February 4, 2018 “Beauty” – Exodus 35:30 – 36:7
Exodus 35:30 – 36:7
February 4, 2018 – Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
If it were left up to me, all the furnishings in our house would be shades of brown or tan, with maybe a little blue mixed in. Fortunately it’s not just up to me. I’m blessed with a wife who has an eye for color and design and is always looking for ways to make our home beautiful, whether it’s a bright new cover for an old sofa, or a rotation of the artwork on our walls, or a change with the seasons of the wreath which hangs on our door. Beauty is important to her and it makes my life better.
Beauty is important to God and that fact makes our lives better. God gives us beauty as a constant reminder that He created this world and that He is present in it, constantly alongside us offering us His loving and lovely grace.
Our reading in the second half of Exodus this past week shows us that God not only created a beautiful world, He invites us to join Him in that creation, making beautiful things in honor and praise of Him. It’s easy to get lost in the detailed but somewhat dull plans given by God for the Tabernacle, a huge mobile tent structure for worship. Curtains and framework and crossbars are all carefully specified in dimension and material. We read about clothing and accessories for the priests and furnishings like the altars and lampstands and wash basins. Then it’s all described again later when it comes time for it to be made, as you read after the bit we’ve focused on today. It feels repetitive and a bit tedious.
It’s a little like me listening to my wife describe her plans for some new curtains. My eyes glaze over and, honestly, I’m not really listening that well. When a response is needed, I offer up a safe, but pretty lame answer like, “That sounds great, dear! Whatever you’d like to do is just fine with me.” But both my wife and God deserve better than that. The beauty they are aiming at is worth our time and genuine attention.
God cared about the design of the Tabernacle so much that He specially equipped people to carry out its construction. We read that Moses said, “The Lord has specifically chosen Bezalel… The Lord has filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, ability and expertise in all kinds of crafts.” It’s not a prophet or a priest or a king who is the very first person in the Bible said to be filled with the Spirit. It’s a craftsman, an artist. God loves beauty. He created a beautiful world and He wants human beings to join Him in the creation of beauty.
It’s not Bezalel alone who crafts the Tabernacle. He has an assistant name Oholiab and there are other skilled craftsman. Moses notes that God gave both Bezalel and Oholiab “the ability to teach their skills to others.” The Tabernacle project is a group effort. But it’s not only a group of skilled artisans. As we heard just now, all the people of Israel participated by donating the precious materials being used, wood, gold, silver, bronze, all the fabric, and colorfully dyed yarns. The work of art which was the Tabernacle was the work of the whole community of God’s people.
All of this is an important message to us as 21st century Protestant Christians. Since the Reformation and especially in the last fifty to sixty years we have largely lost our sense that spaces for the worship of God need to be intricately beautiful like the Tabernacle was. We’ve supposed that the important stuff is going on inside our heads as we listen to the Word and in our hearts as we respond to God. So if our eyes see bare, plain or even ugly space around us, it doesn’t matter much. We can worship in a school auditorium, a movie theatre, a warehouse, or even a pub. If we need something pretty to look at, we can project it on a screen. Yet, if that were true, why did God have Israel spend so much time, wealth and energy on the Tabernacle and then later on the Temple?
If you turn over to the top of page 148 in Beginnings, Exodus 39:43, you can read, “Then Moses inspected all their work. When he found it had been done just as the Lord had commanded him, he blessed them.” That may not immediately ring a bell, but it can be translated, “Moses saw all their work.” Now maybe you will remember Genesis 1:31, the end of the sixth day of creation, which says, “God saw all that he had made,” same word. In Genesis 1:28 we’re also told that God blessed the man and the woman He created, again the same word as Moses blessing the people who created the Tabernacle.
By commanding His people to build a beautiful structure in the middle of the wilderness, God taught them a lesson. We need beauty around us to learn the same lesson. The artworks of the Tabernacle are signs of the order and beauty of all creation. There is no idol of God like pagan nations used, but there are images of God’s own handiwork. The cherubim display the heavenly order of the angels. The wash basin reminds us of the waters of the world. Almond blossoms and branches molded in gold on the lampstand speak of the vegetation that fills the world. The intricate and exquisite weaving and embroidery call to mind how God has so intricately woven together the world and our own place in it.
God blessed His own creative work of beauty and God blesses the works of beauty created in order to worship Him. That’s because God loves the world, loves the things, loves the people He has made. He made them beautiful and He wants them to become and be even more beautiful. Like we enjoying living and working in beautiful spaces, God wants to come and dwell in places made beautiful for Him.
Ultimately, as I said a couple weeks ago, the most sacred, the most beautiful things on earth are human beings. So when God finally came to dwell among us in the most complete and perfect way, that’s where He went. He came into a “tabernacle” not made with human hands, but brought forth out of a human being. He came to us in Jesus Christ. John 1:14 says that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” That word “dwelt” is a Greek word that originally meant to pitch a tent. Jesus came to “tabernacle” among us, to be the place on earth where God’s presence was most clearly and most beautifully found.
