Recap – Let’s do a brief recap to remind us of where we are in the story. God created a good world and placed human in it as God’s image bearers. Humans were created with a purpose: to care for God’s good creation and to be creators as well, bringing new things into being in God’s good world. Sadly, humans turned from this mission and creation became broken. The reality of sin breaks humans relationship with God, self, each other and creation. Further, sin like a virus grows as things appear to get worse through Genesis 3-11.
God is not surprised by this and God has a plan to restore everything. This plan begins with God’s call of Abraham. The promise to Abraham and his descendants is that through them, all nations and people will be blessed. Sadly, the same sin virus that infects all humans infects Abraham’s family and they are also clearly broken. Nevertheless, God is in relationship with them and plans to work through them. Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, are enslaved in Egypt for centuries. God hears their cry and liberates them. This act of salvation lines up with creation: God created people as a combination of material and spiritual and God saves the whole person. Our Creator cares for both our physical and spiritual well being.
We pick up our story with the Israelites, led by Moses, leaving Egypt and setting out into relationship with God. I said last week we would get to the Law today, but we actually are going to cover something different. But first, a question:
Pause: Where do you see God in the world today? Where do your friends see God (or the divine, spirit, whatever they call it)?
The first half of the book of Exodus is a narrative telling how God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. Most of the second half of Exodus is centered on instructions from God on how to build a large tent, called the tabernacle, that the people would take with them as they traveled towards the promised land. The tabernacle would be their place of worship on the journey. Or, to put it another way, the tabernacle would be the place where God met with them. It was the place where heaven and earth touched.
These instructions for building the tabernacle are one place where people attempting to read straight through the Bible get stuck. Its not the most riveting stuff; its a lot of instructions on the size of poles and how to cut the curtains correctly. What I want to focus on are the two passages that bracket these instructions and that reveal the purpose of this tabernacle. First, in Exodus 25:8-9 God tells them why they are to make the tabernacle: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” The next fifteen chapters are tough to read, as they are filled with lots of details on how to build the tabernacle and all its accessories. Though, as a side note, right in the middle is the story of when the Israelites got tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain and they make a golden calf to worship. This reminds us that, like Abraham, the Israelites are a broken people. Nevertheless, God will dwell with them. At the end, after the tabernacle is complete, we read of God taking up residence within it: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34-35).
Think back to Genesis 1 for a moment. God is creating a cosmos in which he will dwell with humanity. God created humanity not out of necessity, but out of love , and thus God desires to live in relationship with people. Of course, as we learned above, this goal was derailed due to human sin and rebellion. God has been on a rescue mission since Genesis 12. Here, at the end of Exodus, we reach a high point in this rescue mission. The break between heaven and earth in Genesis has been healed in the tabernacle. Once again God is dwelling with humanity as was always the goal.
Let’s jump ahead in our story and see how this theme of God dwelling among us plays out. Eventually the Israelites will reach the promised land and settle down. In the city of Jerusalem, King Solomon will build a temple. The temple basically replaces the tabernacle as the place where God dwells among them. At the dedication of the temple, King Solomon’s prayer ponders whether God can be contained in an earthly dwelling:
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kings 8:27-30).
Two themes here are worth pausing on. First, God is dwelling among the people in the temple just as in the tabernacle. The promise was that in the difficulties of life, they knew where to find God. Second was the realization that God is not contained in one geographical location. God, the great “I AM”, is beyond our understanding and cannot be squeezed into a temple. The Israelites always understood God was not limited to the temple; an infinite God cannot be held in one small time or space. Yet they also believed that this temple, as with the tabernacle, was the place where it was most clear that heaven and earth met. The temple was the symbol of God’s presence on earth.
