Exodus 40:17-21,34-38; John 1:14: Christmas Day

To free His people from slavery, God gives them His Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  Every year after, so these reclaimed of God don’t forget, He tells them to celebrate these rituals for as long as they are His people.  After their rescue, after the Red Sea, He teaches them more on worship.  “Wherever I set apart a place for you to remember me, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). 

From the start, they learn the pattern—God selects the forms of worship, not the other way around.  Still, they are the fallen seed of Adam.  So soon after Egypt, they decide otherwise.  In their pining for the familiar, they select how they want to come before the Almighty—through a golden calf, an image of an Egyptian god (Exodus 32:5).

These self-made constructions displease God.  Later, their leader, Moses, reprimands them.  “Stop doing what you are doing, where everyone does whatever he considers right” (Deuteronomy 12:8).  The worship of God isn’t about personal preference but, instead, God’s “preferences” for His people.

The upside-down way of God is clear.  Only He drives the show, not us.  In love, He still chooses to include us, bringing us along, but when we determine to become the driver, we turn into our own false idols, trying to push God off His throne.

Consider God’s reverse way of things at Christmas.  No king, let alone God, should be born in such pathetic circumstances!  How ungodlike to lower and humiliate Himself as He does.  Do we want a weak God like this, one who can die?

Without relenting, God continues His backward way of doing.  Every week, He commands His people to stop their work and gather on His chosen day to rest, called the Sabbath.  Like the undignified birth of His Son to come, God’s definition of glory differs from ours, changing how we are to approach Him.

Ponder the idea of Sabbath rest—first established for worship.  The purpose of such gathering is not to do something for God.  How obvious can He be?  For if the chosen day is for resting, we cannot be working, which includes our worship.  So, the only real rest for us is when God is doing something for His people, contrary to our inclinations.

To affirm this, God provides Moses the plans for His tabernacle, where the Israelites are to congregate each Sabbath.  In this mobile tent, He specifies an inner sanctum, where He promises to be present for His people.  Why?  To come and give them what they are unable to do for themselves—the reversal of us doing our deeds for God.

In this sacred space, God descends above a box, referred to as the Ark of the Covenant.  Don’t allow the word “box” to fool you, for gold-plating covers this object.  So precious, this box, no human hand may touch its surface.  Whenever this Ark needs to move, only the priests may carry this ornate, gold-plated box, using designated poles inserted through rings.  So holy is the presence of God.

In the Ark are several items.  Inside are God’s Ten Words, or Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16), a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34), and Aaron’s walking stick, which earlier blossomed with leaves in the desert (Numbers 17:10).

The manna is a bread-like food, which God used to feed His people during their wilderness wandering.  The Israelites complained about its flavor, asserting their ingratitude toward God.  The budded rod of Aaron testifies to a rebellion when some of Israel attempted to establish the priesthood they wanted, contrary to God’s command (Numbers 16-17).  Of course, the Ten Commandments—no one can follow those without flaw.

Cloistered within the obscured darkness of the Ark, these items represent Israel’s sins.  To deliver God’s forgiveness to the people, the High Priest pours sacrificed blood on top of the Ark, called the “Mercy Seat.”  Dark, thick, and viscous, animal blood congeals, covering the sinfulness of the people.  In this place, where true Divinity descends to earth, God delivers His absolution, once more, to His wayward people.

Today, the Lord’s Supper fulfills those rituals of old.  The God incarnate, born from virgin’s womb, still comes to be with His people below.  In the centuries leading up to the incarnation, God descended to His Ark; today, at His Altar.

The priests enter the Tabernacle and make their way toward the Holy of Holies.  A Table stands, at their right.  Of all the pieces of holy architecture, only this Table is sacred like the Ark.  For God only authorizes His priests to carry this, the Table of Presence, requiring the same, specific care as for the Ark.  Why?

On this table sat 12 loaves of bread, referred to as the Bread of the Presence, which is also the Hebrew word for “Face.”  So, whose presence, whose face is in this bread?  Not theirs, but God’s.  Now, this explains why only priests may transport this Table.  Like the Ark, their actions testify to God’s “real presence” being at these locations.

