The Carpenter and the Cradle: an Introduction

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 25-30: the building of the tabernacle and Matthew 6:9-13: the Lord’s Prayer)

The Bible is a story that unfolds in bits and pieces over the thousands of years of its writing by its many human authors.  They all wrote their own small “chapter” (—we call these “chapters” “books,” though given the holistic nature of the Bible, they’re really more like chapters—) but none of these writers could have foreseen the bigger plot line weaving its way through each individual chapter.  It’s that unified story almost more than any other single thing that convinces me that the Bible is really One Book, written by One (non-human) Author.  It smells of the supernatural.  It’s one reason I hold the belief that the Bible is what it claims to be—a Book written by God.

Let me tell you about something I experienced with this highly unusual, supernatural-smelling Book: For a time, something strange began happening every time I opened the pages of my Bible (or so it seemed).  If I flopped them open to read at random, the verses would contain in them, somewhere, something about a house.  If I followed a regular schedule of planned reading, in every reading there would be a house.  I began to get the feeling that Someone was trying to convey a message to me through the Book He wrote.  (Don’t mock!  If you study it long enough, you’ll have your own spooky experiences with it—another reason I’m convinced of the Supernatural at work in the writing of the Bible… even in its reading!)

It took some time, some digging, and some sweating, but eventually, the biblical concept of a “house” came to take on great meaning for me.

I slowly began to see that, in the Bible, a “house” may mean the four-walls-and-a-roof that we call by that name.  Or it could go bigger.  It could mean the people that normally inhabit those four-walls-and-a-roof.  It could mean a family.  It could go bigger still and mean a family-line, even a nation.

Not only did the concept of a biblical “house” come to take on great meaning for me, I began to see that the concept has great meaning for God.   In fact, now, when I step back to look at the Big Picture of the Bible, I unavoidably see it in terms of a “house.”  It’s a theme that winds its way through every twist and turn of the Bible’s plot line.  If I had to summarize the storyline of the Bible in a single thesis statement it is this:  “God is building Himself a house.

Now, throughout most of the Bible, the human “house” that God was building for Himself was symbolized through four-walls-and-a-roof (or early on in the days of that house, through a big ol’ tent also known as the tabernacle.  But we can keep right on calling it a tent and save on syllables.)  And God’s human “house” usually missed the symbolism and got very hung up on the physical structure that was meant to represent God’s real house—His family-line, His sons and daughters.  In fairness, He didn’t make His point clear from the start.  He wrote His story the way all good authors do, not revealing all His meanings till closer to the end.  (But don’t worry!  Lots of mystery yet to be explored.  The meaning behind every point has yet to be clearly revealed.  And that’s because the Story hasn’t ended yet.)

Maybe now it’s becoming a little clearer to you why I’ve referenced at the beginning of this post both the passage from Exodus, speaking about the tent that God commanded to be built for Himself, and the Model Prayer Jesus gave to His friends (found in Matthew 6) where He taught them to call God “Our Father.”  Both display the theme, “God is building Himself a house.”  Another way to state that theme is this: “God is all-relational.”

It’s astonishing to me that the only real expert on God the Father taught us to address God not as Creator, not as the Almighty, not even as Lord; but as Father!  It seems that this is God’s role that goes to the centre of His heart.  That’s what I mean by “all-relational.”

It’s God’s dual role of Creator/Father that “The Carpenter” in the title references.  Because I was thinking of the “house” God is building (that living house of sons and daughters), I chose the title I did for this post (and series of posts).  I hope you’ll think of “the Carpenter” in relation to God’s fatherhood and “the Cradle” in relation to His sons and daughters.  But I’ll have more to say on this subject again.

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The Throne: Sovereignty

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 25:10-22: The Ark of the Covenant; and Matthew 6:9-10: The Lord’s Prayer)

“Let your kingdom come.  Let your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

 When the first glimmerings of a Bible study I’m calling The Carpenter and the Cradle gradually began to take shape in my mind, they came to me in two different forms, both (oddly) springing out of the different pieces that made up the furniture or structure of God’s tent.