Remember that brief mention of how the Israelites sinned by building a golden calf. Its a theme of the story that these high points, such as God dwelling with the people, are intertwined with low points. The Israelites, like the first humans, continued to rebel against God’s desire for them. Centuries later as the Israelites kept drifting away from God, disobeying God’s commands, this imagery of God’s presence in the temple returns in a powerful and sad way. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision of God’s presence getting up and leaving the temple (Ezekiel 11). Ezekiel’s message is stark and disturbing: due to their rebellion against God, the presence of God has left them (which is similar, of course, to the original creation-rebellion story). Soon, powerful empires will conquer them and they will lose their freedom and be carried away as captives to Babylon. This is the Exile and we will get into it more in the future.
Eventually, the people return to Jerusalem and the temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt (Ezra, Nehemiah and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah cover these stories). The Israelites once again live in Jerusalem and have a temple, but as we will see, they are no longer a free nation. Ruled over by other powers, the feeling that God has left them and no longer dwells in the temple remains. The exile has not ended and they yearn for God’s presence to return. Into this the early Christians came to understand that God returned and dwelt among them in the person of Jesus. We see this in the first chapter of John’s gospel: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We see it in the words of the angel spoken to Mary in Matthew’s gospel: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
In Jesus, God has walked among us. Our clearest revelation of who God is comes in the person and work of Jesus. Just as the Israelites could not speak of God without talking about the Exodus, so we cannot speak of God without talking about Jesus. Of course, Jesus no longer walks the earth today. Where do we find God’s presence? Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). God’s presence dwells within the church; the same Spirit who filled the temple and filled Jesus is the Spirit of God within the community of those who follow Jesus. We are God’s presence in the world. Saying this, it is vital to remember that God does not have a people to love at the expense of everyone else. Considering yourself among the people of God is a profound calling, especially as we recall what we said about God’s mission for Abraham. The Church exists for the benefit of those around it. Further, noting how Abraham and the Israelites so often failed, our belief that the Church is God’s presence can only lead to humility.
It is kind of ironic that discussing God’s dwelling was on my schedule for the podcast for today, because this past Sunday I preached at my church on God’s presence. My emphasis there was that in Jesus, God is always moving towards us while present with us. I emphasized though that God’s presence is also out there. We do not uniquely own or posses Jesus. Jesus is not our special possession who we have to defend nor are we gatekeepers, only allowing those we approve into God’s presence. Sometimes Christians speak and act as if other people, whether down the street or on the other side of the world, do not have God’s presence until we show up. I find this idea quite arrogant. God is not uniquely ours. God is already out there working in the world. In other words, God’s presence dwells within the church. But I am not going to limit God’s presence for God’s Spirit has always moved outside of the boundaries humans set, whether tabernacles, temples or churches.
The more important question for us is, does God dwell in us? We spoke of God dwelling in the tabernacle and temple. When Mary carried God in her womb, she became the temple of God’s presence. In this, Mary is an example for us of what it looks like to welcome God’s presence into our lives. I found this old quote from a German monk named Angelus Silesian a while back, “Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem – but all in vain until he is born in me” – Angelus Silesius
When we think of God’s presence in the world, we should examine our own lives. Are we allowing God to dwell in us, making our bodies temples? Are we building communities of faith filled with the Spirit, not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of those around us. Because, once again, God’s mission was never merely to have a special people but instead to have a people through whom God’s mission for the whole world would be accomplished. If we think God dwells with us, we are challenged to spread the love, joy, goodness, beauty and truth into the world around us.
Questions and Action Points:
Where do you see God today? Does 1 Corinthians 3:16 mean God is only present in the Church? Where else might people see God?
Ask a friend how you can pray for them. As you pray, know you are bringing heaven, and God’s presence, to earth
Loving God, we recognize that you exist as a loving relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even before we were created, and from forever, you have been Love. We thank you that your love has overflowed into a desire to create and share that love with us, your creatures. Forgive us for when we take your love for granted and turn away from you. Thank you for never giving up having relationship with us. We remember all the ways you have brought heaven and earth together in the past, from the tabernacle to the temple and ultimately in yourself, Jesus Christ, taking on flesh. As we put our faith in Jesus and are filled with your Spirit, may we then let our light shine through our words and acts to point people to you in this world. Amen.