Sermon: The Mercy Seat

This morning we are concluding our series on worship and mission. We have been looking at God’s instructions in the building of the tabernacle to grasp more deeply the connection between the worship of God and the mission of God. This morning we are in the heart of the tabernacle, in the inner room of the tent of meeting, known as the Holy of Holies or Most Holy Place. It was a fifteen foot cube with only one thing in it, the ark of the covenant where God promised to meet with his people. It’s Exodus 25:10-22. Feel free to turn there with me. Exodus 25:10-22. But before we hear God’s word. Please pray with me:


Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the side of the ark, by which to carry the ark. The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark, they shall not be taken from it. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.

Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They shall face one to another, the faces of the cherubim shall 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 covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

“What is the problem?” From the living room of our house, Olga and I hear a child crying and the question we ask is, “What is the problem?” Someone calls me up and asks to sit down and talk with me, one of the first questions I ask, “What is the problem?” I have dozens of books in my study that are seeking to answer just this question, “What is the problem?”

What is the problem with your life, with this culture, with kids these days, with boomers, with millennials, with Gen-X, with poverty, with homelessness, with sexuality, with every social ill you can imagine? You flip on the TV, listen to a podcast, or catch your favorite YouTuber and everyone has a diagnosis. Some are saying what is wrong with the world today is the breakdown of the nuclear family – families don’t eat together, pray together, or study God’s word together anymore, the pressures of contemporary life pull families apart. They’re not wrong. Some are saying what is wrong with the world today is corruption and a lack of accountability – that the strong oppress the weak, bully their way through life, and do not face the consequences. They’re not wrong. Some are saying the problem is the smartphone – we are distracted, fractured from each other, and decreasing our ability to have long, significant conversations with people who disagree with us. They’re not wrong. Some are saying the problem is a lack of self-reflection. We don’t know ourselves, our traumas, or triggers, and we act out and injure each other emotionally and physically because we are dealing with our fears and hurts. They’re not wrong. Some are saying that the problem is individualism or the prizing of personal experience above any other source of knowledge. They’re not wrong. I’m just scratching the surface, too, of all the various diagnoses about just what the problem is.

“What is the problem?” However right any or all of these answers might be, according to the Bible, these are only symptoms of a much deeper problem. If we treat the symptoms but neglect the actual disease, we might feel better, but we won’t get better.

According to the Word of God, God’s revelation to us in Scripture, there is a much deeper problem and the beginning, the foreshadowing of God’s answer to this problem is found in the mercy seat in the heart of the tabernacle. So this morning, I want us to look at how the Bible describes the root problem we all face as human beings, and how the mercy seat foreshadows God’s solution.

What is the problem? According to God’s diagnosis, the problem each of us as humans faces is estrangement from God and the wrath of God. In short, we are cut off and condemned.

For us, it all goes back to the opening chapters of Genesis. God created the world and created humankind in his own image – male and female he created them. He put the man and the woman, our first parents, in the garden where God walked in the cool of the day. He told them that they were free to eat from any tree in the garden except the tree in the center of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The crafty and wicked serpent spoke to the woman, whispering lies about God’s intentions, and with the man standing nearby, they trusted the snake over God. They ate the fruit, realized their nakedness, were ashamed and hid. But God sought them out, “Where are you?” This is the way of God, seeking the lost and wayward sinner. When Adam and his wife finally speak aloud what they had done, they are sent out of the garden and barred from returning.

The story of Genesis, which reveals the problem each of us faces, is a story of estrangement. We were made to be in covenant relationship with God, to walk with him, to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But we turned our backs on him, placed our trust in ourselves, in the serpent, and we have been cut off from that perfect relationship we were meant for. Adam, Eve, and all their children, including us, are estranged from God.

The fundamental problem each of us faces is more than the challenges in your marriage, they are deeper than your loneliness, and farther reaching than your depression, as important and serious as all those things are. At the heart, your problem is not with your spouse, your friends, your past, or even yourself, it is with God.

We are like the younger son who has taken his inheritance and gone to a far off country and squandered his wealth in wild living. We are cut off from the Father’s house, far from home. And we cannot fix it.

Yet this is precisely what God is doing, what God is foreshadowing in the mercy seat. In a world where every person is cut off and estranged from God in their sin, God graciously tells Moses to build an ark and on top of that ark put a mercy seat. And then God promises in verse 22: There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.

There I will meet with you. We are cut off and cannot find our way back to God, but God does not leave us there, but comes to us, to meet with us. We cannot find our way to heaven, but God tells Moses to build a mercy seat where God almighty will draw near to us so that we can meet with him. At the mercy seat, God draws near to us to meet with us. We who are estranged, we who are lost, we who are longing for home, God says I will come near, I will move toward you, I will meet with you here at the mercy seat, enthroned between the cherubim.

At the heart of worship, at the heart of the tabernacle, the very goal and hope of the whole worship complex that God instructed them to make is that God will dwell with his people. He will meet with them. Like the Father who sees his Son a long way off and runs toward him, in telling Moses to make the mercy seat and promising to meet with them there, God is drawing near to his people in love and grace.

At the heart of worship is meeting with God. At the mercy seat, between the cherubim, God promises to meet with his people. The estrangement and separation from God that has plagued us for so long has been overcome, not by us, but by God himself.

And the mercy seat is itself just the beginning, just a foreshadowing of the decisive work of God in meeting with his people. It points ahead to where God will truly dwell with his people. The mercy seat points to Jesus.

Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. Jesus is the Word made flesh, where God dwells among us. The person of Jesus Christ is where we meet with God. He is the mercy seat, where if we want to meet the Father, we must go to him. Jesus himself says this when he says, “No one comes to Father, except through me.” But the connect to the mercy seat is a bit more explicit than that.

In Exodus 25, the mercy seat is to have two hammered cherubim on top made of gold. A cherub (plural cherubim) is a type of angel. We do not exactly what they looked like, Ezekiel is given a vision of them with many wings and eyes. We do know here that they have wings, in other places they appear human, but everywhere people greet their arrival with fear and trembling. These two cherubim are at the two ends of the cover of the ark, called the mercy seat. One at each end, facing the center, with their wings outstretched over the the space where God has promised to meet with them. So keep that image in your head, an angelic figure at each end and God has promised to meet with them between them.

Now listen to how John describes Easter morning: But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. (20:11-12)

John, papyrus is expensive. Why tell us all these details and not just that there were angels? Why tell us that there were two angels, one at the head and one at the feet, and between it was where the body of Jesus had been lying? Where else do we see this but at the mercy seat of God – where there were two angelic figures and God promises to dwell between them. Jesus is the dwelling of God with his people. Jesus is where we must go to be restored to the Father’s house, to find our estrangement overcome, to be welcomed home. If the problem we all face is being cut off from the presence of God, the risen Lord Jesus Christ is God’s solution. He is God with us, where we come to meet with God, to come into God’s presence.

What is the problem? It is deeper than all the symptoms of smartphones and Facebook, isolation or secularization. It is being estranged from God. But in the mercy seat, God promises to meet with his people. God draws near. And in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ, we are brought near to God. We are brought home.

But the problem we face, the disease for which all other ills are symptoms is not only estrangement, but condemnation. We are not only lost and far from home, we are guilty. Ephesians 2:1-3 puts the problem this way: You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is not at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

By nature, we were children of wrath. The real problem each of us faces is not our budget or our diet or our grades, but our sin. Every sin is like giving God the finger and spitting in his face. And this is not just a once in a while occurrence for us measured against all our good deeds, but the regular, consistent, unrelenting pattern of our lives. We only dig the hole deeper and deeper. It is so far above our heads we cannot get out. What we deserve is punishment, is wrath, is condemnation. I know this is not a popular thing to talk about anymore. I know people worry that this is not going to be appealing to those we want to come into the church. But this is the core of our problem. We are sinners who rightly deserve eternal condemnation for our sins and there is nothing you or I can do to right the wrongs or pay the penalty off. To say anything less is to lie and to lie with devastating consequences. To say anything else is to misdiagnose the true problem and detract from the glory of God in salvation.

The mercy seat of God not only overcomes our estrangement, our being far from home, but it foreshadows God’s ultimate and perfect solution to the great problem of our sin.

It is not accident that the cover of the ark is called the mercy seat or that other translations call it the atonement cover. Only once a year could anyone enter the Most Holy Place where the ark was placed. On the day known as the Day of Atonement, a goat was slaughtered and its blood was brought inside the curtain and sprinkled upon the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Because of that blood on the mercy seat, the sins of the people were cleansed, wipe away for that year. The blood of the one sacrificed came before God and sins of the people were wiped away, were covered over, were atoned for.

At the mercy seat, God promises to meet with his people, overcoming their estrangement from him. At the mercy seat, God also deals with their sin, by placing the punishment they deserve (death) on the head of the atoning sin offering. The wrath, the punishment, the condemnation falls upon another and when that blood comes before the face of God, their sins are wiped away.

The ritual of atonement, where the blood of the goat was brought before the mercy seat of God points ahead to the cross of Jesus Christ, where the perfect, spotless Son took on the punishment for our sins so that we might receive grace and mercy. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 3:23-26:

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Jesus’ blood poured out on the cross is God’s solution to our sin. It is Christ being the atoning sacrifice, taking on the punishment and wrath we deserve, that wipes away our sin. This is the good news of the gospel: though estranged and cut off, we are brought home in Jesus Christ. Though buried under the weight of our sin, Christ has shouldered it himself for us so that we are forgiven in him.

What is the problem? If the problem at heart is that we need moral improvement or that we don’t know enough or just need better systems in place, then we need a smaller gospel. But if the problem – the disease and not just the symptoms – is that we are cut off and condemned, we need the mercy seat of God. We need God to draw near to us because we cannot work our way back to him. We need the blood of the atonement to cover over and wipe away our sins. In short, we need Jesus.

I hope that you are excited about all the good things happening here at Bethel. I hope you are eager to serve, that you are passionate about WhyNot, Nova Vita, the Pregnancy Centre, and all the other local agencies we support. I hope that you long to grow in your faith, that you want children to flourish, marriages to flourish, widows, orphans, and aliens to flourish. I hope all those things for you and for me.

But if the problem in this world, in our life, has to do with your standing before God, with whether you know him only as Law-Giver and Judge or also as Redeemer, if all that we have been talking about this morning is true, then the crucial question is Do you know Jesus?

The symptoms of sin in our world need to be addressed, and I am passionate to do so, but none of it truly makes a difference if we never ask the first and most important question: Do you know Jesus? Do you have faith in Jesus Christ?

I want to leave you with this question as we close our series on worship and mission. At the heart of the tabernacle, at the heart of worship, at the heart of life is this question: Do you know Jesus? From the answer to that question flows two very different lives, one frantically trying to put bandaids on a dying man, and the other full of healing and the life-giving Word and Spirit of Jesus Christ. What is the problem? and Do you know Jesus?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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