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God’s Portable Sanctuary

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Exodus 25:1-9     Revelation 21:1-5

Our first scripture reading is from the book of Exodus. It takes place after the people have been set free from Egypt and after God’s provision of manna in the wilderness. They are camped around Mount Sinai, and God is beginning to give them instructions on how they are to live as God’s people. Moses has received the Ten Commandments and now God is telling Moses how the people are to worship.

Exodus 25:1-9 “The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.”

The next four chapters include detailed instructions for building an elaborate tabernacle—and I do mean detailed. The following four chapters tell what kind of wood to use, overlaid in gold, how many cubits each pole was to be, what colors of fabric, the measurements of the curtains, and even the number of loops by which the curtains should be hung. Some scholars say that the tabernacle was, indeed, this elaborate; other scholars say this description was written by those who knew the elaborate nature of the temple, and imposed those details back onto the tabernacle.

Either way, it’s important to note that a tabernacle is not a temple. The tabernacle was not intended to be permanent. It was a temporary, moveable structure. Of course, with all the metal and wood that God said should be in it, it would not be easy to move. But it was intended to be moved because the people were not yet home. They had not yet settled into the land that they would claim as their own. So they needed a sanctuary that could move with them.

But one rabbi I read this week asked the question: Why build a sanctuary if God is everywhere? He writes,

“When our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, Moses solicited their donations in order to support the building of the Tabernacle—which in essence was a portable temple. God had commanded Moses: “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst.’ The stated purpose of the Tabernacle is so that God has a place to dwell. But why does God need a place to dwell? Judaism dogmatically teaches that God is everywhere….

“So why build it? It’s a major ‘ask’ for recently freed slaves to now give part of their meager savings to build a sanctuary. Not only do the Israelites have to pay for the new portable building, but they have to be the manual workers to actually build it.”

According to this scholar, God required the building of the Tabernacle “because God wished to transform our spiritual ancestors from having a passive relationship with God to having an active relationship. Prior to the building of the Tabernacle, God was doing all the ‘heavy lifting’: 10 plagues, the parting of the sea; heavenly bread; miracle after miracle…. But, moving forward, the Israelites needed to not only receive God’s gifts, but to give back in return. By building a sanctuary for God, our spiritual ancestors were demonstrating their own active commitment to bringing holiness into the world through their own words and actions.”[1]

I have to admit that I do not know Jewish theology well enough to know if this is a common belief. I don’t know if Jewish scholars agree with one another anymore than Christian scholars agree with one another. But it is an interesting and thought-provoking perspective: that the people needed to give back to God, to become an active part of the relationship, rather than only the recipients.

We’ve all had friends like that, of course—friends who never reciprocate, who never initiate contact, who let one party do all the heavy lifting. Most of us eventually let go of those relationships because they’re so one-sided. None of our needs get met in them. But God is bigger than that, right? Isn’t God more mature than I am?

I don’t think that’s the author’s point. I think he is saying that we humans need to be active partners with God. And we need to make space for God to dwell, space for God to work. We need a space where we recognize that this is where we meet God. God apparently knew that the people needed something tangible. Freedom was still so new to them. They didn’t yet know who they were or who they were in God. So God provided plans for a physical representation of God’s presence with them: a tabernacle, a traveling sanctuary. It was a meeting place. It was something they could see and touch that represented God’s presence with them. And they were part of the making of it. “See those jewels there? Some of those were mine.” “See that gold? My old bracelets were melted down and became part of that.”

Years ago I made prayer beads. They’re not rosaries—they are not in that shape, and there is not a specified number of beads for saying the Lord’s Prayer or something like that. They’re just a strand of handheld beads, usually with spiritual symbols on the ends. I encourage people to pray through them—each bead representing a person—or to come up with a mantra that they use while holding the beads and praying or meditating. I led an adult education class at my last church on various methods of prayer, and making and praying with prayer beads was one of the lessons.

A few days after that class I got a call from Carolyn Ruffles. Her grandson had been born, but something tragic had happened. Baby Jack’s brain was swelling and they couldn’t get it to stop. They were told that he would most likely either die or experience severe brain damage. Carolyn said, “The hospital is an hour away. You don’t have to come, but could you pray?” Of course I dropped everything so I could drive to Westchester Children’s Hospital to be with the family. On my way out of my office, I saw the pile of prayer beads I had used in the class, and on instinct, I grabbed a set. I sat with the family for a while in the hospital, and of course prayed with them, and when I left, I gave the prayer beads to the baby’s parents. I said, “Sometimes you just need something to hold onto.”

The next day they called: Baby Jack was making progress, but could I bring some more prayer beads? They were passing them around, and everybody liked holding them. It just helped to have something tangible to hold. And could I make them with the baby’s name? I ran to the craft store and bought beads with letters, and I made more prayer beads and delivered them.

They called again. The treatment was working. Baby Jack was going to make it! But they didn’t know how much damage had been done to his tiny brain. Only time would tell.

Over the weeks and months to come, the reports were given during worship. Baby Jack was reaching his milestones. Baby Jack was rolling over. Baby Jack was sitting up. Baby Jack was walking. Baby Jack was running. Baby Jack is now ten years old, and from what I hear, he could give my son a run for his money in the energy department.

I am not suggesting that Baby Jack’s survival had anything whatsoever to do with the prayer beads I made. But the prayer beads helped the family hold on. They were a tangible reminder of God’s presence with them there in the NICU waiting room. They helped to create a sanctuary. And I got to be a tiny part of that.

We all get to be part of the sanctuary. You see, the tabernacle the Israelites built was not God’s only portable sanctuary. There is another one, a very specific one, spoken of in the Book of Revelation—a book I don’t often preach on, but this passage is special.

Revelation 21:1-4: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’”

Did you hear it? The home of God is among mortals. The Greek word translated here as “home” literally means: tabernacle. God’s home, God’s sanctuary, is among us. And not just among us, but within is. WE are God’s portable sanctuary! We are built in intricate and elaborate ways. We are God’s dwelling place. “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

But it’s not just for our benefit. If we are God’s sanctuary, then WE are the tangible reminder of God’s presence in the world . . . a reminder for others, by the way we live and love. If we really believe that, really embrace that, how would it change the way we live? Would it make us respond differently when that jerk on the turnpike cuts us off? Would it make us tell different jokes—or call somebody on theirs? If we really believe that we are God’s sanctuary, God’s tangible presence in the world, will we change how we spend on our money? Will it change how we treat strangers? Will it change how we treat family?

It should change us—because if being God’s sanctuary doesn’t change us, what good is it for the world?


[1] Rabbi Mitchell Hurvitz, “Why Build a Sanctuary if God Is Everywhere?” Greenwich Sentinel, March 13, 2016.

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