The End of Our Long-Distance Relationship With God – For All Pt. 1
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
“Out with the old, in with the new.”
The idiom literally means to move forward, to move forward by purging,
removing or letting go of one thing with the expectation of gaining something else.
In many ways, this is the “sum” of all that the writer of Hebrews has been
trying to communicate so far – how God has taken the old, former way of
doing things, of being in community with God and with each other,
what was more formally known as the covenant
– and has done something new and that newness is all about Jesus.
Filled with 35 direct quotations from other books of the Bible
as well as many other allusions and references from the Old Testament,
the writer has tried to make it painstakingly clear,
it’s not that all the ancient Jewish practices and traditions of
the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system were bad.
It’s just that the way of Jesus, the work done by Christ on our behalf,
the life we can have in Him through the Holy Spirit is better – simply the best.
What came before was good in serving its purpose,
but that purpose was always temporary – to educate and prepare us for
the new thing God would do, which really was just what the Lord promised
and planned to do all along – to redeem, to reconcile, to resurrect
– to save the world in Jesus Christ.
As we turn to chapter 9, we’re about to get a bird’s eye view of the centerpiece, the sacred space, around which Israel’s life and worship revolved,
a building known as the Tabernacle. (SLIDES #2 – #9)
I hope you didn’t blink because in just ten verses, we got a quick glimpse of
both the structure and contents as well as the regular activities and duties
that were carried on inside what was known as the Tabernacle. (SLIDE #10)
The Tabernacle was a portable tent the Israelites set it up in each place
where they encamped in the wilderness on their journey to make
their new home in the promised land of Canaan.
Once it was set up, the Tabernacle was where the omnipresence of God
was localized so that the people would know God was with and for them.
Much later on, when Israel finally became a nation,
this portable Tabernacle became the permanent Temple in Jerusalem.
The look and design of the Tabernacle wasn’t something
the Israelites came up with by themselves.
The Lord God outlined in detail the building parameters of the Tabernacle
– how it was to be built, where it was to be put,
how the Israelites were to camp around it. (SLIDE #11)
As the writer of Hebrews previously has told us, everything in the old covenant
– including the Tabernacle –was but an earthly shadow or copy of
the deeper, heavenly reality of God’s will & purpose.
Meaning, on Mount Sinai, God didn’t arbitrarily come up with
some blueprint for a worship space and give it to Moses.
The Lord actually enabled Moses to pierce the veil
that separates this world from the next.
Moses saw the truly reality of the throne room of heaven
so that the earthly copy could be made the right way.
(SLIDE #12) The tabernacle consisted of three sections,
but our author is only concerned with two of them here.
The neglected three section is the Outer Court, which had (SLIDE #13)
the Altar of Burnt Offering for all the animal sacrifices performed by the priests, (SLIDE #14) & the Bronze Laver which was basically a large basin for the priests
to purify themselves – to wash their hands and feet before making a sacrifice.
The Outer Court which became multiple courtyards
with the later building of the Temple in Jerusalem, (SLIDE #15)
surrounded a more central structure that was divided into two parts:
The first part, what the writer calls the “first room” was “the Holy Place.”
The Holy Place could only be entered into by the Levitical priests.
No one else could go in there. (SLIDE #16)
Inside the Holy Place, to the left,
was a lampstand made of pure gold called the menorah.
This lampstand had three arms on each side of the main stem
– so, seven lamps in total.
Every day, morning and evening, the priests would come in
to trim the lamps and fill them with the purest olive oil.
These lamps would burn through the night. (SLIDE #17)
On the other side of the Holy Place, to the right, was the Table of Showbread.
On it, every Sabbath, a priest would place 12 loaves of sacred bread,
made according to a specific recipe, in two rows of 6 each,
with pure frankincense in between, likely representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
The week-old bread would be eaten by the priests in the Tabernacle
when it was replaced with fresh loaves.
Inside the Holy Place there were two veils or large curtains.
The first veil was between the outer courtyard and the Holy Place.
(SLIDE #18) The second veil was between the Holy Place
and the second, innermost room in the Tabernacle called
the Most Holy Place, also known as the Holy of Holies.
The writer of Hebrews briefly pulls back this thick curtain
that completely concealed what was inside the Holy of Holies.
The Holy of Holies, was basically a cube shape,
and according to our author contained two pieces of furniture.
(SLIDE #19) First, he mentions the Golden Altar of Incense.
