Fire from Heaven: The Rededication of Estes Chapel

This sermon was delivered on May 8th, 2018 at the rededication of Estes Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

We are gathered on this sacred day to re-dedicate this space of worship known as Estes Chapel. We say re-dedicate because Estes Chapel was first dedicated 64 years ago on January 27, 1954. In fact, while we have several here tonight who were present in this room 64 years ago when Estes chapel was dedicated, we wanted to select one alumnus who would come this afternoon as representative of all alumni, many of whom were not able to travel here today, but would represent the legacy of those who gone before us. I would like to recognize Richard and Barbara Barker. One cannot come to a glorious day like this without recalling Solomon’s dedication of the Temple as described in our text. What must it have been like to be there in 953 BC as they sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep to mark the occasion! The Temple was filled with multiple signs and symbols of God and of the covenant, just as our space points in so many ways to God’s redemptive work in our lives, and the covenant we are privileged to live in. Let’s begin by pausing and remembering the place where Solomon’s Temple was built, as well as the seven great signs which would have met you had you walked through that sacred sanctuary of the first temple (though these signs would have been found in the earlier tabernacle, as well as the later Second temple.)
The place: Mount Moriah. There is no more sacred place in the Old Testament than that place where Abraham met with God and brought his son Isaac to the top of the place called Moriah. There in Genesis 22 we meet one of the greatest emblems of substitutionary atonement in the Old Testament. I love that Word from God which crashes into the text: “Abraham, Abraham, do not harm the boy . . . Now I know that you fear God,” and a ram was brought out and sacrificed in the place of Isaac. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and that place was called Yahweh Jireh – God will provide. The whole history of redemption is there in seed form on Mount Moriah.
This is the place – the very spot where they built the Great Temple of Solomon. Some even believe that the holy of holies was situated directly over the spot where this substitutionary transaction was enacted. It is estimated that it was the most expensive structure ever built – in today’s money it would cost 62 billion dollars, because every surface was laden with gold. It took 30,000 laborers to construct the temple, even more than the 22,000 who built the Taj Mahal. Its walls and ceiling were built with carved cedar boards. The floor was cypress, and all surfaces gilded or sheathed with gold: 90 feet long, 33 feet wide, 45 feet high. Estes Chapel is roughly 90 feet long, the Temple was about 15 feet wider (the Temple was 48 feet wide), and our ceiling here is about twenty feet lower than the highest portion of the Temple. Our ceiling is 26 feet, the Temple was 45 feet high. Just imagine it.
If we were allowed to walk through that amazing place of worship, you would have witnessed seven signs of the covenant. These seven signs marked it out as the place where God met His people for worship, atonement and instruction. These seven signs were symbols of God’s commandments, his mercy and compassion and His covenant love: misphatim, emet, and hesed.  What are the seven signs?
First, in your mind walk with me through the beautiful gate and through the expansive outer court of the Gentiles and up the stairs into the inner court. There in the south east corner you would encounter the first sign, the bronze sea. This was a magnificently large basin of water – eight feet high and fifteen feet wide, supported by twelve bronze bulls. This water was meant to symbolize the water of Red Sea which they had crossed coming out of Egyptian bondage. The water would flow out into a lower basin where it was used for ablution in cleansing the priest before the daily sacrifices.
The second sign you see is the brazen altar for the daily sacrifice. It was a 7 1/2 foot square altar for sacrificing animals in the daily sacrifice. It was here that the priest would lay his hands on the head of the animal and transfer the sins of the people onto the animal prior to sacrifice. Thus, it is here that the daily reminder of sins was made visible, and the daily reception of grace made possible. It is here that we see both sign and symbol of both the holiness of God which declares us sinners, and the grace of God, which declares us forgiven, all bound together in the symbolism of the altar.
Then we climb more stairs and enter the holy place. As Gentiles we would have no access to this area, as it is reserved only for the priests. But imagine entering into that sacred space where we find the third, fourth and fifth signs and symbols of the Jewish Temple. There is the table of showbread, with fresh loaves placed on the table. It is a table of acacia wood completely overlaid with pure gold. It was also called the Bread of Presence, as it was a sign of God’s daily provision, the sign of fellowship, and a reminder of his provision in the wilderness. He was their sustenance. Bread is a symbol of strength, of fellowship, and of God’s grace. Fourth, you would see the great seven-branched candlesticks which would burn day and night as a perpetual sign of God’s presence. It was a sign of God’s guidance, reminding them of the pillar of fire which led them through the wilderness and into the promised land. Fifth, you would see the altar for the incense offering. It was also completely overlaid with gold with four horns on each corner. Incense would be offered every day and be perpetually burning day and night as a sign of the prayers of God’s people going up to the throne of God without cease.
Then, you would look up and see a great and beautiful ornamented curtain 15-20 feet high separating the holy place from the inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter and only on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kipper. There as you move behind the holy curtain you would see what very few would ever have seen as it was reserved only for the high priest. Less than twenty people ever saw this sight in Solomon’s Temple – the final two great signs of God’s covenant – the sixth and seventh symbols. There at the center of the holy of holies is the Ark of the Covenant – a box a little over 4 feet long and 2 ½ feet wide. This was the central sign of God’s covenant. Inside the ark were the two tablets of Moses containing the Ten Commandments. It represents the Law of God. There was also a jar of manna reminding the people of God’s provision in the wilderness, as well as Aaron’s budding rod, the symbol of God’s election of the Levites to serve as his great mediators and intercessors of redemption. The final, seventh, and greatest sign was not anything inside the ark, but the lid itself, the Mercy Seat. This was the most imposing part of the ark of the covenant. On the lid were two impressive cherubim, completely overlaid in pure cold – towering over the ark with radiant faces and wings pointing to the seat – yes this is the seventh and final sign: the Mercy Seat. This is the place where God met his people, blood was offered, prayers extended, and atonement secured. Brothers and sisters, wouldn’t you just love to go back in time and walk through that great and sacred Temple with all of its amazing signs?
We come now to Estes Chapel. First, the place. Wilmore, Kentucky may not seem to have the spiritual clout, historical muscle, or covenantal prestige of a place as sacred or holy as Mt. Moriah. But, the fact that this sanctuary was built here in this place, along with sanctuaries however humble or grand all over the world says something great about the gospel of Jesus Christ, doesn’t it? No longer is there any single place where God meets his people. No longer do we have to make our way to Jerusalem. No longer do we have to go to the Temple. I have been to that holy spot called Mt. Moriah. But, for the Christian, we are reminded that Wilmore is now no different than Moriah – for through the gospel a new and living way has been opened up. Indeed, wherever two or more are gathered in His name, His blessed presence is promised. Thanks be to God. The gospel has turned the whole world into a Mt. Moriah. Praise be to God! And the seven great signs of Solomon’s Temple: (1) the Bronze Sea, (2) the Brazen Altar, (3) Table of Showbread (4) the Candlesticks, (5) the Altar of Incense, (6) the Ark of the Covenant and (7) the Mercy Seat have all been replaced by seven new and living signs which we re-dedicate this day.

