Something For Nothing

You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and one and a half cubits wide. You shall make two cherubim of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings and facing one another; the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony which I will give to you. There I will meet with you; and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak to you about all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.

 

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father

 

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.

 

Before Jerusalem was sacked in 586BC, it held the religious center of the people of Israel. Inside Jerusalem, there was a temple. Inside the temple, there was a courtyard. Inside the courtyard, there was a building called the Holy Place. Inside the building was a room, the Most Holy Place. Inside the room was a pedestal. In the center of the pedestal stood the ark of the covenant. And on top of the ark were two golden cherubim, facing toward the very center of the entire Jewish world: the mercy seat, the place where, God said, “I have chosen to cause my name to dwell.” 

Since the tragedy of Genesis 3, followers of Yahweh had had only fleeting glimpses of the presence of their God. There had been a pillar of fire and an anonymous night-wrestler, but there hadn’t been anything permanent. No place where God “dwelt,” tangibly with his people. 

But God has always wanted to do so. He created a world where he walked with people through a garden “in the cool of the day.” God has always wanted his people to come into his presence. 

So he commanded that they build a tabernacle to be the place where heaven and earth could meet. Or, if not meet, then thin the distance between them. Following the tabernacle, there was a temple. And there, in the temple, above the mercy seat over the ark, the place where God’s name dwelt, there was…

Nothing. 

Empty space. 

A blank. 

Certainly, God’s presence filled the temple and the tabernacle, but he remained invisible, dwelling in the empty space of his mercy seat. Eugene Peterson says it this way: 

The ark, placed at the heart of the wilderness tabernacle, was a visible focus for the worship of God. It was a rectangular coffinlike box, four feet two inches long and thirty inches wide and high, covered with gold. The center was designated the mercy seat. It was flanked by cherubim with outstretched wings. But the mercy seat was not a seat at all. It was empty space, a void, an emptiness framed by the angel wings that marked the presence of the enthroned God Yahweh. The focus and function of the ark was the empty space marked off by the cherubim – nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to handle. But it was not mere emptiness, but rather an emptiness that is fullness, “the fullness of him who fills all in all”; “I AM that I AM.”

Over that void, the incarnation shouts its importance. God has come near! Immanuel has appeared! The Word has become flesh and he dwells among us! Jesus fills the empty space! The mercy seat is inhabited — not by a symbol or a foretaste, not by carved image or flickering flame — but by a baby. The God-man. Messiah. 

Three short decades after the Great I AM cried in a manger, there was another empty space between angels. This one in a tomb. Mary wept and the angels asked the disciples why they were looking for God in the empty space. The name was moving again, closer still to his people. Dwelling in their hearts. 

I will put my law in their minds

    and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

    and they will be my people.