Sunday, December 19, 2004

Palm Passion 2008

"And the curtain in the temple was torn in two...."

Mt. 27:51a

What a turn. What a shift in the crowd. One day, they are praising God and welcoming Jesus as the long awaited, long hoped for messiah. The next day, it’s a different story - Kill him! From Hosanna to Crucify seems like it ought to take a little longer, but, that is human nature . It turns on a dime. In a mille-second, the hero is the villain. It’s fluky as the wind.

Today, it’s important to let the passion narrative speak for itself today..for the words to hang in the air and to land in our hearts where they may…

Yet, there is one little verse that I’d like to point out to you …it is this one.. Matthew 27:51

It comes right after the death of Jesus…let me read a little bit of the passage to you…
Picking up at verse 50…Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. and 51…”And behold the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, and the earth shook and the rocks were split.”

It’s about the curtain…

To talk about the curtain, we’ll have to talk about the temple. There were two temples…
In the first, the Temple of Solomon, there was a wall dividing two areas – The Holy and the Holy of Holies. The wall was covered with a curtain.
In this second area – The Holy Of Holies - “the Ark of the Covenant had rested and was considered to be the place where God resided. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies - and God's presence - once a year, and then only after an elaborate cleansing ritual; even then he would have a cord tied to his leg so that others could safely drag him out should he enter God's presence with unatoned sin. “
In the second Temple there was a wall of curtain separating between the holy and the holy of holies. The curtain was 4 in' thick and would have been somewhere around 60-70 ft high and wide. The weight was approximately between 4 to 6 tons depending on the material used. In fact the Talmud teaches that it took some 300 priest to carry it to its place. “ This was not a sheer curtain. Think of the apron that x-ray people put on you and imagine it 4 inches thick.

Quite a curtain..why was it there? For several reasons really…some symbolic and others practical…

Symbolically it represented the rift between God and humankind…the separation between us …once a year only the high priest would enter so that atonement – that is, reconciliation and peace, could be reestablished between God and his people.
Year after year the priest did by coming before the living presence of God and offering a sacrifice of the blood of an animal – symbolizing human blood or life – meaning, “You gave us our lives…we dedicate them, we give them back to you…because we are yours. And…we know that the price of our sin is our lives…in this blood, we offer that price. Have mercy upon us.” Another aspect of the symbolism of the curtain was that it evoked a tent. Remember that God met Moses in the Tent of Meeting.

The other reason the curtain was there was for protection – because …to be in the presence of the living God, the creator of the universe would be – not an exact parallel- like being exposed to nuclear fission or looking directly into the sun. The sun is far too bright and our eyes will be damaged. To look on the Living God would be to die. This was and is the conviction of the Jews who had more experience with Him than anybody else at that time. Remember what happened when Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia Chronicles first went for an encounter with Aslan the lion. “Is he safe?” she asked. “Well, no,” the answer came back, “of course he’s not safe, but he’s good.”
I want to press this point a little further, but we live in a time that tends to water down the supernatural. Think about what happens in the bible when people encounter angels. They fall down or pass out in sheer fright. Remember Isaiah? His prophetic call came when he was in the Temple and looked on the living God. He said, “Woe is me, for I am an unclean man of an unclean people.” He thought that he was about to die on the spot.
The power and brightness of the presence of the living God was not safe for people. Do you remember the people’s reaction to Moses after he would come out of the tent of meeting – his face would be shining so brightly that it scared people and they begged him to put a veil on…no one, could look on God and live…and they were afraid they would die.
Did you catch that? He put on a veil…
So the curtain…the veil in the temple signified separation, estrangement, and protection.
When Jesus died ,when the Lamb of God breathed his last, the curtain was torn in two.
What could this mean?
1. That full atonement had been made – Jesus Christ, our great high priest offered the once for all sacrifice – not a sacrifice that would need to be repeated year after year…but once for ever – to bring about atonement – peace and reconciliation between humankind and God…that he would eternally be our mediator…no need for any other…
A side note…when I offer prayers on your behalf , I do so in the name of Jesus…standing within his priesthood…not on my own for that would be both useless and meaningless…but in his name, under the cover of his blood.
So, back the curtain – the second thing to say about this today – is that in Jesus Christ, there is no longer separation between God and us and ,in Jesus Christ, we look on the glory of the Father. Here’s something really key - the power and light we see through him as fearful and awesome as it is , we can now see its true nature – that is, it is the power of sacrificial love.
This past week, I heard a country gospel song which gets at what this kind of love is like. The refrain went something like this,
“Wherever you are you can't go far enough, Whatever you've done you can't outrun the long arm of love. “[1]
This coming week is Holy Week and today we have begun to walk the way of the Cross…Today, we go from Hosanna to Crucify and next Sunday, we will travel from Crucify to Hallelujah. It’s the heart of the gospel. Come stand at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb. Get the atonement down in your bones so that you can truly hear and believe that the sacrifice of our great high priest was on your behalf and for you, that great veil has been torn…forever. AMEN.

JTCO- 3.16.08

[1] Crossway Quartet