1) Baptismal Font

As you walk into this sacred space, the Bronze Sea of our Jewish ancestors has been replaced by the gospel with a stoup, or baptismal font. The waters of the Red Sea have been replaced in Christian architecture with the baptismal font. As you walk in you dip your fingers into the water and you recall your baptism. You recall your own crossing of the Red Sea – out of the bondage of sin, and into the promised land of redemption and grace. As great as the Red Sea was, the waters of baptism are better, because they guarantee an even greater deliverance.

2) Eucharist Table

In Christian worship, the table of showbread has been replaced by the Eucharist Table. A greater bread is here, thanks be to God! Here we see not merely the manna from heaven, or the daily bread of God’s provision, but the bread of Christ’s body, broken for us. The blood which once poured over the horns of the altar of ancient Israelite sacrifices now stands in a cup, recalling the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you and for me. There is no more need for the blood of bulls and goats. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed – once and for all. His blood for the redemption of the world, broken for us, and His blood shed for us. Here in Estes, we have replaced the phrase Do This is Remembrance of Me on the Eucharist table. We replaced that phrase, not because it was wrong, but that there was so much more to be said. Do This is Remembrance of Me only speaks of our remembering something in our heads, remembering a past act, remembering Christ’s passion. But we do more than remember in this place; we encounter the Risen Christ! Here we have placed the words, “Remember Christ Jesus Risen!” The Risen Lord meets us at this Table. As Luther said about the ascension, he rose from here to everywhere, because he re-assumed his omnipresence, and he promised to meet us at this table as the Risen Lord. As Robert Stamps, a former chaplain here at Asbury used to tell us, “Jesus Christ would never throw a feast in his own honor, and then not show up.” This feast is always tethered to His divine presence. We take the bread in His presence – we take the break in the Presence of Him who alone is the Bread of Life. Brothers and sisters, a Greater Bread is here!

