In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — that is, he created all the raw materials he was going to need for the project he had in mind. And the Book of Genesis goes on to describe how the Spirit of God was hovering over those unformed, unorganised raw materials, getting them ready for what they would become.
And we really do not know how long that initial phase of creation lasted. Time is irrelevant to God. And modern physicists also tell us that time was largely irrelevant in the moments after the universe was created. They talk about things like “time dilation”: they say that, as the infant universe exploded outward, the expansion happened with such speed and power that, to someone standing outside the universe — like God — it would have taken just a few milliseconds, but to someone inside the universe those few milliseconds would have felt like billions of years.
So there are a lot of very appropriate question-marks surrounding the mystery of God’s initial creation: how long, really did it take? By what scientific process did the hovering Spirit of God begin to bring order to the chaos of the early universe?
And, very appropriately, the Book of Genesis does not answer any of those questions, because those questions are actually irrelevant to the story of God’s relationship with mankind.
What is relevant are the details of how God assembled and dedicated the earth. And the reason that is relevant is because God designed the earth to be a temple, a house where he would be able to have a relationship with mankind.
So, very appropriately, the Book of Genesis does tell us how long that process took: seven days. Six days of labor; a seventh day of rest.
Now, if you have been worshiping with us for the last several months as we have been reading through the Book of Exodus, you have heard me begin quite a few sermons exactly this way, by going back to the very beginning of Genesis — especially as we got into the section where God was giving Moses his blueprints for the tabernacle, the sacred tent, the mobile temple where God would be able to have a relationship with the nation of Israel.
And so you already know that the reason why I have been starting so many Exodus sermons by going back to Genesis is because, from the beginning, God designed the tabernacle to be a miniature copy of the original creation, the original earth. He made this clear in a number of different ways: from the order in which elements of the tabernacle were introduced, to the way the various materials in the tabernacle were arranged.
Well, in today’s passage, God makes his final point on this topic, linking the tabernacle back to the original creation. He begins like this:
 Moses assembled the whole Israelite community and said to them, “These are the things the Lord has commanded you to do:  For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.  Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
But before we go on I’d better pause for a moment to review what has been happening:
While Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the blueprints for the tabernacle, the people of Israel destroyed their marriage covenant with God by creating a god of their own and worshiping it.
This, of course, ended God’s plan to build a tabernacle and live in the midst of his people. But Moses interceded, he pleaded for mercy and forgiveness, and last week the Lord finally agreed to accept Israel as his fianceé once again.
Which means that plans for the tabernacle are back on!
And this is why Moses assembles the whole Israelite community here: so they can begin the process of building.
And on the surface it might seem a bit strange that Moses begins the building process with further instructions about the Sabbath. But since we already know that the creation of the tabernacle is meant to be an echo of God’s original creation, this actually makes a lot of sense: of course the assembling of the tabernacle should follow the seven day rhythm of the original.
So the people get to work. But as you glance at our worship guide you will notice that, for the sake of time and space, we have not printed out all the material between the beginning of Chapter 35 and the end of Chapter 39. Mostly because we are already very familiar with all that material!
Chapters 35 through 39 basically spell out — almost exactly word for word — how the people followed God’s instructions for the tabernacle exactly as he had spelled them out. The repeated chorus throughout those chapters is this statement: The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.
And we could wonder why Moses wrote it all down all over again in such great detail when he could have just said, “And the Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded.” Why waste so much paper?
Well, because the repetition itself carries its own message. Two messages at least:
First, it tells us that God really cares about his people’s detailed obedience to his detailed instructions. There is no guesswork involved in how God wants his house constructed, and no guesswork in how he wants to be worshiped: the details matter. Twice!
Second, this repetition tells us that the people of Israel were really, truly repentant for what they had done in the golden cow fiasco. They had tried to worship God in the ways that seemed right to them; now they are committed to worshiping him exactly as he wants to be worshiped.
Now, there are some interesting additional tidbits here and there in these chapters. The most interesting is probably the mention in Chapter 38, verse 8, that there were women who served in the tabernacle. But that is all it says, and nobody really knows how they served, or why, so…I really cannot say much about that.
In general, all we are going to notice is that, just as in the original creation, we are not told how long this initial phase of the tabernacle creation took. Just like God did in the first moments of scripture, the people assembled the raw materials and began to bring order out of the chaos. They built the furniture; they wove the curtains; they carved the uprights; they got everything ready for the final assembly.
And  so, we are finally told, all the work on the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, was completed. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses.  Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them.
