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“The Miracles of Lent: Tearing of the Temple Curtain”
Mark 15:37-38

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Lenten Vespers V—March 21, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In churches of several different denominations, which like our church follow the three-year cycle of lectionary readings, this is called the Year of Mark, because most of the appointed Gospel Readings are from the Gospel of Mark.  That is why each week for our Lenten Vespers services this year we are reading portions of the Passion story from the Gospel of Mark.  Our sermon series is “The Miracles of Lent,” and this evening’s reading included two of these miracles. 

For three hours before Christ’s death there was a mysterious, miraculous darkness that enshrouded the earth as he hung upon the cross: “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.”  Then, at the moment of his death, there was another mysterious miracle: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. Then the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

This massive curtain, which was torn in two from top to bottom the moment Christ died, had probably hung in the Temple at Jerusalem for over 50 years, since the last major reconstruction of the Temple.  Before that, curtains like it had hung for over a thousand years in previous Jewish Temples, and the original portable Tabernacle where the Israelites worshipped as they wandered in the wilderness.  The curtain closed off the room with the greatest significance, the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant and was regarded as the dwelling place of the true God in all his holiness.

The Bible describes this elaborate curtain as beautifully woven of fine linen, with blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and images of cherubim woven into it.  Other ancient sources tell us this curtain was actually the thickness of the palm of a hand, or about six inches thick, 60 feet high, and 30 feet wide. Like our stained-glass windows, which tell the story of salvation, the purpose of this massive curtain was to serve as a teaching tool.  As the people looked toward the front of the Temple, all could see was this curtain, separating them from the Holy of Holies.  It served as a powerful symbolic reminder to the people of the real barrier that separated them from God.  As Isaiah says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you.”

You may have heard of the Jewish holiday “Yom Kippur,” which according to our calendar falls in September or October.  You may not know that “Yom Kippur” is based on a Biblical festival and means the “Day of Atonement.”  In ancient times the High Priest would pass through the curtain to enter the Holy of Holies only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  As part of the Old Testament Ceremonial Law, he brought blood from sacrificial animals and sprinkled it before the Lord’s presence in the Holy of Holies. 

The Apostle John explains the significance for us of all this: “The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from every sin. . . He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  The ancient Temple and its sacrifices pointed forward to Christ, his atoning sacrifice of himself upon the cross, his blood shed to take away our sins, and the true Day of Atonement, which was Good Friday.

Paul says in Ephesians, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has . . . destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”  The moment Christ died, our separation from God came to an end. For, he “destroyed the barrier,” “the dividing wall” of sin, separating you from God.  As Hebrews says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”

That is the meaning of the mysterious miracle at the moment of Christ’s death: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. Then the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”   The curtain was miraculously torn by God for the same reason he originally instructed it to be put there in the first place.  It was a teaching tool.  Just as the curtain reminded the people of the barrier of sin that separated them from God, dramatically tearing it from top to bottom at the moment of Christ’s death was God’s way of saying, “Your sins are all forgiven because of the sacrifice of my Son.”

The book of Hebrews explains the significance of the tearing of the Temple curtain this way: “We have confidence to enter the Holy of Holies by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, which is his own body.”  So, the tearing of the Temple curtain also symbolizes the tearing of Christ’s own body by the nails and spear, through which we now have access to God.

We are reminded of this access that we now have to God through the sacrifice of his Son every time we come to church.  For, in a Christian Church the Holy of Holies is the chancel, where God comes to us in his Word and Sacraments.  There is no curtain separating you from this Holy of Holies.  In fact, every worship service here is like Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement, in which you are freely invited to come into the Lord’s presence and receive his forgiveness through the blood of Christ.


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