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February 28, 2016

Sermon Matthew 27:50-51 . . . “It’s a Miracle:  A Curtain Torn”

“It’s a Miracle:  A Curtain Torn”

Matthew 27:50-51

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Can’t go there.  Not welcome.  Go away.  Did you know that in this open, “politically correct” society, there are places you just can’t go?

Take, Menwith Hill in Yorkshire, England, for example.  It’s a peculiar-looking complex of buildings and golfball-shaped structures that provide communication and intelligence support to both Britain and the United States.  It’s so vast, it’s been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world.  It’s a top secret network that’s used to intercept private and commercial communications.  Can’t go there.  Not welcome.  Don’t even try it.  Go away.

And speaking of communications, there’s the Google Data Center in Lenoir, North Carolina.  Called “the home of Big Brother” and “the beating heart of the digital age,” it’s a collection of thousands of servers and thousands of miles of fiber optic cable that make Google Google.  In case you want to visit there, you’ll have to ask, politely.  They say it’s as heavily guarded as Area 51.

And speaking of Area 51, you can’t go there either.  Some eighty miles northwest of Las Vegas, it’s the home of a large military airfield as well as experimental aircraft and weaponry.  Though most everyone knows about it, the U. S. government refuses to acknowledge it even exists.  If you’re planning a trip to Vegas any time soon, don’t even bother trying to visit.  You can’t go there.  You’re not welcome.  Better stay away.

And speaking of secret places, that’s nothing to say of Fort Knox, just outside of Louisville, Kentucky, or Mezghorye, Russia, a secret nuclear missile test site, or the secret Vatican archives, fifty-two miles (!) of centuries-old books, letters and documents, or even the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, found in Ethiopia.  It may, or may not, be the home of the original Ark of the Covenant.

And there’s one more “off-limits” place we should add to that list--the temple in Jerusalem, the home of Jewish worship, the place where God dwells.  In fact, if you had lived in that time and place, you would have seen a sign, chiseled in stone, just above your head.  It read:  “No foreigner may enter within the balustrade around the sanctuary and the enclosure.  Whoever is caught, on himself shall he put blame for the death which will ensue.”  In other words, can’t go there.  Not welcome.  Go away.

But it was that place that experienced its very own miracle on the day Jesus died.

Let me read the words of Matthew chapter 27:  “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.  And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice…and yielded up His spirit.  And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

The crucifixion of the sinless Son of God is a wonder and a mystery that’s beyond all human understanding.  It was a time when, though man was at his worst, God was at His best, reconciling the world to Himself.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Jesus’ death on the cross was:  “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

And as our Savior Jesus lay suffering and dying on that cruel wooden cross, with the sins of every man, woman and child, past, present and future heaped on Him, emptied on Him, poured out on Him, even nature itself reeled in shock.  The sun at its brightest, most brilliant time of day turned as dark as night.  The earth shook.  Tombs broke open.  And the bodies of those who believed came back to life.

The death of Jesus Christ was the greatest and most crucial moment in history, a marvel of time and eternity.

And as all of nature reeled in shock, there was yet one more miracle in, of all places, the very temple itself.  As three writers of the Gospel, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all wrote, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

To better understand the significance of what happened there that day, let me take you inside the temple for just a moment.

First, let me say that this isn’t the first temple, Solomon’s temple.  While Solomon’s temple was grand, Herod’s was far grander.  At the time, it was one of the largest, grandest and most beautiful buildings anyone had ever built, three-times as large as Solomon’s temple ever was.  In fact, people in Jesus’ day were often known to say, “Unless you’ve seen Herod’s temple, you have not seen a truly beautiful building.”

And inside that building, hand-crafted by the most skilled of artisans, with the finest wood, silver and gold, was a holy place where priests came to minister day and night.  They trimmed the wicks of a seven-branch golden lampstand, arranged twelve flat cakes of bread representing the twelve tribes of Israel and burned incense on a golden altar of incense.

And beyond the Holy Place was the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, the most sacred place in the world.  It’s where the high priest, and only the high priest, would go, once a year, dressed in his finest clothes, to sprinkle blood on the Mercy Seat, the Ark of the Covenant, the very presence of God.

