Rev. David Holwick
First Baptist Church
Ledgewood, New Jersey
October 25, 2009
Exodus series, #16
We have now come to the part of Exodus that deals with a lot of hardware. It is known as the furniture of the tabernacle. I’m going to be starting in Exodus 25, verse 10, where Moses instructs the people from what God has told him.
“Have them make a chest of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold both inside and out and make a gold molding about it.”
Now, skip down to verse 16:
“Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you. Make an atonement top cover of pure gold -- two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. Make one cherub on one end and the other cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony which I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.”
Back in 1981, Steven Spielberg made one of the most popular motion pictures of all time, the "Raiders of the Lost Ark” and that became a whole series of popular movies. But with this one the premise was that just before World War II as conflict was rising up all over Europe, the Nazis are searching for an ancient artifact, the Ark of the Covenant, which is hidden in Egypt, because they feel that if they control this ark, they will win the war and control the world. It might be kind of ironic to think of Hitler wanting a Jewish box, but many of the Nazis were into the occult and maybe they figured that “we can take their power and use it to control them and everybody else”. Well of course Indiana Jones, the great American fake archaeologist, beats them to it and now the ark is in a CIA warehouse somewhere in the United States. Well, that’s one version of what happened.
The nation of Ethiopia has its own version and they think it’s a better one. They have one of the oldest churches in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. And we actually have somebody who comes to our early service who grew up in that tradition. They believe that their church started when, in the Book of Acts in chapter 8, it talks about one of the deacons named Philip seeing a guy from Ethiopia riding in a chariot and reading from the book of Isaiah. The guy was not a Jew, he was like a spiritual tourist, and Philip told him, “Hey, I can explain to you what you’re reading.” And he took that passage in Isaiah and talked about Jesus being the Messiah and the Ethiopian man became a Christian. He got down from that chariot, got baptized and then, presumably, he got back on his chariot and went back home and started the Ethiopian church.
What is more, the Ethiopians say their association with the Bible goes back way before that episode because when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon (according to the Ethiopian tradition), they got married and had a kid and their kid’s name was Menelik. Menelik went back to Ethiopia and became king. Later on, he visited his dad in Jerusalem and his dad said, “Hey, I’ve got an ark. Why don’t you take it?” And so Menelik took the ark back to Ethiopia and it’s there to this day in the city of Axum. 
As a matter of fact, this summer the Patriarch Abune Paulos, a real smart guy who got his education at Princeton Seminary, just down the road from us, he announced that not only do they have the genuine ark in the ancient city of Axum but they would reveal it to the world in a few days. Now, that would be the greatest archaeological object in history but a couple of days later he changed his mind and said, “No, we’re not going to show it to you.” But according to Saga who is in our Sunday school class, she says that every church there has an ark like this that’s brought out once or twice a year and there’s a cloth that’s put over it and she was always told when she was a little girl, “Don’t look at it because if you look at it, you’ll die.” So all the kids are trembling and they’re kind of like peeking as this ark is carried along, all covered up.
Do they have the real one? Nobody knows for sure, but probably not. But certainly, the ark was something of great significance. The Jews did not worship it but they revered it as the most sacred object that they possessed, holding the tangible presence of Almighty God in their midst. It provided them with divine guidance. And it also was the place where atonement was given for the people of Israel and their sins were removed. It has something to say to our own salvation as well.
First, let’s talk about what the ark is made out of because obviously the Bible considers this every important. An ark is just a chest (the ark that Noah built is a different word.) It was made out of wood but with gold covering it – they probably beat it very thin and then pressed it on the wood. Everything that’s close to God in the tabernacle was gold. Outside you could have bronze or you could have silver but inside it was only gold. So when you went in, the whole place would glow. There were intricate designs put on that gold by their best workmen.
