I would like to speak today about meeting with God.
'Therefore, my friends, 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’ (v19,22)
We come to church, we pray, we have chill moments, but few of us really know God.
The amazing thing is that we are invited to come into the presence of God. That is what prayer really is.
In the Old Testament, people realised something that we have forgotten, particularly in our Western traditions: you cannot simply rock up into the presence of God.
They understood with a clarity that we have lost, that God is utterly holy and totally other. He is awesome
On one occasion Moses dares to ask God for a vision. He says to God, ‘would you show yourself to me’. And God replies and says, ‘Moses, I am so holy, so other, so utterly beyond anything that you can conceive or imagine, that if you saw me, it would blow your mind. Nobody can look me and live. But’ – he says – ‘I will show you something. I’ll show you my back, my shadow’.
Or think of Uzzah. He was one of the people who had to transfer the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was being drawn by oxen, but it shook. So Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and he touched it. And we are told that God struck him and he died on the spot. At which point the people very wisely decided that they would leave the ark where it was.
Or Isaiah. He is a prophet in the Old Testament. He has a vision of angels and archangels and the throne of God; he glimpses a little of the glory of God. And he says, ‘Woe is me for I am sinful person and I live among sinful people and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’.
Or when the people of Israel are in the wilderness – they’ve come out of Egypt but haven’t yet entered the promised land – they come to the Mountain of Sinai. And God appears to them – the glory of God appears. There is thick cloud and fire and thunder. And the people are terrified. So they say to Moses, ‘you go up the mountain, because we cannot. If we go up we will die’.
God is like lightening. And he created each of us in his image to be little channels of lightening. But because of my sin, my disobedience to God, my rebellion against God, I have ceased to be lightening. And so, if God – who is lightening - touches me, or if I touch God, then I am dead.
You can’t simply rock up into the presence of God.
But God in his love, wants to have a relationship with us – despite our sin. He wants us to be intimate with him. He wants us to come to him, to reach out to him, to touch him - without us being burnt up.
And so he gives to the people of the Old Testament a way of coming safely into his presence.
He gives them the temple in Jerusalem, a place where they can meet him safely.
It was a large building divided into sections. On the outside was the court of the Gentiles, non-Jews. That was as far as Gentiles could go. Then you had the court of the women, the court of men, and the court of priests. And beyond the court of priests was the holy place. Only those priests who were on the service rota could go there. And right at the very heart of the holy place, separated from it by a huge curtain, was the holy of holies – the place where God dwelt. And only the high priest could go into the holy of holies, once a year.
And God also gave them the gift of sacrifice.
The High Priest couldn’t just waltz into the Holy of Holies.
He couldn’t put on his Sunday best and walk in.
He could only come into the presence of God if he was covered by a sacrifice. He identified himself with an animal. That animal was then killed – in his place – the blood was smeared on him, and he was able to go into the presence of God.
And what about the rest of the people of the Old Testament who couldn’t go there?
Well, they could turn to the priests, who could turn to the High Priest. And God said that if they came to the temple and made a sacrifice then he would hear their prayers. They would be allowed to touch the lightening and to live.
But, says the writer to the Hebrews, with the coming of Jesus, something remarkable happened. There was a change
Jesus, he says, is the great high priest, who – when he died on the cross 2000 years ago – made one final all-sufficient sacrifice for all people – for Gentiles, for women, for men - for all time.
So we no longer need the temple and we no longer need priests – in the Old Testament sense – because we have a great high priest. We no longer need to be smeared with the blood of animal sacrifices, because the blood of Jesus covers us.
And the amazing thing, and it is amazing, is that because of Jesus we can touch lightening. Because of Jesus we can come into the presence of God and not be struck dead. It says here, ‘He has made a new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’.
So I imagine it a little like this:
We are about to pray. We are about to approach lightening. We stand nervously at the entrance of the temple. We think, ‘can I go in, will I be welcome?’ But Jesus is also there. And he takes us by the hand and he walks us through the court of the Gentiles and the court of the women and the court of the men and the court of the priests. And if people stop and stare and say, ‘why are you here?’, when they see we are with Jesus they step back and allow us to go through. And Jesus brings us into the Holy Place. In front of us we see the curtain .. But the curtain is torn. It was torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus died on the cross. And we look through the torn curtain, and we see .. nothing. We turn to Jesus and we say, ‘But I thought I came here to meet with God’. And Jesus says, ‘The curtain tore from top to bottom not to allow you in – but to show that God is no longer there. He has come out’. And you say to him, ‘So where is he?’ And Jesus smiles, and says, ‘I am here, beside you, with you and in you’.
