"Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom."
It had been hanging there for years. It looked as if it might hang there forever. Gorgeously embroidered in blue and purple and scarlet, the massive curtain was hanging in front of the mercy seat. And for years it had guarded its secret well.
It was there to fulfill a double function. On the one hand, it was there to keep men out—a warning to sinful humanity, that where the last mysteries of religion are concerned, they must keep a respectful distance. On the other hand, it was there to shut God in—for behind that hanging veil there was silence deep as death and darkness black as night, even when the Syrian sunshine was blazing down outside.
It had been hanging there for years. It looked as if it might hang there forever. And then suddenly, say the evangelists, it was cut from top to bottom, as by a pair of unseen, giant hands, and a formidable frustration was finished.
They said in the oral tradition that when men compared notes afterwards, they were startled to discover that the rending of the veil before the inmost shrine had happened in the precise moment when Jesus had breathed his last on the hill of Calvary and gone home to God. Immediately, they connected the two events. They said it was no mere coincidence. The death of Christ outside the city wall and the rending of the veil before the shrine, they said, had somehow been related.
They went further, saying they had been directly related as cause and effect. It was the death of Jesus that had torn the veil. So they dared to believe, and today the verdict of Christendom is that, in the deepest sense, they were right, for that rent veil before the mercy seat stands for three fundamental things, and in each of them the death of Jesus is basic.
The rent veil reveals the inmost heart of God.
First, the rent veil means the disclosure of a secret, the revealing of the inmost heart of the Eternal. When Jews worshiped in the temple in the old days, they were always sure that there must be something behind the veil. But what? No one quite knew. Something awesome, they thought, and formidable. Something that might be called the terror of the Lord.
This was Judaism's deus absconditus. Deliberately and jealously, that temple kept its shrouded secret. It was characteristic and symbolic of temple religion that, as you passed in from the outer court through the inner courts toward the center, the lights were progressively dimmed until the holiest of all behind the veil lay in perpetual darkness. That had been the tradition for centuries.
And then, say the evangelists, Jesus died and the veil was rent, and the sunshine went streaming in. It was an end of secrecy in religion. And the heart of God lay bare.
The urgency of our ministry today is this: so many people in our congregations are back where those Jews were before this thing happened. They believe there is something behind the world we see, some sort of a something behind this veil of sense, but what? That is what is so terribly difficult to determine. And the lights grow dimmer as you near the center. "A living mind," says one. "An austere righteousness," says another. "A heartless indifference," said Thomas Hardy.
And indeed, in some moods, it does look as if there is something irrational in the very constitution of the universe that will always defeat man's dreams and make havoc of his hopes and bring his pathetic optimism crashing in disaster. There are such personal questions, you see. Is he the kind of god to whom it's worth my while to pray? Is he a god who knows anything about it when things in my little corner of the world go wrong and my heart is hurt and sore? Is he a god who can lay any hand of healing upon me when I'm rushed and tired and hectic? Is he a god who knows anything about the miseries of men and all the heartache of the world? And above all, is he a god who can bring me something of hope and a new beginning when I've done something that makes me hate myself? Has he got anything to give me of courage and forgiveness when I'm feeling wretched and miserable and ashamed?
These are the questions with which many people today are groping and finding only an impenetrable veil. We have to tell them that there is no answer, no answer whatever, except in the death of our Lord on Calvary. This does answer the question. This does rend the veil.
You see, it goes beyond words and gives us something words could never give because it is an act, an accomplished fact towering over the wrecks of time. You can't prove love by words. Even if you could write sonnets like Shakespeare and Elizabeth Browning you wouldn't prove it. But a deed! Doesn't the inmost soul of you sometimes long to do something, yes, and to suffer something for those whom God has given you to love? Words can't prove love.
Even God couldn't do it by words. Once and again God had said, "Come, let us reason together. Let's bring our reasoning to an end." And that couldn't prove love. Once and again God had sent his prophets to be a herald voice to men, but not even the Word of God burning and blazing on these men's lips could do it. God had sent Jesus, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, challenging and appealing to men in tones they had never heard before to trust God's love for everything. And even that couldn't do it.
And then, when it seemed that the last word had been said and God himself could do no more, suddenly, from top to bottom—not from the bottom upward, which might have been a mere act of human inquisitiveness and curiosity, but from top to bottom, an act of divine revelation—the veil was rent. The heart of God lay bare. The death of Jesus Christ gives me the very heart of the Eternal because it's not words at all, but a deed against which I can batter all my doubts to pieces. It takes me past the secrecy and the clouds and darkness and lets the sun shine in upon the mercy seat. And behold, God's heart is love.
The rent veil opens up a highway to God.
But the rent veil stands for something more than the disclosure of a secret and the letting in of the light. Those theologies that stress mainly or merely the revelatory aspect of the death of Jesus, as though all that was needed by a sinful world was for God to show how much he loved it, have failed to understand the New Testament's concentration upon the demonic nature of the evil from which man needed to be redeemed. And so the rent veil stands for something more than the letting in of the light. It stands for the opening up of a road, the offer of a right-of-way.
You see, it wasn't only the progressive lowering of the lights as you neared the center that was characteristic of that temple on the hill. It was also the progressive heightening of the barriers. The whole thing, in fact, was a carefully graded system of exclusion based on contempt for the common herd.
First you had the outer court, where anyone at all might come. Then the inner court, which was reserved for trueborn Jews. And then beyond that the inner shrine, where only the ministering priests might enter. And finally the Holiest of All, where one man, on one day in the year, was allowed to penetrate.
What an irony of fate that, in the time of Jesus, that one, privileged individual should have been Caiaphas. That man and God were alone together, and all the rest—the humble, seeking souls, with heart and flesh crying out for the living God— were blocked and thrust back by one barrier after another, and finally by that relentless veil that was death and sacrilege to touch.
Of course, one consequence was inevitable. Religion became a secondhand thing altogether. You can just picture those Jews standing outside in the sunshine while the high priest alone went in, and then looking at him with awe and reverence when he came out, even if he was just Caiaphas. They had never seen God and never would, but there was a man who had. They bowed before him as though he were half a god himself. And that was as far as religion went. No access to the mercy seat for them, no grasp of this great hand of the Eternal. What that frowning veil seemed to say was "Stand back; keep your distance. God is not for you."
But, say the evangelists, one day on Golgotha, between two thieves, a friend of sinners gave his life, and the veil was finished and the road of access opened up for all.
I wonder what the priests thought when this thing happened? I wonder what Caiaphas thought? How they looked at each other with dismay on their faces, knowing that, unless they did something about this at once, the whole face of religion would be changed forever! And no doubt that very night they got the torn veil patched up again.
Men have been doing that all down the centuries, trying to reserve for the few what God meant to be the privilege of all. It's a historic anachronism in reverse. We are pretending that the veil is still there, whereas it's been gone for 1,900 years. Jesus once said, "What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." And we might also say, "What God hath put asunder, let not man join together." To close up a right-of-way is a crime.
"Tell the king," said Bishop James Hannington when they came to murder him, "that I open up the road to Uganda with my life." We are in this church today because a greater road has been opened up at a greater price, and we've heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Tell the world that I open up the road to God with my life."
That's why we take our holy faith out into all the world. That's why a church that was not missionary would be a caricature of Christ's intention. That's why racial privilege and the pride that separates man from man are a blasphemy upon the eternal fatherhood of God. The road is open for all who care to travel it.
And I'd like to add this especially: that it is an open road for sinners. You surely won't rebuke me for speaking about this today, on Good Friday. When we think of all the ways we have blundered; when we compare our life as it is today with what it might have been; when across the chaos of our God-forgetting days there falls that still, small voice of Jesus; when we go back and walk those fields of Galilee where once we learned what love and truth and purity could mean; when we sit in the Upper Room with Jesus and look into those burning eyes of Christ—are not all our proud illusions shattered?
But do remember that the greatest thing about that open road through the veil that has been opened up by the death of Jesus is that it's the sinner's highway.
I wonder if you've heard the story about old Doctor John Duncan who taught Hebrew in Edinburgh long ago. He was sitting one day at the Communion in a church, a Highland church, and he was feeling so personally unworthy that, when the elements came around, he felt he couldn't take them. He allowed the bread and wine to pass. As he was sitting there feeling absolutely miserable, he noticed a girl in the congregation who, when the bread and wine came around, also allowed them to pass, and then broke down into tears. That sight seemed to bring back to the old saint the truth he had forgotten. And in a carrying whisper that could be heard across the church, he was heard to say, "Take it, lassie, take it. It's meant for sinners." And he himself partook.
When on Easter morning you take the Holy Communion, when you take the bread and wine into your hands, will you not say, "This means that I'm forgiven. This broken bread, this poured-out wine means that I'm forgiven"? The road is open. Fear not to tread that open way.
The rent veil confirms hope in the face of death.
So the rent veil stood for the disclosure of a secret and the opening of a road, and, finally, it stood for the confirming of a hope. Listen to this magnificent word of a New Testament apostle: "Lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever."
What the death on Calvary did was to rend the veil of sense and show us the eternal glory streaming through where Christ had gone before. But even if sometimes that veil comes back again and hides the future from our eyes, everything is different. It's a rent veil now. And for one, clear moment, we've seen right past it into heaven. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" said Paul. And immediately he went on, "Shall death?" as much as to say, "Didn't you know that fear was killed when Christ went through the veil?" Death's flood hath lost its chill since Jesus crossed the river.
James Guthrie, the Covenanter, woke up in the condemned cell on the morning of his execution. His servant was weeping, and he said, "Stop that at once. This is the day that the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."
This said Perpetua when they took her out into the arena to be killed by the beasts: "This is my day of coronation."
There was a great calm, says John Bunyan, when Mr. Standfast went down into the river.
And those of you who are going to preach the gospel, do remember this: that never a congregation meets for worship but some people are there who can never think of death except as a robber and an enemy, the despoiler of human hope and love. For some, the inexorable march of years and the pathos of mortality bring an inward, deep resentment. Some have never been reconciled to life and providence since death came in and took their dearest.
And you have to tell them to listen, not to yourself—certainly not that—but to God speaking the Word that can bring beauty from ashes and can enable them to arise and shine, knowing their light has come and the glory of God is risen upon them.
I would finish by telling you another Covenanting story. In December 1666, Hugh MacHale, the youngest and gallantest of the Covenanters, was brought to his trial in Edinburgh. He was given four days to live and then marched back to the prison. And in the crowd on the street, many were weeping that one so young and so gallant should have only four days more to see the sun shine. But there were no tears in the eyes of this young Galahad of the faith.
"Trust in God!" he cried to the crowd as he marched past. "Trust in God." And then suddenly he saw a friend of his own standing on the edge of the crowd, and he shouted to him, "Good news; wonderful good news! I am within four days of enjoying the sight of Jesus, my Savior!"
So they've gone through the river, those valiant hearts, and so some of our own dearest have gone, and the trumpets have sounded for them on the other side. So for us, too, when death these mortal eyes shall seal and these throbbing hearts shall still.
I've spoken of these three things, but none of them are valid for us unless we trust. I don't know how to fathom by any theory of atonement what it was that happened at Calvary. I don't know how deep were the waters crossed, nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through. I only know that through those deep waters and that dark night, the Shepherd found his sheep.
I only know that John Bunyan was speaking for ten thousand times ten thousand when he said that at the sight of the Cross the burden fell off Christian's back and was never seen again.
I only know that when they thrust Jesus outside the city gates to die, they put the key of the whole world into his pierced hand forever and forever.
And I only know that by far the best result of this service today would be that some of us should kneel down before the Passion narrative in the Gospels and ask ourselves this question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? And then allow that crucified, ever-living Christ to come down into every nook and cranny of our being.
O house of Jacob, come ye. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.