Sunday, February 20, 2011

Open the curtain and enter the most holy place

Some questions you come back to the older you get.

Where is God?

That’s something the littlest of children can ask. I hope we have moved away from describing the old man with a white beard sitting in the clouds. Yet somehow in the response I make I would want to convey something of the mystery of God. “He’s all around us, he’s with us wherever we are and wherever we go.” And I value stories that take children into the beyond into the mystery of God.

Where is God?

That’s a question people often come back to when thinking through life, faith and the big questions. It’s a point for debate, for discussion, for conversation. This is the stuff of the science and religion debate. Do we push God back to the beginning of things and see God as the distant ‘prime mover’. Do we put God into the gaps left by science and speak of Intelligent Design I find that difficult to take! I am much more drawn to the way George Herbert seeks to answer that question …

Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see
Where is God?

That’s a question that can pierce the soul of the most faithful of believers when tragedy happens, when their world falls apart. Where is God in the catastrophe of an earthquake, in the protracted pain of a loved one as they are dying and yet won’t die? Where is God? Is a question that sometimes has no easy answer.

One of the great things to me about the Bible is that it contains a record of the way people over many hundreds of years grappled with this very question.

Where is God? Stories tell of the greatness of the God who is beyond the heavens, not to locate God just above the clouds, but to evoke a sense of mystery at the God who is beyond all things. Genesis 1 evokes the mystery of God as the one who brings order out of chaos. Yet in the next breath in Genesis 2 and 3 come stories that tell of the way God is in the garden of this world, walking alongside us. Stories told not to locate God in a location archaeologists may one day discover, but to evoke within us that sense of mystery that God is walking with us through this world.

Where is God?

Poetry communicates the mystery of God’s presence in Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me,
You know when I sit down and when I rise up.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
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 lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.

In response to that question it’s all there. God is all around us. He is wherever we are, wherever we go.

But that agonising question ‘Where is God in the face of untold pain and suffering?’ screams out from the pages of the Bible as well.

How long, O Lord? will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul
And have sorrow in my heart all day long?

When I read Psalm 13 and many other passages like it, I realise that that final, agonising question is not one to hide under the carpet. It is not a question that the person of faith must suppress because such questioning is not appropriate for someone who professes faith.

What I find when I read the Bible is that people of the most profound faith have moments in what can often be the tragedy of life in this very painful world, when this question haunts them and torments them.

Where is God?
How long will you hide your face from me?

In a very real sense in the Bible we find people grappling with the very questions people still grapple with. For me the he Bible is indeed a book of timeless truths.

But the Bible offers another way of answering this question. It’s a way we are not so familiar with. But it’s a way of understanding that can release for us a way of answering this question that goes right to the heart of our Christian faith. It’s a way of responding to this question that for me makes all the difference.

Where is God? For a thousand years before Christ people pointed to the Temple. And beyond its outer courtyards, inside its central building, through the curtain into the Holy of Holies, that most holy place where God’s presence touches earth.

Taken by Mary and Joseph to the Temple at 8 days old to receive the sign of the covenant and to be given the name Jesus, he had visited at 12 and stayed on when his parents departed for home – it was his father’s house.

Catching sight of the Temple on his arrival into Jerusalem he wept over it. He castigated those responsible for it. My Father’s house should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves. Destroy this temple, he said pointing to the building that had been 46 years in the making, and I in three days I will raise it up. Those Judeans who heard him were astounded. This went right to the heart of all they believed – it was not possible. The temple was the place where God’s presence touched earth. “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years and you will raise it up in three days!” But, explains John, Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken..

All that the temple stood for in pointing to the location of God found its fulfilment in Jesus himself.

Where is God? Look to Jesus and find something of the presence of God. But where is the presence of God to be found supremely in Jesus? Not so much in a miraculous birth or resurrection victory, not so much in dramatic miracles of nature or of healing, not so much in the love Jesus has for others.

It is easy to gloss over it … but Matthew observes something very special that happens at the moment of Christ’s death.. At the darkest moment, at the moment of sheer God-forsaken awfulness.

That curtain is torn in two.

Matthew 27 and Hebrews 10

At noon the whole country was covered with darkness,
which lasted for three hours.
At about three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means,
“My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”
Jesus again gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

Then the curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
When the army officer and the soldiers with him who were watching Jesus saw the earthquake and everything else that happened, they were terrified
and said, “He really was the Son of God!”

We have, then, my brothers and sisters,
complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place
by means of the death of Jesus.

He opened for us a new way, a living way, through the curtain —
that is, through his own body.
We have a great priest in charge of the house of God.

So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith,
with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience
and with bodies washed with clean water.

Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess,
because we can trust God to keep his promise.

Let us be concerned for one another,
to help one another to show love and to do good.

Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing.
Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.

It is as if in the agonising, painful death of Christ, the curtain is parted and we can see into the most holy place, the holiest of holies, into the very presence of God. Or put it another way, it is as if at that moment, the presence of God is released, not longer behind the curtain, but let loose into the world.

The curtain that separates off the most holy place, the holy of holies, where God touches earth is torn in two at the point of utter agonising, horrific pain in the crucifixion of Christ.

Where is God? Actually there in the moment of greatest pain and agony. That is the point at which we can see into the most holy place, that is the point at which God’s presence is let loose into the world.

Where is God in catastrophe, in personal pain? God is there in the middle of it. That I find to be a remarkable insight. I want to hold on to that.

But that insight then makes a difference to what we each of us do with our lives.

If all that the temple had meant for a thousand years finds its fulfilment in Jesus then Jesus builds something where God’s presence can be let loose in the world.

Everyone who hears the words of Jesus and acts on them will be like the wise man, Solomon, who built God’s house on that rock in Jerusalem. Peter got it when he looked to Jesus as the foundation stone and all of us as the followers of Christ as the living stones that make up the place on earth where God’s presence is made real. Paul got it when he said of each one of us who follow Jesus that we are a temple for the Holy Spirit. Paul then goes on to speak of us being built on the foundation stone of Christ … and he speaks of us being the ‘body of Christ’. It is in us that the presence of God may be seen, it is in us that the presence of God is let loose into the world.

It is the writer of the letter to the Hebrews who explores this way of thinking most. He goes to great lengths to describe all the thinking around the temple and then finds all the temple is about finds its fulfilment in Jesus.

But then he prompts us to ask another question.

If God is there in the moment of greatest pain that Christ experiences, where does God want us to be?

It is supremely important that we have confidence to go through the curtain on the new and living way opened up for us by Christ especially in the pain of his dying. We must hold fast to our faith, with a confident hope and then bring love into the lives of others.

If God is there in the moment of pain and suffering … he calls us to be there alongside people in their pain and suffering, to bring faith, hope and love into our world as the presence of God is released into those places of pain.

God in Christ it is
that putteth aside the curtain,
that we may look into the most holy place.

Grant each of us the confidence to enter in
as we read the words of Scripture
that we may discover the new and living way
in those words
that tell of Jesus in all his glory and in all his pain.

Let us approach with faith, -
... hold fast to our hope
... and share love with all around us,
especially with those who touch pain at its darkest.

[taken from Myles Smith Preface to the Authorised Version and from Hebrews 10]

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