Forging Covenant in the Wilderness:  Yahweh, Moses and the Stiff-Necked People

“God Desires Sanctuary for All”

Exodus 25-27 (selected verses)

August 4, 2019


This may be the first and last sermon you may ever hear on these particular chapters of Exodus.

These chapters of Exodus do not even appear in the common lectionary,

the prescribed readings for worship, that are shared by many denominations.

We typically pass by such passages as strange, or even unnecessary and irrelevant.

Why would we be interested in all the detail about the curtains for the tent of meeting?

Why on earth does it matter how many cubits wide and how many cubits long was the altar of the


Why are there horns upon the corners of the altar and why should we care about any of that?

However, these ancient verses from Exodus, from the time of wilderness wandering,

serve as a fruitful reminder that, even in wilderness times, the people sought sanctuary with God.

They brought their best before God to create a space of worship,

and set a fine table for God to come and sit a spell.

They honored God’s presence in a physical space that evoked reverence and awe.

Even in the wilderness, a fine and large tent was constructed

so that the people could gather in reverence and praise.


The Hebrews came together to praise Yahweh, who had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh.

They came to give thanks to the One who had fed them with manna and quail.

They came to renew covenant with Yahweh and with their leader, Moses,  

who had given them laws so that it would go well with them.

Like countless tribes throughout human history,

the Hebrews expressed the need to offer worship, to confess sin, and seek reconciliation.

These particular chapters of Exodus were written much later by a team of Priestly authors.

These priests bore responsibility in later centuries for worship,

so they carefully wrote about the freewill offering and elaborate tent of meeting,

reminding all future generations of how the freed slaves created a sacred place of worship

and a symbol of God’s abiding presence.

Hear the Word of God from Exodus 25-27 (selected verses)…


When Scott Overcarsh constructed this beautiful communion table for us,

we were very particular about the dimensions.

The worship council and pastors weighed in on the length and breadth and height.

Scott sought to find a style that was fitting for the rest of the sanctuary,

and Scott constructed it with fine quarter sawn oak, carefully and meticulously,

in his workshop in the basement of his home.

Perhaps we understand these chapters in Exodus about the details of the sanctuary

 a bit more than we had realized.


I remember asking as a child why the communion table in my home church

was covered with a white cloth.

When we served communion in my home church in the 1970’s,

the event was always very ceremonious.  Two elders would come forward very reverently,

lift the corners of the cloth off of the table, step together to one side,

and carefully fold the cloth in the presence of the congregation.

Dad, is the cloth like one of those used at a funeral, draping the body and blood of Jesus?

No, son, not necessarily.

Is the cloth there because Scripture or Church tradition commands this practice

as some form of reverence? No, that’s not exactly the case either.

The answer had to do with air conditioning!

My home church was not air-conditioned until sometime in the early 1970’s.

I am aging myself, but I can still remember sitting in the balcony with fans from the funeral home.

As you might imagine, before air conditioning, the windows were opened,

and if there was a not a cloth covering the table, birds just might swoop in

and make a meal of the sacrament before or even during worship!

Thus, the very ceremonious lifting and folding of the communion cloth was an old tradition,

no longer necessary, that was still followed for a number of years after the windows were closed.


When discussing this text last week during worship planning, the question arose: 

What is it that we now hold dear as necessary for worship

that our descendants might think as strange, or even irrelevant?

In other words, are there elements of our worship or style of worship that we have come to worship?

If we were to describe how one worships in the congregation, what would we include?

Surely, we would talk about reading Holy Scripture and singing songs of praise.

We would include offering heartfelt prayers and sharing communion,

but eventually we would also get into certain aspects of our worship that may one day

seem strange to our descendants.

Will our descendants question what seem to us to be really important details,

like paper bulletins and pews and robes?

Will they consider some aspects of worship as irrelevant or strange,

just as we consider a horned altar or elaborate golden lamp-stands unnecessary?


I was talking with my Dad the other day about not wearing a tie in worship,

and why I had made that symbolic decision last fall.

He mentioned that, as a child in the 1930’s, Presbyterian ministers in his home church did wear ties,

but they did not wear robes.  Instead, they wore black coats with tails!

If you have ever planned a service of worship, there are always many details to attend to,

not the least of which is where will the liturgists stand and what shall they wear.

Even our casual Holy Ground service this evening requires no small amount of attention to detail.

You can be assured that the large mega-church services, with the bands and screens and lighting

systems, are far more intentional than the average attendant realizes.

Everything about the experience is carefully planned and executed

so that it might appear almost seamless to those who participate.  


