At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn in two and the presence of God flows out from the temple. Resurrection is not about everyone being able to access a specific place in the Middle East; God’s kingdom spills out from God’s Temple (Embassy) into the rest of the world, beginning with holy people raised to life after Jesus’ resurrection to show to many people the new life that is possible because of Jesus’ resurrection. What is dead in your life? Jesus will bring it back to life.
This morning we are beginning a new sermon series: Encountering God. But how do we do that? Where does it happen and when? Let’s start this morning with the premise that humans are made for relationships: both relationships with other people and relationships with the divine—with the person who Christians know to be God. We know and experience on a daily basis what it means to have relationships with other people—good and bad; strong and weak, we know it all. But how do we have a relationship with God? How do we do what this sermon is about? How do we encounter God?
My sense from our congregation is the same as it is for the people in this picture: many of us sit around and wait for God. We might think or pray or hope, but we expect that it’s up to us to initiate a relationship—because most things in our lives, at least as adults, depend on us. But this picture of encountering God that we have in our minds (and on the screen behind me) is very different from last week’s image of Jesus powerfully revealing himself to Mary, when she wasn’t even ready for him!
I want to suggest to you that we are all comfortable having and beginning relationships on our own terms. But we experience in a multicultural church that we are not all comfortable with the same kinds of relationships. With some people, we want a formal relationship, with others, a more informal friendship. Some of us prefer a high power distance—we trust our leaders and we don’t need an intimate relationship with them. Others of us prefer to low power distance—we want to come up to our leaders and give them a piece of our minds. Some of us want to know and enjoy many people in shallow or momentary ways; others of us want to know and enjoy few people in deep relationship and for longer periods of time. Our ways of being comfortable and being in relationship are different—but we all like our own way!
When God meets us, God does not ask or allow us to dictate the terms of our relationship with him. Like a loving parent, God sets the terms for relationship with his children—he knows what we need and he cares for us, giving us what we need, even if it’s not always what we want. This morning, I want to show you how the Bible shows God’s relationship with humanity; and how God invites you to encounter him. We’ll start just after the Easter story.
[READ MATTHEW 27:50-56]
In my experience, churches often avoid Matthew’s gospel version of Jesus’ crucifixion because it seems the most foreign, removed, and strange to us. But Matthew’s gospel is helpful to us today because his purpose was to show Jews that Jesus was the Messiah—the chosen one from God—that they had been waiting for. Put another way, Matthew wanted to show Jews how God was inviting all people to encounter him through Jesus, the Son of God.
Until this point, the Jews had, for thousands of years, only encountered God at and in the Temple in Jerusalem. If you think that implementing our church’s vision is difficult, imagine Jesus’ work! Jesus had to change over two thousand years of tradition and expectation. People had literally put God in a box—a box called the Temple—and they were not eager to let him out. The Temple was supposed to be God’s house on earth—it was the place where heaven and earth met. Put another way, the Temple was where the KINGDOM of God met the kingdoms of this world. As I said, there is always tension when people encounter God. This was true even in the Old Testament. The Kingdom of Israel or Judah were comfortable limiting God’s presence and limiting God’s kingdom to a certain place. But in our text, God did what God always does—God broke their boxes and made clear that his relationship with all people would happen on his terms and would not be limited by others’ choices, no matter how long it took!
Matthew makes a big deal about the Temple curtain being torn in two, so I want to spend a little bit of time reminding you of the history and significance of the Temple for the Israelites. The Temple that Jesus walked in and taught in was called “Herod’s Temple. Herod’s temple was built after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon/Assyria. It was called Herod’s temple because the building was finished by Herod, the Roman ruler over the Jews in Jesus’ day. Before Herod’s Temple was Solomon’s Temple—the first temple built by King Solomon. Solomon’s temple was looted and destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when Israel and Judah were conquered and carried into exile. Before Solomon built the Temple, the Israelites carried around the Tabernacle—a huge tent-building that God instructed Moses to build after God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And before the Israelites had the tabernacle—before even Israel (Jacob) lived—God first met his people in another “box”—a garden called Eden. This is the garden we talked about last week during the Easter service.
So God has always met his people in specific times and places and ways. In between the second temple, the first temple, the tabernacle, and Eden; God still encountered his people and led them. He was never limited to those places. But ever since Adam and Eve sinned in Eden, God has always been separated in some way from his people. Or, more accurately, since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in Eden, God’s people have always been separated from God. It wasn’t God who left, who sinned, who rebelled—it was humanity. First in the Tabernacle, then in the Temple(s); it was this beautiful and ornate curtain that physically separated God’s people from God.