This is the Exodus equivalent of the first two verses of Genesis: in the beginning the Israelites created the tabernacle. Now the tabernacle was formless and empty, it was disassembled and lying around in pieces, and Moses was hovering over the pieces, checking them and making sure everything was ready for the next phase of construction.
 Then the Lord said to Moses:  “Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, on the first day of the first month.”
…and as we listen to God’s assembly instructions here, we find the repetition of a theme that we have noticed before, this movement from the center, highest, most holy part of the tabernacle, moving steadily outward and downward:
Moses is to begin by assembling the tent itself. Then placing the ark in the innermost room and shielding it off behind the curtain of cherubim. Then placing the furniture in the outer room: the table, the lampstand, the incense altar. Then the altar of blood sacrifice outside the tent, with the basin of water, and last of all the outermost walls of the courtyard.
But then, as we get to verse 9 here, we discover that Moses is not just putting the pieces together, he is anointing each part with the sacred oil, thus symbolically cleansing them, setting them apart, making them holy to the Lord. Moses sanctified every part of the tabernacle as he put it together.
And this is actually the central focus of God’s instructions here. Because, really, anybody can put a tent together. But what is it that makes one particular tent God’s tent? It it the special shape, or the special materials, or any of that? No, actually. If that were true, anyone could make the same kind of tent out of the same materials and call it God’s house. And many have tried.
But a tent only becomes God’s tent when it is properly sanctified by God’s chosen messiah performing this sacred baptism ritual of oil and prayer, which symbolises the purifying Spirit and the purifying Word of God.
And beginning in verse 12 we find that this ritual also applies to God’s priesthood: they also have to be dedicated to the Lord, set apart through this baptism ritual of sacred oil and prayer.
Before this, Aaron and his sons were just men, human beings, persons. Anybody can put a person together: we do it all the time. But merely being shaped like a person or having human DNA does not make a person God’s person. Only God’s messiah can transform the raw materials of a person into a priest of God.
And you want to know something really fascinating? This whole ritual of assembling and anointing the tabernacle and its priests was a seven day ritual.
We actually learned this back in Chapter 29, when God first gave Moses these instructions.
He made it clear that the anointing of the altar was to take seven days. He also told Moses to take seven days to ordain Aaron and his sons. And the Book of Leviticus explains this whole process in even greater detail: this is seven days of sacrifices, seven days of sprinkling with blood and sacred oil, seven days of atonement.
And this answers a question we asked last week: we noticed that God did not seal the renewed covenant with a blood sacrifice, nor did he atone for Israel’s sin. He simply forgave his people and signed the new covenant. We wondered how God could break his own rules like that, and we theorised that the atoning and sealing sacrifices must come later, after the tabernacle was set up.
Well, here we find out that we were right: this is the atoning, sealing, sanctifying sacrificial ritual that was necessary for the renewed covenant.
And the fact that this was a seven day ritual is reinforced in this passage by the very last words here. After Moses did everything just as the Lord commanded him, verse 33 says: “And so Moses finished the work.”
How do these words reinforce the idea that this was a seven day process?
Because this verse here is the Exodus equivalent of the last verse of the creation story in Genesis, which says this: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”
So, to summarise what we have learned today from this passage: after God forgave his people and renewed the covenant with them, the plans for the tabernacle were back on!
So God began the building process by highlighting how essential the Sabbath Day would be to the process. And God ended the process by highlighting how Moses fulfilled the original spirit of the original Sabbath Day by finishing all the work exactly as God commanded. The tabernacle was built and completed according to the seven day rhythm of the original creation.
But now: what does it all mean, practically speaking? I am a literary nerd, as I think most of you have come to realise. So when I discover all these textual patterns and parallels I totally geek out — for me, this is like wine or a 45 year-old Scotch, what more could I want? But even I recognise that it would be nice to have some meat to go with the fine spirits. The word of God is not just beautiful, it is meant to be practical.
So what practical theology are we supposed to learn from all this, and how can we apply that practical theology to our lives?
Well, as I said at the beginning, it is in today’s passage that God puts the capstone on the point he has been building up to for the last 15 chapters: the tabernacle is God’s new creation for the nation of Israel.
Which means that, by studying the seven day ritual of this new tabernacle creation, we can learn some very practical theology about the seven day ritual of the original creation.
Well, for one thing, we learn that it really, really does not matter how long it took or by what scientific process God prepared the raw materials for his original temple, which was the earth. Maybe it was 100 billion years; maybe it was 100 milliseconds; modern physics suggests that those are the same thing, depending on where the observer is standing.
