Archive for January, 2012
A place for God to dwell. Why did he need one? Why all the effort to construct this ornate structure for a God who dwells in all creation? You have to believe, as I eluded to before, that this was actually not for the benefit of God, but for the benefit of the people. We are given a hint at this purpose at the very end of chapter 40:
“In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted.”
It was like a big spiritual traffic light! Cloud means stop and no cloud means go. And by having this specific building to look to in order to receive this “stay or go” direction, the people of Israel had a clear directive. Combine this idea with the previous idea of having some kind of ornate physical representation of God (or, in this case, where God was) and we begin to see the incredible willingness of God to reach out to his people at their level of spiritual maturity.
He didn’t need to come in a cloud, because he was already there. He didn’t need a house, because he dwells everywhere. It is possible, but not necessary, for God to take on some kind of physical form. And so, the only reason that he would do that is for the benefit of those of us who are physical beings and have a very limited understanding of non-physical or metaphysical. And so, this entire tabernacle was not built for God, but was built as a way for the people to better understand and interact with their God. It’s an incredible example of culturally relevant ministry as demonstrated by the God of the universe.
Moses (or whoever Biblical scholars now believe wrote the book of Exodus) makes me laugh. He could have saved himself a lot of ink and parchment if he had simply said, “and they built the tabernacle, ark, alter, etc. to the specifications that God gave them.” Instead, he walks us through all of those specifications again. What’s the point?
Well, as with any piece of scripture, “what’s the point?” is a very valid question to ask. And so, as I read through this list that was essentially the response to God’s call to built the tabernacle, I asked that very question. Why was this all in there again? Maybe it was about reinforcing the fact that God really does care about the details. Of maybe is was a kind of audit – some way of verifying the “what we did” with the “what we were told to do.” Whatever the reason, it’s in there and we should probably read it.
One quick take-away for me is that this was a massive undertaking for people who had no home, very little to eat and who were getting sick and tired of roaming around the desert. What we read in these verses are people who are being obedient – painstakingly so – in building a temporary place of worship, when what they really wanted was a place to call their land and a place where they could build a “proper” house for God. But that wasn’t God’s plan…not yet.
And so, I look at myself in the mirror and I ask what parts of my life I’m truly willing to be obedient with. What are my “tabernacles” – the things that God has asked me to do that I don’t necessarily think are in “his” best interest. Or, the things that simply don’t make sense to me and, therefore, I’m reluctant to do them. Am I willing to pour myself into something temporary just because God asks me to. It’s one of those questions that’s easy to answer with a resounding “yes,” but much harder to walk out when you feel like you’re just wasting your time.
In today’s reading, there is a lot of back and forth between Moses and God and a few strange regulations, but the thing I want to focus on is the section in chapter 35 about the materials for the tabernacle. Obviously, the tabernacle was going to be a pretty ornate spectacle and, as I mentioned before, God wanted to provide the people of Israel with every little detail they needed to build it. In chapter 35, we find that not only did God give the plans, but he also provided the materials and seemingly supernaturally instructed the skilled workers.
In chapter 35, verses 4-9, Moses instructs the people to bring the materials that are needed and in verses 10-19, he instructs them to bring their skills. The thing that’s interesting for me is that these materials and skills were likely the direct result of Israel’s time spent in Egypt. Things like learning to hammer gold and weave intricate patterns would have likely been learned in their different roles as servants in Egypt. Likewise, the expensive materials they had with them (remember, they couldn’t just go to The Home Depot and buy the supplies to build the tabernacle) also came from Egypt. In fact, just before the people made their flight from Egypt, God told them to ask their masters for these kinds of precious gifts.
What sticks out here is that God allowed the people of Israel to acquire a certain amount of wealth through these valuable items. And yet, instead of simply allowing the people to get fat off of their wealth, God had a specific purpose in mind for those items. I wonder how many people have prayed to God for wealth or have somehow become wealthy, but have ceased to take into consideration the fact that God might want to use that wealth for something. I’m sure some of the Israelites hadn’t considered that fact. They thought they just got lucky and got to take some sweet treasure with them on their desert trek. But God knew differently. He knew that he would, in essence, redeem that Egyptian loot and turn it into something holy. This is just another example of God’s plan being so enormous compared to ours and a reminder that he’s always a few hundred steps ahead of us!
As with just about every day, there’s a lot packed into today’s reading. However, there were two parts that really jumped out to me and they both follow a similar theme. First, there is the “atonement money” that God requires every person to pay. Second, there is this conversation between Moses and the Lord where Moses asks God to forgive the Israelites for worshiping the golden calf. Both, I think, demonstrate a fundamental truth about the value of each individual – a truth that God first taught Noah and then, Noah articulated back to God.