Twice each day, the incense, again prepared according to a specific recipe,
was refreshed and burned here.
Now, if you are familiar with the layout of the Tabernacle outlined in the OT,
then you might notice a small discrepancy here.
In Exodus and Leviticus, the Altar of Incense was in the Holy Place,
not the Holy of Holies. So why does the author of Hebrews place it
in seemingly the wrong place? (SLIDE #20)
The smoke that rose from the incense burning at the altar,
served as a symbol of the prayers of the priests rising to the heavens to God
on the peoples’ behalf and therefore was intended to enter the Holy of Holies.
This is why the placement of the Altar of Incense was at the back of the Holy Place, right against the curtain, so close to the veil, where the incense
could be offered daily without the priests going into the Holy of Holies.
This is precisely what the Gospel of Luke records the priest Zechariah, was doing
burning incense in the first section of the Temple – the Holy Place
– when the Lord’s angel appeared to him to tell him that he & his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, named John, the John who all would come to know as JBAP.
So, the writer of Hebrews probably places this item inside of the Holy of Holies
in more of a functional sense rather than in terms of its actual physical location.
(SLIDE #21) The second, most important piece of furniture in the Holy of Holies
was, the Ark of the Covenant, a box made of acacia wood, covered in pure gold.
Inside the Ark of the Covenant were three items. (SLIDE #22)
There was a jar of manna, preserved from the days when God’s people
had wandered in the wilderness and the Lord had provided for them there.
There was also Aaron’s rod or staff which, quite miraculously,
began to bloom with flowers at a very crucial point of Israel’s history
– when God was showing his people which tribe His priests would come from.
And the most significant thing in the Ark were the two tablets of stone
containing the Ten Commandments inscribed by the very finger of God. (SLIDE #23)
On top of the Ark of the Covenant, the lid, was something called the Mercy Seat.
This seat, marked by two pure golden cherubim that the writer mentions in
v. 5, served as a sign of God’s presence and rule over His people.
These two angelic beings faced each other, but had their faces downward,
and their wings came together and overshadowed the Mercy Seat.
(SLIDE #24) In the space between the atonement cover & the outstretched wings
of the cherubim, was the glory cloud of God resided – symbolizing His presence with His people – which is why they are called the cherubim of glory.
While there were certain regular priestly functions that happened every day,
all through the day, and on a weekly basis in the Holy Place,
the inner room, the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, was anything but busy.
Save for one day a year. For 364 days of the year, the Holy of Holies
remained a dark, mysterious, off-limits place.
While it was constantly filled with incense, the Holy of Holies was visited
only once a year, on the 365th day of the year, on what was known
as the Day of Atonement.
On that day the curtain could be drawn back. (SLIDE #25)
On that day only the high priest of Israel was allowed to enter
into the Holy of Holies, the earthly throne room of Almighty God.
Once a year, the high priest came into the Most Holy Place to make
a special offering intended to cover both his own sin as well as the sin of
the people whom he represented – the nation of Israel as a whole.
Remember, the Day of Atonement was about exhaustively covering all the bases – acknowledging all the intentional and accidental sins confessed and repented from throughout the year but also dealing with the unconscious things
we do wrong without even knowing or realizing it.
While the writer of Hebrews clearly hints there’s so much more
he could say about this relatively small but sacred space
as well as the significance of the various pieces of furniture and
these precious, legendary artifacts reflecting God’s presence and power
exercised amidst his people, apparently that’s all the time we have
and he needs to move on. Maybe next time. (GRRRRR)
Now why does the writer of Hebrews say all these things?
What is the point of going into all this detail about
the structure and contents of the Tabernacle?
He offers us an answer in verses 8 – 10. (SLIDE #26)
The two sections within the Tabernacle, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, with the repetitive nature of what took place in those rooms
– every day and every week, and once a year could only provide
temporary, external cleansing.
It could not address the deeper, internal problem of sin
as reflected in the human conscience.
We’ll talk more about this nuance next week. (SLIDE #27)
More than this, the writer points out how the division between
the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies is symbolic of the way things were
– the writer calls this “the present time” – meaning the time
in which the original audience of this letter grew up.
The Israelites believed the Tabernacle in the wilderness and
later the Temple in Jerusalem was the place above all
where heaven and earth met, quite literally.
When you went into the Temple, especially if you went into the centerpiece,
the Holy of Holies, you were actually going to Heaven, into the very presence of God.