Along with the idea of condensing the Big Picture of the story of the Bible into a Bible Study where its One Big Theme could be more easily seen, I’d been toying with several smaller themes that seemed to me to be not only integral to this One Big Theme of the Bible (God’s house or the all-relational God), they seemed to me to be themes integral to all of life.  I’ll give them to you in the two forms they presented themselves to me.  First, seven questions.  And second, seven answers.  Or seven words that relate to my seven questions (all starting with “S” because I’m just nerdy like that!)

There also happen to be seven articles from God’s tent we’ll be looking at through this series and, surprise, surprise, they connect up to my seven Q & As.

So, here are my seven (ungrammatical, but it’s the way I think) questions about life: 1—Who’s in control?  2—Who or what do I depend on?  3—What makes life worth living?  4—What’s wrong with the world (or with me)?  5—What can be done about what’s wrong with the world/with me?  6—What can I do about what’s wrong with the world/me?  And 7—What’s my purpose?

Now, in corresponding order (you can do the matching-up yourself), here are my seven “S”s.  (Don’t be intimidated by all the syllables.  Their meanings will become clearer as we go along.  I had to scramble to find words starting with the same letter, and these are the ones that came to me):  Sovereignty, Satisfaction, Shining (or Glory…but it doesn’t start with “S.”  Shining is what glory means.), Separation, Sacrifice, Seeking, and Sanctification.

There’s one more “S” word we need to discuss.  It’s a word that answers, “What’s wrong with the world?”  It’s the word “Self,” and when it’s put in front of my other “S”s to answer my questions, it creates ugly words and very ugly answers to life: Self-sovereignty, Self-satisfaction, Self-shining, Self-seeking, and Self-sanctification.

You must understand what I mean when I use the word Self (with a capital “S.”).  In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with being a self, an individual with a unique existence.  God Himself has selfhood.  But it’s Self with a capital, Self as number one, Self-first, that turns ugly in a hurry.

In other words, it’s Self as our first “S”: Sovereign.

The larger, overarching question that we’ll be exploring by breaking it down into my other seven has got to be, “What is the meaning of life?”  And oddly enough, I think it’s the simplest question in the world to answer.  I can sum up the meaning of life into just one word: “Relationship.”

I couldn’t come up with a catchy “S” synonym for it, but the first and most basic fact of life and the first and most basic fact of the Creator of life that I hope you took away with you if you read my introductory post on “The Carpenter and the Cradle” is relationship.  We talked about God as all-relational.  I’ll let you in on a little secret: not only is God all-relational; so were we all created to be.  We can’t help it.  The need for relationship is embedded deep within our natures.  It is their core.

I witnessed that fact as I cared for my mum in the years before her death while she steadily declined with Parkinson’s and dementia.  As my mum was nearing her exit, on the other end of life’s spectrum, my first great niece made her entrance.  One day, it struck me, watching the two of them interact, that neither had much knowledge about life.  My mum had lost most of hers; my great niece’s was just beginning.  But if neither one knew a great deal, both were capable of feeling deeply.  It was visible.  And the feelings that I saw both experience vividly were all about relationship.  My mum was fully alive to the joy of loving and being loved.  And the same held true for her tiny great-granddaughter.  I could see her react to love with love.

But Self (capital “S”) is the ultimate enemy of relationship.  Relationship seeks another and another’s best.  Love puts another above self.  Self seeks to win.  The results are devastating to relationship.  I’m sure we’ve all seen it.

Now, it’s finally time to tell you what all this has to do with the Ark of Exodus 25.  The Ark represented God’s throne.  God’s throne speaks of God in control.  God rules from His throne.  He reigns.  He is sovereign.  But the question we’re all asked to decide is, “Who’s in control?  Of me?”  In God’s house, God is on His throne.  But each of us is given the opportunity to choose who will sit on the throne of our own lives.  This question, “Who’s in control?” determines whose house we live in.  The house with the shrine built to Self is a cramped space, big enough to hold only one—although there’s plenty of room for the enormous loneliness that results from the building of that shrine.

