Tearing the Curtain in Two

Author’s note:  The following sermon has additions not included in Sunday’s offering and are set apart by italicized colored type.  I encourage all readers to bring up these additional thoughts and ramifications in small group study or discussion this following week.

Scriptures: Hebrews 10:1-25, Mark 13:1-8

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I am intrigued with the choice of words used by the author in today’s Hebrews passage: “Therefore my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain…” (10:19-20, my emphasis).  Let me read you three passages from the Gospels recording the event being referred to here in the letter to the Hebrews:

Mark 15:37-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he[a] breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”[b]

Matthew 27:50-52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.[a] 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

Luke 23:44-46 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Death of Jesus

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land[a] until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed;[b] and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

I am intrigued, as I mentioned, with the allusion in Hebrews to the tearing of the curtain, which as we just heard, was recorded by all three of the Synoptic Gospel writers. This reference to the tearing of the curtain casts echoes of something even deeper and fundamentally challenging to the Jewish people; and, by extension, all  faiths of Abrahamic descent as well.

Let me do my best to unpack the incredible meaning and symbolic act this represents with my limited knowledge of the faith traditions of our Jewish cousins.  My understanding is that the curtain referred to here was the curtain that hung in the Temple (known as the Third Temple, Herod’s renovation/refurbishment/expansion of the Second Temple) itself, separating the Holiest of Holies from the merely Holy. To the ancient Jewish people, God physically dwelled or was somehow enthroned between the cherubim on the lid of the Arc of the Covenant, which was kept in the Holiest of Holies.

The curtain kept the Almighty God separate from the ordinary people. The Almighty, the Lord of Hosts, El Shaddai, Allah, the one whom Jesus called Abba, the very God of all Creation, somehow had a very real and tangible Presence there-fully palatable-and this was awesome in the original sense of the word.  So awesome that the people could not occupy the same room with God for fear of … who knows what?

In a very real sense, it could have meant death to be that close to God, or so they believed. Hence, the priesthood, and especially the one High Priest, chosen by draught, to attend God on the one day a year he was permitted to enter behind the curtain into the Holiest of Holies and make atonement (that is, sin offering) on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

Tearing of this curtain in two had huge implications for the people of Israel. It symbolized an end to separation from the very real presence of God!  Not to mention the need for the intermediary on that one day a year – which I think (and someone please correct me if I am wrong) is still observed as Yom Kippur today.

This had a huge implication in the life of Judaism. It meant that God was now accessible to anyone pure enough to enter the Holy Temple. Now before we romanticize how nice that is, now everybody can commune with God on a personal level, I have to burst that bubble with another layer of reality. In Temple custom, there were multiple rooms between the outer court and the Holiest of Holies. It was only the Jews themselves who could enter the Inner courts of the Temple, and only the priests who entered the Holy. God-fearing Gentiles not of the Jewish fold had to remain in the furthest outside court, because they were, well, Gentiles-that is, outsiders.

By implication, yes, this means, the priestly cast, those who were drawn by lot, who ministered before the Presence of God and tended the Lamps of the Presence are now, really, out of a job. And yes, the high priest now doesn’t have enter the Holiest of Holies and make atonement for the people.

As the book of Hebrews has just spent more than three chapters reminding us, Christ died once and for all for the Hebrews; taking the place of the High Priest in the Temple. I might also point out Jesus also takes the place of needless slaughter of all the animals that by law were the burnt offerings needful for citizenry in the Jewish fold; all for the sake of making the people sanctified before God.

Does that mean all are now sanctified? End of story? Not really. This letter describing Christ’s role is directed to the Hebrews; that is, Jewish Christian believers, all of whom understood their faith as rooted in Temple traditions. Remember the Gentiles out in the outer court? Left out in the cold, so-to-speak? That’s us by the way, unless someone here has the fortune of being ethnically Jewish. Where do we fit in this “new and living way” (v. 20) of being a sanctified people? Hold that in mind for a moment, because I’d like to first identify what “sanctified” looks like according to this letter, and then we will return to our place in this story of and history of salvation.

Commentator Jane Fahey notes the letter to the Hebrews actually outlines a description of the sanctified life, answering the question, “How shall we then live?” She writes, “As part of this exhortation to holy living, the writer outlines the nature of Christian hope, paints a provocative portrait of the function of the church, and ends on a note of eschatological urgency.” She goes on to point out the entire letter to the Hebrews is a teaching sermon; with verses 19-25 suggesting five characteristics of holy living. [1]

  1. Live confidently before God.
  2. Live in hope
  3. The sanctified life is lived in community (my emphasis)
  4. Live in solidarity
  5. Live with a sense of urgency

All these five elements are a part of living a sanctified life.

Back to the previous question: How do we fit if we aren’t ethnically Jewish Christian believers? From today’s Gospel lesson in the book of Mark: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”” (Mark 13:1-2)

One of the things we Christians can bring to the table of our common ancestry in the Abrahamic faiths is that we are an Easter people, and as we draw closer to the time of Advent and Christmas, we cannot, really, separate the death of Jesus from his birth; nor can we separate the coming of Christ the first time with the second. For me, and I submit for many of us Gentile Christians, the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 by the Romans, prophesied here by Jesus just under 40 years before it’s occurrence, symbolizes for us the tearing in two of the Curtain of division between all peoples, not just Jewish Christian believers and God. 

There is no mistake in my mind that the Dome of the Rock, which now stands on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is also a place of deep and holy devotion for our Islamic cousins.  There Mohamed had what is called a night journey – others may interpret that as a soul flight or out-of-body experience much like the Apostle Paul’s – and met with Adam, Aaron, Moses,  Jesus and God in a mysterious and miraculous way.  Friends, the Curtain was torn into – despite what human hands have done in attempts to rebuild the walls that separate us; it was God’s work that tore the curtain in two from top to bottom, and God’s work through the Romans to dismantle the very stones that human kind had built too keeping God and the rest of us separate one from another.

In light of, and I might even say, in the Christlight of, the wake of this past weekend’s events, the right hand of fellowship-of solidarity-must be extended in reconciliation toward all people, including our Abrahamic cousins in faith.  God is the Almighty over all of us, regardless of what name is spoken. This is a strong message that needs to be heard across all God’s Good Green Earth:  we are One in the Lord God, and extremism must cease for the sake of a Love which surpasses all understanding.

Paul, writing in a post-Temple reality of the Roman Empire, states it eloquently from his Jewish-Christian perspective in Galatians 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We are included, every one of us, in that we may approach God…yes in fear and trembling at times if needed, but openly, knowing that we have an Advocate, a symbolic high priest, who reigns in power from on high, seated at the right hand of God.

May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ! Amen? May it be so.

[1] Fahey, Jane. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).


About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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