What I find most surprising about the tabernacle recreation at Saddleback is the size of the box-like dais for sacrificing animals. It sits directly in front of the main structure, the very first thing you encounter as you approach the tent’s opening. Taller than the average person, a small ramp leads to the top where sheep and goats were tied to the “horns” at each corner. Originally made of bronze, today’s version looks like plywood spray painted to mimic a charred patina. I knew killing animals as a show of gratitude to God was an ordinary practice among ancient Jews, but so much time has elapsed since it was abandoned due to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem that it’s easy to overlook or downplay this history. With this re-creation, it’s impossible to ignore. The proof stands front and center.
It’s a little jarring, the transition from the dark and quiet ancient house of God to the big and bright worship center of today. The main sanctuary looks like a building one might find on a college campus—not the older, more distinguished stone structures, but the brand new ones that go up in a year and have tons of windows. They may not last as long, but they offer a breath of fresh air after being cooped up in the dim classrooms of yesteryear. Light floods in from either side of the stage where the walls are glass with doors that lead to additional rows of outdoor seating. If this were an academic building, it would be the biggest lecture hall on campus, the ones for courses like Organic Chemistry 101.
The auditorium quickly fills up as the band plays, and I find a seat closer to the back where the rows are raised. On the way in, I was handed a packet of materials, glossy and packed with colorful pictures. Today’s sermon is the second in a multi-week arc given by Rick’s wife, Kay Warren, entitled “All Access” that ties to the theme of the tabernacle. Here, the sophisticated marketing I’ve tended to find at newer churches is bumped up a notch: not only does the church have a logo, but this small series of sermons has one too—it looks like an old-fashioned ticket stub, the kind that gets ripped in half before a carnival ride.
At first I’m disappointed that Rick isn’t giving the sermon. Then I see Kay, blond and confidant, and that dissolves. Her eyes shoot laser beams of intensity and suddenly I understand that hers is the steely determination of a woman like Hillary Clinton whose drive propelled her man and made all this possible. She emerges from the back of the stage like a benevolent queen at the end of our singing, the last lines lingering on the big screens as she greets the audience, her voice amplified by an invisible mike. “The tabernacle and what it represents has always been one of my favorite portions of the Bible,” she says. “It gets to the heart of what Jesus did for humanity.” I would never have guessed that a portable worship tent created by Jews was the key to understanding the significance of Jesus, but if Kay says so, I believe it.