One day when I was about 14 years old, some friends came to visit – two boys, the older one, Luke, was my age and the younger one, Simon, was my sister’s age. We went to the local park together without our parents, and as they were sporty types, they brought along some balls to play with. One of the things they brought was a cricket set – ball, bat, stumps and bails – probably some wicket keeper pads and gloves too knowing them. Our local park was lovely – it had a great play area, a basketball court, another multi-purpose games area and two lovely big cricket pitches. So naturally we went straight to one of the cricket pitches. We got the stumps out and hammered them into the ground with the bat – bang, bang, bang. Then we took it in turns to stand guard while someone else bowled. It was brilliant. I’d never played on a proper pitch before. Then, after a while, I looked up to see a very red-faced man approaching on a roller. After hurling not an insignificant amount of abuse at us, he proceeded to roll over the area where we had been playing for the next half an hour, as we sheepishly moved off elsewhere to play football. It appears we unwittingly desecrated the hallowed turf of Birstall Village Cricket Club.
In my school, just as in any school, there was a special place that no children could enter. The staff room. If we needed a teacher urgently we would go and stand at the end of the corridor that led to the staff room and hope to catch another teacher on their way in so they could pass on the message. I always felt quite embarrassed when I had to do this – they were never happy passing a message on, and the teacher I needed almost never wanted to be disturbed.
A couple of years after I left the school, I returned for a special event, and I was asked to go and wait IN the staff room. For the first time ever, I entered the forbidden corridor. My heart beating fast, I slowly walked down it and round the corner, and into the inner sanctum itself. There were comfy chairs. There was a kettle. There were fascinating lists up all over the walls – lists of exceptionally bright children. I had been permitted in to the sanctuary but I still did not feel like I belonged. I didn’t settle down into a comfy chair – I perched on the edge of one. It simply did not feel like home.
There are some places you just can’t go unless you are qualified. And there is a place we can go that we just shouldn’t ever be able to. That is into the presence of Almighty God. Just a little glance around us at the beauty and glory of creation makes us wonder quite how much more glorious the one who created it must be. Just a little think about everyday life and how hard it is to live honestly and selflessly makes us wonder quite how wonderful Jesus, the one who lived without sin, must be. Just a little glance inward at our own hearts reveals the complexity of feeling – what it means to have an inner life, to have a spirit – and this makes us wonder how much more incredible the Holy Spirit must be.
But the amazing miracle of it all is that not only has a way been opened for us to come into the presence of the Almighty, but we are welcomed with open arms and encouraged to feel at home.
Hebrews 10:19-23 says this:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.
The curtain was a feature of worship for the children of Israel right from when they first built a tabernacle in the wilderness to carry around with them. Ordinary people were able to come in to the outer courts area to worship the Lord, and then specially consecrated priests were able go further into the Holy of Holies, but then there was an impenetrable barrier – the curtain – which blocked the way to the Most Holy Place. Apart from on very rare, very special occasions, no one could go beyond the curtain.
At the time of Jesus the temple had a huge curtain. Josephus, the Jewish historian living roughly at that time describes the curtain as incredibly beautiful, embroidered and woven in different colours that represent fire, earth, air and sea. Other ancient Jewish sources say it was 60ft tall, 30ft wide and about 4 inches thick. That is a serious curtain!
Some words from Luke 23:
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.
I love the little detail of the criminals hanging beside Jesus. I love how it showed Jesus knew what was going on and what he was about to achieve. “Today you will be with me in paradise.” This criminal, the last person who would be able to enter in to the Most Holy Place is invited into glory by Jesus himself.
Two verses later, the curtain is torn. That 4 inch thick curtain rips from top to bottom. God, through Jesus has re-written the rules of holiness. The criminal finds himself welcomed with open arms and we too can find the grace and mercy that is required.
When I was a teenager I attended a conference called Easter People at the Spa Centre in Scarborough. One night I remember going into the ballroom and sitting upstairs. We had a wonderful evening of worship and Bible teaching, and I remember towards the end the band were singing ‘Be still.’ When the second verse began I distinctly remember sensing the ‘glory of the Lord shining all around’. In my mind’s eye I could see the most amazing light shining in the centre of the space. Everyone was worshipping, basking in his presence. I simply did not want to leave. I wanted it to go on for ever. I was home. Better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.
We are not invited into the Most Holy Place as sheepish schoolchildren sneaking in to the staff room. God’s presence is our home. There is no better place to be. And Jesus has made the way.