God’s house, however, is full of relationship.  It’s all about relationship.  It is relationship.  And that can be no surprise when the Builder is all-relational.

The Table: Satisfaction

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 25:23-30: the Table of Shewbread; and Matthew 6:7-8, 11: the Lord’s Prayer)

“Give us our daily bread today” (Matthew 6:11).

 

It’s an interesting thing: All of us, at one time or another in our lives, have weighed in on the question, “Who’s in control?” (the first and most basic decision of our lives), with a solid, “I’m in control of ME!  ME, ME, ME!”

As little people, haven’t we all said it?  “You’re not the boss of me!”  We may or may not have said it to a parent or teacher or older sibling, but we all, consciously or subconsciously, have said it to God.  Some say it to God by disbelieving in Him.  (It certainly follows logically that if He doesn’t exist He can hardly be in control of me!)  Others of us would deny that we’ve ever told God He can’t tell us what to do.  But our actions say otherwise.

Now, that’s not the interesting thing.  In fact, it’s such old news, no one should be surprised by such a statement of the obvious: every one of us wants to be the boss.  At least of ourselves.  Even those of us who have willingly turned over the controls of our lives to God—even we fight a daily fight with the little, inner voice crying, “I’m in control of ME!  ME, ME, ME!”

No, what I find interesting is this: while God gives us freedom and does allow us to refuse His sovereignty in our lives, none of us can entirely manage self-sovereignty.  He has set up His world in such a way that none of us can be completely self-sovereign, self-sustaining, and self-satisfied.  We all have far too many needs that cannot be met within ourselves and our own resources.

Think of the needs that must be met for us to get through a minute, an hour, a day, or a month: air, water, warmth, food.

At least three times a day when our internal stomach-alarm-clocks begin ringing, most of us are made aware of a very pressing dependency we all have.  Most of us think so much about food that obesity has become the new pandemic in some countries.  Health experts wring their hands and wail about our modern, out-of-control appetites.  But the abundance of food is the only change in the human condition.  Humanity has always been obsessed with food.  In times of scarcity, the obsession is how to get enough.  We have to be obsessed.  We can’t survive without it.

But have you ever asked yourself why?  Have you ever taken a philosophical look at food?  I mean, why must we be dependent?  What are the deeper life-lessons to be learned from food?

Trying to see the thing from God’s point of view, I do see a very good reason He made us as helplessly dependent creatures.  And that reason ties in to yesterday’s question on sovereignty.  “Who’s in control?”  Yes, God gives us freedom.  Yes, we can refuse His sovereignty in our lives.  But we simply cannot maintain our own.  And He installed many pointed reminders of that fact within our very natures.  And so, today’s question: “Who or what do I depend on?”

We think we can be our own personal gods in our own personal universes.  Kinda funny, then, that we still have to borrow all the air and water and sunshine and seeds and soil and chlorophyll and nutrients and gravity and electromagnetic fields from the one He created.  We’ve said to God, “I’m in the driver’s seat.  This is my car, and you can get out.  Or take a backseat.  We’re going where I want to go.  Oh, and by the way, I’m broke.  Can I have a fifty for gas?”  It would be laughable if it weren’t so exact.

Those who would like to do away with the fact of a Creator have run across a fact that won’t be done away with.  It’s called, “the anthropic principle,” and it’s the admission that our universe had to be incredibly finely-tuned to support life, particularly human life.  And yet it does support life, even human life.  And we didn’t do the fine-tuning.

On whom or what do we depend?  What satisfies our hungers?  What sustains our needs?  Only God and what He’s created.

It’s as though God has graciously said to us through our physical (and other) dependencies, “Yes, you can choose against my rule in your life.  But I’m creating you with built-in warnings that to do so is cutting off your very life-source.  Dependence on Me is life.  Independence from Me is death.”  This principle is exemplified in the Bible through that dependency, one of the most obvious, that I keep coming back to over and over again this lesson—our need for food. And here’s where the table of Exodus 25 comes in.