But what the writer of Hebrews is underscoring here is
no one except for a handful of priests could near the presence of God
– and even then, could still not go into God’s presence
save on a very limited basis – only once a year and only one priest per year.
The point is the entire system of the Levitical order
—the Law, priesthood, everything about the structure of the Tabernacle –
did not make it possible for ordinary people – everyday men and women
to draw near to God let alone to be in the presence of the Lord.
This was the message conveyed by the picture of Tabernacle before Jesus came.
But now, with the coming of Christ, the picture has changed dramatically.
We no longer need a tabernacle to get to heaven & to come into God’s presence because in Christ, Heaven has come to earth, God has come down in the flesh
and tabernacled with us – taking on our humanity in order to reach us.
(SLIDE #28) And through His work on the Cross and the Resurrection,
Jesus has perfectly fulfilled what the functions of the Tabernacle
could only anticipate – the full atonement of our sin and
the resolution – the redemption and reconciliation of the problem of our sin.
We no longer need a Tabernacle or a Temple made with human hands because Jesus has put His Holy Spirit in us and we have become – all of us together –
as the Body of Christ – the place where God’s presence dwells.
As a pastor, people often talk to me about their lives
– particularly, their struggles, their questions, and their doubts.
People will say things like, “I read my Bible when I’m looking for answers,”
or “I come to church to feel the Lord’s presence,” or one of my personal favs,
“I talk now and then to the Big Guy in the sky.”
Unfortunately, it seems to me, most Christians tend to see God
as “the man upstairs,” His presence as being relegated to a book,
a God who is “out there” someplace. (SLIDE #29)
They believe God loves them. They’ve come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. They’ve been baptized. They go to church. They sing. They pray.
They listen to the sermon. They believe what is preached.
They take Communion. They know a few Bible verses,
maybe even have participated in a Bible study or two.
They want God, they want Jesus in their life.
And yet, in actuality, they are maintaining a long-distance relationship with God.
(SLIDE #30) Long distance relationships. Nearly everyone has attempted one. (Beth & Chris) Long distance relationships are difficult to maintain.
It’s challenging to be apart from those we love.
Daily life can become so full with the things and relationships
that are right in front of us.
Each day can be so busy and just get away from us that it can be days, weeks, sometimes even months between the last time we really engaged with
our relationship with someone who doesn’t live nearby.
The longer we go without talking or being together,
the harder it seems to just bridge the divide and the easier it is
to think about reaching out and making contact but not actually doing it.
Long distance relationships are not ideal.
While we can make them work if we have to, it is easier,
it is more desirable, it is better, when the ones we love can be a part of daily lives.
What does your relationship with God look like? How close is it?
Is the idea of drawing near to God, of being regularly in the Lord’s presence,
of experiencing a deep, personal friendship with God through Jesus,
is that somewhat of a foreign concept for you?
Beloved, God doesn’t want a long-distance relationship with us.
This is the whole point of the Gospel.
This is what the writer of Hebrews is trying to convey to us
through this tour of an outdated worship space and all its defunct furniture.
From the very beginning, our Creator never accepted
the breakup we initiated with Him. (SLIDE #31)
While the Lord allowed us to go our own way, right from the start,
our Heavenly Father was laying the groundwork for
all His prodigal sons and daughters to come back home.
Through one man named Abraham, the Lord created a family
that became a nation, a nation through whom all the other nations,
the rest of humanity could be reached.
Through Israel, our Father taught us His rules for life and
created a system of worship for us to learn what sin is, what it costs,
what it takes from us, and how atonement – freedom from sin – is possible.
As a part of this system, the Lord designed a model home for us,
the Tabernacle, in which He lived with us from a distance in order to give us
some appreciation of what it would mean to live together with Him.
By coming to where we are in Christ, as our Emmanuel (God with us)
God did away with the Tabernacle and all its furnishing, so that instead of us trying to come to Him, He would make His home with us, in us. (SLIDE #32)
When Jesus died on the Cross, the reason why the veil dividing the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was torn in two is because God in Christ removed
every barrier from drawing near to Him, from being fully in His presence.
Beloved, our God is not far from us. (SLIDE #33)
Thanks to Jesus, in Christ, through the person of the Holy Spirit,
the Lord is not “out there;” the Lord is “in here.”
The Lord is near to us – as close as our next breath.
And nothing can separate from His love,
nothing except for our own choice to keep Him at arm’s length.
Some of us have a long-distance relationship with God by our own choice.
We want Jesus to be close to us but not too close.
