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God’s Presence

Christmas is a time to reflect on the significance of God’s presence in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  If you simply view the birth of Jesus as the beginning of a baby, that would become a very special man with a powerful message, who was tragically killed by the Roman Empire, you will have missed the true meaning of this amazing moment in human history.  Why is the birth of Jesus of Nazareth so important for our relationship with God and what place does his birth have in the Story of God?
The Apostle John has provided us with important information concerning the life of the Son of God from the beginning of the Story until the birth of Jesus.  We learn that the Son of God was the Word, or self-expression of God, as well as the Creator of the entire universe.  John proceeds to share something that goes beyond any other divinity story in the ancient world: divinity became humanity.  John describes it this way,

“14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” 

There were numerous stories of gods taking on the form of a human or creature in order to seduce or trick various humans, but the idea of the gods becoming a human on a permanent basis would have been shocking.  Imagine how John’s message was received by Israel who wholeheartedly embraced monotheism.  Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh.

God’s Presence Among Us

John shares the shocking news that the Son became a human being so that he could live in the midst of his people.  The idea that God would want to dwell in the midst of humanity may sound like a foreign idea to the biblical narrative, but it is one of the key themes revealed at the beginning of the Story and continues until the final chapters of the book of Revelation.  Unlike the other divinity stories in the ancient world, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures continually works to be in the midst of his people.

How does the theme of God’s presence develop throughout the biblical narrative?  We begin by going back to the beginning of the Story.  The Creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 are written in such a way that the listener/reader would have seen it structured as a temple building process.  The existence of chaos that needs to be tamed, and then the universe brought into existence, and then the god in question resting in his temple on a throne.  Eden is the dwelling place of God or his temple.  The garden becomes the place where humanity (the priest and priestess) worship and serve God, and the world outside (the wilderness) is the place where the garden is supposed to grow. (See God Dwells Among Us by G. K. Beale and Mitchell Kim)

God’s Presence With Us

The God in Genesis models this same process, however, this God does not simply stay in the temple, but ventures forth to spend time with humanity.  In Genesis 3 we read,

“8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” 

Even though this passage is after the rebellion of Adam and Eve, it reveals to us a pattern where God dwells in the midst of his people and has a personal relationship with them.

The Story takes a dark turn when humanity rebels against God and they are removed from the presence of God and experience personal, corporate, and creational brokenness due to their actions.  How will God respond?  Will he abandon humanity or will he continue to seek to dwell in their midst?

The Story becomes darker as human violence spins out of control, but God does not abandon humanity.  Through the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob God chooses a family line where he promises to be present with them, and somehow through them make it possible for God to dwell in the midst of his people again.

The Story moves ahead and finds the people of God in slavery under the power of the Egyptian Empire. God delivers them and brings them to a mountain to establish an enduring relationship with them.  At this time, God gives them a plan for building a dwelling place for him called a tabernacle.  We read in Exodus 25,

“8 Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. 9 Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.”

In Leviticus 26, we are provided a reason for this structure,

“11 I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. 12 I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people. 13 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” 

God still wants to be in the midst of his people, but it can only occur under the circumstances provided by God. The tabernacle will be a mobile dwelling place for God, so that he can lead and travel with his people to the land he has promised them.

How will God respond to the efforts of Israel in building the tabernacle?  Exodus 40 provides God’s response:

“34 Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” 

God’s presence, or glory, enters the structure and will now be present with his people.

God’s people will eventually enter the land of promise, but their brokenness will cause them to experience the consequences of their sinful choices.  Eventually Israel will choose to have kings over them, and one by the name of David will decide to build a permanent dwelling place for him.  David is unable to fulfill this goal, but his son Solomon will.  I Kings 5 explains,

“3 You know that because of the wars waged against my father David from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies under his feet. 4 But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster. 5 I intend, therefore, to build a temple for the Name of the Lord my God, as the Lord told my father David, when he said, ‘Your son whom I will put on the throne in your place will build the temple for my Name.’”

Solomon will succeed in building an elaborate temple for God, and once again, how will God respond to the efforts of Solomon and his people?  I Kings 8 describes God’s response,

“10 When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. 11 And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. 12 Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud; 13 I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.’” 

God’s glory appears and the temple becomes his dwelling place.

However, God’s people continue to rebel and eventually God will remove them from the land and destroy the temple.  During this time, God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, provides words of future comfort that a future son of David will once again lead his people and that their will be a future, permanent temple in which he will dwell.  Ezekiel 37 describes,

“24 My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.”   

When will this temple be built?

God’s Presence Through Us

We now come to John’s story, where he tells us that the Word has become human and that he is dwelling in the midst of humanity.  The word for dwelling is the word for “tabernacled” and draws on the tabernacle and temple imagery of the Old Testament.  John is letting his readers know that God wants to continue to be present with humanity, but he will no longer be dwelling in a temple made by human hands; rather, he will now be a human who possesses all the glory of God.

Jesus will eventually be crucified, die, and be buried, but God will resurrect him and bring him back to the heavenly dwelling place of God.  What does this mean for God’s presence amongst his people?  God’s Spirit will dwell in the people of God on the Day of Pentecost and his people will now become the living temple where the Spirit of Christ will permanently reside.  We read in I Corinthians 3 that the Church has now become the temple of God,

“16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”

We also see this theme in II Corinthians 6,

“16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” 

Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus makes the same claim in Ephesians 2,

“19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

God has taken permanent residence in the midst of his people and we are called to continue to expand the presence of God throughout the world.

Live in God's presence

What do we do with all of this?  I know this is a large amount of information to digest in a short amount of time, but I believe the overall theme of God’s presence is so important for us to understand and to embrace.  We need to understand our identity as the temple of God.  We are the presence of God for all the people that come into our presence and we need to represent God in those particular moments.  In the ancient world, temples provided places of prayer, healing, forgiveness, and teaching concerning how life was supposed to be lived.  We need to embrace these same actions on behalf of others.  We have to be a people that provide prayer, healing, forgiveness, and instruction for how life is supposed to be lived.

Personally, we need to start living as though the God who is present, is actually present.  The God of the Scriptures is not some distant figure who once in a great while visits the earth.  The God of the Scriptures is constantly present with us through his Spirit even though we may not always feel it or believe it.  He has not abandoned us collectively or individually and we need to learn how to step into this reality better and more consistently in the future.

Listen to the full message from Pastor Chuck on why Jesus’ birth, and life, is so important to our personal relationship with God.

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