Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Veil Torn: A Passion Sunday Sermon

“And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” Mark 15:37-38

A boiler room can be a mysterious and fascinating place for a first grader.
I learned this during my days as a custodian at Garrettford Elementary School. You see, my office was down in the school’s boiler room and every morning after pick-up I would take my coffee break down there. The door to the boiler room was located in the first grade wing. It was a huge, heavy, wooden door that would often make a loud noise when it slammed shut. It also had big red letters on the front, ‘Danger, keep out, authorized personnel only!’ One first-grader, Keenan, was particularly fascinated by the boiler room. Although he couldn’t read the sign, he knew it said something urgent. “What does that sign say?” he asked me. “It says, ‘Danger, keep out,’” I told him.
His eyes grew wider as he asked, “Why? What’s down there?”
“Alligators,” I told him, “Lots of alligators.”
He seemed to get a big kick out of this and laughed. Whenever I saw him in the hallway he would always ask me about the alligators. Soon the story grew more elaborate. Not only were there alligators, there were also snakes and crocodiles.
This continued for quite a while, until one day I was approached by the principal. He had a smirk on his face. “Did you tell Keenan there were alligators in the boiler room?” he asked me. “Sure,” I told him. “We joke about it all the time.”

He told me, “His mother called. She says he is having trouble sleeping at night because he is having nightmares about the alligators!” Naturally I felt horrible. We took him down to the boiler room and showed him there were no alligators. As far as I know, that helped.

The inner sanctuary of the great temple in Jerusalem, was a bit like our school’s boiler room in that there was a strict command to keep out. Only authorized personnel were allowed to enter. In this case, however, the danger was very real.
There were two main rooms in the temple. There was the holy place where the priests performed their many duties—only they were permitted to enter this area—but there was also the holy of holies, the place where God’s glory dwelt. Only one man could enter this space, the high priest.

There was a huge curtain, known as the veil, which separated this place from the rest of the temple. The book of Exodus describes it as “a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman.” Ancient sources tell us that it was 60 feet long, 20 feet wide, woven to the thickness of a man’s hand, and required 300 men to lift up. 

The veil was there, in part, for protection. Within the veil was the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, where the Shekinah Glory of God hovered. The high priest was permitted to enter the holy of holies once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the mercy seat with the blood of sacrifice for the sins of the people. If anyone entered the Holy of Holies who was not authorized or at any other time but the appointed time, they would be struck dead. In fact, Jewish authors tell us that a rope was tied around the ankle of the high priest in case he was found unworthy and dropped dead while performing his duties.

This is because God is so pure and holy that nothing sinful or impure can stand in his presence and live. He is utterly good, but he is not safe. As C.S. Lewis wrote about the great Lion Aslan, the King and Christ-Figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He is not a tame lion.”

The Old Covenant was meant to proclaim to God’s people his holiness and their utter unworthiness before him. Just a couple of weeks ago we read about the giving of the Law on Mount Horeb, about the thick clouds and thunder, and the fear of the people. God’s law is terrible and all people stand condemned by it because all have fallen short of the glory of God.
God’s righteousness is so pure that even the highest human virtue seems like blackness in comparison.  

God proscribed sacrifices to his people whereby they could appease their consciences of the burden of sin, but these sacrifices could do nothing to make people holy. They spoke only of our need: for salvation, for the purging away of our sins, and for our need to be clothed in holiness. The Old Covenant pointed forward to a new and better covenant promised by the prophet Jerimiah in our reading last week.

This is the New Covenant given to us in Christ. The author of Hebrews writes, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” Jesus stands as our great High Priest in the very presence of God, before the Throne of God in Heaven, of which the mercy seat in the temple was but an earthly copy. He intercedes on our behalf.

This is why Christ died: to wash us clean from our sins, to cover us, and infuse us with his holiness so that we can stand faultless in the presence of God. While we were yet sinners, God sent his Son to die for us. He doesn’t want anything to separate us from his love. He desires for us to dwell in his presence forever. 

This is why immediately after Christ offered up his life for us, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. This signified the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New, but it also powerfully illustrates how God made a way for us to stand in his holy presence through the death of Christ.

If the Old Covenant proclaimed our utter unworthiness before a holy God, the New Covenant proclaims to us how Christ has made us worthy. He has washed us and made us sons and daughters.

There is no longer any sacrifice needed for the forgiveness of sin. The sacrifice of Christ is all-sufficient. The only sacrifice left to be made is one of praise and thanksgiving. Let us offer our whole lives as a living sacrifice pleasing in his sight.