The New Creation: The Torn Curtain
The New Creation: The Torn Curtain
April 15, 2018
So, every year in the church we have three major days: Christmas, Easter and…. Kickoff Sunday, right? Everyone gets to eat fried chicken even though we know we shouldn’t! Well, Kickoff Sunday is a big day for us but perhaps not for Christians, world-wide. No, the third major day is Pentecost (which I suggested last week is Christmas and Easter’s forgotten little sister). Let’s be honest here…you’ll never forget when Christmas or Easter is coming but Pentecost…well…chances are that the only way you are going to remember is if I remind you.
One of the reasons that this is true is that Christmas and, perhaps these days to a lesser degree, Easter, are celebrated in our larger culture. The question is not whether we will remember the holidays. Rather, the question with Christmas and Easter is whether we will be able to hold onto the core spiritual meaning of those days. It is easy to lose the meaning and end up with a bunch of unneeded presents and a basket full of eggs. In contrast—this is the truth—I once got a call the night before Pentecost from a pastor who wanted to know what Pentecost was!
The second reason we remember Christmas and Easter is that we have family traditions connected to them. We gather as family and friends. We have specific foods that we eat on those days. We set aside time. We develop traditions. We commit to sharing those days together, as best we can, from year to year. This just isn’t true with Pentecost. A very small percentage of people might have grown up in a church in which on Pentecost Sunday everyone wore red to symbolize the “tongues of fire.” Maybe it was the Sunday when the pastor talked about the Holy Spirit and everyone thought, “I thought it was the Holy Ghost!” Mostly, folks would have thought, “Can we start talking about Jesus again, now?”
The third major reason that we “get” Christmas and Easter to some degree is that we spend time getting ready for them. Advent comes before Christmas—the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when we prepare ourselves for the good news of God becoming incarnate. Lent comes before Easter—the six weeks that start with Ash Wednesday and end at the empty tomb. Generally, if we want something to be meaningful, we prepare ourselves ahead of time. We act like something special is about to happen.
Here’s the thing: I think the time that we are in right now—the time between Easter and Pentecost—is the time when we ought to be preparing for the good news that is coming next. On Christmas, God so loves the world that God became one of us. On Easter, we learn that not even death can separate us from God’s love and therefore we are set free to really live. On Pentecost, we hear the good news that God is present with us every day of this life as Spirit, that the one who comes after Christ is “the counselor,” the one who calls and guides and prods us into a faithful life.
To come at this issue from another direction, the story that we are told is that Jesus’s birth, despite some pretty amazing fanfare, pretty quickly gave way to a life that was rather normal. He was the carpenter’s kid. Eventually, we assume, he was the carpenter. (That’s sort of how things worked back then.) It must have been a shock when he left town one day. (Who did that?) It must have been a real disturbance when he “called” those other men to leave their lives, too. When they came to town, the preaching and teaching and the healings all grabbed attention. Yet, what we are told, again and again, is that even when he was standing right there in front of people doing such things, people didn’t really understand. They didn’t know who they were looking at even when he was right there. (So much for the, “If only I had been there” theory…)
Later, after his death and resurrection, we learn that there are a variety of people who encounter the risen Jesus. Yet, to a person, they don’t recognize him at first. Again, we run into this same theme: here he is right here in front of us but we don’t know it…not for a while. And again, we have to think to ourselves, so much for the, “If only I had met the risen Jesus theory,” too!
My argument is that there are things for us to glean and take to heart that could help us to recognize God’s presence and that how we would learn those things is by listening to our ancestors in faith. Some people were more quick than others to recognize him. Some people had a harder time. Maybe, preparing ourselves for Pentecost and the even more subtle, more overlooked, presence of God, as Spirit, is using this time to “tune” ourselves to that presence.
