Read Exodus 36:2–7
The Bible is chockfull of extraordinary stories. Many of them are as fascinating to us as the stories we tell our children. They stir our imagination and entertain our thoughts, but many of them, like the stories we tell our children, are carried in our memory only as stories. They are stories that have no reality beyond their words. Some are in the realm of possibilities. Others we’re not so sure about. A few are beyond belief.
The account of the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness is one of those stories that might fall in the realm of possibilities, certainly a story we’re not sure about, definitely a story beyond belief, yet a story that has a place in our faith.
Israel may be in the wilderness, but Israel is where we will be two weeks from today—at the beginning of advent. Israel is making ready to meet God. Things need to be made ready. A place is needed. Not just any place but a special place, a place called a tabernacle in the midst of the camp where God can come and be present and dwell among them. The anticipation gives rise to enthusiasm and enthusiasm gives rise to the moment of God’s coming.
Imagine being in the wilderness, a place of jackals and wild animals, where food is scarce and water is scarcer where the sun burns the skin by day and the wind chills the bones by night, a place between Egypt, where things were bad but not that bad, and the Promised Land, where things are good but not that good.
The people, like Black people in the sixties, chanted their version of “free at last; free at last; thank God almighty, we’re free at last”; yet, again like Black people of this country, they had to wait a long, long time before they reached the promised land. And while they yearned for better days, God said to Moses,
Say to the people, you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now you are to build a tabernacle here in the wilderness, in the middle of the camp. Collect from the people the money and the materials and the laborers you need and build a place for this people to worship.
And Moses did as he was told, and the response of the people was overwhelming. The people brought their offerings and they kept on bringing offerings day after day. The offerings exceeded the needs to build the tabernacle, so much so that the workers came to Moses and said, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work which the Lord commanded us to do. Tell the people to stop giving.”
“Tell the people to stop giving!” Can you believe that? Every preacher who is reading this passage to his congregation today is salivating, saying to himself, “Lord, just once in my life let me be able to announce the Stop-the-Giving Campaign.” Every pastor must yearn for the day when the Session says to him, “Next Sunday tell the people to stop giving because we have more money than we need.” Tell the people we have all the money we need to repair our stained glass windows whose beauty is deceptive compared to their need for repair. Tell the people we have all the money we need to plug the holes allowing water to eat away at our foundation. Tell the people we have all the money we need to replace the windows rotting in their frames. Tell the people we have all the money we need to carry on the day to day operation of the church, the mission to our community, the salary we need to call a new pastor, the small increase in pay for our administrative and professional staff. Can you believe that? More than enough.
That’s what makes this story from the Exodus so unbelievable—that the people actually gave more money than could be spent. This notion of giving more than can be spent has special significance for us this morning because having all the money we need to insure that this building will last another ninety years is at the moment only a dream. Having enough money to assure that we will have the resources to reach out to the next generation with a new pastor is for now one of our most cherished hopes.
What’s the difference between then and now, between the Israelites and us? First we are told that the participation in the offering for the tabernacle was universal. In verse 8, we are told that “Every…man participated.” In verse 25, we are told that “Every…woman participated.” In verse 27, we are told that “Every…leader participated.” Every person in camp participated.
It makes all the difference in the world when we act as a people rather than as individuals, when everyone participates at whatever level he or she can, when a wife makes a separate gift from her husband, when no one holds back thinking others will make up what he or she does not give. One of the differences between then and now is that from the richest to the poorest, from the youngest to the oldest, from the least to the greatest, from every male and every female, from every husband and every wife, from every elder and every leader, everyone participated. Everyone had a hand in building the tabernacle. No one held back.
How easy it is to think that our contribution doesn’t make a difference. How easy it is to give less than we should because the things we want are more important to us than the things we need. How easy it is to give from our abundance without ever giving enough to change our lifestyle. How easy it is to excuse our giving because we don’t like the preacher. How easy it is to stop giving because of something that happened way back when.
What is so heartwarming about this story is that many people did not like Moses. Moses wouldn’t fit in in most of our churches, and yet the people gave. Why? Because they weren’t giving to Moses. They were giving because that’s what God told them to do.
The people gave one and all without letting their personal agendas or their party politics or their likes and dislikes or their hurts and offenses get between them and their gratitude to God. When everybody gives, it’s because they have a vision of something better. Egypt is behind us. The event at the Red sea has come and gone. We’re free at last. MountNebo is an awaited vision. The view across the Jordan is a dream in waiting. The imagined sights of seeing Jericho and the land of Canaan beyond is enough to bring them together as one people whose vision is shaped by what God has done and by what God has promised.
But the full participation of everyone was not the only thing that makes this story jump from the pages of the Old Testament squarely into what we are all about today. Their gifts were also voluntary. No coercion. No guilt. Nothing but gratitude. In verse 20, we are told that all the Israelites gave freely and joyfully. They did not all bring the same thing. Some brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets. Others brought gold and silver and building materials. Women brought linens and spices and oil. They brought what they had—as little or as much as their hearts were moved to bring. They held back not so much what they needed but only what they could not do without. “Everyone who was willing and whose heart moved him came and brought an offering to God,” says the story. The heart was at the center of their gift. They didn’t bring an offering for the tabernacle. That may have been what the offering was used for, but what they brought was an offering to God. Whatever it was about Moses that they didn’t like had no influence on their decision. They gave to the last person and they gave because that’s what their hearts told them to do.
The tabernacle was not an end in itself. It was not even a permanent building. It was never meant to be anything more than a tent of meeting, because one day it would be abandoned as the Israelites moved on toward a land promised them, a land that would give raise to a second Moses, one who himself would experience the hardships and temptations of the wilderness, one who would give birth, not to a new nation, but one who would give birth to a new kingdom. In comparing himself to the Moses of old, the new Moses said this:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
What is remarkable is that neither the elders nor the clergy played anything but bit parts in this drama of salvation. Only God is big enough to cause people to give beyond their means, to give so much that Moses is told to “tell the people to stop giving.” I don’t ever expect to be sent to this or any other pulpit with those words. But I do feel sent to this pulpit to tell you this story, a story that might fall in the realm of possibilities, certainly a story we’re not sure about, definitely a story beyond belief, yet a story that has a place in our faith.
What a story! What a people! What a faith! What a God!