That means our first aim as followers of Jesus is to continue that tabernacle work, to let our own lives be like Jesus’ life, works of beauty displaying the presence of God. Our Gospel lesson from Mark 1 this morning told us about Jesus going around and healing people and delivering them from demons. So one way we may live beautiful tabernacle lives is to do like He did, bringing healing and freedom from evil to people around us.
You might think, then, that it’s all right to downplay or even forget the other sort of tabernacle, the physical places and acts of worship. Instead of decorating fancy church buildings or buying expensive musical instruments or crafting costly works of art, let’s just be busy healing and feeding people and teaching them about Jesus. God doesn’t need all that other stuff to make Himself present to us.
God doesn’t need it, but we do. Once again, if beautiful spaces and acts of worship do not matter, then why did God let them become the focus of Israel’s faith? He did it because we are physical, material beings, with eyes and ears and hands and noses and tongues. He made us for this world and this world for us. And it is through the physical things of this world that He makes Himself known and present. Jesus came in physical, human form. We remember that by worshipping Him with physical things, in beauty.
We are coming to the Lord’s Table this morning. At the very heart and center of our worship is an act that reminds us not only of what Jesus did for us on the Cross, but of its connection with all those sacrifices that happened in that beautiful Tabernacle. God comes down and meets us in time and space, in buildings and music, and most of all in the bread and in the cup.
Most Covenant people accept the doctrine of Holy Communion known as “real presence.” We don’t think that the bread and grape juice we receive are merely reminders of what Jesus did for us. We believe they are the way He chooses to actually meet us here and now, to be truly with us and in us. We usually don’t try to explain it any more than that. He said, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” We simply accept that and believe that He is here, that His presence fills those elements just like God’s presence filled that Tabernacle in the wilderness.
So we want the space and the worship around our Lord’s presence to be full of beauty. When I came here 24 years ago, one of things that drew me was the beauty of the light in this sanctuary. The wonderful sculpture on the back wall was already here and artists had created banners and communion plates and cups. Musicians gathered to practice before worship. It’s only become more beautiful as people among us designed and crafted the platform on which I stand, the rich cherry wood backdrop, and the great cross which hangs above us. Our choir blesses God with beautiful singing. New banners bless us with color and signs of the seasons and God’s Word. Flowers grace the Table to remind us of our Lord’s presence there when we’re not celebrating communion. All that beauty is important. It’s important even for that task of living beautiful lives of service like Jesus.
A few years ago, the magazine Christianity Today re-envisioned itself. They asked themselves “What do Christians most need to show to this hurting and dark world in which we live?” Their answer was “Beautiful Orthodoxy.” As a publication that has striven over the years to present the truth of the Christian faith, to communicate right doctrine, that is, orthodoxy, they realized that what needed to surround and accompany that truth was a presentation of its beauty. If people in our present time are going to believe the Good News of Jesus, they need to see that it is beautiful. Christians must not just preach the truth, they must offer it to those around them in beautiful ways.
It’s always been true. That Tabernacle was designed to engage the senses in beauty, from the gold gleaming on the altars and the framework, to colors embroidered on the curtains and the priests’ clothing, to the bells ringing on their robes, to the incense rising up to heaven with the people’s prayers. People knew and believed that God was with them because their senses experienced the beauty of His presence.
In 987 A.D., the pagan prince of Rus in Kiev, Vladimir I, decided to explore the religions around him. He sent envoys to talk to Muslims and Jews and to both branches of Christianity, Roman Catholicism in the west and Eastern Orthodoxy. When they came back and reported that Muslims could not drink alcohol, he replied, “Drinking is the joy of all Rus.” Islam was not going to work for them. In regard to the Jewish faith, he felt that the loss of Jerusalem showed that God was not really with them.
The report on Catholic Christianity in Germany was acceptable, but his emissaries reported that they saw no beauty there. But when they attended a divine liturgy at the great Orthodox church in Constantinople, they reported back “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth… nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” So Ukraine and Russia became Orthodox, all because of the beauty of their worship.
Let us have that kind of beauty surrounding our own Christian faith and practice. I praise God for all of you who like Bezalel are skilled artists, who offer up to God painting and sculpture, writing and poetry, flower arranging and banner selection, music and dance. That’s exactly what the pagans around us need to see in order to believe the truth we teach. It’s exactly what we need to stay faithful to that truth.
Beauty is costly. I have a dream that someday these drab, and frankly ugly windows at the sides of our sanctuary might someday be lovely stained glass. But it would cost a fortune. Yet God’s people can give and create beauty whenever they set their minds to it. I dream also of times of giving when we would have to say like Moses had to, “We have enough!” because God’s people have been so incredibly generous.
Beauty is worth it. God is beautiful. God is beauty. We have a beautiful Savior in Christ our Lord. Let our worship, our building, but especially our lives reflect and display that beauty. And He will be here. His presence will fill this place and fill our lives forever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj