Saturday, August 23, 2008

Make Me a Sanctuary: becoming a priesthood

This discussion series is on the priesthood of all believers and our work in building a dwelling place for God on earth, in our place, time and culture. Allow five to eight weeks to work through the whole series. If you wish to use this in your church please contact me and give credit. Nicely formated Word document is available. –James Hilden-Minton,

Make Me a Sanctuary: becoming a priesthood

April 2008

Discussion series by James Hilden-Minton

Developed for Adult RE at

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Atlanta

Key Text: Exodus 25:1-9

1 The LORD said to Moses:

2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering;

from all whose hearts prompt them to give

you shall receive the offering for me.

3 This is the offering that you shall receive from them:

gold, silver, and bronze,

4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen,

goats' hair, 5 tanned rams' skins, fine leather, acacia wood,

6 oil for the lamps,

spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense,

7 onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece.

8 And have them make me a sanctuary,

so that I may dwell among them.

9 In accordance with all that I show you concerning

the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture,

so you shall make it.


What does it mean to us today in this congregation to say that we believe in the “priesthood of all believers?” In what ways do we practice this priestly service within the church, also in our homes, work and places of learning? These are the questions we wish to consider as a congregation.

As we learn in Exodus 19:4-6, Israel was called to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Indeed this is why God took them up from Egypt, saying, “I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.” The Church too shares this same priestly call as stated in 1 Peter 2:9.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

In this course, we will look at the latter portion of Exodus to see how the Israelites—in the midst of their wilderness wandering—fulfilled this call to priestly service in the construction and sanctification of the Tabernacle. This was a communal and incarnational work. We shall see how God empowered them to make a dwelling place for YHWH among the people. Again 1 Peter 2:5 extends purpose to the Church.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Discussion Series

Discussion 1: Thunder on the mountain and earthen altars (1-2 sessions)

Discussion 2: The elevation of our gifts and ourselves (2-3 sessions)

Discussion 3: God’s presence dwelling with the people (2-3 sessions)

Discussion 1

Thunder on the mountain and earthen altars

We often think of God as up there and us down here. On one hand this verticality gives the spiritual seeker an upward aspiration, the path to holiness is taken to be an ascent up a mountain or a ladder. On the other hand, up/down imagery also reinforces elitism, social hierarchy, and injustice for those at the bottom.

How are we to understand up and down in the book of Exodus? Clearly the first half regarding God’s liberation of Israel speaks powerfully against any unjust hierarchy. Pharaoh was judged and condemned, his elite servants suffered the plagues, and his army was drowned in the sea. This is the work of a God who favors the poor and week.

Let’s consider two passages that stand just before and after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. These passages contrast the “up” of the Lord who thunders on the mountain with the “down” of the people who may only make altars of earth.

The apocalypse on Mt. Sinai

Exodus 19:16 - 20:1 16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.

18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. 20 When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish. 22 Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them." 23 Moses said to the LORD, "The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, 'Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'" 24 The LORD said to him, "Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them." 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

  1. How does YHWH reveal Godself to all Israel?
  2. For whose sake were limits set around the mountain?
  3. Would you rather ascend with Moses or remain safely in camp?

Earth-bound worship

Exodus 20:18-26 8 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: "You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it."

  1. What limits has God placed on worship? Why?
  2. How does chiseling a stone profane it? How does ascending steps to an altar expose our shame?
  3. Where is God? Who is YHWH? What’s the difference?
  4. What is earth-bound worship?

Discussion 2

The elevation of our gifts and ourselves

YHWH descends to the top of Mount Sinai and calls Moses to come up higher and draw near. So Moses enters the dense cloud at the top of Mount Sinai where God is, and they speak “face to face”. Remaining on the mountain forty days and forty nights, Moses receives the Words of Instruction, the Torah and. He is given a vision of the tabernacle, haMishkan or “dwelling place.” This is a vision of the LORD coming down further to dwell among the tents of Israel. The God who had so terrified the children of Israel with his thundering and fiery display, the same LORD who had killed all the first born of the Egyptians by passing through the land, this One is to dwell among the people in the center of their camp.

Not only is Moses given this vision of a God who wills to descend, even to be in way incarnate among the people, but he is given precise designs and command as to how to build the sanctuary and all its furnishings. God tells Moses to command the Israelites to make this tent and veil for God’s dense presence.

Exodus places this in high contrast with the sin of the Golden Calf. In that episode, the people lose patience waiting for Moose (and God) to come down. They pressure Aaron to make a god for them. They take up a collection of gold and Aaron fashions it into a calf. He declares that this is the God that had brought them out from Egypt and will continue to lead them. Moses finally returns with the two tablets. Approaching the camp, he hears the sound of their dancing and singing about their own god. This is the very sin that he had so strongly warned them about. Sensing the anger of YHWH, he casts down the tablets and calls for the extermination of the idol worshipers.

How is God to dwell in the material domain with the people without becoming an idol or being confused with an idol? The priestly work of the people is to sanctify, set apart, a place for God in such a way that boundaries between the sovereign Lord and idolatry is maintained. And yet the “curtain” between the holy and mundane is to remain thin and approachable. The architecture of the tabernacle with the Tent of Meeting screened within it gives expression to this delicate work of priestly service. And the people are given the honor to offer freely their material goods and skill. In the Hebrew, the word for offering, terumah, derives from the verb to uplift. In providing for and constructing the Mishkan, the people are sanctifying the earthly and uplifting themselves. This is what a priestly people is called to do.