First, you must understand that the table and the bread on it in Exodus 25 were not for the purpose of feeding God as some cultures may have viewed their offerings to their gods.  The table in His tent was God reminding His people that He fed them.  The bread on it was for the satisfaction of the needs of the members of His household, the priests who served in the tent and later the temple (Leviticus 24:5-9).  In a larger sense, however, the table was meant to remind all God’s nation—all His house—that it was He who fed them.  And satisfaction could be found only in Him and in His house.

I’ve referenced the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of this post, and here’s a question for you: Why do you think Jesus told us to ask our Father for our daily bread immediately after telling us God already knows what we need?  The answer I can see is that we tell God about our needs not for His sake but for ours.  We ask for our daily bread not because He’s forgetful and may need reminding to provide for us but because we are forgetful and do need reminding who provides for us.  Several times a day, my stomach sends me urgent reminders of my dependence on God.  Nevertheless, it’s still too easy to forget that most basic fact of life.

The Lampstand: Shining

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 25:31-40: The Lampstand; and Matthew 6:9: The Lord’s Prayer)

“Our Father in heaven, let your name be kept holy” (Matthew 6:9b.).

I’ll admit it.  I’m a TV talent show junkie (or I would be if I owned a TV.  As it is, I’ll spend hours watching snatches of these contests on the Internet.  I know if I had the opportunity, I’d be glued to these weekly dramas.).

But I’m not the only one.  From the popularity of these shows, it’s a form of entertainment that few can resist. Their almost-universal popularity makes me realize that they’ve tapped into something fundamental in human nature.

We’ll come back to talent contests in a moment, but let’s jump right into today’s question.  Today’s question is: “What makes life worth living?”  And the answer I want you to consider is this one: Worship.  But what is worship?

In a generalized way, it’s the manic gleam in the eye of the sports’ fan who has memorized his team’s every statistic, going back to 1932.  It’s the hyperventilation in the scream of the movie fan when her idol reaches out from the red carpet to brush her outstretched, pleading hand.  It’s the, well, I suppose it’s the addictive substance that drives habits like my talent-show-watching behaviour.  Worship is simply “worth-ship.”  It’s acknowledging worth.  Or put another way, it’s the recognition of beauty (in all its forms).

In a biblical sense, it’s the acknowledgement of supreme worth, and it’s to be directed only toward God.  But like the dependencies that find themselves met ultimately in God, all those areas of life that draw us so powerfully for some reason or other draw us because, originally, their drawing power comes from God.  The athlete’s ability is not of his own making.  It was given by God.  Likewise to all other talents.  Likewise to all the wonders of nature, the rapture of romance, the joy of humour, or any of the other directions that worship may be aimed.  Rightly-directed worship takes the focus off the gift but uses the gift as one more reason to ascribe supreme worth-ship to the Giver.  There is nothing boring about worship, properly understood.  Worship is what we live for.  It’s what we were made for.  And we will all worship something, even if it’s wrongly-directed worship.

Now, let’s get back to the subject of my addiction and TV talent shows and the fundamental characteristic of human nature they’ve managed to tap into.  They showcase people with a dream.  Always.  So, do we tune in week after week because of our own dreams?  Are we living vicariously through the hero or heroine whose dreams we get to watch come true?  That’s certainly part of the appeal for me.  And here’s something I’ve noticed about dreams that struck me as strange when I started to think about it: our dreams are not just about ourselves.  They always seem to involve others.

Do people who enter nationally-televised singing contests, for instance, do so only because they love to sing?  They all say so.  But it’s not quite true as far as it goes.  If that was all there was to it, anyone could sing to him or herself with a hairbrush for a microphone in front of the mirror in the privacy of the bathroom (which, by the way, has the best acoustics in the world—it’s likely the reason so many of us imagine ourselves as great singers) and be perfectly content.  No, the dream always involves singing to people.  It always involves applause, screams, whistles, validation.  Ascribed worth-ship.

