Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Years ago, my husband and I served as pastors of another church across town. One day we were clearing out some messy closets there and we stumbled across one of those old canvas tents, the kind with the metal poles and heavy green fabric that everyone used to use before the advent of lightweight pop up tents. It had obviously been sitting there for years. There’s no question it was the worse for wear. But what I saw as something possibly fit for my next dump run, our Children’s Director at the time rescued for a memorable object lesson.
You see, our kids had been learning Old Testament stories that year and they’d just been hearing about the tabernacle. That holy tent that Moses and the people carried with them from place to place as they moved around the wilderness on their way from captivity in Egypt to the land of Canaan. As we’ve just heard, the tabernacle was a place of worship, a place in which God was felt to be especially present, for the cloud indicating the glory of the Lord was there. And here it was: a tabernacle of our very own! Granted, it needed a bit of work, but before I knew it Children’s Director Julie and her team had erected the tent right in our basement classroom, given it a thorough scrubbing, and decorated it with felt and gold trim in ways that evoked that ancient tabernacle that travelled with the Israelites through the wilderness. They even began using that tabernacle for Sunday School worship.
Later that year, for one of her children’s times in service, Julie happened to be explaining what it meant when biblical figures fell on their faces before God. One of the Hebrew words we translate as worship means to fall down, to bow down, or to use that great old King James term, to prostrate oneself on the ground, face down in the dirt. After hearing this explanation upstairs in the sanctuary - that worship was about bowing down to show God respect - the kids stunned her that morning by entering their little tabernacle-tent in the basement and doing just that, all on their own. As they opened the tent flaps and stepped in, she heard them whisper to each other, “c’mon, guys – let’s bow down!” And they did! Little kindergarten and first and second grade bodies were suddenly prostrate, faces to the floor. Worshiping God in their holy place.
Most Presbyterian adults probably aren’t inclined to throw themselves down on the floor at 10:30 on a Sunday morning. But I sometimes wonder whether we might borrow a page from those kids. Those of us who’ve visited Muslim neighbors at their places of worship have certainly seen their willingness to bow their faces all the way to the ground to show respect to God, too. What would it mean for us to learn or re-learn or simply permit ourselves to express in some way that sense of the majesty and mystery of God?
In any event, you can see why that’s the story that comes to mind for me whenever I return to biblical texts about the tabernacle, which we do again this morning. It’s important to understand that unlike a church, a mosque, a synagogue or temple, all of which are built as permanent structures, the tabernacle we read about in the Old Testament was an actual tent. A large, elegant tent, to be sure, in keeping with its being a place of worship, but a tent nonetheless. This God who’d heard the cries of the Hebrew people, who’d sent Moses to deliver them from captivity in Egypt, would travel with them all the way through the wilderness to the land of Canaan. God appears in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night – clear signs of his presence with them at every stage. So naturally if this God was given a dwelling place it would need to be portable. A fixed structure just wouldn’t cut it. For we read that “whenever the cloud [of God] was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on the next stage of their journey.” (Exodus 40:36) Picture them packing up this elaborate God-tent, the ark of the covenant housed within it (the tablets with the ten commandments in turn housed within in the ark), and carrying all of it right along with them.
I imagine these visible signs of God’s presence would have brought them comfort as they travelled through unfamiliar territory. The pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire, the ark of the covenant, and the tabernacle all reminding them that God was right there with them as they went on their way. All that talk of the cloud of God’s glory settling on the tabernacle, and of Moses not being able to enter because the glory of the Lord filled it; all that talk of the sacred implements and instruments that filled the space (only a few of which Joyce read about today), they’re all simply reminders of the holiness of that tent, because God was there.
What an amazing image. A God who camps out with his people, physically travelling with them from place to place. Of course, we know God isn’t fixed in a single spot, however holy we may believe that spot (this spot) to be. God’s on the move, always out there beyond this sanctuary as well as here within it. What’s more, that holy camp out back in Exodus also tells us God’s not willing to be separated from God’s people. A tabernacling God demonstrates not only God’s itinerant nature, but also the permanence of God’s presence. There is nowhere we could ever go where God would not be also.
What’s good news for travelers everywhere is, I imagine, especially good news for those who’ve spent a great deal of time on the road. Think about how many times throughout history groups of people have moved from place to place, whether by choice (explorers, pilgrims, immigrants, pioneers) or because they had no other choice (refugees fleeing danger and crossing borders, victims of natural disasters finding their homes no longer habitable, others experiencing homelessness for any length of time). In the story of the Exodus we hear God saying to one and all: I travel with you.
In a few weeks we’ll be hearing from the Executive Director of World Relief, a Christian organization working with refugees in our area. Like me you may be interested in learning more about their important work and how we might lend a hand. Perhaps the God who moves with these particular travelers has a role in mind for those of us fortunate enough to have stable places to live.
After all, the part of the biblical story we’ve been reading is full of reminders for the Israelites to welcome the stranger and the foreigner in their midst, to show them kindness and hospitality (e.g. Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19), because for so many years they had themselves been aliens in foreign territory. They remembered what it felt like to be far from home, in transit, en route, and it compelled them to show compassion to others with similar stories.
Did you know tabernacle theology– this idea of a God who camps out with God’s people – appears in the New Testament, too? It’s right there in the opening chapter of the gospel of John. We’ll circle back to this again before Christmas, but when John 1:14 says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the verb often translated as “dwell” there actually comes from a Greek word meaning “to tent” or “to camp,” which in turn evokes the Hebrew word for tabernacle. The God of those ancient wilderness wanderings back in Exodus ultimately camped out in a human body – that of an itinerant preacher in first century Palestine known as Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, too, we encounter a God willing to accompany God’s people anywhere, a God who would do anything to be with us.
Meanwhile, admittedly stories like those we’ve read today from the book of Exodus can sound a little foreign to western, 21st century ears. All that talk of clouds of glory, golden lampstands, altars of sacrifice – it’s a far cry from our average Sunday morning worship service. It may be a little hard for us to wrap our minds around 40 years of wilderness wanderings too. But the main lesson of today’s texts is simple enough: God goes with us wherever we go. And as those Sunday School kids taught us years ago, even an old canvas tent can be a holy place when God’s camped out alongside you.
Can we sense God’s presence with us here in this place? Can we move out into the world confident that there will never be anywhere else we could go where God isn’t? Can we trust that the God who guided the Hebrew people through the wilderness can guide us through the confusion of our own age? Can deliver our broken world into a glorious new day?
Certainly such a God would be eminently worthy of our worship.
So as those wise little ones urged one another, pulling back the tent flaps to their holy place: “C’mon, guys. Let’s bow down!”