Inaugurating the work

We will look at Exodus 35 which is a pivotal chapter. What precedes it was the vision of the tabernacle and what follows it is the fulfillment of that vision. In chapter 35, Moses speaks to the people. They respond by bring in their gifts so that the artisans may begin the work.

Exodus 35:1-3 Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. 3 You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.

  1. Why is only the Sabbath commanded here?
  2. What does it mean to “kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day”?
  3. How do we understand Sabbath and commandments in our congregation?

Exodus 35:5-19 5 Take from among you an offering to the LORD; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the LORD's offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats' hair, 7 tanned rams' skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece. 10 All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the LORD has commanded: the tabernacle, 11 its tent and its covering, its clasps and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the curtain for the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance, the entrance of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin with its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests.

  1. The command is to take up an offering. Is giving optional only for those of “a generous heart”? Why?
  2. What symbolism or connections do you see in the material and objects listed?
  3. How is the offering a part of our worship?

Responding with materiality of life

Exodus 35:20-29 20 Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. 21 And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the LORD's offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. 22 So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the LORD. 23 And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats' hair or tanned rams' skins or fine leather, brought them. 24 Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the LORD's offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. 25 All the skillful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; 26 all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats' hair. 27 And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, 28 and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. 29 All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the LORD had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.

  1. Where do the gifts come from? Why were they so eager to give?
  2. Why does materiality matter, why not just gold or just spirituality?
  3. How might our Stewardship committee use this?

Artisans filled with the spirit of God

Exodus 35:30-35 30 Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 he has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. 34 And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. 35 He has filled them with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen, or by a weaver-- by any sort of artisan or skilled designer.

  1. If Moses had a detailed vision of all the tabernacles, what was left to “design”?
  2. What are these gifts? Where do they come from?
  3. How do the arts and the Spirit interconnect in our congregation?

Discussion 3

God’s presence—dwelling among the people

In this final discussion, we will follow the presence of God in relation to Moses and the people of Israel. There is a duality in asking where God is and where we are. Tracing the presence of God in our own lives—both as a congregation and as individuals—can reveal where we are spiritually. We may discern within Exodus narrative multiple spiritualities, multiple postures with respect to God’s presence.

In our first discussion we looked at YHWH’s thunderous display on Mount Sinai within the sight and hearing of all the people. A boundary had been set on the mountain between God and the people with penalty of death to anyone who might transgress this perimeter. This is a spirituality of fear and distance. Moses leads the people out of the safety of the camp to the foot of Mount Sinai, to the “between place” just on this side of the boundary. The people, however, shrink back to the safety of the camp. The challenge to this spirituality is to move from fear that falls back into reverent approach, transforming boundary into meeting place. In other words, we allow life to push us out of our safety zone and embrace our edges. Ultimately, for the Christian, this represents our encounter of Christ, specifically in his death and resurrection.

In our second discussion we looked at God’s command to lift up a freewill offering and our skills to make for God a dwelling place among the people. The God, who touched down to the top of Mount Sinai and so frightened the people, now expresses his desire to descend further and actually dwell in the midst of the camp. Moreover, the entire congregation of Israel enjoined to provide the materiality of God’s incarnational intention. The artisans are said to be filled with “the spirit of God with wisdom, insight and knowledge. This corresponds to a spirituality of offering ourselves in our substance and action. Ultimately for the Christian, our gifts trace back to the gift of the Holy Spirit. There remains the temptation to offer our substance and gifts to things which are not God or godly.

As Moses descends Mount Sinai, what was a vertical spirituality is to become a horizontal spirituality. YHWH wills to descend to be among the people, but the questions remain whether God will pitch his tent in the center of the camp or outside and whether Israel will move centered about this tabernacle as the pillars of cloud and fire lead the camp along each stage of its journey. In our final passages we will see Israel and Moses enter a third, even a fourth kind of spirituality.

Far from the camp

Exodus 33:1-7 The LORD said to Moses, "Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your descendants I will give it.' 2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." 4 When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned, and no one put on ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.'" 6 Therefore the Israelites stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward. 7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the LORD would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.

  1. What was Israel’s sin? What was the penalty?
  2. What does the tent of meeting represent?
  3. Does God pitch his tent within the center of our congregation?

As the LORD commanded Moses

Read responsively.

Exodus 40:16-33 16 Moses did everything just as the LORD had commanded him. 17 In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up.

18 Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; 19 and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

20 He took the covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above the ark; 21 and he brought the ark into the tabernacle, and set up the curtain for screening, and screened the ark of the covenant; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

22 He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the curtain, 23 and set the bread in order on it before the LORD; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

24 He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, 25 and set up the lamps before the LORD; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

26 He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the curtain, 27 and offered fragrant incense on it; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

28 He also put in place the screen for the entrance of the tabernacle. 29 He set the altar of burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and offered on it the burnt offering and the grain offering as the LORD had commanded Moses.

30 He set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, 31 with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. 32 When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the LORD had commanded Moses.

33 He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work.

  1. What was the order by which Moses set up the tabernacle? Why is this punctuated with the refrain, “as the LORD had commanded Moses”?
  2. What elements connect with your faith journey?
  3. What is significant about the statement, “So Moses finished the work”?

And the glory of the LORD

Exodus 40:34-38 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

36 Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; 37 but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. 38 For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

  1. Where are the people? And what is the presence of God among them? What is at the center? What is fixed and what is moving?
  2. Why was Moses no longer able to enter the tent of meeting? What sort of spirituality does this demonstrate?
  3. What does all this mean for our congregation? How is the movement of the Spirit before our eyes at each stage of our journey?

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