The Temple curtain was beautiful and ornate. It went from wall to wall and completely separated God (in the Most Holy Place) from God’s people in the rest of the Temple and beyond. The historian in 2 Chronicles tells us how Solomon “made the curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarn and fine linen, with cherubim worked into it.” (2 Chronicles 3:14). This was God’s house on earth, built by people, the box they put him in. Behind the curtain was the ark of the covenant, sometimes called the mercy seat or the judgement seat of God. It was the place where God “sat” among his people—but always the curtain separated God’s people from God. God’s presence was too much for people to take in. Even though God’s presence filled the temple and the tabernacle, this was not God’s limit, it was God’s way of entering into relationship with his people so that they could encounter him in a way that was possible for them! The Old Testament tells many stories of people encountering God’s presence and being overwhelmed. Adam and Eve encountered God after the Fall and they ran away—afraid and ashamed. In the time of David, this ark of the covenant is being transported from storage back to Jerusalem and somebody reached out and touched it in order to steady it—and the man immediately died. Moses, the leader of the Israelites and a most holy and humble man, asked God if he could see him face to face:
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, theLord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Ever since sin; seeing, meeting, and encountering God face to face was too much for any living person! So God always limited showing himself out of care for his people.Exodus 33:18-20
Why is this the case? Why can no one see God and live? Why are people separated from God’s presence? The Garden of Eden was the first temple. It was a sanctuary in the world that God created. It was beautiful and full of light and fruit and good things. Best of all, it was full of God’s presence and God’s people walked and talked with him there. The tabernacle and the temple were modeled after the Garden of Eden! They had fruit carved into walls and trees in the design. There were lampstands for beautiful light and a table for food! There was even the ark of the Covenant—where God “sat”. The temple was designed to be like Eden.
Now if you have ever been to a temple—maybe a Buddhist or Hindu temple, or maybe you have been to the middle east and seen ruins of ancient temples—then you’ll have experienced something that is NECESSARY to temples, but missing from Eden and from the Temple of God. Every Temple is full of images. Not just pictures, but images of people and of gods. We call most of these images “idols”—they were meant to be pictures of a god or gods, so that people could encounter the gods here on earth! But for all the detail in designing the temple and in creating the world, there are clearly NO idols and no images of God in the temple or in Eden…well, not in the same way.
But here’s what changed: In creation, “God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image…” (Gen. 1:26). Eden, the first temple, was full of images of God! The people were living, breathing, loving images of God! But they refused to be God’s images. They wanted to represent themselves and serve themselves; so how could they be in God’s temple? How could God say, “these people are like me!” when the people said, “No! We want to make a name for ourselves!”, The problem of sin is that the images of God stopped looking like God and started looking like something or someone else! We refused to look like God and refused to be a part of God’s kingdom. So God removed his images from his Temple, from Eden. God separated his images from himself and separated himself from his images. And he worked from a limited place, in love and care, to conquer our hearts again.
When Jesus came, Matthew tells us that Jesus was not only the son/descendent of Israel, of David, and of the exile; but Jesus was also “Immanuel”—God with us. Jesus was fully human but also a perfect image of God. Put another way, Jesus was a better temple than the tabernacle or the temple itself! In fact, Jesus says as much! He says to the Jewish leaders, “‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” (Mt 26:61).
Then, in Jesus’ death, God tears the curtain of separation from top to bottom.
What does this mean? Some people have concluded that this meant that people could access God again. In other words, some say it meant that the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant—God’s mercy seat—could be seen again and accessed again by others. And while that’s technically true (the curtain was torn!) it’s not actually realistic. In Jesus’ day, there was an additional wall and doors separating the temple from the inner court (for men only); then another wall and set of doors separating that inner court from the outer court (for women and Gentiles) and finally a third wall and set of doors separating the outer court from the rest of the world outside of the temple.
If the temple curtain being torn in two only means that people can access God again, this is, sadly, a very weak effect of Jesus’ death and resurrection and has no relevance for us. No one has ever found the Garden of Eden back (so we can’t go back there)—but also, Most Holy Place was not only protected by additional walls (and additional people!); but the entire Temple itself was destroyed only forty years later! If you try to go there today, you will find a Mosque on that spot. So, if the Temple curtain torn in half meant that people—even all people—could now encounter God there; that was only possible for forty years and, even then, other people still got in the way. It makes no difference to us.