3) Candle of the Presence

Asbury Theological Seminary has kept a Candle of Presence lit in this chapel for many decades. It never goes out. When we closed the chapel for renovation we processed it over to McKenna, and today it was brought back in at the head of the procession. J. D. Walt, another former chaplain in this place, once told me that the only capital crime which could be committed on this campus would be to let that candle ever go out. It is a sign of the perpetual presence of Christ, just as the candlesticks in Solomon’s Porch represent the light of God’s guidance, this light represents the light of Jesus Christ who said, “I am the light of the world.” Brothers and sisters, a Greater Light is here! That first light – the pillar of fire – lit up the desert of Sinai and guided the nation of Israel to the promised land. This light lights up the whole world and draws all of humanity through all time and space into the blessed presence of Christ. A greater light is here!

4) Pulpit

This pulpit was a gift from the 1948 graduating class of Asbury Theological Seminary, making it is six years older than Estes Chapel itself. We estimate that approximately 10,000 sermons and addresses have been preached from this pulpit. Men and women of God from all over the world have stood at this pulpit. Pulpits have been central to the people of God in both testaments. In the Old Testament, we mainly remember Nehemiah as the one who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but chapter eight Nehemiah tells us he also rebuilt the pulpit. The pulpit had also become part of the rubble of exile, not just the Temple and the walls. Nehemiah had a great pulpit built. In Nehemiah 8 verse 4 we are told that “a high wooden platform was built for the occasion.”  The great priest of God, Ezra was called upon to deliver the word of God in uncertain times. He opens the word of God and begins to read. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest appointed thirteen Levites to instruct the people in the Law while it was being read. We don’t find a list of mega-stars, or any 5th century BC version of Christian celebrities. These are not household names, then or now. We find a list of Levites whose names you have never heard of: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub , Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah. These are Levites you’ve never heard of, but God put their names in the Bible. Listen to Nehemiah 8, verse 8: “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” We have already had the entire Bible read in this chapel, beginning April 30th until today.
This is what this pulpit in Estes stands for today – the proclamation of the Word of God – the whole Bible for the whole world. It is now known as the J. Ellsworth Kalas pulpit, in honor of his preaching legacy. Here in this solemn assembly we give to the world a whole new generation of Banis and Sherebiahs and Jamins and Akkubs and Kelitas and Azariahs! This is the need of the hour. Men and women called to faithfully teach people the Word of God in the midst of the rubble of our post-modern world. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. They understood the times they lived in. If you had gone around the broken walls of Jerusalem, every one of them would have preferred to live their lives with a tambourine in their hand like on the day of the Exodus, with Miriam leading worship. But, instead, they were called to live with a trowel and a sword.  They were called to live in a time of rebuilding, a time of remembering, a time of hope. There is no greater need today than a rediscovery of the power of the Word of God to transform this nation and to love this broken world. There is a greater pulpit here, because it not only recalls the Law of God, but it proclaims the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who walked among us, full of grace and truth.

5) Hymn Books

Worship has always been central to the people of God.  This is why God put a worship book at the very center of the Bible.  During the entire time the remodeling of Estes was unfolding, there was another great project at work here – The Asbury Hymnal. It wasn’t built with carpenters, trowels or sheet rock, but with word processing, Finale files, and prayer. It is probably one of the greatest collections of Wesley hymns and one of the greatest collection of theologically rich hymns in our tradition that has ever been collected. When you walk into Estes Chapel in our own version of the outer court you are met by a statue of Charles Wesley who taught us that theology must be sung if you want to grow a movement. Theology must be sung if it is to reside in our hearts, not just our heads. We have always been a singing people – a worshipping people. Once you have sung And Can it Be? in Estes Chapel, you are getting fairly close to the New Creation, let me tell you! There is something glorious about the people of God at worship. The Jewish Temple was a place of worship. Worship in the first Temple was mediated by a select few who were set apart to lead. But here, all of God’s people engage in worship – we honor God and we celebrate who He is and what He has done.  We sing our theology. The cantor songs of the Old Testament were glorious.  But a greater song is here, because He has put a new song on our lips, the song of the Lamb, the songs of redemption, the songs of great and glorious work of Jesus Christ.

