by Daniel Harrell
We’re looking at light in the Bible this fall, though we ended last Sunday on an ironically dark note. While light shines throughout Scripture as a prominent ID for the Lord—bright, immaterial, illuminating, unchangeable, incorruptible, pure, life-giving and everywhere—Scripture also describes God as purposely shrouded in darkness. The Lord led the Israelites up out of Egypt as both pillar of fire and of cloud, with both radiance and obscurity. To Moses, the Lord burned brightly in a bush, but then thundered darkly on a mountain. In the New Testament, Jesus comes as light to the world, but the supreme expression of his love comes with darkness and death on a cross.
Here in Exodus 25, the setting is the Tabernacle, that mobile tent home for the Lord modeled after creation itself. It housed the famed Ark of the Covenant, that 2x2x4 foot box covered with gold, carried by poles with the Ten Commandments stored inside. Atop the box sat the mercy seat, the emblematic throne of the Lord fashioned after his heavenly throne. The Ark signaled God’s assured, palpable presence among his people. However the signal of God’s presence was not a glowing Tabernacle, but an overcast one. We read that the “cloud covered the Tabernacle and the glory of the Lord filled it.”
Because the Tabernacle was modeled after creation, its architecture depicting the heavens and the earth, I loosely compared the Tabernacle last Sunday to a mobile planetarium, specifically the University of Minnesota’s mobile planetarium called the Exploradome that will be parked in our gym as part of our Guelich Lecture Weekend, October 19-21. We will host Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, who will share and show some of her findings along with their implications for our faith. It will a wonderful opportunity to introduce friends to our church.
To be a good planetarium requires darkness. You can only see the glory of starlight at night. In the mobile Tabernacle, God’s glory centered on the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies, a smoky inner sanctum where the Lord sat enthroned. Darkness served to evoke divine mystery. However the Bible also uses darkness as metaphor for human sin and human trouble. “Light has come into the world,” Jesus said, “but people loved darkness more because their deeds were evil.” Yet whether as mystery or malice, the glory of God shines through the dark. As King David sang in Psalm 139, “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” And then amidst his personal troubles in 2 Samuel 22, beset by enemies on every side, King David still hopefully sang, “O Lord, you deliver people who are humble and oppressed, but your eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down. Indeed you are my lamp, O Lord; O God, you lighten my darkness.”
In the Tabernacle, the golden lampstand represented God’s light shining in darkness. Nevertheless, I trust that Exodus 25 has never ranked high on your devotional reading list. Its tedious descriptions offer little by way of personal enlightenment or life application. “The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it.” How can people say the Bible is boring? Why all the pedantic attention to detail? The New Testament book of Hebrews explains it this way: the Tabernacle was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly tent. Moses was warned as he built it, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’” That warning comes from our passage this morning. If you’re going to build a copy of heaven on earth, you have to get it right. A planetarium’s no good if its stars are out of alignment.
Instead than starlight, however, the Tabernacle lampstand, pounded out of 75 pounds of pure gold, was built to look like a tree, specifically an almond tree. It was decked with seven olive oil lamps, seven being reminiscent of creation, which made it a flaming tree, reminding Moses, perhaps, of that burning bush. But why an almond tree? In the Near East, the almond tree is the first tree to bloom, a sign of new life. More importantly, an almond tree branch served as Moses’ staff with which he split the Red Sea. Moses’ brother Aaron, the first Levitical priest, also carried an almond staff. It was stored inside the Ark of the Covenant alongside the Ten Commandments.
The tree-shaped lampstand emitted light in the Tabernacle so that the Levitical priests could see the way to the Lord in the dark. It was like a door into heaven, into another world. “Indeed you are my lamp, O Lord; O God, you lighten my darkness.” At night, the tree light would have made the Tabernacle the brightest house in the Israelite encampment. No individual family would have chosen to use the large amount of oil necessary to keep seven lamps constantly lit. Exodus and Leviticus both required for the lampstand to leave its lights on all the time. Leaving the lights on meant then much the same thing that it means now: somebody’s home. In the case of the Tabernacle, that somebody was God.
The connection between trees and light is more than merely symbolic. It’s embedded in nature itself. You learned this is basic biology. Light hits trees and causes photosynthesis, a process whereby light captured from the sun converts into life—life for plants and life for people. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Trees take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen. It’s a beautifully efficient circle of life. If all the stuff we use could be paired in such perfect harmony we would live in a zero-waste world. I learned this watching PBS the other night.
I learned that more energy from the Sun hits the Earth in one hour than all the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year. This fact inspires dreams of solar power as a clean energy source for the world. Solar panels convert sunlight into energy, but these panels are fragile and quite expensive because the silicon they're made of has to be very pure. PBS reported about one company trying to make solar cells more cheaply and durably. They’re modeled after nature itself. The silicon for these new solar cells is shaped like the veins of a tree leaf, embedded in a conductive plastic film. The leaf shape allows electrons to flow through the veins, even if the silicon has impurities. These silicon leaves are cheap to grow and flexible enough to be rolled out like a blanket. What’s especially significant is the how these silicon leaves deal with another big concern in solar power: what to do when the sun don’t shine. Trees have this figured out. The best way to store energy is in chemical bonds, as with photosynthesis, which is what this new silicon does, converting sunlight into storable energy. Hydrogen can be isolated and then easily packaged into batteries. If this idea scales up, the hydrogen produced would provide zero-waste fuel to power our homes and factories and cars.