The fundamental law of human nature that these shows tap into is the law that we are all extremely invested in what others think of us.

And in and of itself, that’s not a bad thing.  It’s a relational thing.  Relationship as a one-way street is not enjoyable.  Neither is it relationship.  It’s not enough for us to love.  We desire to be loved in return.  That’s at the heart of the validation we seek from our big dreams where others admire us.

It becomes a bad thing when ol’ capital “S” Self gets its greedy hooks on it, and shining is only fun when it’s outshining.  When winning talent contests is only fun because other people lose.  Being number one.  Self-first.  But that’s a subject for another day.

Discovering that worship wasn’t the drudgery I’d thought as a kid from Sunday morning “worship” services (that weren’t, really) was revelationary for me.  So was another discovery: the reason behind God’s desire for our rightly-directed worship.  It may come across like God’s on an eg0-trip.  Why would God want our supreme worship?  Isn’t Self with a capital “S” what’s wrong with our world?  Why doesn’t that truth apply to God?

I’m going to tackle that question tomorrow.  For today, let me just say that one reason God desires our rightly-directed worship is, in a way, for the same reason we dream our big, shiny dreams.  God really cares what we think about Him! This so-startling-it-seems-like-heresy doctrine is splashed across the pages of the Book He wrote.  It’s the truth I see through God’s great concern for His name.  A person’s name is not something he possesses for his own sake.  It’s all about others.  It’s how others know him.  A name is an identity, but it’s an identity that inextricably involves relationship.  When God expresses a great deal of interest in His “name,” it tells us that it’s important to Him how we perceive Him. And when I finally began to grasp this truth, that God is the same species of relational that we are (except without the relational brokenness we all carry), I fell down in awe at the beauty of it.

It’s what I see through the lampstand in God’s tent.  He wanted His people to see His beauty—beauty that’s meant to draw us to Him.  The lampstand was all about shining.  It was all about beauty.  And so is worship.

The Walls: Separation

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 26: The Walls of the Tabernacle: and Matthew 6:9: The Lord’s Prayer)

“Our Father in heaven, let your name be kept holy” (Matthew 6:9b.).

 

I have to confess that my eyes glazed over as I read Exodus 26 today in preparation for writing about it.  I’m sure the measurements and number of loops for the walls of God’s tent all had their reasons.  But seeing I don’t know them, we won’t be discussing them today.  It’s the principles of the tent walls, not their proportions, that will claim our attention today.

I’ve told you one answer already to “What’s wrong with the world?”  The other answer we’ll explore today is the one represented by walls: Separation.

Separation, as I’ve come to understand it from the Bible, means so many different things, it’s hard to know where to begin on this subject.

Maybe I’ll first address the separation that we see from Exodus 26 and today’s focus verse: the holiness of God and God’s name.  If you’ve never heard it before, you may be surprised to learn that the Bible word translated “holy” (or “hallowed,” also “sanctified,”) really means nothing more nor less than “separated” or “set apart.”  But what could it mean that God is “separated,” that His name is “separated”?  Separated from what?

My initial thought was, “Separated from all that’s wrong with the world.”  But after I thought twice about it, I realized that God and His name were holy (separated) long before there was anything wrong with the world.  From eternity, in fact.  Holiness is one of God’s primary characteristics.

The very simple explanation occurred to me, then, that God and His name are and always have been set apart from anything and everything and anyone and everyone else.  There is no other one like Him.  He is unique.

A discussion of even the very most basic understanding of the characteristics of the God of the Bible would take far longer than we have today.  Or any day.  Or every day.  His eternal, infinite, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present (just to name a few traits) nature is a subject a little too large for a blog post.  To give you a small start on a knowledge of the God the Bible describes, think of what science has now taught us about our universe and remember that the Bible tells us that God spoke it all into existence in, like, oh, six days!

