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Many things about Christmas are familiar to us. There are shepherds and angels. There are a stable and animals, and Mary, and Joseph. But most importantly, at the center of it all, is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Christmas has got to always be about Jesus – the incarnation of God in human flesh.

But there is something else about Christmas that’s maybe not always front and center for you. But it should be and here it is – the tabernacle!

Not everything about Christmas is so familiar or easy to grasp. And one of those things that you just need to be familiar with to some degree, as Christians, is to know a thing or two about the tabernacle. That’s right, the tabernacle. I know, it’s a strange word. And it’s got some strange stuff that goes along with it. And for most of us, I suspect it’s one of those words in the Bible that folks might just have a tendency to glaze over a bit. And maybe check out. But it shouldn’t be that way!

Just think about it. Of all the readings from the Bible you could have on Christmas Day, what does the Church in her wisdom give you for our first reading today – on Christmas morning? You guessed it – it’s the tabernacle. And just because Bing Crosby or Charlie Brown doesn’t give it much attention this time of year, doesn’t make it any less important for us.

So here’s the deal. Through much of Israel’s history, right up until the time David insisted on building God a temple, the Lord was more than content to dwell in a tent called a tabernacle. The Lord told Moses that it would be the place of His presence on earth. And the Lord was really interested in every little detail. In fact, He picked the curtains of the tent. He designed the walls and even chose the furniture. It was a tent fit for a king. It was made with blue, purple, and scarlet thread. And woven right into the fabric were embroidered angels.

But more than anything else, God gave most of His attention to His throne in this tent. It was a 3-by-4-foot box called an ark, not like the boat, not Noah’s ark, but a different kind of ark, really a fancy box. It was covered inside and out with solid gold. And inside of this box there were a few things. A golden jar of manna. Aaron’s rod that miraculously blossomed. And the Ten Commandments as well.

But the most important part of the ark was the gold cover of this box, which was called the mercy seat. Hammered out of gold, the mercy seat had two angels facing each other with their wings spread out. This mercy seat was the Lord’s throne on earth, it was the meeting place between God and man. But the strange thing is that that throne, that mercy seat, was empty. Kind of strange, right?

So who would go in there? Well it’s not like anyone could just waltz in there and hang around. In fact, the only time any one went in there was once a year, and not just anyone but only the High Priest. And in order to enter into the tabernacle and into the holy place and into the holy of holies there was blood just about everywhere.

The High Priest would throw scapegoat blood on the mercy seat and blood upon the people. And God Himself would come down from heaven in a cloud of glory to fill this tent – to dwell with His people. And this was the way the Lord dwelt with His people for generations to come – a tent of the Lord’s presence.

But there was still something missing here. And everyone knew it. Because in that tabernacle there were veils and curtains, boundaries separating God from the people, and there was an empty throne as well. In one way or another it reminded the folks of their painful fall into sin, the separation it caused, and those boundaries and empty throne had a way of proclaiming that the time of full reunion with God was still yet to come.

So there you go. Just a little bit about that tabernacle. Again, not your first thought on Christmas morning, but for the church it’s front and center. Because when this reading from St. John kicks in this Christmas morning it’s intended to make your eyes bulge and jaw drop. John says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

But don’t gloss over that verse so quickly! It all means that the Word, the eternal Word of the Father, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, has become flesh – God becomes man. And what did He do? I read it to you. He dwelt among us – but literally the word here is “tabernacle.”

God tabernacled among us. Born in the flesh, a fellow human being, walked with us, talked with us, ate, drank and lived with us.

The Sunday school children did their Christmas program last week. As usual, it was fantastic. It’s usually from Luke’s Gospel. Shepherds and angels, stables, and mangers – it’s all there. But if one were to do a Christmas program from John’s Gospel, there would just have to be a tabernacle.    

But it really is a beautiful thing. Marvel at what happened that night to shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. Because now we’re not talking about embroidered angels on fabric curtains, we’re talking about real angels embroidered throughout the whole fabric of the night sky, rejoicing that the glorious God of heaven has come to dwell with us here on earth.

In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of the Virgin Mary. He tabernacled among us. We have seen His glory, writes St. John. Not in a cloud but in the incarnation of Jesus – the flesh and blood of God Himself.

Look at Him go forth to lay down His own life, as our High Priest, our sacrifice, on the ultimate day of atonement, Good Friday. Look at Him shedding His blood on the cross, providing mercy to the whole world. And look at Him there on the cross, showing forth His glory, not surrounded by two cherubim angels, but surrounded by two criminals, bearing sin’s dreadful curse.

At last, finally, the tabernacle is being fulfilled - the King has taken His throne – the mercy seat has been filled – and the cross enthroned – but all so that we might be seated with Him in the heavenly places.

And He did at the cross – in the crucified tabernacled flesh of Jesus – there is the meeting place between God and man. Because when He gives His life for us and yields up His spirit, that giant temple curtain is torn in two. The veil which separated sinners from God is no more. 

That’s why tax collectors and sinners sat with Him and ate. That’s why prostitutes were welcomed. It’s why Ebenezer Scrooge and any grinch can now find access to the grace of God. All through the new and better tabernacle in which God invites the whole world, every sinner, you and me, to flock to Him, surround Him, and receive grace upon grace from the fullness of Christ.

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