So we are invited not just to pray for things – that is like treating God as the genii in the bottle - but we are invited to actually come into the presence of God. We are invited to approach and to touch lightening. And we can come with assurance.
We come with a true heart – we come as we are, not pretending to be anything else, with all our worries and fears and anxieties and desires and shame and mixed up emotions. We come as open as we can be about our failures and our doubts and our weaknesses. And we come to him because we want to know God.
And we come with a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and a body washed with pure water.
It is obviously a reference to baptism: to repentance and faith. Because however foul our conscience, however much we cringe and want to crawl into a corner when we remember what we have done to other people; and however stained our body by sin (just think of Lady Macbeth looking at her hands and seeing the invisible blood: ‘Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!’) – if we have turned to Jesus in repentance, then we come as forgiven men and women, washed inside and outside by God’s holy Spirit.
We can talk about God, read Christian books, say prayers, come to communion – but not meet with the presence of God. That happens when we hold onto ourselves – our agenda, our status, our lives. It is only when we are prepared to let go of those things, and surrender everything to him, seek him with our whole heart and put our full assurance in Jesus, that we will meet with him.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
We really do need to hold together the holiness and the intimacy.
Some traditions within the Christian church emphasise the utter holiness and otherness of God.
When a person first goes into an Orthodox Church they go into another world. Often above us is an image of Christ the judge. There is a different language that needs to be learned. There are many more rules than here, and some of them are very strict. The liturgy is given and long. You realise very quickly that God is other, that God is not to be messed with, that God asks for everything from you. And yet as you grow in that tradition, you also begin to understand the central place of intimacy with God and love for God. You only need to read the writings of the saints, and fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, to realise that. This is a tradition in which you begin on your knees and the Lord Jesus lifts you up.
We, in our Western tradition, tend to begin with the intimacy and love of God, and emphasise the truth that Jesus is our friend. We try to strip away rules to make it open and accessible to everyone. But as we grow in our Christian faith, we will begin to realise that the one who is our friend is also the eternal Son of God, is holy, is lightening. We begin by standing up, and the Lord Jesus helps us to kneel.
Whatever tradition we are part of, we need to remember that we are invited, and encouraged, to come into the presence of God.
‘Let us approach ..’
And we are invited and encouraged to come ‘in full assurance’.
Not in ourselves, for we cannot simply rock up into the presence of God. But in Jesus.
And so this invitation is for everyone. Or at least it is for everyone who is prepared to put their trust in Jesus and not in their own righteousness or unworthiness.
You can come into God’s presence anywhere and at any time: on the metro, at 3am in the morning when you can’t sleep, or during the day. In our heart and in our mind we can turn to him.
But it is also helpful to put aside time when you consciously choose to approach God. And that might involve going to a place which is special for you, or kneeling, or turning off the phone. Jesus says, ‘When you pray .. go into your room and shut the door’. But at that moment you are consciously and deliberately giving yourself to God.
And of course, it is important to come to church in order to meet together, encourage one another in this and receive him. The passage speaks about the need to keep on meeting together, and not get in the habit of not coming to church. It is significant that it speaks of the habit of not coming to church.
And what we are doing today is a particularly powerful picture of what this is all about.
In a few minutes time we will be invited to come forward for communion.
Don’t come forward thinking that this is our right. This is one of the moments when we are coming forward to touch holiness.
But equally don’t hold back – because you do not think you are sufficiently worthy.
You are not! But we come with the assurance that Jesus is our high priest, who loves us, who died for you, who is our high priest, and has opened a new and living way for us to come into the presence of God.
Tony Campolo writes, ‘Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.
Jesus is the one who brought you to church today. He is the one who is beside you now as I speak, telling you – ‘that Malcolm – he speaks far too many words. Don’t listen to that. Ah. But do listen to this, because this is what I want you to hear’. And he is the one, when you get up to come forward, who will come with you. And as you stand here, he is standing beside you. And as you eat the bread and drink the wine, he is the one who, by faith, will come into you and change you.
You will meet with the holy one and he will begin to make you holy.