One of the things that was made out of gold was on the cover – two cherubim. Someone in our Bible study not long ago said, “Oh, those are the fat little babies with the bows and the arrows.” Not in the Bible. As a matter of fact, they would have looked like rather strange, frightening creatures. Cherubim is the plural for cherub. They are also mentioned in Ezekiel and the book of Revelation where they are called Living Creatures. These supernatural creatures have four wings and human-like bodies with animal features and multiple faces. In Ezekiel each one has four faces - human, lion, ox, and eagle. In Revelation each of the four creatures has one of those faces. So they are strange hybrid creatures but whenever you see one, you know you’re very near the presence of God. These angelic creatures are looking down at the cover of the ark and their wings are overshadowing it. Later on when they built the temple and the ark was moved in there, there were two really big cherubim overshadowing the ark, 15 feet high and wide and they were stretching from wall to wall.
One of our Sunday school classes gave me this. [Hold up home-made scale model of the Tabernacle.] This is what they’re learning in their class and it’s great. It even has dead cows and dead sheep for sacrificing. But inside this little tent here, they have the Ark of the Covenant. I guess you’ll have to peek in later on but they made all of these to scale. The class member was so excited and said, “We’re studying that. You can show them this example.” The ark is in here, not very big. As a matter of fact, the Ark of Covenant would have been smaller than our communion table. It’s about the same dimensions on top but a little bit shorter. It just had to be was big enough for the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Later on, they also put in the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod. We know that by the time it ended up in the temple, those two things were gone and all that was left was the Ten Commandments. So the Ten Commandments themselves weren’t all that huge. The ark had carrying poles. In King Tut's tomb they also found a chest with long carrying poles in it. Why? Because these were mobile people. They needed to have a portable devices to carry with them for religious ceremonies.
But it’s what the ark represented that was so important. The first thing that it represented was atonement. In the New Testament, the cover of it is called the mercy seat because once a year – and only once a year – a human, the high priest, went inside the Holy of Holies and sprinkled it with blood and this brought atonement for the people of Israel. Today we call that day the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and it is the most holy day in the Jewish year. When Jews go to their synagogue on the Day of Atonement they’re hoping for forgiveness but they have no assurance they’ll get it because they don’t have an ark anymore, they don’t have an altar, or sacrifices or a temple. So they’re just hoping. They are throwing themselves on God’s grace and mercy. Animal sacrifices were done outside the tabernacle on the altar. No sacrifices were done on the inside, but the New Testament says that at the moment the blood hit the ark, the sins of the nation were taken care of.
Now, another interesting thing about the ark is that in the Book of Exodus it’s simply called “the atonement.” It’s like the covering. That’s what atonement means - covering. But it could also be translated as the cover of propitiation. I bet that there’s no one here that knows what propitiation means – big theological word, a very controversial one. What it basically means is that God hates sin and because you have sinned in your life, it’s like he hates you and therefore he needs to be paid off. Something must be given him to cover up the hatred. That’s the blood that washes it away.
Now you can understand why people kind of have qualms about that because first of all, doesn’t God love us? Doesn’t he want to come to all of us? And this whole concept of having to wash away sin, that’s so gruesome. But it’s the essential theology of the cross. We’re saying that Jesus’ blood is washing away our sins so that God can come close to us again. So even though it’s controversial and it seems rather grim, that’s what the ark represents – that our sins is taken care of but it takes a cost to do that.
The ark also represents the presence of God. Now, in the ark you got the Ten Commandments that reveal God’s character, what he is all about. God himself was not thought to be in the ark. They thought of God as hovering over the mercy seat in a cloud, what the Jews called the Shekinah which means the glory. They never saw the ark as a container for God but God was on top of it and through that presence, he communicated to Moses and Aaron.
