Peeling off the layers
With every passing day, I inch closer and closer to becoming a woman of some significant years.
It's an especially difficult transition this time of year. The weather is altogether changeable. Clouds, fog, nearly freezing temperatures greet the dawn, with bright sunshine and warmer temperatures arriving just in time for supper -- sometimes.
Every morning, I check the forecast and then stand in front of my open closet, deciding what layers to wear that day.
I layer because, not only is Earth's thermostat changeable during this season, so is mine. Most of the time I think mine is flat-out broken. I can transition from goose bumps to wearing a sheen of perspiration in five minutes or less. One minute the sweater on the back of my chair is serving as a lap blanket. The next? It's in a heap on my desk, only to be draped across my shoulders two minutes later.
Layers are good. Most of the time. But, if you use too many, they can become suffocating, sweltering, constricting.
Maybe that was part of the problem with Israel and the religious leaders in Jesus' time. When the Israelites first emerged from Egypt and were lead to Mount Sinai where they heard the voice of God from the mountain, they trembled with fear. They stayed far back from the mountain and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." (Exodus 20:18 and 19)
Moses tried to reassure them, but they remained at a distance, preferring the layer of Moses between them and the God who had lead them out of Egypt.
And so the layering began. The Lord, understanding created man's penchant for ritual -- how it comforts and guides -- implemented certain requirements of sacrifice and prayer. The religious leaders, over the course of centuries, layered those with the traditions of men, so much so that when Jesus arrived on the scene, he found that it was nearly impossible for anyone to draw near to God through the maze of traditions, rules and regulations that had multiplied over the years.
In fact, in one of his most scathing discourses he warns the gathered crowd and his disciples, "'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.'" in Matthew 23, beginning at verse 1. His tone grew even more serious as he addressed the teachers of the law and the Pharisees directly, "'Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.'"
Too many layers had come between man and the God who created them and who longed to have a relationship with them.
That relationship was uppermost in Jesus' mind as he went about preaching about the kingdom of God. Part of the new covenant that Jesus came to implement included the Lord's desire as expressed in Jeremiah 31:33 "'This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. '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.'"
No middle man, no one greater than another, all brothers together, "because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," (Jeremiah 31:34).
I remember teaching the evening prayer I learned as a child to my own children, thrilled when they were finally able to verbalize it themselves and add their unique "and God bless ..." at the end. They didn't realize the magnitude of their action at that tender age, but they were addressing the actual Creator of the Universe and all that is in it. And he was listening.
He's still listening. And he is waiting to hear from you. Not your pastor. Not your priest. You. No middle man. No interpreter. No layers. It has never mattered who does the praying. The only thing that matters is the One who hears the prayer.
The temple curtain that was torn in two at the very moment Jesus died, represented the final layer that stood between God and created man. Before then, no one was worthy to approach him -- under penalty of death. Once a year, the high priest, after careful preparation and ritual sacrifices, passed through that curtain, beseeching God to forgive his nation Israel, again.
I can understand Israel's fear so long ago, the thunder that roared, the lightning that flashed, the trumpet that heralded that the Lord God was about to speak. I'd have been shaking in my boots right beside them. It was no accident that Jesus came first as helpless and vulnerable as each man is at birth, and that he had no "beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2) In other words, he was just like us and because he was, he made God approachable even as he made us clean.
If you haven't prayed in a long time, if you've never prayed before, he's still listening and he longs to hear the sound of your voice.
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." Hebrew 10:19-23 (NIV)
I don't have all the answers, but I know the One who does. Let's walk together for awhile and discover Him; together.