Last week, I said to you that part of that tuning is to watch for the surprises, for the new creation, for the glimpse of God’s kingdom. One of the reasons that people had a hard time seeing who Jesus was was because he almost never did what people expected. He cared about people no one cared about. He touched people that no one wanted to touch. He ate with the wrong people. All of those things surprised and often offended people. Yet, part of what the Gospels tell us is that when we see “the rules” being broken for the sake of helping someone else, we ought to think to ourselves, “Hmmm…God might be at work in here somewhere. Sounds like the things that Jesus taught and that Jesus did.”
Last week’s text pushed that concept even further when we looked at Joseph and Nicodemus and Pilate. What we saw were a member of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee and a Roman authority all doing humble, compassionate things. We saw powerful people doing the one thing we never expect to see powerful people do: they put their power at risk. It turned out that the people who actually had something to lose, not just the people whom the world considered losers, were transformed by Jesus’ presence. It is a shocking development, the kind of moment that should make us think, “Hmm…I think God’s at work in here somewhere, too.”
Our text this morning adds another piece to that puzzle. I think it might be one of the most overlooked moments surrounding Jesus’ death. Jesus dies in all four Gospels. He dies a horrible, real death on that cross. However, all four Gospels highlight slightly different aspects of what happened next. In the text we read this morning, Jesus quotes a Psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The crowd is watching for Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, to appear. Both of these things make a ton of sense for the Gospel that is written for a Jewish audience to highlight. The notion that there was an earthquake and the tombs of the saints were opened and that those saints appeared to many is quite a vision but its not all that surprising. After all, faithful folks thought that the saints and the prophets would certainly be front and center when it came to the Messiah’s presence. No…here’s the shocker and I bet if you noticed it at all then you thought to yourself, “That’s weird!” Matthew goes out of his way to tell us that the curtain at the temple was torn from top to bottom.
Now…this is the skill that we should be working on. When something is mentioned in a Scripture reading and it doesn’t make sense we have to stop right away and ask, “What’s up with that?” I know…it’s tempting to want to hide the fact that we don’t understand because we assume that everyone else does, right? That’s the thing, though, we have to be honest and curious and willing to be surprised. We have to ask questions!
So, what’s the deal with the curtain? No, this is not an HGTV design moment. This is a hugely important statement—a giant clue for us going forward. Let’s set the stage. So, when our ancestors first gathered and began to have a sense that God was with them, they created the Ark of the Covenant as a symbol of that presence. Everywhere they went, the Ark went with them. This reminded them that everywhere they went, God went with them, too. If the question was, “Where’s God?” then the answer was, “God is always with us!”
Later, those ancestors settled into their new land and after a while thought to themselves, “What we really ought to be is like everyone else!” (Who hasn’t done any number of embarrassing things in their lives inspired by that thought?) So, they wanted a king and they wanted a temple. The temple would be God house. If you ever asked yourself, “Where’s God?” the answer would be, “In the temple, of course!” Do you hear the problem? God is not everywhere or even wherever we go. God’s presence is restricted.
Over time, the temple got even more complicated. More and more walls were built. The merchants and the poor and otherwise unacceptable folks were allowed into the outer area. The only way you made it past wall, after wall, after wall after that was by being more and more holy and pure and, likely, wealthy. And, the kicker was that God was only present in the most restricted area, behind the curtain. A lottery was held once a year to see who the one priest was who would get to go there. If you really remember Matthew’s Gospel, you’ll remember that it starts with the father of John the Baptist winning that lottery and getting to go there.
In the moment when Jesus dies, the most significant next thing is not the centurion who has second thoughts or the earthquake or the zombie saints walking through the town. No…the most significant thing is that the curtain that separated everyone from standing in God’s presence (or so they thought) is torn apart. The barrier is removed. And it is torn, not by some rebel from the bottom up but, it is torn from the top down, presumably by one of God’s messengers or by God. The message is don’t look for God at the temple. Look for God everywhere now!
Are you starting to assemble your list? When the poor and the overlooked and the rejected suddenly matter, God is at work. When the powerful put their power at risk and humble themselves, God is at work. When absolutely everywhere has the potential to be just the kind of place where you might discover God’s presence, God is at work. Keep that list handy…It’s only going to get more interesting… We’re only going to get more clues.