Every week, the serving priests eat this Bread as holy food.  A flagon of wine also sits atop this table, from which they drink.  Hmm, this is starting to sound like something in the Church today, though different because of Christ’s fulfillment of the Old.

In ancient times, God commands all Israelite men to participate in three feasts a year—Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  For a day will come when going to the Temple, each Sabbath, will become impossible because of distance.  Here is what God told Moses, “Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 34:23, 23:17).

To show them God, before whom the people gather, the priests lift the Bread in front of the people.  Now if you wondered why the pastor holds up the bread of the Lord’s Supper after consecration, this is why.  For he, too, is not only holding up bread, but also the “face of God,” in the Savior’s Supper.

These are some of the God-instituted rituals leading up to Christmas—and they are still relevant.  Consider when an angel, Gabriel, tells Mary she is to be the bringer of the Messiah.  How does she respond?  “How can this be,” her young tongue stammers, for she is a virgin.

The angel answers Mary.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).

Now, we go back to school for a moment.  In those days, the Jews didn’t use a Hebrew-language Bible, but a Greek one.  For long earlier, they lost their ability to speak and read in Hebrew.  So, a Greek-language Old Testament became the Scriptures for them.  Now what happens, amplifies in our hearing.

The Greek word for “overshadow” is the identical one Scripture uses to describe God, present with His people, above the Ark of the Covenant.  A coincidence?  Think again.  No Jew, with a reasonable amount of Old-Testament knowledge, will miss this.

The words of their God overshadowing something or someone takes the listener back to the Divine Presence over the Ark.  Like God at the Tabernacle, the Spirit of God overshadowed Mary and filled her with the Glory of Israel (Exodus 40:34-5; 1 Kings 8:10-11; Luke 1:35, 2:32).  In God’s way and timing, He chose a young virgin to fulfill the Old-Covenant Ark, becoming another.

A woman will become the place where God will descend to this world, as the promised Savior.  Like the Ark, where God became present in the Old Covenant, Mary now becomes the dwelling place of God.

Take in how John describes Jesus becoming incarnate.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  The word for “dwelt” is the same word for “tabernacle,” but as a verb.  Through His incarnation, Jesus tabernacled with us.  Like “overshadow,” neither of these words are mere happenstance.

In Zechariah 2:10, God spoke, foretelling Jesus’ birth: “Rejoice and sing, daughter of Zion, for I am coming to dwell [to tabernacle] among you.”  Well, if God is tabernacling with us, we should exult.  For this means, He comes to grant His forgiveness.

In Luke 1:28, when the Angel Gabriel first approaches Mary, what does He say?  “Rejoice,” though our Bibles most often translate this as “Greetings.” These are not accidents or coincidences.  In God’s working through human history, He is bringing all things together to deliver His Son into the world for our salvation.

Long ago, God dwelt in His Tabernacle.  To His people of Old, He came to be with them at the Ark of the Covenant.  Now, Mary will become the place where God will reveal His presence, all so she can bear the world’s Redeemer.

The New Testament’s use of “rejoice,” “tabernacle,” and “overshadow” help clear the way for Christ.  So often, we miss these connections because we don’t find them in our translations.  Such word usage conveys to us whom Mary held within her womb, and whom she bore—God in human flesh.

The Tabernacle did not last.  Later, God told David to construct a permanent structure as a replacement, the Temple, which David’s successor, Solomon, built.  At the Temple’s consecration, he prayed for God’s new House to preserve the knowledge and worship of God in Israel and be a light to the Gentiles (1 Kings 8:41-43).  In Christ Jesus, His prayer became true, when the promised Messiah entered our world.

So, what does all this mean?  Today, God gives us Gentiles, 2,000 years later, a reason to rejoice!  For God still comes to us, His people.  Yes, He will overshadow this altar in this church, as He did the Ark in the Temple, as He did with Mary.  Here, He will descend for you with His life and salvation.

The Supper Jesus instituted is a continuation of His incarnation for His people.  So, how can we do otherwise but celebrate His Supper on the day we remember His birth.  Yes, God still is doing His saving work for us.  Amen.