Monday, December 16, 2013

The Holy Place

In the season of Advent, as we await the coming of the Christ, I'm drawn back into the Temple, into the Old Testament tabernacle. Into the wilderness.

Back then, the Tabernacle was painstakingly constructed. There are chapters upon chapters describing the precise layout of the Tent of God. There was an outer courtyard, where most worshipers stayed. An inner courtyard, for a bit more intimacy. The priests were routinely welcomed into the Holy Place, where the presence of God was nearer still. And on special occasions, the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place.

I was thinking about this the other day when I was reading, and I forget whether it was the Bible or one of the theology books I'm currently digesting or I'd tell you for sure. But that text reminded me that it was the Holy Place where all the "stuff" was. The bread of the presence was there. Some lamps. Really, all the accouterments of God were kept in the Holy Place. In modern terms, we might call the Holy Place the "experiential worship center" of God. It was hands-on. It was doing stuff. It was tangible. And doesn't that seem strange?

You'd think that would be reserved for the Most Holy Place, that the further you'd go into the Temple, the closer God would be. But that's simply not the case. If you want to touch God, you need go no further than the Holy Place. It's all right there.

The Most Holy Place, separated from the rest of the Tabernacle by a thick veil, contained something much less exciting - the Ark of the Covenant. In the Most Holy Place, there was no bread of presence. No table to sit around. No lamp to light, no altar to pour out the blood. Inside the Most Holy Place lay the law. Incessant rules to follow. Strict guidelines to live by. Harsh punishments for failure. And above the law, the throne of mercy, a small comfort to a law-laden people. Yet it was in this place, with law and with mercy, that the presence of God dwelt. Rather than the place where you could touch God, this was the place where He could touch you. And that is why it was called Most Holy.

So I'm thinking about today and about how comfortable we are to live in the Holy Place. We call ourselves God's people, and indeed, we have an incredible fondness for Him. But we're content to be in the place of all His stuff. We're content to be in churches on Sunday mornings. We're content to eat the bread of the presence, which has become our communion. We're content to light candles and pray prayers and sing songs, all in this place where we feel like we can touch God. We're living in the Holy Place, and for most of us, that's unfathomable. We are humbled to be in such a place. We are humbled that we could touch God.

But this is the season in which the veil was torn. This is the place that, as the skies cleared to show the stars, as the stars shone the way to Bethlehem, God invited us into the Most Holy Place - a manger in a stable in an out-of-the-way town. It seems much less exciting. No crib. No table. No altar. It almost seems like a letdown, stepping from our Holy Place into this Most Holy Place. What exactly is here?

It's the law. The law of love, and above that, mercy. It is the place where God shows us how to live, because He's about to do it Himself. And there in the manger, the real gift of the Most Holy Place - the presence of God Himself.

That is the gift of the Christmas season. From the wilderness, we're drawn into the Temple. From the Temple, into the Holy Place. And on one breathtaking silent night, into the Most Holy Place. Into the stable. Into the presence of God. So close, you could reach out and touch Him...

...So near, He could reach out and touch you.

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