Let’s take a look at the atonement money. The purpose of this money was to offer a “ransom” for the life of each individual. Clearly, this has some prophetic undertones as Jesus would pay the ultimate ransom for us and would be the ultimate atonement. However, I think there’s something interesting about this passage. God requires that everyone is to give one half shekel. And he specifically says that the rich are to give no more than a half shekel and the poor are to give no less.
Now, whenever God and money are combined in the Bible, most people immediately believe that the passage must be a commentary on church giving, tithing, etc. In this case, though, I don’t think that’s the point at all. In fact, when you read through the rest of scripture, you see that God typically does require more from those who have more and often lessens the giving requirements for those who are poor. So what’s going on here?
Well, remember that we’re talking about a ransom or atonement. That is, a sum of money paid in exchange for someone’s life. What’s a life worth? Whatever the person who saves your life says it’s worth. In this case, God tells the people that they are to pay one half shekel as a ransom for each life. But what is God going to do with a half shekel? He doesn’t need the money! What he does need is that for the people to understand that their lives have value and that no one person’s life is more valuable than another. The lives of the rich aren’t worth more than the lives of the poor or vice versa. This is a lesson in the value of a life, not a story about tithing or church giving.
This same lesson, then, is obviously learned and articulated by Moses when he says to God in chapter 32, verses 31 & 32:
“Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
Moses here is essentially telling God that his life (or more accurately, his soul or his existence) is not any more valuable than anyone else’s. If they aren’t going to be forgiven – if they’re going to be rejected by God – then Moses doesn’t want to be accepted by him either. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this boat together – that God interacts with humanity as a whole as well as individuals. And it’s a reminder that you are worth the same as me and the same as the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. And, ultimately, Jesus would pay the same price for all of us.
Sometimes it’s great to be chosen. Chosen first for the kickball team in elementary school? Awesome! Chosen as a finalist in the Miss Coburn County pageant? Swell! Chosen to work in a newly formed house of worship which requires you to slaughter and burn animals, not to mention splashing and getting splashed with lots of blood? Um…not so much.
In today’s reading, God’s instructions are for Aaron and his descendents to become the priests of the new tabernacle. And while this role has a few perks, it doesn’t really seem like the most fun job in the world. There’s a lot of blood involved and, in all likelihood, a lot of stress about making sure to follow the rules. Maybe that’s why God had to appoint some people to the position of priest – no one would willingly apply for the job!
Whatever the reason, God chose Aaron and his family to be the first priests of Israel’s new place of worship. Now, Aaron may have seen this coming. After all, he had been in a position of leadership among the people of Israel since before they left Egypt. Because of that, it makes sense that God would entrust Aaron with this most important of tasks. What I find interesting, however, is that it wasn’t only Aaron who was chosen. It was Aaron’s family! I can imagine a teenage boy being told by his father, “No hanging out on the beach for you this summer. You’re going to be a priest!”
What? This was not the life that these young men chose. Rather, it was a life chosen for them. They had no say in the matter whatsoever. What’s more, they were chosen to be priests not because of some standard of purity or ethics to which they adhered. No, they were chosen based solely on lineage. Who was their father? OK, then they will be priests.
Can you imagine if God worked that way today? Rather than choosing to go into the ministry, you might just be dragged, kicking and screaming – into the church to work for God! Well, the truth is that God does still work that way. Take it from one who has been dragged back to the church kicking and screaming. I tried on multiple occasions to walk away from the task that God has given me as a full-time pastor and, every time, it has not gone well for me.
The fact is, my only choice in the matter is whether or not I’m obedient to the will of God – a choice that Aaron and his sons also had. Just like us, they could have poo-pooed the idea that they were supposed to be priests and simply carried on with their lives. Although, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have turned out well for them.
But let’s face it, it won’t turn out well for us either! If God is calling you, choosing you and asking you to do something, he’s not going to let you rest until you do it. Sure, he gives you a choice. But he’s not going to stop asking. He’s not going to stop urging. He’s not going to stop whispering in your ear. God, as it turns out, has a plan. It’s a grand plan with lots of details and millions of people who have to work together to execute this plant.
And God knows better than you or I what kind of person he needs in each role that he has created in order to fulfill his plan. And so, here we are – called by God – and we have a choice: Do we answer God’s call and step into the role he has assigned us or do we ignore his call and go our own way. It was a decision that Aaron’s family had to make and a decision that all of us still face today.