Whenever I hear a bible passage that mentions the Ark of the Covenant, I think about the film that launched Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark
The film tells of the battle to find and control the object which we heard described in our first reading – the Ark of the Covenant – the precious object which was lost when Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians in 586 BC.
What is this important relic?
Well an Ark – Latin arca – is a chest – something used safely to carry important things – think of Noah’s ark which carried the people protected from the flood.
This Ark of the Covenant was used to carry the tablets of stone on which are written the 10 commandments – The summary of the law – the eternal promises – to honour God and not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery – the things which are the basis of our relationship with God and one another to this day –
The promises which are so easy to say but turn out to be so hard to keep – at least for a lifetime.
In the Old Testament, the tablets were a physical representation of this covenant between God and man.
And from the Ark emanated the Glory of the Lord – in the form of a cloud of smoke by day and of fire by night
This acted as a beacon for the Israelites to follow as they wandered through the desert.
Metaphorically and literally, they followed God by following the law – written on the tablets – carried in the Ark.
In one of the Film’s opening scenes, Professor Jones says that all the mythical power of these ancient objects is “mumbo jumbo”
In the film’s final scene, the Ark is opened and the Glory of God erupts killing everything in sight!
If you haven’t seen it – you should. It’s a classic.
So what do you think?
Is this all mumbo jumbo?
Do you hear bible passages like this – about the Ark of the Covenant and think: “what a load of nonsense? What could this possibly mean to me?”
Here are my thoughts on the subject:
For the people who wrote the bible – there was no science – there was no understanding of the world of things. Our current understanding of the material world – everything we learn in physics, chemistry and biology – is little more than a few hundred years old.
Before modern science, the only way that people had to explain and describe things was through stories and the bible is full of them – stories of creation, of Adam and Eve, the tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark .
These stories work on more than one level
On the one hand, they are explanations of natural phenomena – like rainbows
But then rainbows are also symbols of hope, it is impossible to see one without feeling a lift in your spirit
For on another level these stories are explorations of the human condition – what it means to be alive.
Thirdly, they help us understand how we have got to where we are today – the origins of our rituals and sacred objects
The passage we have just heard explains some of the things we see here in Chapel today.
We have here a sanctuary which replicates the tabernacle of the Israelites – it represents the idea that there are some places – thin spaces – be it a tent or a chapel – a mountain – or indeed a pulpit – where we feel closer to God
Then we have lampstands – on the altar we have candle sticks
Because, though we are a long time out of the caves of our ancestors, keeping a flame alight is still a very important thing to us – have you ever found yourself mesmerised looking into a fire? It’s because human beings have spent half a million years longer worrying about the camp fire going out
Finally, and most importantly, these stories are part of a metanarrative – Greek meta- meaning beyond – a story which is bigger than any individual story – the overarching framework of the universe in which we live.
The Bible begins with the first piece of this metanarative – the story of creation
Science explains this in terms of the big bang – OK – but it cannot begin to explain the why.
The big story in Genesis is that creation is a deliberate act of an agent – that we are not here by chance
Moreover, that each of us is made in the image of God. That in each of us a divine spark has been placed – the spark that we call life.
If you know anyone who has struggled to have a child you know that this spark of life is not trivial – it is a gift.
It is the real magic in the universe
In this season of spring, the natural world bears witness to such new beginnings – new life
I have been abroad on business for a week and when I left the trees were brown
I have returned and there is verdure everywhere – the trees are full of leaf and blossom. I am shocked by this every year
The remarkable, underlying creative power in the world is made manifest in all its glory
It seems obvious to me that there is something very powerful at work here – the nonsense is the idea that this power could be kept in a box
A Christian writer, Irenaeus, wrote in the second century – “the Glory of God is a man alive” – a living human being.
So, ladies and gentlemen, while we increasingly understand the science, let us not lose sight of the story – that each of us has been given a piece of that divine spark to dwell within us
And as you develop the story of your life, your place in the metanarrative of the universe, think on this:
What if you are indeed a manifestation of the Glory of God?
Would it not then be important to nurture the divine spark that lies within you?
Might it then be your vocation to help guide others through the wilderness? A column of smoke by day and of fire by night
Now that would be really frightening – that might change how you view your life
But that, I believe, is no mumbo jumbo,
That, I believe, is God’s covenant with you,
Because – brothers and sisters in Christ – I believe that you have found it.
The Ark of the Covenant is you!
Sermon given by Rev Christopher Hancock at Epsom College, 28th April, 2018