Upon the Holy Hill

Upon the Holy Hill

The Fifth Sunday After Trinity

Genesis 1-2

Upon the Holy Hill

I heard a story of a prayer meetin’ in East Texas.  Now, some of you may have never ever been to East Texas so let me put you in the picture.

I’ve never lived there but I’ve spent much of my life not far away so I feel qualified to speak on the subject.  Besides, my sister married a man from East Texas and has lived there for more than 30 years.  She says you know you’re in East Texas when you start seeing refrigerators in the front yard.

I once knew a guy from East Texas called Big Jim.  He used to tell us stories about his parents, Bud and Hoss.

Now you’ve got the scene.  There was present at this prayer meetin’ a man known to many as one who had claimed the filling of the Holy Spirit a number of times, only – as they say in East Texas – to get backslid.  And, yes, that’s as bad spiritually as it is grammatically.

As matters proceed, this fellow gets himself worked up into quite a state.  He’s swaying with his eyes closed and before long he begins moaning, “Fill me, Lord, fill me with thy Holy Spirit.”

Whereupon an older lady across the aisle who has witnessed this scene before chimes in, “Don’t you do it, Lord; he leaks!”

My, my, the things that are done in the worship of our Lord.

As I understand the matter after no little study and reflection, worship is to proceed decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).  Back before church was about me, it was about God.  In a few scattered precincts, including our own, it still is.

We contend that the psalmist’s words are as true today as on the day he set them down:

“O, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! Tremble before Him, all the earth” (96.9).

Where the Bible is silent, we look back to the practices of the early church for our cues.  You may have heard it said that the church at its birth was the church at its best.  In many ways, it was.

The earliest Christians were all Jews, steeped in the worship of the synagogue and/or the temple.  They didn’t see themselves as inventing a new thing.

They took the liturgy they knew and reshaped it to accommodate the new reality of Christian worship.  Jesus Christ had offered the final sacrifice.  No longer was it necessary to slaughter animals and burn them on the altar.

But archaeology and history tell us these proto-Christians did not discard their old ways that did not conflict with the new doctrine.  They held on to the familiar.  And well they should have.  The shape of their liturgy – and ours – first appears in the Garden of Eden.

The creation story we’re studying, in fact, will tell us a great deal about the worship God wants from us if we’ll listen carefully.

In the ancient world, gods were people on heavenly steroids.  As a king is of a common nature with his subjects, these gods were not of a different essence from their worshipers.  They were not better than they; they were merely stronger and they lived longer.

They did not transcend the cosmos – that is, they didn’t operate both within it and outside it – but remained on the inside.  They were fickle in their dealings with their worshipers and open to bribery and manipulation.

Yahweh, God of Israel, was a deity of an entirely different stripe.  While He could step into His world, He was not a part of it.  He ruled from above it and, sometimes, inside it.

He was utterly consistent in His character.  He didn’t demand that His people appease, flatter or cajole Him; no, He commanded them to imitate Him.  Because He had created them in His image, they had the capacity to do exactly that.

This Yahweh was holy and He had set His covenant people apart from the world while in the world to represent Him among the nations.  All of those cultic regulations we find in Leviticus served to identify them as different from those other nations.  Yahweh says to Israel:

“And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).

He did not leave His people in doubt regarding how they might please Him but gave them a covenant that regulated how both He and they would conduct themselves.  In return for His covenant faithfulness, He required of them unstinting loyalty.

Here was a dramatic departure from other religions.  As long as their authority was not challenged and their needs were met, those other deities beamed down and burped happily while their people worshiped other gods.

Not so Yahweh.  He issues these as His first two commandments:

“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.

“For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:3-6).

The carved images, or idols, of other religions were not gods themselves.  Worshipers created them to entice the deity to descend from the spiritual realm and take up residence in their idols in the physical world.

When the god had taken possession of the idol and dwelt among the people, the idol mediated revelation from the god to them and worship from them to him.  In Egypt, for instance, the god Amun presided over court cases.

His subject people enacted the possible verdicts and the idol, manipulated by the priests, chose one.  A cult of this sort was exactly what Israel’s first two commandments were meant to prohibit.

Israel’s prophets, alas, needed to remind their people rather frequently that Yahweh was not like humans and not like other gods.  Like people in the churches today, those Israelites of old lived within a culture, one that wanted to pull them away from devout worship.

When a pagan people had enticed their god to take up residence among them they designated the place where he dwelt as consecrated space.  The architecture of that space involved sacred zones, buffers between those zones and limited sight lines.

The design erected barriers to the approach of anyone or anything deemed profane.  A curiosity seeker could not even catch a glimpse of the god.

In Mesopotamia, the temple complex encompassed the temple itself, the god’s living quarters, usually having multiple chambers, a garden and a ziggurat.  This last was a system of stairways and ramps the god used to travel between spirit and physical realms.

The Tower of Babel was one such.  Those who built it were not trying to ascend to heaven but to lure the deity down to earth, where he would dwell in his temple and they could control him as they constructed their kingdom of man.  We all know Yahweh’s response well enough.

The temple was deemed to be the center of the cosmos and, more than that, a microcosmos – a representation of the entire world.  The Bible shows us heaven as the Lord’s throne and the earth as His footstool.  In the Genesis account, then, the Garden of Eden is Yahweh’s earthly dwelling place, His temple.

Its river is the source of fertility for the entire world.  From the Creator flows the power that animates and organizes the creation.  In the 47th chapter of his prophecy Ezekiel draws a picture of God’s temple as a source of nurturing and healing:

“Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine” (v. 12).

