June 29, 2014 Second Sunday After Trinity
In the Tent of the Lord
Psalm 15, Deuteronomy 20:1-9, 1 Corinthians 13
Consider the tent. I’ve never lived in one or known anyone who has. One of my wife’s exotic kinfolk married an Indian woman and reportedly lived for a time in a teepee, but I never met him.
My own brief exposure to the tented life was less than salutary. As a Boy Scout, I trundled off with my troop to Camp Strake, where we pitched our tents in a campsite in the woods. At dark on that first day, our Scoutmaster assembled us around the campfire and gave us our marching orders.
He was sending us on a snipe hunt. I’m a little sketchy on details but, as I recall, he described a snipe as something of a cross between a gopher and a skunk.
He issued a brown paper sack, the kind that come from the grocery store, to each boy and dispatched us to bag as many snipe as we could with the promise of a prize to the one who nabbed the most.
We thrashed about in the woods for an hour and then our leader called us back to camp. We had scored a total of zero snipe. Every last bag was as empty as a politician’s promise. He lamented that we were such sorry snipe hunters and then arrayed us around the campfire again.
He was going to teach us an Indian chant. We repeated after him, “owa . . . tagu . . . siam.” Faster: “owa . . . tagu . . . siam.” Faster: “owa . . . tagu . . . siam.” Faster: “O what a goose I am.” The snipe is an animal of the same genus as the unicorn: legenderius.
I was so traumatized that I have avoided the tented life ever since.
The Israelites had no such luxury. Their God, after all, was a tent-dweller. The Psalmist poses the question to Him: “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle?”
Other translations render the Hebrew more literally as “tent.” “Tabernacle” is acceptable; our English Scriptures use the two almost interchangeably. One popular translation has “sanctuary,” which is misleading. The Psalmist is not referring here to an abstracted idea of God’s dwelling place but to a tent pitched at a specific site:
“Who may dwell in Your holy hill?”
The Psalmist, David, has brought the ark of the covenant to Yahweh’s holy hill, Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. Where His ark is, the Lord is – within the tent, seated between the cherubim on the mercy seat, the lid of the ark.
Yahweh is not confined to earth, to be sure, but He is present in His creation not in an ephemeral, pantheistic sense but in a specific location. The tent-dweller Abraham moved repeatedly. Each time, he consecrated his new home by first erecting an altar.
The nomadic Bedouin people still traverse that wilderness in which Abraham sojourned, living in tents. When my wife and I visited the Holy Land some years ago, as we were rolling south from Jerusalem on a bus bound for the Dead Sea, I spied one of their tents off to the right.
I was conjuring an image in my mind’s eye of those Jews of 4,000 years ago meandering through that rock-strewn wasteland, hungry and bedraggled, when I spotted the late-model pickup parked just outside the tent. Then I noticed the TV antenna sticking out of the top.
Apparently, when Mahmoud takes a break from sheep-shearing he can zip into town for a new prayer rug or kick back in front of a jihadist instructional video or a “Leave It to Beaver” rerun. Well, things do change.
When the flood subsided, Noah emerged from the ark and built an altar. Like Abraham, he was establishing worship in a place . . . the place of God’s presence.
In 21st-century America, our mobility has robbed us in large measure of our sense of place. Agrarian America knew her place. Sons took over the family farm from fathers and raised their families where they themselves had grown up.
Today, many believe they can worship anywhere they choose. They make God as footloose as they are.
A few retain a sense of place. This week Marjorie and I are going to a ranch north of Cortez to visit a man who is the fifth generation of his family to live on that land. He retains two rather dilapidated covered wagons his distant ancestors rolled west in.
I think of Russ and Donna, who make the two-hour round trip from Farmington each Sunday to worship in this place – longer still if you count the hot-dog stop in Hesperus on the way home.
They come to the place where they know God to be present. I’m certain they have no idea of the power of their odometer’s witness.
The Israelite approached God’s tent with a sense of awe. The power of God overwhelmed him. He knew of the fire and tempest and trumpet blast on another holy hill, Mount Sinai, when Yahweh met Moses.
He knew as well of the blueprint for worship God gave Moses, detailed down to the last strand of thread and morsel of bread. He who would approach God would bring a sense of high decorum appropriate to the occasion.
Today, our relentless pursuit of comfort and informality has cost us dear in this way as well. In my first few months in town I met a woman of another branch of Christ’s church. I told her something of liturgical worship – it’s not a Starbucks experience.
She replied, “But this is Durango.”
And so it is. But I serve a God who is the same in Durango, New York, London, Paris and Rome. Informality diminishes God. People who would be aghast at the thought of appearing before a human king in less than their best approach the King of kings like a neighborhood chum.
Western Christendom struggles under an added burden: Many have effectively torn the Old Testament from the Bible. Jesus, they say, abolished the temple. In fact, He no more abolished the temple than He abolished the law that established the ethic of the temple.
The problem with dumping the Old Testament paradigm is that the Bible presents from start to finish a royal court as the pattern for the church’s worship venue. Would we appear at Buckingham Palace in khakis or capris?
The further problem is that we find this picture in descriptions not only of Israel’s worship but also of the ongoing worship in heaven. It is no less a vision of our future than our past. And in the present, the Scriptures tell us, we engage in the worship of the heavenly temple each time we assemble on the Lord’s Day (Hebrews 12:22).