Uh, yeah!  He’s unique!

One of the first things God told His people they had to know about Him was this:  “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (See Deut. 6: 4).  In other words, the One God.  The One and Only.  The Only God.

Yesterday, I told you we’d tackle the subject of Self and why it’s okay (not just okay—right and necessary) for God to be in control, for God to be sovereign, for God to be worshipped as supreme, to be in Top Spot.  If Self-first is the ultimate enemy to relationship (the meaning of life), why doesn’t this principle hold true in God’s case?

Here’s answer number one: God’s throne is God’s rightful place.  As the utterly and completely unique One God, only God is fit to rule His universe.

Here’s answer number two (and this one is mind-bending, so take some time to really chew on this answer which will take the rest of our time together today): Self-first is the enemy to relationship.  Always.  It produces only evil, and that’s because Self-first is the opposite of God’s all-relational character.  Good is good because it grows out of the nature of a good God.  Evil is evil because it is unlike God.  And the God of the Bible is not a Self-first kind of God.  So anything growing from a Self-first root will unavoidably be evil and anti-relational.

I must just touch here on one of God’s characteristics that shows us both how unique and how all-relational He is.  No human claims to understand it.  That’s one thing that convinces me no human invented it.  It was revealed only in hints throughout the early days of the writing of the Bible, but the doctrine is present in a veiled way in Chapter 1.  It’s the doctrine that not only is the LORD our God One, but He is also Three.  He is One God in three persons and three persons in One God.  Don’t worry about the math.  For now, just take away this idea: Within His own nature, God is in relationship.  Self-first is impossible for God.  In His own self, He is entirely other-centred.

But to get back to today’s question, evil exists, and the possibility for it could only exist, because of God’s unselfishness.  Because God is incapable of the Self-first life, all that is wrong with the world is wrong with the world.

Because God is love, He gives freedom.  He is on His throne.  He rules in His universe.  But He will only rule in individual lives when the individual freely chooses His rule.  Because He is all-relational and the opposite of Self-first-driven, He will only be my Sovereign when I choose that He should be.  Does all this bending make your head hurt?  Mine is aching.

Because relationship only works when Self yields Top Spot, and God is all-relational, He yields Top Spot in our lives.  Until, in an equally relational move, we refuse to take Top Spot and yield it to Him.  Then and only then does our relationship work.

But all of us, when it was offered to us, got a greedy gleam in our eyes and said, “Really?  I can nab Top Spot in my own life?  Well, thank you very much, then!”  And evil was conceived in our lives.

Why do I say that separation is what’s wrong with the world (though in another sense, positional separation is one of God’s traits)?  It’s a different kind of separation that’s created when we choose Self-first.  It’s a relational separation.  Because Self-first is the enemy of relationship, Self-first can only create relational separation.  And that’s what’s wrong with the world.

This oversimplification of evil we’ll see expanded as we walk together through this series.  But remember Separation-due-to-choosing-Self-first as its cause.

The Altar: Sacrifice

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 27:1-8: The Altar of Sacrifice; and  Matthew 6:12-13: The Lord’s Prayer)

“Forgive us…Rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:12a.-13b.).

 

We don’t see it directly from Exodus 27, but the rest of the laws of sacrifice from the books of the Law tell us: The altar was used for burnt offerings.  Their burning makes one point abundantly clear: The offerings on the altar were dead.  Burning, in the Bible, is the destiny of the dead.

We also don’t see from Exodus 27 the sacrifices that were offered on the altar, and the passages detailing them are far too numerous to list here.  Many types of offerings were to be given to God, but the sacrifices for sin on the bronze altar were the horned animals that the horns on the altar would have represented.  These were the domesticated animals that the Israelites raised and used for food; animals that were “clean;” sheep, goats, cattle.

Yesterday, I asked you what’s wrong with the world (me), and then informed you that I believe it’s separation.  Relational separation.  Broken relationship.  Between God and humanity and between humanity and humanity.  Our brokenness goes deep and affects every area of our lives.