What really does matter is that, just as God’s Spirit was intimately involved in every constructive movement of the craftsmen during the months when they were shaping the tabernacle, so also God’s Spirit was intimately involved in every movement of every atom in the universe through every time-dilated moment when he was shaping the stars and planets.
Which teaches us that God is intimately involved with every movement of every atom in the universe even now, more than 100 milliseconds after creation.
For another thing, we learn that, really, there was nothing special about the planet earth until God spoke and named each piece and made it holy and put each piece in its proper place in order to play its proper role in the system.
Just as the tent only became God’s tabernacle through the application of God’s Spirit and God’s Word in a seven day sanctification ritual, so also the earth only became God’s earth through the application of God’s Spirit and Word in a seven day sanctification ritual. For all the eons — or milliseconds — before God performed that creation ritual, the earth was just another planet, just like a hundred-million other planets in our universe: formless and empty before God’s hovering Spirit set to work; dark and meaningless before God’s Word spoke light into the depths.
And this teaches us that, even though God is intimately involved with every movement of every atom in the universe, God does not actually have a special relationship with every atom in the universe, or even a special relationship with every planet. God is present everywhere, but he is present in a special way here, on this planet.
But why? Surely God does not need to live on a planet?
No. That is correct, God does not need to live on a planet. But we do. And that is why God assembled and sanctified this earth as his temple: so that he could have a relationship with us, his special creation, his priests.
But what is it that makes us a special creation? What is it that makes us priests? Is it the stuff we are made out of?
No. Genesis says we are made out of the same stuff the planet is made of — and so are all the other animals. So that cannot be it. The only thing that set mankind apart from the rest of creation, according to scripture, is the in-breathed Spirit of God, which enabled mankind to hear and understand and obey the spoken Word of God.
Of course, if you are familiar with the story of mankind then you know that our first parents rebelled against the Spirit who had given them life, and this made them deaf to God’s Word. Before Adam rebelled, he had been able to listen and obey; after he sinned he found it impossible to listen and obey, and it is the same for all of us who are descended from him.
And that is why, in this passage, it was necessary for Aaron and his sons to be reassembled and re-sanctified through this seven day anointing ritual; a new application of God’s Spirit and God’s Word was necessary to atone for their sins and transform them back into priests of God, so that they could regain the ability to hear and understand and obey God’s commands.
And that is why this seven day ritual could only be conducted by God’s chosen messiah: the ability to obey God’s Word can only be given to others by someone who has himself obeyed God’s Word perfectly.
And that is what Moses did in this passage; verse 16 tells us that Moses did everything just as the Lord commanded him — and in this way he proved that he was indeed God’s faithful messiah with the power to pour out atonement for sin upon Aaron and his sons and the whole nation.
And this teaches us that we also need a Messiah who has been perfectly obedient to God’s Word. Being born human, created in the image of God, is a tremendous privilege and honour for us all. We were originally created to be priests, mediators between heaven and earth, worship leaders guiding all of creation into proper worship of the Creator. But because of Adam’s sin, we lost that role, we turned aside to worshiping ourselves. And the only way that damage can be undone is through a new application of God’s Spirit and God’s Word, given to us by a perfectly obedient Messiah.
Okay. To summarise what we have learned:
The tabernacle is God’s new creation among his people, his new temple where Israel will experience the life and worship that Adam lost. The creation and consecration of the tabernacle and the priesthood teaches us that God is involved in every atom of creation, but has a special relationship with some particular places in order to facilitate his special relationship with some particular people. And this special relationship must be established through a perfectly obedient messiah.
That is some very practical theology — especially for ancient Israel.
But now we want to know what practical effect this theology should have on our lives here in modern Malaysia. That ancient tabernacle is long since gone, along with Aaron’s priesthood; that ancient messiah, Moses, is long since gone; so what does all this have to do with us?
Well, if you have been worshiping with us over the last few months, then you already know that Moses’ tabernacle was not just a new creation pointing backward to the original creation, it was also a new creation pointing forward to a completely new creation. Aaron’s priesthood did not just point backwards to the priesthood that Adam lost, it also pointed forward to a completely restored nation of priests. And Moses the messiah of Israel, that most favoured son of God in his generation, did not just point backward to the sonship that Adam lost, he also pointed forward to God’s final Messiah, the only Begotten Son of God who is Jesus Christ.
