Sunday, November 4, 2018
He brings heaven to us, we do not lift ourselves to heaven. . .
Both in the Tabernacle and the Temple of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies was set apart, a place distinct from the rest of the space and its surrounding courtyards. There were degrees of access. The numbers of those who could proceed all the way to the Holy of Holies was small and then only according to the rules God set and under the conditions He set. It was all about the mystery contained within that Holy of Holies. There was the presence of God, there was the mercy seat, and there was the altar where the covenant in blood was sealed. Out of fear and reverence for the Lord, Israel observed these boundaries as an act of faith. No laymen, male or female, and no lower ranks of priests and Levites dare to transgress the borders and enter the Holy of Holies. This was left only to the high priest, only under the precise conditions set by the Lord, and for the purpose the Lord gave entrance -- the incense of his prayers on behalf of the people and the sacrificial blood required by the Lord. This was the defining character of God and His people. Even when it had been ritualized and emptied of faith, the rules stood and the order God established prevailed.
We often forget these rubrics and the solemnity with which the children of Israel approached the Lord and their joy at even this access that was provided them. Christians have a bad memory when it comes to this and generally presume that all of this was swept away in one fell swoop of God's work so that it was all rendered meaningless and a mere footnote in history, without impact or influence upon the shape of God's people who came after them, their faith or their worship. That is a fallacy that must not be left unchallenged. To understand the impact of all of this upon the life of the Christian Church, one need only read carefully the Book of Hebrews. This is not quaint or out of date but has a design forged not in a past to be forgotten but a future to be anticipated in the Divine Service.
When Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, pierced the veil and entered into the true tabernacle not made with human hands, He made ready the way for us to follow. This includes the wondrous gift of His Holy Supper, wherein we receive, in anticipation of the eternal banquet and marriage feast of the Lamb, His most precious Body and Blood. By this communion, we are made sharers of the bread of heaven, the cup of salvation, and the medicine of immortality.
Somehow, we have confused the gift of this mean and the gift of His sacrificial suffering and death and the blessing of His resurrection as an end to what came before and not its fulfillment. The once unapproachable God has been remade into some casual deity who comes at our beck and call and delivers to us grace as we request. Of course, this communion affords us the greatest intimacy with our Savior and Redeemer but we must remember that because of His gift and fulfillment of the Tabernacle and Temple he is no less the Sovereign High and Holy Priest than He was before His saving work. He is no less crowned with glory and He is no less the Most High Jesus Christ, as we sing in the Gloria in Excelsis. And that means we are no less His lowly servants, no less indebted to His grace, no less in awe of His gracious favor, and no less a people standing on the holy ground of His gracious presence. When this aspect disappears from our worship, it is inevitably replaced by a casual presence of a Lord who is more like an old friend than God in flesh and who is feared little even though He is Lord and Judge of all. The holiness of God still causes us pause -- even though we know also His mercy and favor. The earthly temple, then and now, is no less the House of God and we His invited guests simply because the promise of the old has been now fulfilled in Him.
Too many have tried to disparage the idea of fear and simply suggest that some respect is enough. Yet the worship in the New Covenant is no less the worship of those who have a holy fear before the Lord, not because we cannot control Him or know what He might do but precisely because we know what He has done in Christ. For generations this was one of the profound truths underlying everything from the shape of the Divine Service to the shape of the building in which the Divine Service takes place. In art, furnishings, vestments, and vessels, we do not forget that all mortal flesh must keep silence and bend the knee (not simply symbolically) in honor of His who brings the Father's Word and Love to an unworthy and undeserving people. There is no justification for the dismissal of the Holy Lord who has become our Savior in favor of some gladhanding God who is just like us. Traditionally, it was in the sanctuary, the domain of Christ the High Priest, Lord, Savior, and King, where we continued the humble awe and deep and profound reverence for the God who comes to us in flesh to wear our sin and save us sinners and then feeds us the taste of eternity in His body and blood, as the preview of the eternal. Read over Revelation and its picture of the heavenly liturgy and tell me that this bears any resemblance to what passes for worship in too many Lutheran churches and in generic Protestantism. Tell me about images of the Holy City where the Lamb is light and center and of the worship which anticipates this heavenly revelation and how this is reflected by a people who have come to worship to have a good time with Jesus to some toe-tapping music while sipping our Starbucks as we are entertained to death?