We come to visit Jesus at church,
but do not invite Him into our home and our everyday life.
We are more than willing to talk with Jesus occasionally
when there is something we need, but otherwise,
we’re busy with our own agenda for our life rather than to follow Him.
Last week: “Is our relationship with Jesus on His terms or ours?”
Out of his amazing grace, the Lord will answer when we seek Him.
God in Christ is there for us and will help in our time of need.
But God does not desire to be pursued as our Heavenly Helper alone,
but as our Heavenly Father.
Jesus doesn’t just want to be on call in our lives.
Jesus calls us to follow Him so that we can learn from Him,
so that we can be transformed, matured, and perfected by Him
working in and through our lives.
The relationships we invest in, the people we spend the most time with,
are the ones that influence and ultimately shape who we become.
Growing up in a family = a lot like your parents.
In marriage, one becomes much like his or her spouse.
The friends we keep, the crowd we run around with
= impacts how we see and interact with the world.
Our relationship with God is the most important relationship we have.
(SLIDE #34) Because God is our Creator. He brings us into this world.
He alone has the words, the breath of life.
But he is not just our Creator, He is our Father. We are created in God’s image. We have the spiritual DNA of our Heavenly Father.
In creating each and every one of us,
God has impressed the divine stamp of His personality upon us.
But our relationship with God is the most important relationship
we have because God is our Redeemer, our Deliverer.
God carries us from this life into the next. It’s a relationship that will last forever.
Jesus has so much to show us and teach us about ourselves and each other.
Jesus wants to spend one-on-one time with you and to hear from you.
Jesus longs to offer you the wisdom, the guidance, the confidence,
and the courage that you need, that we all want.
The question is not, do you have time or the desire for that kind of relationship.
The question is, why wouldn’t you want that kind of relationship with God
if you can have it?
But maybe, THIS IS the kind of relationship you want with Jesus
but you just don’t know how to have it, or you’ve been struggling to get there.
You don’t want to have a long-distance relationship with God
but that’s what it feels like sometimes.
How does one build relationship with someone who isn’t physically present
in the same way our other relationships are, and therefore seems so far away?
The Lord promises to be with us through His Word and His Spirit. (Both/And)
In the Word, regularly. Not just study. Not just inspiration.
From a posture of openness and conversation. Devotionally. Prayerfully.
Prayer. More than a superficial conversation. Seek meaningful connection.
Be intimate with God, honestly confess to Jesus in on
our deepest hurts, fears, longings, dreams, and hopes.
Don’t pretend to be something we’re not.
Don’t use language that isn’t the way we usually talk. Be yourself.
Don’t bargain with God. Just listen. God speaks through His word.
Remember, conversations build on each other.
Engage some spiritual practices.
Born of those who were zealous for a closer, deeper walk with Jesus.
Don’t forget, relationships are built over time and with attention.
Not in quick and sporadic bursts. Not when you’re focused on something else.
Not when you’re exhausted and spent.
As with any other relationship, it’s hard to draw closer to Jesus, to go deeper with God, when we’re not spending much time together, just being with each other.
When’s the last time you gave the Lord a day of your life? A retreat with Jesus.
Here’s the most beautiful thing about our relationship with God.
In our relationship with Jesus, our failings don’t matter.
We never have to pretend with Jesus – that we’re not angry, sad, hurt, or scared.
We don’t always have to be happy or in a good mood.
We don’t have to edit ourselves or worry about saying the wrong thing.
We can never exhaust our relationship with Jesus.
We never impose on or tax God’s time
no matter how much we commune with Him.
Our relationship with God in Christ is the one relationship,
the only relationship we can never wear out or use up.
We may seem “needy” to others. But never to God.
We may overwhelm or annoy other people but never Jesus.
God never tires of our demand on His attention or His time.
Many know about God. Many talk about God. Many have read about God.
Many pray to God. Many participate in “religious” activities around God.
Many of us settle for a long-distance relationship with God.
But the good news is thanks to Jesus, our God is not far away.
Our access to the presence of God is much closer than it ever was before.
Our relationship with God can be the closest one we have.
Our Father desires to be united with we, His children, not only in the life to come, but in the life we are living right here, right now.
Therefore, let us become more and more aware, more and more immersed
in our relationship with the God who came down in Christ to draw near to us
–not just so we would know or talk ABOUT Him
but so that we could BE WITH and talk TO Him.
So that He could live in and through all of us together. Amen.