God in a box? The problem of perspective.

As human beings, one of our biggest skills is putting things into boxes.

No, I don’t mean physically packing things away in boxes.  But one of the things that sets us apart from animals, one of the ways we show this God-given gift of reason is our ability to categorize things, to understand what something does, and to give it a proper place.

If you give a dog a nice big ham bone after Sunday dinner, that dog has no problem taking that juicy, dripping bone and running to her soft bed or, if you’re not watching, taking that wet bone up on the couch.  And if your dog gets wet, he has no problem shaking that water off wherever he is, throwing that water in every direction.  People are different – at least we can be; we’re built to organize and categorize our lives.  We have one room for cooking, another area for eating, one room for showering, and unlike that dog, we had better dry off before tracking that water through the hall back to the bedroom!

That ability to distinguish between things, to compare and contrast things that have no obvious connection in nature is part of the Image of God given to us. 

Yet, as we read today in the book of Kings, we have to acknowledge the limits of our ability to categorize things, to put things in neat little boxes.  We have to remember that our experience is limited by our experience, that our perspective is limited by the position in which we find ourselves, and our ability to imagine what is possible is limited by the weakness of our own power to change the world around us.

God in a box.

All of us know in our heads that God is present everywhere.  ‘Where can I go to escape your presence?  If I go to the highest mountain or the deepest depths of the sea, even if I go to the grave, you are there.’ (Psalm 139). 

And maybe you’ve never thought of it this way before, but as we’ll see this year as we read The Story together, God’s singular desire is for us to live with Him; all of scripture is God showing the lengths to which the Trinity will go to bring us into their life and presence. 

But as we come to our Old Testament lesson today, we see God being put into a box.

Now, throughout the history of God’s people, He’s been with them, revealed in different ways at different times.  In dreams and visions, in the visitation of angels; the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire that led from captivity to freedom, as a smoky cloud of power and presence that hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the tent of meeting as Israel wandered the wilderness.  But now, having come to peace in the promised land, King David had been hard at work building up the city of Jerusalem, erecting strong walls and gates, and a lofty palace to rival the homes of neighbouring kingdoms.  And then he asks the question: is it right that I, the king, live in a palace, while God is worshipped in a tent? (2 Samuel 7:2).  God refuses to let David build the house of God, because he had shed too much human blood in battle; instead, God appoints Solomon, David’s son, to build the temple where God’s presence would reside.

Solomon does that.  Construction takes 7 years.  It’s an big structure, even by modern standards.  The holy of holies – the dwelling place of God – is at the centre, a windowless box with 40-foot ceilings, surrounded by an inner courtyard for sacrifice and thanksgiving, and an enormous outer courtyard for teaching and worship and public festivals. 

But here’s the amazing thing: God, who is present everywhere, whom the heavens and the earth cannot contain, actually moves in.  God’s desire for us to live with him is so great that the Creator will move into – take up residence in – the creation.

The question, though, is why does God do that?

Did God need a house?  Was he lacking in wood and marble, in silver and gold, in incense and offerings?  No, not at all. 

God takes up residence in the temple, just as he takes up residence here, in this holy house of worship, for our sake.  God knows we were created with the gift and curiosity to try and understand the world – after all, that’s God’s Image in us.  God chooses to be present and worshipped in visible, physical ways because he knows we have trouble perceiving what we cannot see; he knows that our perspective is limited to what is right there, in front of our eyes.

You may have heard it preached before that the good news of the new covenant is that God is not contained in a temple far away in Jerusalem.  And that’s true – God is not contained in any box made by human hands.  But the amazing truth we read in scripture is that God is willing to take up residence among us. 

God is not a philosophy; God is not a feeling; God is not a theology or rules or a set of right answers to rhyme off.  God is alive; God is someone we can know; God wants us to live with him, and he’s willing to do what it takes to make that happen – even taking up residence within four walls if that’s what it takes for us to experience the reality of His presence.

The Problem of Perspective

But even God moving in and being really present in a house in each neighbourhood is not enough for many to see and accept his presence.

Remember back in the Garden of Eden?  The temptation offered by the serpent wasn’t to disobey God – that’s not enticing at all.  The temptation that got Eve to eat that fruit was the temptation to trust her own perspective.  That’s enticing.  The serpent didn’t say “go ahead, disobey God!”.  The serpent said “that fruit looks nice, doesn’t it?”  “Looks like a good fruit, don’t you think?”  “God said it would kill you, but it doesn’t look like it would kill you, does it?”  “Maybe it’s so good, God just doesn’t want you to have it”. 