This Exodus account seems inordinately detailed in its descriptions of the tent of meeting.

This fascination with the luxury items of gold and bronze and fine fabrics could seem distracting

to worship and faithfulness; it might even seem to be the opposite of what God desires,

actions like doing justice and loving kindness.

But throughout history, humankind has seen fit to create elaborate places of worship.

There are fourteen different layers of a worship altar at Megiddo in Israel,

representing fourteen different civilizations who worshiped on that hill.

Picture the beautiful Sistine Chapel in Rome with the lazy finger of man

reaching toward the outreached finger of God.

Many of the homes in the Central American villages we visit include small altars,

special places set aside for lighting candles and kneeling in prayer.

Throughout history, human beings have always spent time and energy and expense

on creating places of worship.


We spend so much of life in the daily and mundane, in the mud and muck of daily living and cleaning,

of dish washing and diapers, of answering emails and reviewing business contracts.

Places of sanctuary have always been removed from the hassles of everyday life.

They have been places which encourage us to clean ourselves up, and wear our finest clothes,

and to bring our best offering before God.

The Hebrews built the tent of meeting not so much because God needed or required it,

but because they needed help in the wilderness lifting their eyes heavenward,

remembering the One who had delivered them,

honoring the One who kept covenant with them still and would lead them to the Promised Land,

offering something of themselves to participate in what God was doing.


When I was a child, I remember examining with some fascination

a scale model of Mose’s tabernacle in the wilderness. 

The idea of a nomad people living in tents and building a rather large and exquisite tent for God

that they carried with them everywhere they went was rather intriguing for a young boy

who grew up camping with his family in an old Apache pop-up trailer.

I learned at an early age that we could set up and worship God most anywhere,

and when we did so, the leaders would always seek to create some a mood of reverence and praise.

I remember worshiping numerous times in campgrounds in national parks.

I remember worshiping at summer camp at Camp Cherokee on Lake Allatoona.

I remember communion services on youth retreats in beautiful outdoor settings.

Those services and those places were special, set apart events.

But I also remember coming home to worship in that old sanctuary at my home church.

That old sanctuary still holds deep meaning for me.

Melanie and I were there last week for a funeral for a dear friend

and I was struck by recollections of how important that place was for my spiritual development. 


Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines sanctuary as: “a consecrated place…

the most sacred part of a religious building…the room in which general worship services are held.  

A second definition calls sanctuary: “a place of refuge and protection.”

I can imagine that there are many persons in El Paso, Texas this Sunday morning,

gathering together in a place of refuge and protection.

In a city hailed as one of the safest in America, people are praying together and grieving together over

senseless violence, over so many lives gunned down at a Wal-Mart shopping center

on a Saturday morning. 

I can imagine that people in Gilroy, California, who so recently experienced violence

at the Garlic Festival, of all places, are gathering this morning in their places of worship

for prayer and comfort.

Sanctuaries are places to seek refuge and hope,

Sanctuaries are a places where, in the midst of life’s wildernesses,

we seek God’s presence, and together invite God to show up in our lives.

Even though we know that God has been with us all along the way,

when we come together for worship and prayer, God’s presence is specially known and experienced.


It is important to note that Moses called for a free will offering for the sanctuary.  

He did not impose a head tax. He did not say give what you have or else.

He invited the Hebrews to bring before God their first fruits, the best of their possessions,

what would be sacrificial for their families.

And they did so.  With joy and satisfaction, they made significant offerings,

and a beautiful (and mobile!) place of sanctuary was born.


Yahweh did not need a place to dwell, but the people needed a place to gather as one,

to pause from their labors and entertainments, their conflicts and complaints,

and to recognize and honor God’s presence they worshiped God’s holy name.

We can worship God anywhere, in a grand cathedral with stained glass and dark wood,

in a simple white plat board chapel on the side of a rural highway,

We can worship God individually on top of mountain, or on a golf course, or at a bus stop.

God is everywhere, and wherever we are, there God is.

Even so, throughout the history of humankind,

persons have felt the need to create special places to come together for worship,

places that would evoke our awe and reverence,

places where we could seek peace with God and others,

where we could offer our very best, where we could leave with a renewed sense of hope. 

It has been this way at least for 3000 years; it holds true today, and by God’s grace,

3000 years from now, human beings will still be finding ways to create places of worship,

to make sacrificial offerings, to remember and honor God with praise and thanksgiving.


To God be the glory in this sanctuary, now and always. Amen.


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed

Decatur Presbyterian Church

Decatur, Georgia