June 16, 2013
You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. On the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. There shall be a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches—so for the six branches that go out of the lampstand. Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. You shall make the seven lamps for it; and the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. Its snuffers and trays shall be of pure gold. It, and all these utensils, shall be made from a talent of pure gold. And see that you make them according to the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.
This sermon was offered at Urbana University’s 2005
When I graduated from high school, our closing benediction was an old Gaelic saying:
May the road rise up to meet you;
May the wind be always at your back;
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields;
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
This is not quite the sentiment I would like to leave you with. In many ways, I would like to wish you the opposite.
But before I get into that, I want to talk about today’s Bible readings. The verse from Exodus is rarely read in churches and is often overlooked in personal readings and devotions. Many people might claim that readers can glean little from a set of instructions about how a lampstand is made.
Before I take you down the rabbit hole of my understanding of this passage, I want to talk about the context of the lampstand in question. This is not a lampstand used while camping or to light a dinner table at a house. It is the lampstand for the temple of the Israelites. The Reverend Dr. George Dole, in an unpublished manuscript, asks the question, “Where is the temple?” The temple started out as a tent—a tent that held the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant. When the wandering Israelites started to move, so did the temple. The temple moved from place to place until it came to rest in a more permanent structure in Jerusalem, which was sacked and rebuilt and then sacked again. In the time of the exile, Isaiah speaks of a time when the Messiah will come and rebuild the temple.
Where is the temple? The Apostle Paul tells us where it is in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Jesus rebuilt the temple, not physically, but spiritually, within each of us. The temple is within us.
If the Temple is in us, where is the lampstand?
This obscure Bible reading is not just an ancient set of instructions for the building of a temple light; rather, this verse speaks to us here and now. It instructs us as to how our own spiritual temple lamps should be made.
The lamp, spiritually speaking, gives light to our sight in the darkness. We are told that our lampstands should be pure gold, made from one piece, not by casting but by hammering—by hand, through work and labor. That the lampstand should be “made of one piece” means it is to be crafted over time, built up organically without a seam or a joint. The three branches extending out on either side represent the fullness of God, the fullness of the Divine Trinity, balanced on each side. These branches are detailed with buds and fruits, representing the maturation of God’s work. Moreover, we encounter not one lampstand but seven. Each of these lampstands must be made according to the pattern we received on the mountain: the pattern of the Word as it was handed to Moses.
What does this symbolism all mean for us? Gold, precious and malleable, can be viewed as a symbol of love. In contrast to a wedding band, which symbolizes the love between a married couple, a golden lampstand, found in the temple, still symbolizes love—but it is love in the context of its purpose, which is the worship of God. The gold of the lampstand represents our love of God, which is pure and true. But this love must be molded and fashioned through work, through hammering. This love is molded through our understanding and living of the Law, the Word of God, which we receive on the mountaintop.
The branches reaching out to either side are numbered to remind us of the completeness of God; they form a seamless connection with our love of God. They reach out as if to touch all of the things that surround them. Like the branches of the tree, they are decorated with fruits and flowers. It is often said that we know people by their fruits—in other words, by their actions and deeds. These fruits and flowers are symbols of the knowledge and truths we have incorporated into our love of God.
I have left off one characteristic of a lampstand that is vital to its purpose: the lampstand gives off light! This light is the love we have for God, the love that spans from the roots of our souls to the tops of our heads; it is adorned with images of the truth we have assimilated and lived, the love and the truth fashioned in the shape of the Word of God. The merger of these two things allows the divine to shine through us, to dispel the darkness.
Our university seal has a book in the center of it. I believe this book is a Bible, but one could substitute it with another deeply meaningful book if preferred. This book is a symbol of truth, of knowledge. Around the book are lines leading from the book outward to the edges of the seal, which also represent light. These lines, like the book, represent truth, but they are more than that. The lines show us the movement of truth from the book out into the world. They represent the activity of truth as it dispels the darkness around it. Our seal therefore shows us what the founding fathers of Urbana University intended to accomplish with the creation of our school.
They believed that the quest for knowledge, for understanding, is not just about gaining competency in specific fields. The education that you receive is not merely about the education of our children, the principles of business, or the other majors that are offered here. Rather, the quest for knowledge is about reaching out and embracing the highest principles of humanity. It is about embracing the divine. And this quest for knowledge is not for us to horde or control, but to share. Education is not truly education unless it is put into action, into right use. A person who knows all the facts in the world but fails to use them, or uses them for wrongful purposes, is not educated. Such a person may be knowledgeable or clever, but he or she does not demand the high regard due an educated person. The divine proceeding from our lives is about our uniting what we know with what we do. We have not the foundation for illuminating the world around us if we have not love. Our actions are, spiritually speaking, the fruits on our lampstands, the proof of our love to our neighbor, the world, and God.
As we act with both love and wisdom, we are as Jesus said in Matthew 5:14: “the light of the world[, a] city on a hill [that] cannot be hidden.” But life can be tough. We must maintain our saltiness even in the face of trial. If we live according to the truths we know, if we aspire to our highest character, we will be the light of God in this world. We will not lose our saltiness.
Emanuel Swedenborg, the Christian theologian whose teachings on scripture guided the founding fathers of Urbana University, believed, like many before and after him, that character is defined and purified through struggle. It is easy to be good when no real choice is present. For instance, we are courteous to our customers; we give them the satisfaction they demand. If we do not, they go elsewhere. Yet the true divine act is in compassion for others—when we choose someone else’s well-being over our momentary self-gain. But this is a truly difficult choice that we encounter in every stage of our lives. Life will always involve struggle.
Here is my commission to you: I would like each graduate here today to live a life of the highest principles to which humanity can reach. The education you have received while at Urbana University is only the first step. Now you must apply it to the world! Now you are going into the world. Now you have the choice to practice your trade or art; you can choose to express the highest goals and aims of humanity. You have the choice to be a bright and vibrant lampstand, illuminating the world so that everyone you touch can find the darkness in their lives illuminated. You can be on a mountaintop, even in the darkest and deepest valleys of life, if you embrace what education is truly meant for.
This is why I want to re-write the old Gaelic saying I heard at my graduation.
It is not, “May the road rise up to meet you”; rather, it is, “May you always rise up to meet the road.”
It is not about the wind always being at your back; rather, it is, “May the strength of your character endure the strongest wind.”
It is not about feeling the warmth of light on your face; rather, it is, “May the warmth of the divine light shine from your face.”
And while I would change the above lines, the ending is perfect: “Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter