Within the veil


Sermon for Good Friday 2021


There is a wonderful verse in the hymn Amazing Grace that you may have never heard. 

I know this may seem hard to believe; it is one of the most popular and frequently sung and frequently recorded hymns in the history of the world, but there is still one verse that is almost never sung or recorded; in fact, the verse isn’t even in our hymnal. But it was one of the original verses that John Newton, the slave trader turned priest, wrote back in 1772. 

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

Hear it again:

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
   And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
   A life of joy and peace.

You never hear that verse. I learned about it through one of my favorite television shows Call the Midwife. There is a scene where they sing that verse at the bedside of a dying woman. What really stood out for me was the phrase “within the veil.” I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace. Within the veil.

If you know your Old Testament, or even, if you look back to the beginning of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, you may recall that in the temple in Jerusalem there was an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred spot on earth; it was the place where God most nearly dwelt with man. In the original temple, this is where the ark of the covenant was kept. In the second temple, the temple that Jesus would have known, the ark of the covenant was gone, but the inner chamber was still regarded as the most sacred place and once a year the high priest would enter this chamber and offer incense, and the blood of sacrifice to God. In the Gospel of Luke, we find the priest Zachariah standing just outside this veil at another altar of incense when he is told by an angel that he will have a son, whose name will be John. John the Baptist. 

What separated this inner chamber from the rest of the temple, and indeed from the world outside was a veil. A curtain. God was worshiped all over. Sacrifices were made in front of the temple. Incense and shewbread were offered in the first chamber, and there were crowds gathered outside; some to pray, others would have been catching up on the latest gossip, because people never change. We know, of course, that there were money changers in the outer court of the temple. The whole complex was in one way or another directed to the worship of God, but to go within the veil, well that was to be in the nearer presence of God, and it was only the high priest that got to do that. Your average, everyday people worshiped God, but they didn’t get that close to him. There was this barrier. If you ever watch the movie King of Kings, it begins with the Roman general Pompey, forcing his way into this inner chamber and tearing open the veil with his sword. Only all he finds when he enters are a few scrolls of parchment that talk about this Hebrew God’s love for his people. Worthless to Pompey, but the temple priests are willing to die to save them. This was a symbol of God’s love for his people, and it was more precious than all the gold in the world.

You just heard the story of Jesus’s death from the Gospel of John. But think if you will, to the story of Jesus’s death that you heard on Sunday, the one from Mark’s gospel. Or you can think about the way that Matthew tells the story, or the way that Luke tells the story. In all three of those gospels, what happens right at the moment of Jesus’s death? Just as Jesus takes his last breath, the curtain of the temple, the veil is torn in two. It is ripped open. Not from bottom to top, the way that Pompey ripped it, but from top to bottom. 

It is interesting, in Luke’s gospel, the last thing that happens before we hear about the veil being torn in two is the thief crucified beside Jesus says “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus replies: “truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Then darkness covers the land and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The moment that Jesus’s heart literally breaks, the division between us and God, is torn in two. 

There is a way for us to enter the holy of holies now. There is a way for us to enter into the nearer presence of God. And not just into an inner room of a temple that was built with hands, but now there is a way for us to enter into the very heart of God. The thief who repents has a better view of the heavenly throne than all the priests that ever lived. The temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent and holy place, but the real temple where God truly dwelt more fully than any place else was Jesus. The real veil, was not a curtain in an interior room, it was his flesh. And the real holy of holies, was his heart. His flesh was pierced and his heart was broken, so that we might enter in. That is what the author of Hebrews means when he talks about the “way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” There is a life within the veil, a life of joy and peace, but that life is Jesus’s life and the veil is his flesh. Our pathway into the heart of God was opened by a cross and a spear. In Christ’s wounded side, we will find our ultimate refuge and peace. Our holy of holies is the heart of Jesus, that is where the true blood of sacrifice is offered; his blood. That is where our true joy and peace are to be found, within the heart of God, and that heart is broken open, like the temple veil being torn in two, so that our broken hearts may find a refuge inside.

John Keble, a famous Anglican priest from the 19th century is a particular hero of mine, and in his own day he was a best-selling poet. Well in his little book of poems called the Christian Year, he ends his reflection on Good Friday this way: 

Lord of my heart, by thy last cry,

Let not thy blood on earth be spent-

Lo, at thy feet I fainting lie,

Mine eyes upon thy wounds are bent,

Upon thy streaming wounds my weary eyes

Wait like the parched earth on April skies.

Wash me, and dry these bitter tears,

O let my heart no further roam,

‘Tis thine by vows, and hopes and fears.

Long since- O call thy wanderer home;

To that dear home, safe in thy wounded side,

Where only broken hearts their sin and shame

may hide.

What happens to us when our hearts fail? When they are literally and figuratively broken? The cross tells us that there is a place for us within the broken heart of God. When Jesus’s body is broken, and offered to us and for us, the veil is torn apart. There, within the life of God, is the true life of joy and peace, and now we all may enter it. That is what God’s grace has done for us on the cross, and yes, it is amazing. So maybe it is time to start singing that verse again, and now is as good a time as any.