There’s something else you need to know about the ark. It is very dangerous. You don’t want to mess with it and that’s why little Saga was told, “Don’t look at our church’s ark or something bad will happen to you.” That’s what happened in the Old Testament. There was one time when the ark had been stolen and then recovered and it came back to this little village and the guys were curious, they wanted to peek inside. Wouldn’t you like to peek? So 70 of them peeked inside and they died (1 Samuel 6:19-20). Another occasion involves a guy named Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Uzzah was a Levite. His job was taking care of the ark but the one thing he was always told was don’t ever touch it. Now, they had it on a cart at this point and it was being taken to another location in Israel and as the cart was going through a stream, the oxen stumbled and this thing started to tip over and so Uzzah, as a good Levite, put his hand out to steady it. Big mistake. He dies. You might think that he’s doing a good thing. David thought that. David says, “God, what’s going on here? I mean the guy’s trying to do you a favor.” Apparently, God doesn’t need favors. It was not going to tumble. He should have just obeyed the instructions. So it left people with this feeling that this ark is like going to get you in trouble because it’s powerful and because it was so powerful, they came up with another idea: “Maybe we can use this thing.”
Turn to 1 Samuel, chapter 4. The situation is that the Israelites are fighting against the Philistines. Philistines were pretty good. They had iron, they had chariots. It says in verse 3:
“When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, ‘Why did the Lord bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord's covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.’”
So the people sent men to Shiloh and they brought back the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord Almighty who was enthroned between these cherubim and what they did is they paraded it in front of their army. Italians later did this. They would each have an ark from their churches. The idea is that “we’ve got God on our side, so you guys are doomed.” It’s like a magical charm. What happened brought the ark to battle? They lost again. Not only did they lose the battle, they lost the ark. The Philistines ended up with it. They stuck it in their temple in front of their gods as a trophy that “we have beaten you.” But in the morning, their gods fell over. Then disease came upon their land and so they send it back. That’s where those seventy guys peeked inside. So you see there’s always this temptation to use the Ark. Because it’s like God; we’ve got God and we’re going to use him.
Later on there was another guy named David, a very spiritual guy. He brought the ark into Jerusalem. He wanted to build a permanent temple for God but he wasn’t allowed to. There came a point where his son turned against him. Have you ever had that in your family? Actually, his son Absalom even tried to kill David. Absalom was good as a politician, he had everyone behind him. David had to flee. It says that as he is leaving Jerusalem, his loyal priest brought the Ark of the Covenant. He’s like, “We got to go but we’re taking God with us.” What does David say? “No, you take it back to the city. If God wills it, I’ll see it again but it stays where it belongs.” He wasn’t going to use it as a charm and it turns out, he was able to go back and see it in its own city again.
So the ark is powerful and it’s not a power that you can control. That’s actually the false premise of the Spielberg movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even if the Nazis had gotten the ark it would not have done any good because it’s not a charm that gives power to evil. It only gives power to good.
One of the controversies these days is, where is the ark? There are people on the internet that claim they know where it is. They’ve written books and done television specials. There is one idea that it is in Egypt in some tunnel or underground temple. The Ethiopians claim they have it although that’s disputed by most scholars. One very popular idea is that it is on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where it was hidden in a tunnel beneath the temple before the Babylonians burned the temple down. We cannot investigate this claim because the Muslims control the Temple Mount area and do not allow access for detailed research.
There have been lots of theories like this but in all probability the ark was destroyed along with the temple. One thing we know is that after the ark disappeared it was never rebuilt. In Jesus’ day, there was no ark in the temple. We know that because when the General Pompey, a Roman, conquered Jerusalem he marched into Holy of Holies and found an empty room, much to his disappointment. So he left and the Jews cleaned everything up but an ark was never put back in there. Maybe there’s significance in that because the Prophet Jeremiah tells us a day will come you won’t worry about an ark. You won’t need it because God will be present everywhere. Even for the pagans, the nations, everyone who honor God and everyone will be able to see him (Jeremiah 3:16-17).
