Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sermon for Passion Sunday

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (April 5, 2009)
“It’s Curtains!” (Mark 15:37-38)

“It’s curtains for you!” That’s something a gangster in an old movie from the 30’s or 40’s might say. It means you’ve met your end. You’re going to die.
Sometimes people say “The curtain fell.” When a curtain falls at the end of a stage production, it means it’s either the end of the act or the end of the play all together. When used as a figure of speech, it means it’s the end of something, not just a play, but perhaps an event, or a life.
In today's Gospel reading, St. Mark writes, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” It was “curtains” for Jesus. “The curtain fell” on him. But we know that the curtain rose again. A “new act” for the whole world began when Jesus rose again on Easter morning.

You and I erect curtains in our life. We place barriers between us and other people for various reasons. We shut ourselves off from our neighbors out of fear. We refuse to talk to someone because they made us angry. We think of ourselves as better than others because of our skin color. We do and say hurtful things that alienate us from other people. The curtains are drawn and nobody can reach us, nobody can see inside. And when we put up those curtains, those barriers, we show that our sinful self continues to put up the curtains between us and God. We don’t want him looking into our life. We especially don’t want him looking into our secret life, our life behind closed curtains. We don’t want him knowing our deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings.

The tearing of the curtain in the temple proves that in the death of Jesus, the barrier between us and God has been removed. Our deepest and darkest sins are forgiven. And then, living out God’s forgiveness in our lives, the curtains that we have drawn between us and other people can also be torn in two.

The tearing of the curtain in the temple showed that it was the end…it was “curtains” for 1) the Old Testament temple worship, 2) the barrier between us and God, and 3) the barrier between us and other people.

A few weeks ago we finished our study on the book of Leviticus in our Sunday morning Bible class. In that class we learned more about the way God's people of old worshiped in the tabernacle and later in the temple. You may remember that there were two large areas in these structures. There was the Holy Place, in which stood the table of showbread, the lampstand, and the altar of incense. Then, there was also what was called the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies. In this room rested the gold-covered box called the “Ark of the Covenant.” The lid of the Ark was called the “atonement cover” or the “mercy seat,” and it was here where God had promised that His merciful, gracious presence would dwell. In Leviticus 16, the Lord said that he would “appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.”

Separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place was a large curtain. Exodus 26:31 tells us that it was made of “blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twisted linen.” The curtain in the temple at the time of Jesus’ death was said to be 60 by 30 feet and was as thick as the palm of your hand. According to Jewish tradition, the curtain was said to be so heavy that it took 300 priests to handle it.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would go behind the curtain in front of the “mercy seat.” He would take the blood of a sacrificed goat and sprinkle it on the mercy seat. In so doing, he would cleanse the Israelites of all their sins, specifically all those sins which had not been covered over by any sacrifices in the past year. This continued on into the days of Jesus earthly ministry, although at that time there was nothing behind the curtain. The ark of the covenant was probably destroyed when Solomon’s temple was demolished by the Babylonians, although there are assorted legends about the ark still being hidden somewhere.

Jesus died at 3 o’clock, and so the tearing of the curtain must have taken place at the time when the priests in the temple were making preparations for the evening sacrifice. Many priests must have seen and perhaps even heard the great curtain tearing, since the altar of incense stood right in front of the great curtain. All of a sudden the priests inside the temple were able to gaze into the awful emptiness of that most holy enclosure into which only the high priest alone had been permitted to enter, and that only once a year. With unprivileged eyes to have gazed on the dwelling place of God the shocked priests surely thought they were going to die. They all must have understood that God’s own hand had torn the curtain, and forever deserted and thrown open that Most Holy Place where he had so long dwelt in the mysterious gloom, lit up only once a year by the glow of the burning incense of the High Priest who made atonement for the sins of the people. Indeed, God’s own hand did rend the veil … God’s own hand placed the sins of all people, yours and mine, upon Christ, who had become our “mercy seat” … God’s own hands were nailed to the cross, who had become the sacrifice for our sins … and God’s own hands also moved the stone away from the tomb.

The tearing of the curtain in the temple was the end. It was “curtains”… “curtains” for the temple worship with all of its rituals and sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus was once and for all. The service of the Jewish high priest was at an end. Jesus had become our divine high priest. He had now come and had entered into the Holy of Holies of heaven itself with his all-atoning, all-forgiving blood. In Hebrews 9, the holy writer tells us, “When Christ appeared as a high priest … he entered once for all into the the holy places … by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

The tearing of the curtain was a clear indication that the Old Covenant with its high priests and sacrifices was now a thing of the past. There was no more need for an intervening screen and mediating high priests. Now, by virtue of the atoning blood of Christ all sinners have free access to the throne of God. St. Paul, in Ephesians 3, writes that in Christ Jesus “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”

The death of Jesus also meant that it was “curtains” for the barrier between us and God. The great gulf between mankind and God was removed because it was “curtains” for Satan who first built that barrier when he tempted Adam and Eve to sin and brought sin upon the whole human race.

The way to God was now wide open to every man. It was the end of the exclusion from the place of God’s presence of all who were not priests. Before, only priests could enter into the inner courts of the temple. It was the end of the exclusion from the place of God’s presence of all who were not Jews. Previously only Jews could enter the temple courts. Gentiles could come into the court of the Gentiles, but could go no farther into the court of the Jews. St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:18, “For through him we both [meaning Jews and Gentiles] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” In Christ all barriers are broken down. All have equal access to God through Christ Jesus.

Within the holy of holies dwelt the very essence of God. Now with the death of Jesus the curtain which hid God was torn down and men could see him face to face. No longer was God hidden. No longer do we need to grasp and grope to find God. We can look at Jesus and say, “this is what God is like. God loves me like that.” We can look at Jesus and say, “This is my God.” And we can look to the means of grace, His Word and Sacraments, where He finds us and touches us with His love.

In the death of Jesus, God has torn down the curtains in our life which we try to hide behind. He looks right into our life. He sees our secret life, our life behind closed curtains. He knows our deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings. But the blood of Jesus covers all of it. He is our “atonement cover.” He is our “mercy seat.” We are cleansed and set free.

Finally, the tearing of the curtain tells us that in the death of Christ, it was “curtains” to the barrier between us and others. Again, in Ephesians 2, Paul writes, For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Eph. 2:14-16)

Paul is speaking here about the wall that existed between Jews and Gentiles, but which is removed in Christ. But we can certainly apply that to all the walls, all the curtains that we pull closed, and that shut us off from others. In Christ, God tears down all those curtains. We can courageously open ourselves to our neighbors to share Christ’s love with them. We can forgive those who have angered us and restore our relationship with them. We can consider all people equal in God’s sight and value them because God made them and redeemed them in Christ, even as he made us and redeemed us. We can do and say encouraging and edifiying things that draw us closer to other people. The curtains that once were drawn can be pulled wide open, torn down, so that we can be open and honest and loving towards others for whom Christ has torn down the curtain ...

… the curtain that ended the old temple worship,

… the curtain that once signified the barrier between us and God,

… and the curtain that once separated us from others for whom Christ also shed His precious blood.

In Christ, it’s “curtains” to all of that!


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