Vicar's Talks - Good Friday 2017

When God gave the people the Ten Best Ways to live, they loved them so much that they wanted to have them always with them. God told them to build a box, called an ark, to keep them in and to cover the ark with gold. It had poles on the side so the people could carry it with them wherever they went.

So begins the script to the Godly Play story of the ark and the tent. Godly Play, or as we call it at Green Lane School (our church school) ‘The Big Story’ – is a means of introducing bible stories to children and adults in an open, non-directive way. Sat in a circle up at the school the children’s focus is on various artefacts that help them to engage with the story…their concentration is impressive, somehow the story engages them at a deep level and their reflections afterwards are a delight.

The story of the ark and the tent, as its name suggests, focuses on how the people of God came to create a holy place…a which they could place the Ten Commandments and where they could approach God at His mercy seat. ‘You can’t just walk up to something as precious as the Ten Commandments’ says the story, ‘You need a way to get ready.’ And so, slowly and deliberately, the Big Story sees a model of the tent being created before its hearers.  An incense burner is placed before the ark – sweet smelling incense helping the worshipper to ‘get ready’. The menorah – a 7 branched lampstand burns to one side …opposite it is a table on which is placed a piece of bread for each of the 12 twelves tribes of Israel. But these things are not enough…more is needed to help the people ‘get ready’.

The tent is given walls…within it a curtain separates off the Holy of Holies. Overhead the tent is overlain with four coverings – linen (with purple and red figures woven into it), woven goat’s hair, ram’s skin dyed red and then tanned goatskins. By enclosing the tabernacle space becomes limited. Now, only the priests can enter… but this is still not enough. Outside an altar for sacrifice stands as a reminder of the cost of entry. Opposite the altar is set a great bowl in which the priests must wash…all in order to ‘get ready’ to come close to God. They wash and must then put on special linen garments to enter the tent.

The children may well only hear the story once but most would be able to reconstruct the tabernacle and place its various elements within it. But the story ends with a great circle being drawn in the sand around the tent to represent the enclosure within which it stood – the whole area (with the tent within it) is known as the tabernacle and the tabernacle is now complete.

What becomes apparent in the telling of the story is the gradual separation that takes place between God and His people. It is all perfectly understandable, it makes absolute sense (in the scriptures it is commanded by God Himself) and yet access to the Holy of Holies, access to God’s mercy seat is slowly but surely being restricted…limited to Aaron and his sons (and the girls in the classes hearing the story usually notice that). Access narrows down to a priestly elite drawn from just one tribe, one family…so access is based on gender and having the right family tree.

Just a few minutes ago we read a short passage from the letter to the Hebrews. A letter that explains this day (Good Friday) by drawing on imagery from the Old Testament pictures of the tabernacle and the temple. Jesus, says the writer, is our great High Priest. He has entered once and for all the sanctuary of God. He has taken with him the blood of a sacrifice that will never have to be repeated - his own blood, the symbol of his perfect obedience to His Father’s will. This is the sign that His life has been perfectly aligned to that of God the Father – poured out in love for the world.

The imagery is strong…somewhat esoteric but it is the claim that the writer to the Hebrews makes that is of importance for us today. For where, in this picture are we? Hear again: ‘Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus…let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith…’

The Christian claim, made in this passage is that Jesus’ death, His sacrifice, has made it possible for people to come into God’s presence in a new way, a way that had previously not been open to them. Jesus creates this route for us, drawing aside the curtain that had separated the people from God and welcoming us in.

Who are we? Who are the people that can come into God’s presence through Jesus? Look around you. Look in the mirror. Consider your background and the background of those who sit alongside you in church. Ponder the miracle of the Christian church – the multitude of languages and practices through which people of all nations and cultures worship God through Jesus, His Son. The walls of the tabernacle have certainly expanded if not been removed altogether.

Those who now stand on Holy Ground can do so with confidence. Gone are the endless reminders of sin and guilt. Hear the words of the passage again ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more’ quotes the author. There is a freedom here, a release, a welcome that means that Christian people need not forever be questioning whether they are ‘good enough’ for God. The answer, of course is ‘No’: none of us are. We are not here on our own merit but because we have a High Priest who as welcomed us here.   It all comes back to Him, to Jesus.

And why are we stood on the other side of the curtain…why does he bring us to this place alongside Him?  ‘Let us approach with a true heart with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water’: the language and the context suggests that these are priestly images – remember the altar from which blood would be sprinkled to signify the restoration of a relationship with God, the setting to rights of all that had succumbed to sin…and disorder and chaos. Remember the bowl in which the priests would wash before entering the tent. This death, the Good Friday, sees the creation of a great priesthood of believers, followers of Christ. A priesthood whose task is to bring humanity into the presence of God and to represent God to humanity: a priesthood modelled on that of Jesus that will take itself to the places were people are hurting most and embrace them with the grace of God. A priesthood that will stand in God’s presence and, through prayer and acts of mercy and justice align itself with the will of God for the world.

All this was made possible when the sky turned black and Jesus cried with a loud voice ‘It is finished’. No wonder we call this day ‘Good’.