September 21, 2011

His Saving Presence

One of the most amazing truths we find in the Bible is that God is not just willing to dwell with His people—He wants to be among us. Although He is the Maker of heaven and earth, He desires to fellowship with the creatures of His hand.

“For this is what the high and lofty One says—?he who lives forever, whose name is  
holy:? ‘I live in a high and holy place,? but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,?
to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’ ” (Isa. 57:15).

Today a militant atheism is abroad. At one time unbelievers were content to live in quiet doubt; today they aggressively proclaim that there is no God and heap scorn on Christians and all followers of religion. Among the leading voices advocating atheism are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. Interestingly, Anthony Flew, who set the agenda for atheism for 50 years, late in life underwent a philosophical conversion. His book There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, published in 2007, scandalized his former colleagues.
For those who know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, however, arguments like Flew’s, while helpful in certain contexts, are unnecessary. We know that there is a God because we know Him as our Friend.

“And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own;?       
And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known” (C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden”).

The entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation, witnesses to this fact of the God who delights to befriend humanity. He walked and talked in the garden with Adam and Eve. He walked and talked with Abraham and the patriarchs. And when He led the 12 tribes out of Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai, He instructed Moses: “Let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8, KJV).
The Israelites had seen and heard the thunderclap, lightning, and trumpet blast that came from the sacred mountain. They knew that Yahweh was real—He was there on Sinai—and they were terrified. Now God longed to draw closer to them, in a manner that would invite them to come into His presence. He would dwell in a tent.
God gave Moses a blueprint for the sanctuary, and the Israelites constructed it to the letter. It was beautifully appointed, with gold, silver, precious stones, and colored fabrics. Because it had to be portable, it was small. Its Most Holy Place was a cube of 10 cubits (about 15 feet) to a side; the holy place was double the size, 20 cubits by 10 cubits (about 30 feet by 15 feet).
Think of it—the Majesty of heaven, Creator of the universe, condescending to dwell in a tent!
A Symbol of God’s Presence
For the Israelites, the sanctuary was the heart of their life together. Their identity as a special people chosen by God centered there.
2011 1527 page8The sanctuary was the place of refuge. There the Shekinah glory—the very presence of the Lord—was manifested between the cherubim in the Most Holy Place. With the sanctuary in their midst and going on before them during their journeys, they could be safe, secure from whatever foes they might have to face.
Centuries later, after settling in the Promised Land, they still looked to the sanctuary for refuge, as the psalmist prayed: “May he send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion” (Ps. 20:2).
The sanctuary was a place of instruction. From time to time Moses went out to the tent to talk with God. Here God gave Him counsel for leading the people. After Moses returned to the camp, his face shone and the people could not bear to look at him, so “when Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face” (Ex. 34:33).
The sanctuary was a place of divine guidance. All the time the children of Israel were in the wilderness a cloud rested over the sanctuary during the day and a pillar of fire shone at night. When the cloud or fiery pillar lifted, the people broke camp and followed. When it came to rest, they set up camp. “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night” (Ex. 13:21).
The sanctuary was a place of worship. The Israelites’ sacred year revolved around a series of festivals—Passover, Wave Sheaf, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles—and for each the sanctuary played a key role.
Finally, the sanctuary was a place of forgiveness. Here the sinner brought his or her sacrifice—a lamb, a goat, a bird—to be presented by the priest as atonement. Forgiveness was through the sanctuary.
No wonder the Israelites considered the sanctuary so precious. When in later years the Temple that replaced the wilderness tent was desecrated by invading armies, to them that was the ultimate loss, the worst calamity that could be imagined. (See Ps. 74:1-7.)
We do not have an earthly sanctuary today to which we may look for God’s presence. But we are not placed at a disadvantage: we have the heavenly sanctuary, which we enter by faith (Heb. 10:19-22). And we have Jesus. The God who so desired to dwell with the 12 tribes that He instructed them to build a sanctuary went further—much, much further! He took on the form of a human being. He became flesh and blood, one with us.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” prophesied Isaiah. “And the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
Of Him the beloved John wrote: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt [literally, “pitched his tent”] among us, (and we beheld his glory . . .) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This Man, devoid of all the trappings that people use to draw attention to themselves—wealth, fame, power, education, influence—was God incarnate. He was Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).
Jesus is our great high priest, ministering on our behalf in the courts above. That heavenly sanctuary, which is not made by human hands and is more glorious than we can imagine, is the true sanctuary, the pattern of which the wilderness tent was but a faint representation—“a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).
Concerning this sanctuary and Jesus’ work in it we will study more closely in a later reading this week. Just as the children of Israel found in the wilderness tent their identity as the people of God, so we can look to our great High Priest for refuge, instruction, guidance, worship, and forgiveness.
And there’s more! Jesus dwelt among us for only a short time, some 33 years. But before He left, He promised to send the blessed Comforter, the Holy Spirit: “I will not leave you as orphans;” He said, “I will come to you” (John 14:18).

Questions for Reflection and Sharing
1. Of the five things represented by the earthly sanctuary--refuge, instruction, divine guidance, worship, and forgiveness--which is most needed in your community? How are you providing it?

2. If you wanted to reflect Christ's incarnational ministry to your community, how would your life be different?

3. How is the ministry of the Holy Spirit demonstrated in your life as an individual ans as a congregation?

The Holy Spirit carries on the loving ministry of Jesus. He guides us into all truth (John 16:13). He brings to our remembrance the teachings of the Savior (John 14:26). He convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11). And best of all, He is with us!
We don’t have to go to a temple to find God. We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to some far-off shrine where the divine presence is manifested. God is already here, right here. God is with us!
Just before Jesus left us, He promised: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The apostle Paul testified, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Dear friend, can you join with Paul in that witness? Do you know that Jesus lives within you? Is He with you, even as He promised?
Long ago Moses prayed: “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:16).Likewise David implored: “Do not cast me from your presence” (Ps. 51:11).
If you have been running away from God, pray that prayer of David. God wants to dwell with you. He earnestly desires that you will know His saving presence. He wants to be your refuge, your guide, your teacher, your Savior, your Lord!