And between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, was a curtain, a divider between man and the presence of God.

The book of Exodus describes it as “a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim (angels) worked into it by a skilled craftsman.”  Jewish writers say it was sixty feet high, twenty feet wide, and woven to the thickness of a man’s hand.  It took three hundred men just to carry it.

And as that thick, heavy curtain hung between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, it seemed to say, “You’re not good enough.  You’re not righteous enough.  Can’t go there.  Not welcome.  Go away.”  God’s presence was too pure and too holy, for you to even think of stepping inside.

Can you imagine how it must have been for the priests who ministered inside?  They knew who Jesus was.  He was a problem, a menace, a rabble rouser, someone who incited the people to revolt and rebellion.  The nerve of Him to criticize them and call them blind guides, hypocrites, and white-washed tombs.  Who did He think He was?  God in human flesh?  To claim the things He claimed for Himself was nothing short of blasphemy.

So it was about time Good Friday had come.  Annas and Caiaphas had every right to arrest Him, charge Him, and try Him before Pilate.  And at 9:00 that morning, crowned with thorns and nails driven through His hands and feet, He was right where He needed to be—on a cross and waiting to die.

Good riddance.  Menace to society.  Helpless fool.

But as He died, they couldn’t help but wonder at His words:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” “Today you’ll be with Me in Paradise” and “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  And at noon, there was that strange, eerie darkness, even in the middle of the day.

But nothing could have prepared them for what happened next.  Suddenly, at 3:00, as He breathed His last breath, the earth shook, tombs broke open and, the greatest assault of all, right before their very eyes, the temple curtain tore in two from top to bottom, making plain the Most Holy Place, for every eye to see.

It must have been a shock.

Notice, it wasn’t just a tear in a corner, nor was it small hole cut through the middle, nor was it torn only halfway.  And neither was it torn from bottom to top.  Instead, that thick, heavy curtain separating man from God was torn all the way from top to bottom.  No one else, no one else, could have done it, except the hand of God.

Why was it torn?  What did God mean to teach us by this strange and incredible miracle in the temple?

I’ll leave you with two things.  

First, when that temple curtain tore, it seemed to say that everything that had come before this moment had finally come to an end.  All the types, all the shadows, and all the ceremonies were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  No longer would priests have to slaughter bulls and lambs and goats on the altar.  No longer would the high priest sprinkle blood on the mercy seat.  Everything was done.  Everything was paid for in the death of Jesus Christ.  The veil was rent.  The curtain was torn.  All that man needed to do, was done.

And one more thing.  When that curtain tore, it seemed to say the barrier between God and man was gone.  While sin had separated us for so long, now by His hand, the way was made open again.  And instead of “Can’t go there,” “Not welcome,” “Go away,” we have a Savior who says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  And He said, “Whoever comes to Me, I will never cast out.”  And we have the words of Paul to the Romans:  “Nothing, nothing, in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

K-19 was a Russian, Cold War, nuclear submarine launched and christened in April of 1959.  If you’ve seen the movie, “The Widow-maker,” you know something of what I mean.

For it was in July of 1961 that the unthinkable happened.  The sub developed a leak in its reactor cooling system and, to make matters worse, their long-range radio system also failed, making it impossible to talk to Moscow.  If the crew did nothing, the reactor would overheat and a nuclear explosion could tip the Cold War into a full-blown conflict.

So what could they do?  Seven members of the engineering crew and their commander agreed to put their lives at risk to stop the leak and repair the submarine.  And while they succeeded, their lives were tragically lost.  Within three weeks, every single one of them died from radiation sickness.

 We have a Savior who’s done far more than that.  By His life, suffering, death and resurrection, He has torn the veil and made us right with God.

“Therefore,” as the writer to the Hebrews said, “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain…let us draw near with a true heart and…let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”

 

 

Dear Father, once You tore the temple veil, opening our way to You.  Help us to come to You in repentance and faith, always giving thanks for what our Savior Jesus has done.  This we ask in His name.  Amen

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