People still want that today. As I researched this sermon I found a website where you can buy a God’s Box. It is three inches by five inches. It’s made out of metal. You can buy them in many colors. They have a new pastel line you can get and here’s what the website says: It’s the perfect spiritual tool for times of trouble and despair. When your burdens are just too heavy for you to bear, write them down, then put them in the box and give them to God to hold for you. It’s constructed to last forever.
That’s what the website says – lasts forever. Now Solomon’s ark lasted under 500 years. Apparently these guys are very confident about their materials! The ad goes on to say God’s Box is portable so you can put it in your glove compartment, slip it in your purse or carry it in your golf bag. I guess it’s sort of like the Philistine idea. If you want to improve your golf game, have God with you right there. At the bottom of the box, they have placed a “silver lining” – I’m not kidding you – where it signifies that you’ll find a silver lining when you look beyond your troubles. It’s only $19.95 each and if you buy 10 of them you get free shipping. Now, if this God’s Box has a glowing cloud above it, I’ll invest that money for each and every one of you to have one but I don’t think it does.
This company is in Groveport, Ohio. I can understand where they’re coming from. The idea that people want something tangible. It would be comforting to be able to say, this is where my God is. Many people feel that they can go to church and they can pray they just don’t sense anything. We don’t see a cloud anymore. We don’t have a box. Maybe I should spend $19.95 and get my own God Box so I could say this is where he is. [#36056]
But the Bible says that you’re actually going backwards if you take that approach. Because according to the Bible, the Holy of Holies, which is where the Ark was supposed to be, was hidden behind a thick impenetrable curtain. The moment Jesus died on the cross, that curtain split down the middle and fell to the side and the whole room was opened up. Christians have always understood that to mean that access to the holy presence of God is no longer restricted to one guy, once a year, going in to sprinkle some blood around, but now it’s available to all of us who have faith in Jesus. That’s where you find the presence of God. Not in a box but in the experience of the Holy Spirit speeking to your heart.
Some people say, I really want the Holy Spirit to speek to my heart but I don’t see anything. I don’t’ sense anything. There really is no experience. In our Sunday school class, Nancy shared when she was baptized that she had had a pretty wild upbringing. There’s a lot of things that she regretted in her life. But she says, “When I was baptized I really felt that that stuff was washed off. I felt that there was a real cleaning. I felt different when it was done. It’s like I knew that God was there.” She also said she went to a Christmas Eve service in another church and she sensed that there were angels and she could see them. Maybe some of you have had experiences like that.
Certainly the idea that God is always with me is not something you’re going to feel all the time but I would hope at some point in your life you can say, “Yes, I know there’s a God. It’s like he broke through to me and I know it was real.” But even when we don’t see it, we can know it. Because the Bible says if you’re committed to Lord Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven, you have atonement and God is on your side. Do you know that? Have you experienced that? Have you made a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ? Let’s bow our heads for prayer.
Almighty God, as humans, we have sight and smell and touch and we would love to use all these things to find you but the Bible says you’re a spirit. You’re nothing that our senses can pin down. So we ask you to give us that sixth sense, the spiritual sense that even if we can’t see with our eyes, we can know that you’re with us, that we can feel something different in our heart. We live in an age where there are many frustrations, many disappointments and people have fears about what their future is going to bring. But if we know Jesus, then we know that our future is in his hands. Arks can come and arks can go but Almighty God lasts forever. So may we know you and may we depend upon you in Jesus’ name. Amen.
SOURCES FOR ILLUSTRATIONS USED IN THIS SERMON:
1. This information comes from the article "Ark of the Covenant" at Wikipedia.org. The Ethiopian claims are said to be a 13th-century fabrication to legitimize the ruler at that time.
#36056 "God's Box, Only $19.95!," by David Holwick, October 24, 2009. "God's Box" © 2006 K and B Creations LLC, Groveport, Ohio;
These and 30,000 others are part of the Kerux database that can be downloaded, absolutely free, at http://www.holwick.com/database.html