Text Psalm 96
“Oh the majesty and magnificence of His presence
Oh the power and the splendor of His sanctuary” Ps 96:6
One of the babies that Protestantism has thrown out with the bath water is the idea of sacred space. I have done weddings and funerals where the preponderance of those attending are not Anglicans. They will sit in consecrated space and gab and laugh aloud with one another like they were sitting in a bus station. You have to play music or make an announcement to have them find their seats and settle down. I have been to a church where they have a coffee bar set up in their narthex and folks bring coffee into the worship service like they were bringing soft drinks and popcorn into a movie.
It used to be that when you went to Europe it was a horse of a different color. When you walked into those sacred spaces, that have been places of worship and prayer for centuries, you were reminded to talk only in a whisper and to dress modestly. Sadly as Europe has become increasingly secular even those traditions are going by the wayside.
Is this really that big of a deal? I believe it is. A loss of the concept of sacred space adds to the leanness of our souls because it disconnects an important link between this world and the next. Sacred space is like a sign that points to a greater reality and when you ignore the sign then you lose site of that greater reality.
That is why the temple was so important to the Jews. It was a place where heaven and earth met. The physical sanctuary pointed the way to the heavenly sanctuary. Sacred space is so important to the Jews that to this day Orthodox Jews will face Jerusalem when they pray. Years ago I was flying out of Tel Aviv and as we were taking off an elderly man decided it was time to pray and he stood up and turned around to face Jerusalem. He ignored every appeal to take his seat and eventually three stewardesses had to sit on top of him and hold him down so that he would be safe during takeoff. That may be taking it a bit far but I admired his convictions.
Before you dismiss the idea of sacred space as a man-made tradition that no longer applies to us as Christians, I invite you to consider several things. First recall that it was not Moses or Aaron who dreamed up the tabernacle. The tabernacle was God’s plan and God’s design. In essence God told Moses, “This is how you will worship Me and this is where you will worship Me.” And by ordaining a sacred space to be set up in the very center of the tribes God revealed how greatly He longed to dwell with His people. He was not some far off god sitting atop Mount Olympus rather He was slap dab in the middle of them in their daily lives. Sacred space reminds us of that greater reality.
While God did not give the same instructions to Solomon, the temple that Solomon built was acceptable to God because it was essentially a permanent tabernacle. The tabernacle was portable because they were moving through the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. But once they were settled in the Promised Land, sacred space no longer needed to be portable. God honored what Solomon built. We read in the next chapter after today’s reading. “When Solomon had finished building the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, and had achieved all he had desired to do, the Lord appeared to him a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon. The Lord said to him: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” Sacred space was God’s idea and therefore honored by God.
A second thing to consider is how our Lord honored sacred space. He was taken to the temple as an infant and again as a young boy. It was in the temple at 12 years old that He engaged the elders and told His parents that He was about His Father’s business. As a grown man He worshipped in the temple when He was in Jerusalem. What is very telling is His outrage over the money-changers in the temple. What did He say? Quoting Isaiah He said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” He called the temple His house. The money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals had desecrated His house and Jesus was not going to have it. There would be no Starbuck’s in the temple!
A third thing to consider about sacred space is that it matches how God has made us. We are not some disembodied spirits floating in the Universe. We are material beings in a material world. And so it only makes sense that our worship would involve sight and sound and taste and touch and space. It borders on Gnostic dualism to think that our faith is only about ideas in our minds and that is all that we need.
When God ordained priests in the Old Testament to be vested and a laver full of water for cleansing and the burning of incense and the making of showbread and burning oil in the menorah, who was that for? He has no need for these things. It was all for us, so that we can engage with all of our being in worship. “Let all that is within me bless His holy Name.” Sacred space helps us do just that.
Look, we get it more than most churches that God can be worshipped anywhere because we worshipped in a school cafeteria for about 5 years. I was grateful we had a place to meet but I don’t miss it, not one bit. It is so much easier to enter into His courts with praise when you don’t have to spend half of your energy ignoring the coke machine that fires up every 10 minutes. So I believe when Jesus told the woman that it did not matter if you were in Jerusalem or on this mountain in Samaria to worship God that He was negating the need to be in a particular location to worship rather than negating our need for sacred space. In other words as an Anglican I don’t have to go to Canterbury to worship. Bethel can be right here in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, but still I need a Bethel.
God has given us tangible ways to connect with Him because He has made us tangible beings. People in the New Testament did not connect to God by offering a silent prayer and inviting Him into their hearts. Their faith was not just an intellectual exercise. They were washed in the waters of baptism and they ate His flesh and drank His blood. The early Christians continued to worship in the synagogues until they were put out. From the moment that Christianity was no longer illegal, sacred spaces were created all over the world, spaces dedicated to the worship of the Triune God. And because of what the psalmist calls “the beauty of holiness” they made them as beautiful as they could possibly afford. I found it very moving when I read in seminary of Anglo-Catholic priests in the 19th century that took parishes in the poorest sections of London and built some of the most beautiful churches so that at least once a week the poor could step out of their drab factory lives and be refreshed by a taste of heaven.