While the temple imagery of the Bible lines up at some points with that found in other religious texts, we find here a key difference in Yahweh’s provision for His people.  Elsewhere, the people tended to their gods, feeding them and even tucking them in at night.

Yahweh needs nothing from man.  Quite the contrary, He supplies all of man’s needs.

The garden belongs not to Adam and Eve but to their Creator, and it is His means of fulfilling His promise of Genesis 1:29:

“See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food.”

At the fall, Adam and Eve forfeit their access to God and their privilege of dwelling in His earthly sanctuary.  When Yahweh sets Israel apart as His possession, He establishes first the tabernacle and then the temple as the means of partial restoration of His presence.

The Israelites construct the tabernacle according to His exacting specifications given in Exodus, a portable shrine they transport that their God might be with them in their wilderness wanderings.  After they have occupied and pacified the Promised Land, King Solomon builds the temple as a permanent structure on a grander scale.

Its design and furnishings, however, replicate those of the tabernacle . . . which capture the imagery of Eden.  Like Eden before it, the temple and the entire temple complex in Jerusalem serve as the paradise from which Yahweh orders and commands His world.

Solomon began with huge columns to represent the pillars of the earth and an enormous laver of water in the courtyard, depicting the sea.  The Lord, enthroned nearby in the Holy of Holies, is Master of the chaotic sea.

Eden was to be a place of rest for Adam after he completed his mission of mastering the world as God’s sub-regent.  The temple and the surrounding territory are to be the place of rest for God’s people after they have established dominion over the Promised Land and are living faithfully within it.

The lampstand that resides just outside the Holy of Holies in the temple has the appearance of a small flowering tree and looks back to the tree of life.

The biblical authors use the same Hebrew verbs to describe God’s “walking back and forth” in both garden and temple.  As we have seen, the creation account reveals Adam as the priest in the garden; the temple becomes the domain in which the priests of Israel minister in God’s residence.

They resurrect Adam’s prescribed role as a guard and a “gate-keeper,” one who kept watch at the gates (Nehemiah 11:19).  Cherubim guard the ark of the covenant in the temple as they had guarded the gates of Eden after the fall.

The imagery used to describe the temple stimulates a picture of a garden like that arboreal sanctuary that was the first sacred space.  The temple recapitulates Eden as a source of water and a place of precious stones.  Gemstones adorn the high priest’s robe.

Like Eden, the temple sits atop a mountain.  It is a place of wisdom, symbolized in Eden by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and in the temple by the ark containing the tablets of the law.  Eating the fruit of the tree or touching the ark resulted in death.

In both cases, the entrance faced east.  Each shows a three-tiered structure.  The innermost part of Eden where the water source was corresponds to the Holy of Holies in the temple.

This is the place where the Holy One presided between the cherubim on the ark, His footstool.  As such it was the source of both physical and spiritual life.

The garden itself aligns with the Holy Place, or courtyard, that only the priests could enter.  The land and seas beyond the garden that Adam was to subdue relate to the outer court of the temple.

The early church incorporated the ideas implicit in the architecture of both Eden and the temple in what is called the “theology of ascent.”  God resides at the pinnacle and the approach to Him is strictly controlled through levels of sanctity.

In the temple, the laity could advance no nearer than the outer court.  The priests, after going through the prescribed protocols for cleansing, could minister in the Holy Place.  And only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and he only once a year and under rigid restrictions.

The majestic cathedrals built in the Middle Ages translated this imagery in their architecture.  The laity occupied the pews, the priest presided in the chancel and God held the highest place, where a webbed ceiling represented the divine glory cloud.

Soaring columns, stained-glass windows and the high altar pulled the worshiper’s attention ever upward to the place of God.  In the Holy Communion, the time of solidifying and celebrating his union with his Lord, the worshiper left his pew and made his way upward to the chancel to receive the bread and wine.

He knelt at the rail to receive his gifts from God on high, mediated by the priest.

In our age, many churches have elevated evangelism over worship.  The cry of their heart is “Baptize!  Baptize!  Baptize!”  But into what do they baptize new believers?  The gospel of prosperity?  Of self-help?  Of feeling good?

If they do not draw them into worship that honors God, the train will soon run off the tracks.

We in the liturgical churches have preserved those time-honored elements in our worship to this day.  Thanks be to God!

Beloved, we were created for worship of our Creator and Redeemer, of the King of kings and Lord of lords.  That being the case, the manner in which we perform it is of no small concern.  God gets His greatest glory when we conform our praises to His desires and not our own.

We know from Hebrews 12 that when we assemble each week on the Sabbath we enter into the ongoing worship in heaven.  What does it look like?  Every glimpse the Scriptures give us reveals a scene of order, decorum and high ceremony choreographed to celebrate God’s majesty.

From beginning to end.  We have looked in on Eden in the beginning.  Let us go now to the end, the last chapter of the Bible, where we find St. John’s description of what he observed in his revelation and what we will see when we join him there:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 21:1-2).

The fruit for food, the leaves for medicine, just as Ezekiel foretold.

From Eden to the temple, from Ezekiel’s prophecy to John’s vision, the place of God’s presence is the place of nurture and healing for His people and for their celebration of His majesty, solemn and joyful, orderly and adoring.

But at the last we will find no temple there, no temple made by human hands.  For after describing the splendor of the eternal city John tells us:

“But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (21:22).  They are glorious and resplendent, and we worship them according to their design and not our own.  All glory be to the Lord God Almighty and to the Lamb!  Amen.

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Posted on: July 21, 2016Ed Fowler