I wonder, what do you think of camping? What has been your experience of sleeping under canvas? (I spent a night in a tent in our back garden during August with the children, and we had to retreat indoors about 4am when the heavens opened and it sprang a rather large leak!)
Maybe you are one of those people who loves being outdoors, who loves being close to nature. Someone who rejoices in the freedom and adventure of taking a tent out in the wilderness. Someone who counts Bear Grylls and Ray Mears as their heroes.
But perhaps you are a bit more like Delia Smith or Jamie Oliver, someone more accustomed to home comforts and home cooking. You may even be someone for whom the whole idea of living under canvas fills you with dread!
If that’s you, then be grateful you weren’t one of the Israelites in our Bible passage today, towards the end of Exodus. Because at that time, three thousand years ago, the entire nation of Israel was living in tents. Young and old, male and female, the whole nation was camping out in the desert wilderness of Sinai. The Israelites were a people on a great hike – a nation in transit. They were en route to Canaan, their new home, their Promised Land.
As we join their story today, there is one tent still to be put up. One more yet to be pitched. God’s tent, God’s tabernacle, was yet to be erected in the middle of the Israelite’s camp. In our reading this morning God begins to give Moses detailed instructions for how his tent should be built, what it should be made of, and what furniture it should contain.
The tabernacle tent hadn’t been designed by big name brands Millets, Karrimorr or Berghaus – it had been designed by God himself in Heaven.
The Tabernacle tent
So what did this tent look lie, and what was its purpose? Well, the basic design of the tabernacle tent was like this:
• Firstly, it was to be surrounded by a walled courtyard, containing an altar for animal sacrifices.
• The tent itself was to be made of wood, fabric and animal skins. And it was to be divided into two rooms by a thick curtain. The outer room was to be called the “Holy Place”, and the small inner room was to be named the “Most Holy Place”. The whole tent would have been nearly 15 meters long, five metres wide and five metres high.
• Four pieces of golden furniture were to be placed inside God’s tent. A table, a lampstand and a small incense altar were to be made for the larger outer room. And inside the Most Holy Place was to be put an Ark – a wooden box covered in gold, with angels on its lid.
We don’t have time this morning to investigate the detailed symbolism and significance of each part of the tabernacle. But, in short, the purpose of his tent was threefold:
• Firstly, the tabernacle was to symbolise God’s presence with his people. It showed the Israelite camp that God was with them, he was alongside them on their journey to the Promised Land. Whenever they saw the tent, the Israelites would be reminded of God’s presence with them, his protection over them, and his purpose for them.
As Christians we know, of course, that God became even more fully present with his people one thousand years later – in the person of his Son, Jesus. In Christ, God dwelt with us in a man, not just in a tent.
• The second purpose of the tabernacle was as a visible reminder of God’s holiness and moral purity. The courtyard wall and tent curtains symbolised that sinful human beings could not walk freely and easily into the presence of a perfectly good God. And the altar outside the tent was a visible reminder that only by a sacrifice can sinful humans approach a holy God.
Thankfully, as Christians we know that the ultimate sacrifice was made by Jesus on the Cross a thousand years later. A sacrifice which has made it possible for us to enjoy a relationship with God forever.
• Thirdly, and finally, the tabernacle tent was intended to be a sign of God’s rule over his people. At the very heart of the tent, was the Ark – and inside it were placed the stone tablets on which God had written his Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments to govern and guide his people.
Then, as now, God leads and teaches his people by his written word – which is why today the Bible should play a central role in our lives as Christians and as a Church.
So the tabernacle tent was designed to be a visible sign to God’s pilgrim people. It was to be always with the Israelites throughout their Wilderness wanderings. It was to be a constant reminder of God’s presence with them, of his perfect holiness and of his guiding rule. Right until they settled in the promised land of Canaan, God’s tent was to be literally at the centre of their national life.
But before this special tent could symbolise God’s presence, holiness and rule, it needed to be built! And the building of the tabernacle in Exodus is a tremendous example of all God’s people being involved in ministry.
The construction of this sacred tent provides us with a great illustration of how, as God’s people, we can all minister together. It shows us how and why every Christian can serve God, whatever our gender, age or abilities.
Ministry is for everyone!
Our passage begins with God asking Moses to call together the whole nation of Israel, and invite them to make an offering towards the construction of the Tabernacle.
In verses 3 to 7 God reels off an inventory of all the raw materials that are required. Precious stones, precious metals, animal skins, oils and spices were all needed for this special tent. Many man-hours of labour were also needed to assemble it all together. Men and women would be needed to construct the wooden frame of the tent, to make the coverings of the tabernacle, to sew its curtains, to cast its golden furniture, and to make robes for the priests to wear.
In verse 2 God emphasises that everyone is invited to take part. Everyone whose heart moved them to contribute to this great project could do so.
In a similar way, God calls each of us to contribute to his work, his ministry today. He calls every Christian, young and old, male or female, to do what we can to serve and honour him in this world.
We no longer need to construct a tabernacle tent, but God is looking for people to serve him in many different ways. For example:
• Christ is looking for men and women to serve him in their workplace, for people who will use their skills and talents to be the best doctors, teachers, businessmen, parents, grandparents or carers they can be.
• People who are willing to share their Christian faith and their hope with those who have none.
• People who are willing to invite their friends to church. God is looking for people who will pray for others to come to faith.
• People who will respond generously to things like our harvest appeal – this time next week.
Men and women may no longer be needed to construct a tent in the wilderness, but volunteers are needed now to help Christ build his Church.
And whilst our wealth isn’t required for tabernacle furniture or priestly garments, our time and money is needed by Christian churches and mission agencies overseas, as well as by disadvantaged people in our own society.
If we are willing to get involved in ministry, there are more than enough opportunities for us all to contribute.
In Exodus we are set a wonderful example by the people of Israel. They responded magnificently to Moses request. If we were to read on through the next few chapters of Exodus we would see that all the men and women freely and willingly gave their skills and resources towards the construction of God’s tent. In fact, the people were so generous that Moses had to tell them to stop, because too much was being donated!
Our motive for ministry
But why were the people so generous? Why did they freely give so much of their time, treasure and talents to God? The answer is that they did so out of loving gratitude.
Remember that God had rescued these people out of slavery and oppression in Egypt. He had miraculously liberated them from bondage to Pharoah, led them through the Red Sea and was taking them to their own Promised Land. He had even given them laws to live by which would make their lives wholesome, holy and honouring to their Creator. In response to this great rescue mission, this amazing grace, it’s no surprise that the people of Israel were happy to contribute to God’s tent.
If you are a Christian here today, I hope you see the parallels between the experience of the Israelites and your own salvation. Like the Israelites, God has rescued us from slavery, shown us how to live and promised us a great future. If we are Christians here today:
• We know that at the Cross Jesus saved us from sin and its consequences.
• We know that Christ has shown us how to live, and
• We know that Jesus’ resurrection promises us a place in a Heavenly land for eternity.
If we ever feel our love for God growing cold, if we feel our motivation for ministry is ebbing away, can I recommend a moment’s reflection on the Cross, and all that Jesus did for us there.
Remind yourself what Jesus went through to rescue us, and you will find abundant reasons to joyfully and generously serve him in response.
May God’s Spirit inspire us and equip us all to serve Christ in whatever ways we can.