6) The Cross of Jesus Christ

There is no greater or more enduring sign in Christian worship around the world than the cross.  We have found the cross scrawled on the walls of the catacombs at the dawn of this great gospel.  It is the cross which stands as the new mercy seat for the people of God.  It is at the cross where God meets his people in the ultimate fulfilling act of redemption.  The sacrifices of the Old Testament and the sacred blood spread upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant by the High Priest was the highest and holiest moment of the Old Covenant. But a greater sacrifice is here. The sacrifice of the Old Covenant was with bulls, goats, and lambs, and had to be repeated over and over again.  But this Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, came, and in one great redemptive act took away the sins of the world. It is not repeated annually by sinful priest, but accomplished once and for all by the only True Unblemished Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. A greater blood is here, not the blood of bulls and goats, but the blood of Jesus Christ, our great Passover Lamb. Notice that there are no heavy curtains in Estes Chapel, separating the worshippers from the presence of God. At the death of Christ that curtain was ripped in half from the top to the bottom. It was one of the greatest miracles of the New Testament, but which we rarely talk about in the church. A 15 to 20 foot curtain, which no person could possible rip in two from top to bottom. But, that is exactly what happened at the death of Christ. Jesus cried out “it is finished” and Matthew 27:51 says that at that moment the veil of the Temple separating the holy place from the holy of holies was rent in two from top to bottom! The cross has opened up a new and living way. Christ has already shown up in the marginal places—a stable in Bethlehem, with a Samaritan woman at the well, at the table with Zacchaeus, in the presence of sinners, and touching lepers.  But nowhere has God identified more with a hurting and broken world than in the cross of Jesus Christ.
God was in Christ, not counting against us our trespasses, but nailing them to the cross. Indeed, all the signs of the Old Testament point to Jesus Christ.  This is why the New Testament is not afraid to proclaim that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53:6-9; I Peter 2:21-25); He is the Rock out of which water came in the wilderness (Ex. 17:6; I Cor. 10:4); He is the stone the builders rejected which became the cornerstone; He is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20); He is the Lord to whom David declared all enemies would be placed under his feet (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:41-46). The list could go on and on, but this is the great truth of Jesus Christ. He fills the whole frame. He fulfills Law, Priest, King, and Sacrifice. We cannot easily partition off the old covenant from the new.  Once God in Jesus Christ enters the world, then all revelation bows down to him and is ultimately fulfilled by him!

7) Seventh Sign

There is a seventh and final sign. But, it is one we could not contract builders to construct here. There is a seventh sign, but it cannot be produced through a Comprehensive Campaign. There is a seventh sign, but no one can set it up, or put it in place. It is the fire of God falling down. In 2 Chronicles 7 when the Temple of Solomon was dedicated, the fire of God fell down upon the people, and upon the sanctuary, and upon the sacrifices. The fire of God! It was glorious. It must have been breathtaking to see the sacrifices consumed by the holy fire of God. But, we cannot help but remember on that Day of Pentecost, when 120 believers were gathered in the upper room, and the Day of Pentecost had come, and the fire of God fell upon the church of Jesus Christ. A fire must fall in this place, and it must be the Person of the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters, a greater fire is here – not merely the powerful anointing presence of God, but the third person of the Triune God manifest in His people. Because, in the end, there is no point in sacralizing any holy place if it is not filled with God’s Holy Presence.
For 70 years this Chapel has stood at the heart of our campus. Originally, the library was in the floor beneath us symbolizing the bringing together of study and worship. You could literally be sitting in the library and hear worship unfolding above you. We have also recaptured that. At our Asbury Theological Seminary Wilmore campus, our recently renovated Advanced Research Programs and PhD study carrels are located just below us here. The highest academic degree we offer is juxtaposed with our worship, all in one building. Generations of students have experienced the fire of God in this place. They have been filled with the Spirit in this place. They have been called into ministry in this place. They have been healed in this place. Countless weddings have happened in this place. All because the fire of God fell on this place, at these altars, and throughout this sanctuary.
Because our students are like an ever flowing stream through this place, we count every three years as an academic generation.  We have already had 21 generations of students worship here. We pray that twenty one more generations of Asburians will experience the fire of God in this place. Not the fire of God falling on earthly sacrifices, but the fire of God falling on you and on me as living sacrifices. The fire of God which fills our students with the spirit. The sanctifying fire of God! May the fire of God fall down here and ignite our students with the power of God to go into all the world as His witnesses! The seventh sign is the sign of the Holy Spirit. May the fire of God fall down on this place.

This is our prayer on this sacred day, and we celebrate this day with joy. We thank God for this place, and for the seven signs of His Presence and redemption – who He is – and what He has done. May this day, in the end, be remembered not for a re-consecrated building, but about Him. May the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be praised! Amen.


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