Beyond the Lectionary Text: Exodus 40
by Kory Plockmeyer
Take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine a time in your life where you have most noticeably seen or experienced the glory of God.
I suspect that most our answers could be grouped into four categories. The first group (and probably the largest of us), likely imagined something from the created world. A majestic sunrise or sunset over the lake or ocean. Light breaking though the trees in the middle of a forest, the rays reflecting off of the glistening dewdrops, the chirps of birds and the rustling of the leaves providing a symphonic background to our experience in nature. Standing atop a mountaintop, surveying the broad expanse of God’s creation and being captivated by a sense of how incredibly small we are, an awareness of the Divine Creator’s Hand around us.
Some of us, I suspect, imagine a particularly providential circumstance in our lives. The time that a gift card showed up in our mailbox at the moment where we needed it most. When our prayers for healing were answered in ways that defied our expectations.
Another group of us may have thought back to a particular experience of worship. The resounding chords of the organ hanging in the still air. Being led in worship by a favorite praise band, joining our voices to a chorusing throng, raising our hands with a sense of awe at the divine presence of God in that moment.
Some of us, we have to admit, even as pastors, probably had a hard time coming up with anything. As we are likely all aware, it can be easy to lose track of the bigger picture of God in the midst of the day-to-day struggles of ministry. If we’re not careful, the glory of God can become difficult to identify.
When we consider these (literal and figurative) mountaintop experiences or lack thereof, we may find ourselves longing for the world of Exodus 40, where the visible presence of God’s glory is in the middle of the Israelite camp. Understanding the importance of the cloud is vital if we are to grasp the significance of the tabernacle. The refrain throughout Exodus 40, “as the Lord commanded him,” is not just about Moses dutifully following instructions but a recognition that there is something significant about the tabernacle – Moses follows the careful divine instructions because the tabernacle is more than just a tent, it is the very place where heaven meets earth.
I suspect that we often struggle to understand the centrality of the tabernacle/temple in Scripture. We often think of the tabernacle and the temple primarily for its liturgical significance – equating the tabernacle more or less to the buildings in which we gather for worship.
As the cloud covers the tabernacle and the glory of the Lord fills the tent, however, the tent becomes the very place where Israel goes to meet God. The cloud determines when the people move and when they stop.
The cloud’s presence at the tabernacle indicates that this is the place where Israel is to meet God. The tabernacle, then, serves more than just a physical purpose – its central task is to be the place that displays the glory of God and invites the people to see and experience that glory. This is why the setup of the tabernacle is so rich, lavish, and meticulously organized.
The broad story of the place where heaven meets earth can be traced throughout the rest of the Old Testament.
In 2 Chronicles 7, Solomon dedicates the temple. The glory of the Lord fills the whole building. The presence of God now has a permanent home in the midst of the nation of Israel. God has brought Israel into the Promised Land and has given them peace and rest as a nation.
In Ezekiel 10:18, the prophet sees the spirit of the Lord depart from the temple. God departs from the people, sending them in to exile. Much of post-exilic Old Testament literature is full of longing for the restoration of the temple as the place where heaven meets earth.
Upon the return of the remnant to the land, the Israelites are allowed to build a temple. This temple, however, is a far cry from the temple of Solomon: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundations of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise” (Ezra 3:12-13). Why are they weeping? Not only because this temple will not approach the grandeur of Solomon’s temple, but also because they recognize that the glory of the Lord will not be present in this temple the same way it was before.
Haggai sees the promise that one day the spirit of God will return to the temple to fill it once more: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house’” (Haggai 2:6-9).
As the place where the Glory of God dwelled, the tabernacle/temple was the place where heaven met earth, the place where the people of Israel went to meet God, the place where they encountered the glory of God. Yet it was also a place of longing – of longing for the return of the cloud, for the return of the spirit to the temple.
In light of this broad story of the tabernacle and temple, the events of the New Testament take on new meaning. At Jesus’ baptism, “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16). In Acts 2, the Spirit comes and fills the believers. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Paul tells the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19)
The glory of God filling the tabernacle is the beginning of the story of which we now find ourselves a part. We now are God’s temple. This means that one of the places we look to see God’s glory is in one another – “in our acts of love and our deeds of faith” (from Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “Speak, O Lord”) we see not only acts of Christian charity but even the very glory of God.
Finding our place in this story, however, also means that we have a responsibility. One of the primary purposes of the tabernacle was to display the wonder and beauty of God. By grace and grace alone, we are invited to take part in this task. We can ask ourselves the hard questions: if someone else looks at our life, do they see the glory of God reflected there? We are the place where heaven meets earth. In and of itself, this is a message of dignity and worth. We are new creations, beloved children of God – there is something inherently worth it about each and every one of us.
This also means, however, that we experience the glory of God in our life together as a church. If we are to see the glory of God in one another, we must “spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together” (Hebrews 10:24-25). The glory of God is present in the ministries of our churches and in our experience of worshiping together.
The Hebrew root kbd enjoys a wide semantic range, including not only “glory,” but also “heavy” and even “honor.” The 5th commandment is, literally, “Give weight to your father and mother.” Something about showing parents (and others) the honor they are due is also, in some ways, recognizing, respecting, and celebrating the glory of God within that person.
If one traces the development of the Spirit’s dwelling place to our role through the Pentecost story, this gives the preacher an opportunity to celebrate the work that is already being done within one’s own church. So often it seems that one of the greatest challenges in the church today is to simply see one’s own life and work as having meaning and value beyond what we do from day-to-day. A passage such as this presents the opportunity to take seemingly simple things, such as hosting an ESL class in the church or pouring out love for a sick member of the congregation, and reframe them as holy work, daily parts of our lives that take on new meaning when seen in light of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Covenant Christian Reformed Church, Sioux Center, IA.