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.

God pitches his tent among us.

If there’s one thing for us to remember in this season of Advent, this season of “coming”, it’s this: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.

We often get caught up or even led astray with all sorts of ideas or perceptions or philosophies about God.  I think some of us, perhaps those who have seen and felt humanity at its worst, those who know real hardship and pain, just can’t imagine a God so merciful, a God so supremely generous that He would reach out, time and time again, to share His eternal life with messy, messed-up people like us. 

Too many of us know well the pain and even anger that goes with being betrayed by those who should have been closest to us, and our instinct is to build a wall, to cut ourselves off, and we just can’t imagine a God so faithful, so steadfast and unchanging that He would keep reaching out, that he would lay aside all the glory of heaven to come and be among us, knowing full well that even we, who claim to be his followers and friends, would betray and deny Him.

And yet, that is our message; that is the Gospel truth: the Lord will establish his Kingdom.  The Almighty Lord – who lacks nothing – desires to share his abundant life with people like you and me.  The Almighty Lord – who creates with nothing more than a word – wills to fill his Kingdom not with perfect angelic beings, but with fallen, broken people like us, perfectly restored and adopted as His sons and daughters, heirs of eternal life.

That’s the entirety of the story – cover to cover – though we seem to want nothing more than to turn our backs on the rightful King and proclaim ourselves as lord and master of our own lives; though we take whatever gifts he sends and stubbornly claim them as our own; though we ourselves are utterly and wholly dependant on the mercy of the one who laid aside his glory to suffer on our behalf, but we stubbornly refuse to offer mercy even to those nearest and dearest to us, yet the Lord will establish his Kingdom – and wants us to share in it with Him!

God in a Tent

One of the great scripture readings of Christmas is that weird and wonderful reading from the opening of John’s Gospel.  Every year, it’s the reading assigned for Christmas Day, and then for the last 102 years it’s been the last reading at the service of Lessons and Carols, and then it comes back again as the Gospel on the second Sunday after Christmas – that’s 3 times in 10 days!  You know the one I’m talking about: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God”.  It goes on to say that God came to his own, “and the world was made by him, but the world would not receive him; but as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God.”  And you know how that reading ends: “and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us”.

That’s the whole message of Christmas, the first Advent, the first coming of Christ.  The Greek original says that he, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made “tabernacled”, he “pitched his tent” among us.    God pitched his tent.

That’s the glory of the gospel.  It’s not that we have to aspire to clean ourselves up enough, to make ourselves presentable enough to climb up to the Lord’s holy mountain.  No.  God shared our flesh and came down from on high.  We could never make the climb up, so the king of glory pitched his tent… here.  With people like us.  He left the unceasing worship of angels so that he could share our hunger and our thirst, so that he could share our pain, and share our burdens.  God is not far off; He pitches his tent, he moves in, right here with us.[1]

…but people have a hard time accepting that.

In 2nd Samuel we see just how backward we get it.[2] 

The amazing reality of God choosing Israel to be his people was that God desired to be with them!  From the time God appeared to Moses, the message was that God’s presence would be among them, mighty to save.  As God’s chosen people wandered through the wilderness – as we wander through the wilderness – God wasn’t far away, but his very presence and glory moved from camp to camp with them in the tent, the tabernacle.  The God of Heaven took up dwelling in a tent, to be near those whom He had chosen, and who had chosen to follow Him.

But by the time of King David, the king isn’t living in a tent anymore.  David’s built himself an impressive fortress; a strong, sturdy building he can depend on, with a wall around it to fend off any threats.  And what’s the human instinct?  The great message of God is that He desires to be near us, present with his people… but as soon as we can, we want to ship God off to a “better” dwelling place.  God wants to be with us, near us, part of the everyday life of his people; but we want to lock him up in a temple.  It’s more fitting, we say; “see” said the king, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent”; but what are we really saying?  Sure, I used to depend on God when I was in a tent in the wilderness, but now that I can count on what I’ve built up, now that I have these strong walls up around me, the presence of God is a bit of an eyesore; let’s get God out of everyday life and box Him up somewhere a little more seemly.

…and we even convince ourselves it’s for God’s glory!

It happens to the best of us – like the embarrassment we might feel when someone who was down and out, at the end of their rope, overcomes incredible odds and speaks boldly about how God lifted them out of addiction and despair: “yes dear, that’s nice, but let’s not get carried away”. 

And yet: even when His chosen people try to box Him up, what does God do? 
He becomes flesh and pitches his tent. 

The Lord is establishing his Kingdom.

An Invitation

God is not deterred by our stubbornness, even though we can’t even imagine being that forgiving, as those who would rather build walls to cut ourselves off and grip tightly onto the chains that hold us down.

That’s the beauty of God in a tent – when we run away, when we wander off into the wilderness, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God pitches His tent.  We never have to find God; he pursues us.  We just have to stop running.

As the Lord wills to establish his Kingdom, for us to be a part of that, all we have to do is claim him as Lord and King.  It’s not about special words to say; it’s about taking ourselves off the throne, quitting this foolish running away and building of walls that so many waste their life on, and simply surrender.  Let the God who pursues you claim you as his own. 

The coming of Christ – whenever that might be – or our own meeting Christ in our own of death is only a thing to be feared if we’re still running away.  If we surrender, claim him as Lord, allow Him to claim the throne, and accept his presence right here with us, right here in the mess and pain of life, we have nothing to fear; we can finally find rest, we can finally have the peace that passes understanding.

“How can this be?”

The Lord will establish his Kingdom; and he wants us to be a part of that.  But He won’t force us.  It doesn’t work that way.  If we refuse, He’ll keep reaching out, over and over again, but it’s like so much in life; you can have all the help in the world available to you, but you have to want to be helped before it’ll do you any good.

And lets be clear: surrendering is scary stuff.

Think of Mary in today’s Gospel lesson:[3] a young girl, scared speechless as God’s plan is revealed.  Her first response is like our own: how can this even be true?  It’s impossible! 

Yet, yet, God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers; he doesn’t expect us to find the strength to carry out his plan.  All He expects from us is a simple “Here I am”. 

It seems impossible that God could do what he has planned; it seems impossible that he could want us, it seems absolutely impossible that he would want to share in the very pain and hurt that we try so hard to run away from.  But, the God who pitches his tent, the God who pursues us just wants us to stop running and say, simply, “here I am; you caught me, I’m yours”.

And that’s when we find more than we could ask or imagine.  That’s when we’re healed and nursed back to health after our time in the wilderness.  That’s when we’re taught to extend forgiveness and mercy, even as we ourselves learn to receive the forgiveness offered to us.  And that’s when we’re able to accept God’s presence in our own messy lives, and finally start to live for his glory.

The Lord will establish his Kingdom, and he wants to start with you and me.

Let’s stop running.  Surrender.  And this Christmas, let’s accept the coming of the one who became flesh and dwelt among us; the one who came into the world he made, though the world did not receive him; yet, if we will receive him, he will give us the power to become the sons and daughters of God, and heirs of eternal life.

[1] Eugene Peterson paraphrases John 1:14 as “he moved into our neighbourhood”.

[2] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

[3] Luke 1:26-38