or when the co-worker mentions you in an email and makes the dreaded mistake of hitting reply to all. “You know I’m standing right here, right? You know I can hear you, right? You know you hit reply to all, right? You know, I’m here, right?” I wonder how often God has that experience? God wanting to say to you or to me “You know I am here, right?”
“If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall hold me fast” The psalmist on the tabernacling God.
A packed sanctuary on a Sunday morning. A gaggle of young people ringing the chancel steps. A crowd of elders, mentors, family surrounding them. In the sanctuary, you can hear a pin drop as one by one each kneels and the room prays. “Defend, O Lord, your servant with your heavenly grace, that she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until she comes to your everlasting kingdom.” A confirmation prayer. A prayer for the tabernacling of God.
A young man from the congregation was living and working overseas for a year. It was a long year. He told me once on a visit back home and here to church that while he enjoyed what he was doing and where he was, there were plenty of times that he battled loneliness and struggled to get to sleep and just felt very, very far from home. He thanked me because he would go to the church website and listen to our sermon podcast. He described how as he listened, he found comfort, was reminded of church, reminded of home, reminded of God. And he said, “And another thing, your voice helps me to fall asleep.” Maybe not the best thing for a preacher to hear! But that conversation with him sharing of how he found comfort thousands of miles away was a testimony to the tabernacling God.
Some will remember hearing before about a memory shared by Flannery O’Conner in one of her letters. She tells of an evening dinner party in New York City, one of those gatherings of gifted and accomplished writers who found each other and formed their own kind of literary society in the early to mid-twentieth century. The dinner party lasted quite a while and the wine flowed and O’Conner describes her own unsophisticated, southern self-feeling so out of place among the intellectual elites. At a point late in the evening, another author, Mary McCarthy droned on about how the Catholic faith of her upbringing had faded but she still appreciated the eucharist as a religious symbol. O’Conner writes in the letter of her brief outburst of a response. “Well, if it is only a symbol, then the hell with it.” And then she writes, “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about [the eucharist, the presence of Christ], outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me.” Flannery O’Conner on the presence of Christ at the table. What John Calvin in the Reformed tradition called “the real presence of Christ.” More than a sign. More than a symbol. Flannery O’Conner on the tabernacling God.
Christmas Eve, the late service of Lessons and Carols. The sanctuary fades to black. Members of the congregation hold their candles, anxiously awaiting the light and the singing of “Silent Night”. There is one final lesson to be read. A lesson read every Christmas Eve. A lesson best read when surrounded by darkness when the only light to see is the light of Christ. Most in the sanctuary could say it out loud as it is being read. Not just because it is familiar and read every Christmas Eve. More than that, it’s a promise for the soul when the darkness around can be so very, very dark. A promise to cling to in each and every season. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it….The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the word….And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” A promise for the soul from the tabernacling God.
Today, on this Sunday closest to All Saints Day, we remember those in our Nassau Church family who have died and joined the church triumphant in the last year. In many of those services, most of those services, part of the prayer of thanksgiving and intercession. “We give you thanks, O God, that you carried him all the days of his life, and that you carried him up to and through his death and now he shall dwell forever in the very heart of God.” A prayer of thanksgiving for the tabernacling of God in each and every stage of the journey.
Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Remember, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.
Take, eat, this is my body broken for you.
Each and every stage.