The otherness of God brought close
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Friday, March 5th: Exodus 19:9b-15; Psalm 19; and Acts 7:30-40. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
In the Exodus passage, God’s holiness is fearsome. It is so terrifyingly other that the presence of God can only be expressed as concealed by a “dense cloud.” The people of Israel must physically clean themselves and their clothing, and they must keep a safe distance away from the place of God’s descent for their safety.
At Mount Sinai, God will give Moses instructions for the tabernacle. The tabernacle will be the traveling shrine that will allow God to dwell among the Israelites, but at a safe distance. Biblical scholars propose that we invert the account that the Temple was based on the tabernacle model. Rather, it may be that the Temple model was read back into the murkier age of Exodus’ traveling shrine.
The physical layout of the tabernacle may be open to such debate, but the purpose of these shrines seems certain. We are church people. We are in the tradition of Jesus attending the synagogue and sharing in the called community’s worship through prayer and sacred text. The tabernacle/Temple model, on the other hand, kept God at a safe distance. Rather than inviting people in, the purpose of the shrine was to keep God and the people separated. The presence of God was too holy to be approached casually.
In 2 Samuel 6, the story is told of David ushering the ark into Jerusalem. With only pious intent, Uzzah reaches out and touches the ark to prevent it from falling off an ox cart. For this breach of protocol God strikes Uzzah dead, and even David grows afraid of allowing God to abide too close.
Solomon, David’s son, builds the Jerusalem Temple like a fortress, and deep within the recesses of this divine citadel is where God dwells. This Temple was destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians. Herod was in the process of rebuilding a much grander Temple at the time of Jesus. We will hear in Sunday’s Gospel that during Jesus’ ministry the Temple has been under construction for 46 years. This is the Temple that Jesus charges through disrupting the religious marketplace.
This is the Temple where the curtain tears in front of the Holy of Holies either before or after Jesus dies on the cross on that first Good Friday. The symbolism of this is that the separation between God and His people has ended. A new, more intimate relationship has begun. Jesus’ faithful completion of His life’s mission and ministry at the cross on Good Friday brings God and us together in a way that was unimaginable to the people at Sinai. God doesn’t dwell in the safe darkness of the Temple. God dwells with us as us in Jesus even at the cost of enduring the cross. The fearsome other of God has been transformed into the compassionate humanity of Jesus.
This openness of God to us in Christ cost Jesus His very life. This is what we remember throughout Lent, and especially on these Lenten Fridays.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Massachusetts Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.macucc.org/lectionary.
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