Just as Moses went up to God on the mountain to win forgiveness for Israel’s sins, so also Jesus of Nazareth went up to his Father in the heavenly places. Just as Moses returned, transformed, with the written proof of the renewed covenant in his hands, so also Jesus returned, resurrected, with the proof of the eternal covenant written on his hands. Just as Moses assembled his people and the raw materials for the tent, and then poured out the anointing oil upon them, transforming them back into the priests and the temple of God, so also Jesus assembled his disciples. And the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, tells us that he appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. In other words, just like Moses, Jesus took time to give the first generation of his people careful instructions on how to assemble the raw materials for the true and final temple — which is Jesus’ Church, the gathered people of God.
And just like Moses, Jesus also poured out the sacred anointing oil of God’s Holy Spirit upon his people, transforming them into a nation of priests — but that is actually our topic for next week, so make sure to come back for that.
Practically speaking, then, what does God want us to do in response to this ancient text?
Well, if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, but you have come to realise that you need someone to save you from the utter meaninglessness of your existence as a failed priest, a failed priestess upon this earth, then this is your practical application: Jesus Christ, the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, is the Messiah you seek; so accept him as your Messiah.
Friend, right now your life is formless and empty. Most of the time you are able to hide this truth from yourself. But every now and then you experience those wakeful moments in the depths of the night when stress breaks through your armor and you wonder what is the point of anything. The reason you have those moments is because you are a human being made in the image of God, and as a human being you know that you were made for more than just eating and reproducing and dying. But what?
Other faith traditions — your faith tradition, whatever it is — says that the only way to give your life meaning is by somehow winning the favor of your god, or your gods, or the universe itself. And maybe, if you are very very diligent, your life here will not be too miserable, and in your next life maybe you will get a promotion to a better existence. But again, in those wakeful dark moments when you can no longer suppress the truth, you look up from the depths at the hovering Spirit of God and you know, you know in your heart of hearts that you have not been doing enough, you never will be able to do enough to guarantee that your next life will be better than this one. And you strongly suspect that it will actually be much, much worse.
Well, friend, if that is you, then this is your good news: in the Christian faith, Jesus has done it all for you. Just like Moses, Jesus did everything just as his Father commanded him. And because of his obedience, he is able to share with you the same Spirit of obedience, he is able to pour out the Holy Spirit of God upon you and transform you back into what you were really made to be: a priest, a priestess, mediator between earth and heaven, a guide for all creation.
So all you have to do to accept Jesus’ offer to be your Messiah is…accept. Just pray to him now and say, “I am tired of being the way I am right now, please transform me into a new creation.” And he will. And once you have done this, tell someone here, and we will see that you are baptised and properly integrated into Jesus’ Church, Jesus’ family.
But now, what about the rest of us, who have already accepted Christ as our Messiah, what does our Father want us to do now that we have been restored back to being the nation of priests we were created to be?
Well, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, just as Moses spent some time after his return from Mount Sinai teaching his people how to put the tabernacle together, Jesus spent the first forty days after his return from death teaching his disciples how to put the Church together.
Now, the gospels tell us that Jesus had already spent quite a few months teaching his disciples these things. But the gospels also make it clear that his disciples really did not understand what he was saying until after he had been crucified and then resurrected. Jesus spent those last 40 days of instruction connecting what his disciples had learned before his death with the amazing salvation they had finally experienced after.
We are the spiritual descendants of that first generation of disciples. So Jesus’ instructions to his disciples that we find throughout the New Testament are meant for us also.
Okay. So now we ask: how are we supposed to fulfill our calling as Jesus’ nation of priests?
Well, as we look back over our extended passage today, we remember that the major theme is: the Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses. They finally gave up trying to worship God in their own way, and they submitted to his will for how he wants to be worshiped.
In the the New Testament we find this same theme continued. Again and again that first generation of Christians tells us: “hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you”. Jesus is the master builder of his Church; we are his junior builders. Jesus is the architect; we merely follow the blueprints. Therefore we also must commit ourselves to doing everything just as the Lord has commanded us.
But this is growing increasingly difficult for us in the modern world, because we are the most powerful, empowered generation that has ever lived. And we like to fancy ourselves to be the wisest generation also. Through science we have learned so much about the natural world and about human psychology that many of us in modern Christianity are starting to think we can improve on Jesus’ blueprints for his Church. Just as — about 70 years ago — the church in America became suddenly obsessed with reading the seven-day ritual of creation as some kind of literal scientific description of how God assembled the earth, so also Christians all over the world today have become suddenly obsessed with using the sciences of psychology and market research to try to turbo-charge our assembly of Jesus’ Church. We are trying to take the whole process of salvation apart to see if we can make it more predictable, more effective, more efficient. We are asking how long, really, this last age of the earth is going to take? and by what scientific process does the hovering Spirit of God bring dead people to life? so that we can have more control.