Let’s take this a step further. If sacred space is a sign that points to a greater reality, then what is that reality? Let me read you a wonderful story that I found on the Internet that explains it.
The gravel parking lot around St. John’s began to fill early that morning. The shadow from the steeple cast the image of a cross on the western side of the church. Families from miles around climbed out of Fords and Chevrolets to make their way into the sanctuary. The pastor stood by the front door to greet folks. He asked about Aunt Susan’s broken hip, the Reynold’s new horse, and how the football game turned out in Sunray the other night.
The man of God who shepherded this flock wasn’t much to look at. He had a bit of a gut. And he laughed too loud, especially at his corny jokes. But they loved the man. He had baptized their children, buried their grandparents, and even preached a decent sermon on occasion.
By the time worship was ready to begin, it still hadn’t happened—that shocking influx of worshipers I spoke of. In fact, things looked as ordinary as ordinary could be.
The Kirkpatricks, with their five children, squeezed into the next-to-last pew. The spinster organist, Ms. Schultz, played softly and hit, well, almost every note. Hymnals were opened to the page where the service would soon begin.
At 10:30 sharp, Pastor Baker walked up front and spoke the same words he did at the start of every Sunday service, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the congregation responded with a hearty, “Amen!”
Then, without any warning, it happened. The floodgates opened. Worshipers streamed in. Before the congregation had finished saying, “Amen,” this rural Texas minichurch was transformed into the mega of megachurches.
Here’s how it all went down.
Through the stained glass windows and the steeply pitched roof, seraphim swooped down from heavenly perches. Each sported six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And around the sanctuary they chanted one to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The foundations of St. John’s quaked at the sound of their voices. The whole church swam with the smoke of incense.
But that was only the beginning. Cherubim winged their way down from the heavenly city. Not the cute, chubby Precious Moments’ angels, but manly warriors who stationed themselves like sentinels around the sanctuary. They belted out the words to the hymns, added their Amens to the divine words read and preached that day.
But the angels were not alone. With them came saints innumerable. Men and women who had fought the good fight, finished the race, and gone on to glory. But here they were, back at St. John’s on this Lord’s day. They added their voices to the earthly choir of farmers and ranchers and coaches and teachers who still trod the pathway toward the heavenly Jerusalem.
The pews were packed. Standing room only in the aisles. Some perched on the rafters and peered down with serene gazes upon the altar. There, wonder of wonders, was a throne. And on that throne stood a Lamb, slain yet alive, sacrificed but resurrected. Every face of every worshiper, angelic and human, earthly and heavenly, was fixated upon his face. There they looked upon the countenance of the merciful Almighty.
With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, the people of St. John’s lauded and glorified the name of that Lamb, their Lord Jesus, that day. Sacred songs shook the building as the choirs wed their voices. The Lord’s Supper was a reunion meal. The folks on earth and the saints in heaven dined on the feast of feasts and the drink that slakes the deepest thirst.
It was a day to remember. A day to repeat. The following Sunday it would happen again. And then again. This tiny rural church would bulge at the seams with worshipers from realms seen and unseen, all mixed together in the adoration of the Lamb whose kingdom is without end.
That’s how a small, country congregation became a megachurch overnight. Without even trying. They gathered around the word of Jesus, ate his meal, sang his songs. And Jesus showed up, every Sunday, with all of heaven along for the ride.
It is not an accident that Christians who have little regard for sacred space also have little regard for the communion of the saints. And it is no accident that the opposite is also true. Much of what is called worship today is instead the manipulation of people’s emotions through music or tickling their ears by telling them what they want to hear. It is also not an accident that Christians who have abandoned the sign have also forgotten where it is pointing. Worship is replaced with meeting my needs and how I feel and seeing if I get anything out of it. That is why so much of praise music is more about the singer than the One to whom they should be singing.
True worship is focusing on the Lord rather than on ourselves. It is blending our voices with angels and archangels and all of the company of heaven as we focus on the Lamb. True worship is where earth meets heaven and heaven meets earth and that has absolutely nothing with me getting my needs met. Inevitably they are but that is a consequence and not a goal.
The ultimate sacred space to which the earthly tabernacle and the temple and all sacred spaces point is the heavenly Jerusalem. But again this is no Mount Olympus. It descends to earth! This is what St. John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Our hope as Christian is that one day all things will be made new and that all space will be sacred space. Our hope is that once and for all He will be our God and we will be His people. The meal that you are about to receive is a foretaste of that day. So come, eat and drink…….just don’t bring your coffee.