Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The presence of God

Christians generally live in this really weird tension about where God is present. We claim and teach God's "omnipresence" -- meaning he's pretty much everywhere, like mosquitoes in Minnesota in June. We teach omnipresence like it's a fact, like gravity. Can't see it, can't detect it, but it's there. Just try jumping to the moon and you'll know.

On the other hand, we act and think like God is more present some places than others. This is especially true of church buildings and sanctuaries. How many times have you heard someone refer to the church as "God's house"? Parents with little kids get all freaked out when their children decide to play around on the altar platform after worship. We scowl at people who wear racy clothes or use profanity in the church sanctuary. So in effect, we think that God is more present in the sanctuary than he is in the broom closet at work, for instance.

What does the Bible say about the presence of God? The Bible never uses the word "omnipresent." That's a Greek idea projected backward onto the Bible. A useful concept, but not a biblical one. The Bible does seem to teach something like omnipresence, especially in places like Psalm 139. But overall, the idea of God being present everywhere is not very helpful and not, in fact, the way the Bible itself talks about God's presence.

Think about the sweep of the Bible's story. Let's pick out a few highlights:

In the garden of Eden, God came walking in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3:8)

For the Israelites coming out of Egypt, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle or a tent where God's presence would live among his people. (Exodus 25:8)

When David proposed building the temple, God spoke through the prophet Nathan to put a stop to the idea. God said some very specific things about not wanting a temple, and preferring to move around among his people in a tent. (2 Samuel 7:1-17) Now granted, God does say that David's heir will "build a house for my name" -- but all indications are that God is talking here about a heritage, as the Israelite people as a house in which he dwells, rather than as a temple.

However, when Solomon builds the temple, God honors it by inhabiting it with his glory (1 Kings 8:10-11). Solomon's prayer of dedication, immediately following this, acknowledges that the temple is wholly inadequate to provide a location for God.

Interestingly enough, when the temple is destroyed in 586 BC, and then about seventy years later Ezra rebuilds it, there is no mention of God's glory inhabiting the temple. Instead, when the foundation of the second temple is laid (Ezra 3:10-13) many of the people weep because it was so diminished from the glory of Solomon's temple. When Ezra dedicates it, there is no indication that God's glory comes to inhabit it again (Ezra 6:13-22).

After the building of the second temple, there are a few straggler prophets, but the word of God --and any sense of his presence among his people -- dwindles. The last four hundred years before John the Baptist are sometimes called "the silent years" because there are no prophets, though there is still a dynamic history being lived out among the Jews.

Then John the Baptist comes to prepare the way, and Jesus shows up. Jesus is called, among other things, "Immanuel" which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Jesus is to be the way in which God dwells among his people. There are many other references to this, both obvious and less so. Jesus repeatedly refers to himself usurping the place of the temple, by the way. See John 2 and Jesus' cleansing the temple for one example. Many of the statements about Jesus and who he will be focus on the fact that in Jesus, God once again visits his people (see Luke 1:68 for example).

It is not enough, though, to say that now Jesus is the way God is present. Jesus transforms the way God is present among his people. For one thing, Jesus says that God is present where his followers gather together (see Matthew 18:20). There's something about the corporate gathering of God's people that intensifies the presence of God.

Jesus begins toward the end of his ministry to focus more and more on the coming of the Holy Spirit, which was predicted by Ezekiel and Jeremiah and Isaiah among other prophets. For centuries God had been promising that he would transform the way he was present among his people. Jesus points to the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of this promise. In John 14:15-31, John 16:4-15, Acts 1:6-11, and many other passages, Jesus gives us some sense that the Spirit is coming and will transform the way God is present among his people. (John 7:38-39 is another fascinating passage in this regard.)

So after Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit shows up, the entire New Testament takes a radical new turn about the presence of God. Now the Spirit is given not only to a singular prophet here and there, but rather to all those who follow Jesus. Now when Jesus' followers gather, God is present among them. In fact, the New Testament has the audacity to call the gathering of Jesus' followers "the body of Christ" -- meaning that in the church, Jesus is truly present.

From Pentecost forward, the Bible talks about God's presence being not that of a disembodied spirit wafting over creation, but rather as a Spirit embodied among those who follow Jesus. All the practices of the church, from worship to communion to prayer to mission, are corporate. Together. Multiple. And every one, without exception, is effective if and because the Spirit of God is flowing in and through the activity, making it powerful for the kingdom of God.

So it's not that God is just present everywhere like gravity; it's that God has chosen to inhabit his people, to flow through their hands, mouths, hearts and eyes. Certainly God is free to be outside these boundaries working in places where you and I are not; but ask yourself where God has promised to be. I will never leave you or forsake you. I am with you always, to the close of the age. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. On and on it goes.

God is present by his Spirit in your heart, your life, your love, your work. That's where he has chosen to be. You are the location of God's presence on earth.

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