The connection between trees and light is the connection between trees and life, or more to the point in the Tabernacle, the tree of life. In Genesis, God made people and gave them the sun and trees for energy to live daily life, and then on day six, the Lord gave them a tree as their source of eternal life, but we sinners all know firsthand how badly that worked out. It worked out badly for Adam and Eve. It worked out badly for Israel and the rest of humanity. But God’s glory still shines in the dark, and thus on the on the sixth day in the Gospels (the day before the Sabbath), God, having become human himself in Christ. He hung on a tree to redeem human sin, and then by the bright light of resurrection converted the cross into a new tree of life. Turn to the end of the Bible, where Revelation previews eternity itself, and you find that “tree of life producing its fruit every month; and leaves for the healing of all people.” It’s a zero-waste world where the light’s always on. There is “no need of lamp or sun,” we read, “for the Lord God will be our light… forever.”
The Tabernacle’s golden lampstand depicts the tree of life. No word on whether the Genesis tree of life was an almond tree, any more than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis was a red delicious, but the tree of life was the tree of eternal life, and thus the golden lampstand’s seven lamps stayed constantly lit. God’s light always shines. Out of reverence for eternal light, Jewish tradition mandates that people not mess with light on the Sabbath (Sabbath being the seventh day and a foretaste of heaven.) God let there be light on the first day One, but rested from making light on the seventh, meaning you’re not to make light on the Sabbath. As the Lord declares in Leviticus, “You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.”
You’ll recall that I spent a month living with some friends back in Boston according to the book of Leviticus (which you can still read about in my book on sale for cheap at the reception desk—just a few copies left). One of these friends, named Sokol, had a Jewish colleague at work who, hearing of Sokol’s Levitical adventure, invited Sokol to take part in his family’s orthodox Sabbath one weekend. Sokol described the Sabbath meal they shared once a week as akin to the Thanksgiving feast he ate once a year. All the cooking, however, had happened on Thursday, because his hosts still had to go to work on Friday, leaving no time to prepare the feast before the sun set on Friday (Jewish Sabbath runs from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown).
Since Sabbath rules prohibited messing with light on the Sabbath, they had to turn on all the lights that needed to be on for the twenty-four hours beforehand (living room, bathroom, ceremonial lamps) and turn off the lights that needed to be off (bedroom). Sokol proudly added, “I was glad to see that my reading of orthodox Jewish books came in handy when I reminded them how the refrigerator light needed to be turned off too.” Otherwise, whenever they opened and closed the refrigerator (which was allowed), the light would come on and go off (which was prohibited). The Jewish family, bending into the refrigerator to unscrew the bulb, irksomely looked at each other as if to say, “who invited this guy?” Reverence can be irksome and inconvenient.
A past Guelich Lecturer here at Colonial, Barbara Brown Taylor, describes reverence as “that virtue that keeps us from trying to act like God.” “By definition,” she writes, “reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self—something that is beyond human creation or control, something that transcends full human understanding.” God certainly meets that criteria. So does light. So do trees. Taylor tells of a Native American elder she knows who begins teaching people reverence by taking them to a tree. He asks them, “Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?” If they say yes, then he knows they are on their way to reverence.
And yet the way to reverence is not a straight line. Last Sunday we saw how God took Israel the long way around on their way out of Egypt. “Reverence requires a certain pace,” Taylor writes, “a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of the original plan.” She goes on to mention Moses, whose life changed forever that day a bush burned bright. The bush wasn’t right in front of Moses, however. It must have been over to the side somewhere, because when Moses saw it, he said, “I must turn aside and look at this great light and see why this burning bush is not burned up.” The bright burning bush turned out to be a talking bush too, and it called out to Moses and told him to take off his shoes out of reverence. He was standing on holy ground.
Barbara Brown Taylor admitted she’s never seen a burning bush, but she did see a garden turn golden once. “I must have been sixteen, earning summer money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt onto my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened the cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry out to the garbage cans by the garage. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if light rain were falling inside the bag. I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry.
On my way to the garbage cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got a whole dose of loveliness at once—the high arch of the trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair—all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door into heaven, into another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would be golden too.
But first I had to ditch the trash bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. But when I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire. I had noticed the light, but I did not turn aside. I had a bag of trash to attend to instead.”
“The light has come into the world,” Jesus said, “But people loved their darkness more than the light, because their deeds were evil. All who do evil avoid the light and do not come near for fear that their deeds may be exposed. But those who want what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their life is now lived in God.” By the light of Christ, as with the lamp stand that foreshadowed it, heaven comes to earth. Eternity enters the present. As the apostle Paul declared, new creation is now. The light of Christ blazes the way to a beautiful new reality of goodness and brightness and justice and rightness—a veritable zero-waste world. The door to heaven is open. Let us set down our trash and go through it.