It’s interesting, then, that another biblical way of looking at separation (the relational kind) is wrapped up in this ugly little word: death.  If you’ll think about it for a few minutes, you’ll easily be able to see why separation is equated with death in the Bible and death is equated with separation.

The Bible teaches us that a human is a union of a body, soul, and spirit, and when the body is separated from the real, inner, living person, it’s a dead body.  Likewise, the sting of death for loved ones left behind is their separation from the one who’s died.  Relational separation always involves a type of death, and death always involves a type of separation.

If you can remember back to almost the beginning of these lessons, I talked about the dependencies God gave us and why.  I told you that God, in essence, says to us, “You can choose against my rule in your life.  But to do so is cutting off your very life-source…”  Relationship is life, and life is relationship.  He gave us our physical dependencies to drive home the point that we can’t survive on our own without Him.  And then I talked quite a lot about our dependency on food.  What happens to us without food?  Separated from a life-source (such as food… or its Provider), death results.

So… what’s wrong with the world?  Today’s answer: one word: Death.

And finally, today’s question: “What can be done about it?”

But here’s the staggering thing.  From the Bible, the answer to both questions is “death.”  The cure to the disease is found only in its outcome.

The tent walls that we looked at yesterday reminded us of separation—the positional separation of God’s holy uniqueness.  But also the relational separation between ourselves and God because of our unholy self-first-ness.  And before anyone could approach those walls that represented God’s throneroom, there was the altar: a reminder of death to be reckoned with.

From other passages in the law, we know that only one person (the high priest) ever entered the most holy place and then only once a year and never, ever without the required sacrifices (Lev. 16, Heb. 9:7).  To enter the most holy place meant death.  It always meant death.  If someone entered the wrong time or the wrong way, it meant the death of the trespasser.  For the high priest to enter it once a year in the prescribed way, it still meant death—not his own but the death of a substitute, the death of a sacrifice.

All this talk of separation and death isn’t the part of the story we like to dwell on.  But it’s a very necessary part.

You must remember that the tent God commanded to be built for Him held meaning bigger than its four (or so) walls, and every piece He commanded to furnish it held meaning.  If a man or woman were audacious enough to challenge the restrictions of the most holy place in the wrong way, they died.  Then and there.  Yet every man and woman in the nation of Israel (and me…and you) have, in that bigger meaning kind of way, challenged those restrictions of God’s throneroom.  We’re asked to choose: Who’s in control?  Who’s sitting on the throne of my life?  And every one of us, at some time or another, has chosen the wrong answer.  The answer that means separation.  The separation that means death.  But because that death doesn’t happen all at once or visibly all at once, we don’t realize the horror of our position.  We feel the horror to be far greater when we see the instantaneous, visible, physical death of the man or woman who said to God (effectually), “You’re not the boss of me!” and charged into God’s throneroom, believing (apparently) that God didn’t inhabit that throne.  And we’re meant to feel that horror of the results that followed.  But we’re meant to transfer that immediate horror into its bigger meaning and realize that the results are the same for us—just less instantaneous and less visible.

Don’t forget to hang on till the end of the story, though.  When we get closer to the end and see what the altar of sacrifice really represented in that bigger meaning kind of way, I hope we’ll again be awestruck with wonder and fall down in the worship of the all-relational One who is entirely incapable of putting Self first.  And went to great lengths to demonstrate it.

The Incense: Seeking

(An Excerpt from The Carpenter and the Cradle, a Bible Study by Connie Cook)

(From Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38: The Altar of Incense; and Matthew 6:9-10: The Lord’s Prayer)

“This is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven…Let your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:9a.-10a).  “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness… (Matt. 6:33a., KJV).

What can be done about what’s wrong with the world has been done!

I’ll skip ahead in the story (it may be no surprise to you, anyway) and say that the first altar shows us this: The substitute sacrifice has been offered.