But, very appropriately, God’s Word does not answer any of those questions. Because those answers are actually irrelevant to our obedience. We already know everything we need to know about how to assemble Jesus’ Church.
This is how Jesus summarised it during his final 40 days of instruction to his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Moses’ generation worked with the raw materials of the earth: wood, metal, cloth. We work with the raw materials of mankind. But the basic process is the same: first we go, we call the raw materials for God’s temple together from out of all nations. Then we baptise them: we symbolically sprinkle them with the blood of Jesus, which atones for their sin; we anoint them with the clean water of the Holy Spirit, which transforms them back into the priests of God. Then, we teach them how to be priests, how to obey everything Jesus has commanded, just as we were taught.
And look: if Moses’ generation took many months of slow and careful work to assemble the raw materials of the tabernacle, even though they were only working with wood and metal and cloth, then how much more slowly and carefully ought we to work in assembling Jesus’ Church, since we are working with human beings made in the image of God, infinitely more precious! In the west they have proverbs like, “Haste makes waste” and “speed kills”, and these proverbs are especially true when it comes to the gathering of souls into Jesus’ Church.
In our physical world, a workman who tries to take shortcuts to save time, a workman who uses cheap materials and cheap contruction methods to boost his bottom line, will not find his work approved when it comes time for the hand-over.
This is even more true in God’s spiritual kingdom. By the grace of God, the first generation of Christians laid a foundation for Jesus’ Church as wise builders, and now we are building on it. “But,” the apostle Paul tells us in the New Testament, “each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” And in another place Paul says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read things like this — about how our work will be tested with fire and all that — I get nervous. I get a little panicky. I start to think, “uh oh. Maybe I better work a little harder and do a little more!”
Brothers and sisters, that is not how our Father wants us to respond. Nowhere in these passages does he say we should “do more” or “work harder”. Rather, he is telling us to work smarter. And when he says “work smarter”, what he means is stick to the blueprints.
And what do God’s blueprints say about how we are supposed to go and make disciples of all nations?
Well, Jesus told us clearly that the very best way to preach his authority over the nations is by first demonstrating his authority over our own lives. These are his words: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Evangelising harder, more aggressively, more efficiently, more scientifically is not going to work, because Jesus’ Church is not a science project. Remember, God created the earth so he could have a relationship with mankind; he commissioned the tabernacle so he could have a relationship with Israel; he created the Church so he could have a relationship with us. The relationship is the point, not finishing the project as quickly and as cheaply as possible! There are no shortcuts: before we can be apostles and prophets to the nations we must first become a nation of priests. Going out to evangelise the nations will never work if we do not have a healthy church to bring the nations home to.
So, brothers and sisters, when that panic comes upon us, when some well-meaning Christian tries to use guilt to make us “work harder!”…let us keep calm and go back to the blueprints. Let us ask ourselves these basic questions: have I been baptised? Has my baptism bound me to Christ? Am I learning to hate my sin? Am I learning to love my enemies? Am I longing more and more for holiness, for a community of Christian brothers and sisters, and for a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness?
If our answers to those basic questions are yes, then we can rest in this good news: through our baptism into Christ we truly have been transformed back into the priests that we were originally designed to be. Now, some among us will be called to be apostles and prophets to the nations. But most of us — all of us, really — have been called to act as priests bringing the resurrected life of Jesus to the people closest to us: to our brothers and sisters in our local church, to our spouse and children — if the Lord provides — then to our natural parents, to our natural siblings, to our neighbors and co-workers who do not know him yet…
That is Jesus’ blueprint, that is how we are called to assemble the Church: slowly and carefully, personally and relationally. May we not be led astray into false worship and cheap shortcuts!
We want our work to be approved. That is why we labour: because we want to please our older brother, our bridegroom Jesus Christ. And we will please him! Not because we have laboured perfectly, but because he did. And Jesus is so confident in his own work that, when the Day comes for him to inspect our work and see that we have clung to his work just as he commanded, then he will bless us just as Moses blessed Israel. If indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory, then we will hear him say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
Amen. May it be.