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The Once and Future Tabernacle

When the pandemic closed the churches, it felt like being kicked out of the Garden again. Congregations had to rely on their online services—or invent them overnight—and now virtual church is here to stay. But where is here?

Worshippers have tabernacled in their homes, like the early Christians in house churches. Ministers are now voices crying in the wilderness, like the ancient prophets, relying on the Spirit and their available bandwidth. Despite our brave postures, it felt as if everything was ending.

I think it’s just beginning. I think it’s more like Winston Churchill said in 1942: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Very well, Sir Winston. We’ll try to be patient.

But what in the world is a tabernacle?

Lately I’ve learned that it’s a lot more than a place with a large choir. I have also been glad to learn, as a grownup, that a tabernacle as originally described in Exodus 25 is every bit as exotic and colorful as the sound of the word itself.

A tabernacle is a beautiful, elaborate tent that Yahweh had the Israelites build in the desert to cover the Ark — not a boat, like in the 2014 Russell Crowe movie Noah, but a carrier for the covenant, like in the 1981 Harrison Ford movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And Yahweh was very particular about this tabernacle. Details go on for pages. The ark itself is made of acacia wood, as was the mercy seat (whatever that was). The tent would have lampstands of gold, and ten curtains of fine twined linen, colored blue and purple and scarlet, with cherubim all over.

Eleven curtains of goat’s hair cover the blue inner curtains, and the whole thing is covered by a layer made of rams’ skins dyed red, and over that is a covering of sea cow hides. Where they got the hides of sea cows out there in the desert, I have no idea. In fact, I don’t know where these wandering refugees got any of this stuff.

But they did, and they built that tabernacle, and lit it up at night with pure oil supplied by Aaron and his sons—because that's what God wanted them to do. Everything about the tabernacle was to show that worship was something special; that it was worth their effort; and that everything about their God deserved their very best.

The ancients carried Yahweh with them—and Yahweh rode in style, too.

They didn’t expect Yahweh to carry THEM.

And they certainly didn’t tell Yahweh, “We’re busy right now; could you just wait over there, in that building, and we’ll meet you there on Sunday?”

I get it that people miss the sense of the sacred they felt in churches they had adopted as their own. Having a sanctuary allowed people to gain courage in the world, because they always knew God would be right there waiting for them, in the tall walls and airy spaces of their church homes.

But deep down we also knew that God could not be contained within those walls. And now, after a year of tabernacling in our homes, we are eager to join together, to see each other’s faces and discern how this year of isolation and trial has affected us.

But we are growing up; we are learning patience. I would call this one the same way Sir Winston would call it. This is not the end of the church or of Christianity. Human beings are just beginning their true spiritual and moral evolution. Now we know there’s no rush to come home —because we are already there.

Prayer: God of all holy places, teach us how to find You in the back yards and the boredom just as easily as we find you in the cathedrals and the crowds. Grant us peace in our infinite gratitude for Your infinite love: Amen.


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