God is on a mission to reunite heaven and earth. He dwells in heaven and He dwells on earth. When the Son returns in bodily form to present the everlasting kingdom, purged of sin and death, to His Father, God will be our temple. St. John, who got a glimpse of glory, assures us of this.
In the meantime, we come into His presence with a sense of awe – but of assurance as well. God’s temple is our place of worship; it is also our home, for our home is with our Father.
In the ancient world, one who entered the tent of another came under his protection. He could enjoy the hospitality of his host confident that he had nothing to fear from his enemies. And so for the Israelite, God’s tent was both sacred shrine and living room.
The challenge was to live in a way appropriate to both. Some put more stock in the guarantee of security than the obligation of holiness. Those who belonged to God could take their ease, untouchable under His protection.
The challenge in our day is the same. Many proclaim, “God will care for me because I come to His church – even though I give not a thought to His code of conduct.”
The Psalmist knows. “Who may dwell with you, O Lord? Who may inhabit your tabernacle?”
At pagan sanctuaries in the ancient world, the worshiper asked the requirements of admittance; the priest replied with a list of conditions. One who appeared at Yahweh’s tent asking such a question would be in for a profound surprise.
The Psalmist supplies God’s response. The one who may abide in the presence of the Lord is he who walks uprightly, works righteousness, speaks the truth in his heart, does not backbite with his tongue, does no evil to his neighbor . . .
. . . does not spread rumors about his friend, despises a vile person, honors those who fear the Lord, keeps an oath even to his own detriment, does not lend money at interest, does not take a bribe against the innocent.
These 10 conditions for a life with God find expression in both positive and negative terms, some restating others, because the worshiper must present a life characterized by both active goodness and the absence of evil.
To a literalist, they might seem a barrier to worship, for who has ever kept them perfectly? Taken in the context of the Scriptures, they teach us that he who earnestly seeks the integrity they set out may approach the divine throne after proper preparation.
And this necessity of preparation for worship speaks to our need for worship and for the forgiveness we find in both the preparation and the practice of it. Many and varied are the wonders of God’s instruction for His people.
In Ephesians 5 St. Paul will tell those in the church that they are light – not that they are in the light but that they are light. They have taken Christ, the Light of the World, into themselves and so they are light. We see a precursor to that thought here.
This list might be loosely called both a paraphrase of the 10 commandments of Exodus 20 and a preview of the Beatitudes of St. Matthew 5 – and especially the one on the pure in heart. But they aren’t really conditions at all in the conventional sense.
Here was the radical new way of conceptualizing relationship with the deity. For the pagan, favor with a god relied on skill in ritual. The words he recited or the offering he brought determined how he would get on with his god.
Pagan gods, invented by their worshipers, inevitably shared the people’s moral makeup with all its flaws and so could make no demands for moral improvement on their subjects. The god’s only concern was with what he could get from his worshipers.
Yahweh, God of Israel, needed nothing from any frail creature. He was sufficient unto Himself. He demanded ritual, to be sure, but it demonstrated that their worship of Him was a blessing to them. In the worship of their God in His tent His people thrive. He offers shalom in this life and salvation unto the next.
These were His gifts of love to His children and His Father’s heart desired only that they love Him back. If they did not pour into their ritual love for Him and for others among His covenant people their fine words and costly sacrifices were worthless. If their love was true they would express it by walking uprightly and working righteousness and all the rest.
As God had declared by His commandments at Mount Sinai, as Jesus would proclaim in the Sermon on the Mount, David – the Son of God and forefather of Christ – sets out for those in his charge the ethical content of life with their Maker. For them, relationship with God hung not on what they said or how much they offered but on who they were.
God’s tent is His people’s home and those who are staying with Him will be staying with Him. These new 10 commandments do not describe the terms for entering God’s tent but for remaining in it. The word translated “dwell” speaks of establishing oneself or settling.
A better word than “conditions” might be “expectations.” They tell us what God expects of all who would enter His holy presence. The question of who may dwell with Him prefaces the list as the 10 commandments are preceded by the declaration:
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Listen well.
David – unknowingly, to be sure – is pointing forward to the coming of his son and his Lord, the One who will fulfill the law and become the temple. We read in St. John 1:14:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” A literal rendering of the Greek is “spread His tent among us.” Immanuel – God With Us – will encamp on earth to redeem the earth.
Now, as for us, beloved, as for us . . . We gather each seventh day in this little tent. According to the rhythm of the Sabbath we set up and we take down. The world – the pampered world around us – would see this as a hardship.
I will not pretend I enjoy the setting up and taking down. I will not deny that I covet a stable place to worship the Lord of all creation. But neither will I give short shrift to the privilege of emulating, in some tiny way, the nomadic life of our Lord’s first church.
We set up . . . we take down . . . we set up . . . we take down . . . And we say to the world around us, God is here. Come with us as we pitch His tent each Sabbath, as we erect the altar anew and worship the Lord of heaven and earth.
We watch the world pass by us here; we invite the world to join us here; we pray for the world that shuns us here.
The psalm ends, “He who does these things shall never be moved.” He will dwell in the Lord’s tent forever. Amen.