The temptation that led to sin invading the world was the temptation to limit the truth to our own perspective.  The temptation to think that we have all the facts instead of trusting that God knows the big picture and, even when it doesn’t make much sense to us, He is working things together for the good of those who love him.

God took up residence in Solomon’s temple, to be the crowning glory of His people, now established in the promised land.  God moved into those four walls, not that they contained him, but so that his people would have a place to come to be assured of his presence; just as we have a bedroom for sleeping and a kitchen for eating, so too the faithful would have a place of prayer, a place where, each year, each month, each week, they could gather, choose to see things from God’s perspective, repent of all the times we did and said or acted – or made excuses – based on our own perspectives, and in that place know the truth that God wants us to live with him so much that he makes himself present even in our messy, complicated lives.

But the temptation to trust our own perspective is always there, the temptation to falsely believe that our understanding, our point of view is the full story, rather than trusting in God’s big picture.

It’s an attractive temptation, and closer to home than we like to admit.  In the Gospel today, Jesus says that whoever eats his flesh and drinks his blood abides in him.  At the last supper Jesus says ‘this bread is my body; this cup is my blood; when you gather, do this to recall my covenant with you’.  Once again, God’s desire is to be with us in a tangible way, for us to know he is present with us around the table in the act of taking our daily bread.  But how much ink and energy has been wasted; how much blood and how many lives were lost in the wars at the Reformation because we look from our perspectives and say “how can God fit in a piece of bread?”.

But the point of the temple or the Eucharist was never to contain God, to mark his limits.  It’s the total opposite; if we see it from God’s perspective, the point is that God loves you so much that he wants to live in these four walls for you to come and visit; he wants to sit with you at the table; and he wants to take up residence in you, to guide and direct and comfort you from the inside out.

Discipleship and “Checking Boxes”

I’ve had lots of conversations lately about the day-to-day actions of our faith.  Since that discipleship training day back in June, a number of you have been experimenting with morning or evening prayer, with spending a few minutes reading scripture each day, or taking on a new role in outreach and caring for one another, or even reframing your care for those around you as an act of obedience to the Lord.

As we prepare to embark on a parish-wide year of bible reading with The Story, it’s important for us to remember that, when we see things from God’s perspective, even little actions will have ripple effect far bigger than we can imagine from our point of view.

Solomon preaches at the dedication of the temple that if a foreigner – that is, someone outside of God’s covenant – even turns toward God’s house, God will hear and act.  If one of the faithful – you or I – comes to seek God’s mercy and comfort, it is given. 

Now think about that.  A stranger, walking down the other side of the street, depressed and anxious on the way to work, hears the bell at 8am, sees the church and says “if there’s even a God, I need help.”  That’s an act of faith – yes, a tiny one – but it’s one that God hears as he continues his work of helping her to align her will with his.

It’s just as Paul tells us today to do the work of putting on the armour of faith.  Not fall into it, not wake up and magically find yourself fully dressed, but do the action, put it on.  Wear the truth, strap on righteousness, know the peace that comes from being ready to trust God’s big picture rather than your own perspective, and faithfully pick up the gift of faith as it is strengthened by the Spirit dwelling in you and the Word of God going into your eyes and ears each day.

My friends, God can’t be contained in a box… or a temple, or a church, or a set of rules, or a piece of bread, or a theology book, or a plan for discipleship.  But God wills to dwell with us in real and visible ways.  We’re not checking boxes or doing empty rituals; we’re taking God at his word!  When he says “gather in my presence”, gather in his presence.  When he says “read my Word”, let’s do it.  When he says “if you serve one of the least of these, you’ve served me”, let’s serve him.  When he says “repent, and agree to see things as they really are”, confess and change your way. When he says “go out and invite them in”, let’s roll out the welcome mat, and when he says “trust me, I’m with you always”, let’s learn to take him at his word, even when we can’t – no, especially when we can’t see what he’s doing, or where he’s leading, or what he has in store.  It’s in those moments, standing on the promises of God, that we truly learn that God’s will is to be with us here and now, so that we can be with Him forever.

To God be the glory.  Amen.