Wheaton holds a Ph.D. degree from Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia (Hermeneutics/Old Testament) and has taught biblical studies at a number of Colleges and Seminaries in the U.S.A, Singapore, and Canada. He serves as Pastor of Discipleship at Bay Park Baptist Church in Kingston ON and also is adjunct professor of Old Testament at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, ON.
“Do not come any closer . . . Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground. Exod. 3:5)
We have noted in our ongoing discussion of the church as a holy community that holiness is both a matter of who we are and what we do. We are a people in a special relationship with God whose behaviour reflects that unique status. Nurturing that special relationship is part of what believers are to do. In a previous post, we looked at how the church calendar invites us into the sacred time of God and reminds us that we live our lives in that framework. Reflecting on sacred space can also help us to recall our special relationship with God.
My wife enjoys watching HGTV. Some of the programs that she watches display renovations in older homes. An architect or interior designer will be consulted to advise the homeowner about the changes that should be made. It is striking to me how these consultants approach the space in the home. They are not bound by the constraints of the home as it is (e.g., current walls, etc.) but see beyond it to what could be there. It is in light of these possibilities that they propose their changes. Now while this is an inadequate analogy, I think it can be helpful in enabling us to understand the concept of sacred space. The Kingdom of God does intersect with this temporal order. The believer, through the eyes of faith, sees in the space in which we live, not simply what is obvious to everyone, but sacred space—the territory of the King.
The story of the call of Moses illustrates this (Exodus 3). Moses is busy tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro in the wilderness of Sinai. Around him is the barren wilderness with its scrub growth from which he is endeavoring to find enough pasture for his flocks. Suddenly, he sees a bush aflame. The text indicates that he goes over to investigate and finds himself in sacred space. God commands him to take his sandals off for he is on “holy ground.” Moses becomes aware of something that he did not know.
Like Moses, we need God to open our eyes to the reality of God’s presence and rule around us. We confess that God is omnipresent but the reality of that fact does not really grasp our imaginations. We need something concrete to prime our thinking.
That is where tangible things help. For Israel, their imagination was stirred by the presence of the tabernacle. God ordered the making of this structure after the pattern that was revealed to Moses on the Holy Mountain (Exod. 25:9; Heb. 8:5). The pattern was the heavenly reality itself, and it took all kinds of great expense and creative actions to replicate what had been shown to Him. The tabernacle in all its glory wasn’t there to limit God’s presence in Israel’s midst but to symbolize that He filled all their camp. He was Immanuel! Later in Israel’s history, the temple would serve the nation settled in Palestine as a reminder of the same truth. It too was built with lavish expense to represent the glories of God’s presence and rule among the people.
With the coming of Christ, the role of the temple was finished. Now His body, the Church, represents Christ’s presence in the world. We, as Peter says, “like living stones are being built into a spiritual house” where spiritual sacrifices are being offered (1 Pet 2:5). But may I propose that we can still benefit from tangible sacred space to remind us of God’s presence everywhere? Perhaps, it is a place in one’s home, a “closet” where we can meet with God (Matthew 6:8). When we go there, we are reminded of God’s holy presence that demands our worship and attention. Or maybe it is a church sanctuary where we meet with the body of Christ for worship.
On a number of occasions I have had opportunity to be in one of the great cathedrals of Europe. Inevitably, I find that my spirit is stirred by the architecture and design of the facility, almost demanding a holy hush. Our pragmatic and informal approach has tended towards eradicating sacred space. We want space in our church buildings that is “functional” so we build “multi-purpose” buildings. One pastor friend of mine use to speak of the building in which his congregation worshipped as a “sanctugym.” Current trends for renovating older church buildings often call for removing pews so that we can accommodate other functions such as dinner receptions and fitness classes.
And all of this may have its place and its rationale. But in the process, do we reduce the sacred to the common? Is space really wasted that has no other function than to remind us that God and His kingdom are present? Are we yielding up that which should be signalling us that we are a people set apart for God who dwell within the sphere of His majestic and holy rule? Sacred spaces can still serve to remind us that we are a holy people who belong to God! Such “first fruits” ought not to limit God’s space but to point us toward a growing awareness that God and His kingdom are everywhere!
For further reading in this area, the Worldview church staff recommend “An Architecture of Immanence: Architecture for Worship and Ministry Today” in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series