Sacred Space and Immanuel
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Sacred Space: Shrines and SBS
Is God dwelling with us a good thing?
A Christmas message
By Bob Mendelsohn
National Director, Jews for Jesus
Earlier this year men and women, and even boys and girls stayed up into the night here in Australia for nearly thirty days. We were not being bombed like happened in WWII in London. We were not experiencing terror alerts as might be common in Iraq in these days. We simply wanted to know and to know firsthand and live, what the scores of games being played in Germany at that hour were. We didn’t want to wake up in the morning to the scores. We sat in pubs and tuned our home tellies to the SBS to watch and cheer, and drink and slap high fives to mates we’re not ever likely to see again. What a month for the World Cup of soccer!
We also had many other things to watch including Wimbledon, the US (golf) Open, the start of a new season of Jack Bauer’s 24 and whatever Hollywood wanted to peddle our way on Showtime or the Sunday night movie. I’m weary just thinking again about it.
Usually each Sunday I am privileged to preach in different churches in Australia, Singapore or New Zealand. In the next 12 months I’ll also be in Korea, Argentina, the Philippines, Hungary and the US doing the same. Each place is different; each culture is varied. But almost without exception, they call their places of prayer and worship a ‘sanctuary.’ (Some in the high church will argue that the nave is different to the sanctuary, but this is not a technical article about church architecture.) The sanctuary is the ‘holy place’ and derives from the Older Testament perspective of the Tabernacle (later the Temple.) The sanctuary was the main room of the building, with double the room of the Holy of Holies, and was the closest an ordinary priest could go to meet with God.
The English word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the Latin “sanctus” meaning “holy” as in sanctification or sacrosanct. Whatever else we can say about the sanctuary and its meanings, we can certainly say that God wanted to meet with His people in the wilderness (Exodus 25-40) and had Bezalel and Oholiab build the place for the people ‘that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8). The very word “Shechinah” which some translate the Glory of God, has at its root the word ‘Shachan” meaning “he dwells” and thus reminds us that God wants to dwell with us in the sanctuary (Hebrew: Mishkan, also rooted in ‘to dwell’)
Dwelling sounds like a good thing to do with God. It’s certainly better than being opposed by him. But there might be a downside to it. Dwelling with us can be intimidating. Think about the times your parents came to sit on your bed and you wondered what they wanted? “Just to visit with you” was not an answer you wanted to hear, especially as you survived your teen years. Or how about the policeman who dwells with you while you are driving down the highway in some semblance of a hurry. Do you want such dwelling? So how do you view the ‘dwelling with us’ of the Almighty?
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1.23)
At Christmas we hear a familiar word. The Hebrew word “Immanuel” is translated into English as “God with us.” And this carries the same connotation as his ‘dwelling with us.’ Presence can be a wonderful thing, or it can be an intimidating thing. Which it is is usually a function of our relationship with him and our belief in what he thinks is our biggest sin.
All that said, I think often about sacred things and sacred space. God wants to dwell with us, is there room where we are? Remember the scene of the new kid arriving at school and coming to the lunch room with tray in hand looking for any empty chair or any welcoming stranger who would make room for him? This is how I imagine God coming to me. He stands at the door and looks around, hoping for an invitation to sit by me or by someone. I want to be awaiting him and thus welcoming him straightaway. No delays here!
And this requires my having to make room for him. Thus the idea of sacred space. I don’t think God wants me to build what Moses’s contract managers, Bezalel and Oholiab, had to do in 15 chapters of the Bible. But he does want me to make a clearing of sorts in what I usually do and what I usually think and what I usually believe… and let him in.
It must be a human enterprise, built into each of us, to worship in sacristy and holiness. We were built to worship God. Either this would take place in the Garden of Eden (not humankind’s original birthplace, but our first temporary residence) or outside it in our wandering here on earth. We were born to worship and dwell with God.
But, it’s not only believers who worship.
I think the new 'sanctuary' that is the new worship centre may be the television lounge room. Each day men and women, boys and girls gather to devote themselves at the shrine, bowing and adjusting pillows to receive information and entertainment, so that their lives might be fuller. Into that lounge room can come views from other sacred spaces, all on video tape or live coverage, from Red Carpets and Hollywood Mt Olympus deities to the MCG and the deities of war and contest there.
It’s not so much a matter of location however, that defines our sacred space. It’s a matter of who is the focus. What we worship defines who we are as much as what we eat or read or sing. We can create sacred space in our cars or in our gardens. It can look like a shrine or simply a moment of silence given to quiet reflection on the One who came to dwell with us at Christmas.
In fact, I prefer to call this holiday “Messiahmas” to remind myself of the person who came and not the gifts that were brought or the reindeer or the German tree or the green and red tinsel at Myer’s. Messiahmas is really God dwelling in our sacred space, first in a manger (not usually considered sacred) outside Bethlehem in Israel, then in a carpenter’s shop, and finally hanging on a Roman cross of torture. Finally a tomb outside Jerusalem from which he rose from the dead. Nothing sacred about any of those, except that Y’shua (that’s the Jewish way to say Jesus) was there. It’s his presence that makes any space sacred. All he wants is a place at your lunch table. All he wants is for you to welcome him to your lounge room. Into your car, into your life. May there be room in your inn this Messiahmas for the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world.
Bob Mendelsohn is the director of Jews for Jesus in AustralAsia, based in Sydney. He and his wife have three children. They all were born in the US and moved to Australia to found Jews for Jesus in 1998. He is a popular conference and church speaker and travels to many nations to share the message of Jesus among Jewish people and in many Christian churches. The website www.jewsforjesus.org.au has much more information about him and the organization.