Maybe I can put this another way that will be helpful for you: if the only place you can find God is in a box, then you are not really encountering God. If your god is so small that he can be contained in one space and fit one set of rules—your set of rules—then that is not the God of the whole universe and the Creator and Sustainer of everything. God remains so big and so glorious that even when we encounter him, we cannot take in or understand all of God.
And friends, people have always tried to keep God in a box! David wanted to build the Temple to put God in it, but God said to David, “Will you build a house for me?” (2 Sam 7:1). In other words, do you really think you can do that? Do you really think that you can limit me in one place? The answer is obviously that people cannot contain or control God. Because God replied to David, “The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you! …Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Sam 7:11,16). In other words, ‘You will not build a house for me; I will build a house for you! I am in control!’
When Jesus died and resurrected, God made clear to his people at that time the same thing that he had said to David two thousand years before: ‘You cannot contain me in a house. I will built a house for you! I will establish your household and your legacy. I am in control!’
“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”Matthew 27:51-53
If it wasn’t that people could get into the Temple and into the Most Holy Place; what happened? Do you see? What’s the title of my sermon? “God Breaks (OUT) Into Everyday Life”. That’s right—Matthew is showing his Jewish readers that God’s presence and God’s power came out from the temple and animated his images once again. The purpose of an image is so that people can have an encounter with God. But the temple could never contain God or contain his image. So when God’s glory and presence and power spilled out of the Temple, even bodies of holy dead people were raised to life and they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people. When people saw these holy people, they encountered God because they encountered people who were filled with God’s power and animated—brought back to life—by God’s presence. But this was inside “the Holy City” Matthew tells us. Then after that, Jesus sends his disciples, who have also been animated by God’s presence and power—he sends them to Jerusalem, Judea (the province or area); Samaria (the neighbouring province); and the ends of the earth!
Beginning at the resurrection of Jesus, God’s presence was spread over the whole earth. The Bible picture this taking months and years. Frankly, it is still ongoing!
Matthew shows us how Jesus’ death and resurrection changed everything about our broken world—Jesus, the perfect image of God, was a better temple than the Temple building in Jerusalem. He was filled with God’s glory, with God’s power, and with God’s presence more than any building. Jesus looked exactly like God. Jesus brought God’s kingdom with him everywhere he went! When Jesus died, God’s image returned to his people and the power and presence of God spilled out from the Temple into Jerusalem, into the rest of the world, and into everyday life! When Jesus died, God’s kingdom invaded ALL the kingdoms of this world!
God’s goal was not so small as political power! God’s goal was to conquer every human heart. Now, if and when we want to encounter God, we do not need to make a pilgrimage, we need to meet with or be with other image-bearers of God. God is with them and in them. His kingdom is with and among us. This is why the church is so important! When we call ourselves part of the family of God and part of his church, we are saying that we want to image God—we want to look like Jesus and act like God. And when we are baptized and become members of the church, then God says that he is in us and with us; that he is returning us to the way that we are supposed to be…and that, through us, he is returning others and the world to the way that we and they are supposed to be. God presence and God’s kingdom are with God’s people wherever we go. This is why New Testament writers call our bodies “a Temple of God” and call God’s people of every ethnicity “a holy nation”.
God is among his people.
God is with his people.
Since Jesus’ resurrection, God’s power has been turning death into life; turning sorrow into joy; turning despair into hope. These things may seem like miracles or impossible; but they are actually a restoration of what the image of God is supposed to look like in us. Through Jesus, God has restored his image to his people and spread his kingdom all around the world! To meet with God and to encounter God is the most powerful and transformative experience of your life. It is the ultimate thing that every person is searching for: not just relationship with others, but also relationship with God. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, the words of C.S. Lewis are proven true:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption”C.S. Lewis, the Weight of Glory
If you want to encounter God, you must take seriously the image of God in other people—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. When you encounter the people of God, you are encountering the image of God himself! You are in this room with people who image or show some part of God himself! What an honour that God is with you; with all of God’s people! Your life shows God’s glory! Other people can look at you, at us and see God. That is happening in us, brothers and sisters, in all situations! We need to see with new eyes, so that we see God in us and God’s Kingdom among us!
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