But there is still a part I play in the question, “What can be done about what’s wrong with me?”  There’s still the question, “What can I do?”  God’s done His part, but He (in His relational way) leaves me free to respond.  Or not.  And the first (really, the only) step in what I need to do comes back to that first and most basic of life’s decisions:  Who’s in control?  I must reverse my original decision and decide after all that God must be in control.  Of me.

Today’s focus verses focus on God’s kingdom.  It took far too long for me to have an understanding of what “God’s kingdom” means.  I now see its meaning in this very simple definition: “All that over which God is King.”

But isn’t God’s kingdom everywhere and everything?  Isn’t He the Supreme Ruler of the universe?  Yes.  And no.  As we’ve discussed, the one territory over which His flag does not fly (until we fly it) is our own lives.

I’ve told you that it’s the decision, “Who’s in control?” that determines which house we live in.  God is on the throne in His house.  And when I decide that that state of affairs is the only way to live, I enter into His household and His kingdom.  There’s a little more knowledge involved in that decision (we must know who is really God: the One in control.  But we must also know who God really is–at least, a few of the important basics), but for now, we’ll leave it in those simple terms and the “more” that’s involved will become clearer as the rest of the story unfolds.

But what does all this have to do with the altar of incense in God’s tent that we read about in Exodus 30?

In this series, I’ve skipped over the portions of Exodus 27-30 that don’t deal directly with the furnishings of the tabernacle.  There were instructions on the courtyard, the priestly clothes, and their consecration service that we’ll pass over.  Seeing the bigger meaning behind all these pieces of the Law is a fascinating process.  But another study entirely.

The next piece of God’s tent that we need to look at for this series is the incense altar.  And I’ll cut to the chase today and tell you a little fact revealed through other passages in the Bible that we wouldn’t likely have figured out on our own.  From Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 5:8, 8:3, 8:4, incense represents prayer.  Whenever it shows up throughout the Bible, it is being used as an offering of worship or entreaty to a higher power.  (The Israelites weren’t alone in their use of incense as a religious sacrament.)

You may still not see the link between prayer and today’s opening discussion on God’s kingdom, so I’ll tell you how they connect up for me.

Some time ago, I began praying the same request one of Jesus’ disciples made to Him in Luke 11:1, “Lord, teach us to pray…”  “Teach me to pray.”

It occurred to me, seeing Jesus responded with the Model Prayer also found in Matthew 6, that maybe I should finally start digging into that prayer and discovering what it means.  Up to that point for me, it had been a group recital that I knew by heart from repeating it from time to time.  (In fact, we tend to use His Model Prayer in the very way that Jesus instructed His disciples not to pray in Matthew 6:7: as meaningless repetition.  Ironic, that!)

I began praying the Model Prayer every day, starting with the statements of the prayer, then examining them to see how they fit me and my situations, really thinking about them so they didn’t become meaningless repetition.

It dawned on me gradually that, through the words of the Model Prayer that I was repeating, I was really asking for the same thing over and over—just in different ways and applied to different areas of life: God’s kingdom.

“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  I’m asking for Your will.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  You know what I need today.  Please give me what You know I need.  Again, I’m asking for Your will.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This is Your will for my life.  I’m asking for Your will.  “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  In other words, help me to do Your will.  That’s the deliverance I need.  I’m asking for  Your will.  “For Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”  I’m asking for Your will forever.  So be it.

Now, all this may seem a rather pointless exercise.  We’re told God already knows what we need.  So why bother asking at all?  Especially, when all we’re really asking, anyway, is that God do what He already wants to do?

For me, it’s all about the word “seeking.”  Seeking relationship.  Like a Father who already knows what His kids will ask and is ready to answer, He still wants to be asked.  Exodus 30 shows us that our rightly-directed prayers delight God.  To Him, our time together when we come seeking Him is a sweet-smelling fragrance.  True, the prohibition of Exodus 30:38 against using the sacred incense for any purpose other than seeking God is really a prohibition against praying to or worshipping any other.  But it also reveals to us that we pray not only for our own sake.  But for God’s.