Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 2018 | Immanuel, God with Us, Has Always Been His Plan for Us




Is "God with Us" God's Best for Us?


What do you think it is like to be in the presence of God? Empty? Full? Awe-inducing? Sorrowful? Peaceful? Dangerous? Gracious? Stunning? Beautiful? Intense? Visceral? Powerful? Loving? Overwhelming?  

What were the times like when you thought God was close? Absent? How long did they last? Do you think He left, or was it you who was looking for something from Him rather than just to be with Him? 

Or do you think you've never been in the presence of God, but you're slightly curious as to what it might be like?

And if there is a God, how often do you think He would want us to be in His presence?

For beginning this season of Advent, I wanted to provide you with an overview of how often God's presence with us is mentioned in His story in the Bible, shaped by the Story of God: Creation, Crisis, Covenant Community, Christ, Church, and (New) Creation



"Immanuel Has Always Been His Plan for Us" adapted from an excerpt in David Fitch's Faithful Presence

Scriptures: Psalm 16:11


The Story of God in Relation to God's Presence with Us

Creation: At the very beginning God created the heavens and the earth as the realm of His presence. "Heaven is my throne," says the Lord, "and the earth is my footstool" (Isaiah 66:1). Humanity was created to be in God's presence, and Eden was God's sanctuary. The garden of Eden was a place where God dwelt with His creation. Humanity was with Him, not only to be fashioned and loved by Him, but also to worship, magnify, and love Him in return, and to share His eternal goodness and righteousness with all of creation. With God, everything was very good for humanity and creation, full of potential and life.

Crisis: But the first humans came to a point when they wondered, "Is 'God with us' the best God has for us?" They settled for less than God's love and companionship, usurped God's good and protecting authority, and broke fellowship with His vital presence. The first woman and man settled for a vision of God that was less than He was, questioning whether God was as good as He should be toward them. And after their choice, when they heard the sound of God walking in the garden, they "hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God" (Genesis 3:8). Immanuel, God with us, was disrupted by mistrust, fear, darkness, and evil. Separation, violence, and grasping to fill the void spread everywhere (Genesis 6:5). Would God find a way to be with humanity on earth again?

Covenant Community: After an increasingly destructive and violent period of time, God justly cleansed the infectious evil in and spread throughout the earth by humanity through the Noahic flood, and then set out to reconcile and restore His presence with His creation. God called a barren couple, Abra(h)am and Sarai(h), and miraculously birthed a people from them to bless the nations. And He promised (i.e. made covenants) that He would be present with His people. Through a series of events, the nation of Israel that grew from God's promise to Abraham ended up in Egypt, where they were enslaved. After many years of suffering in Egypt, God manifested His presence to Moses as a flame that engulfed, but did not consume, a small tree, and revealed His plan to send Moses to deliver His treasured and beloved people. In His sending of Moses, God promised to be with him (Exodus 3:10-12). The pattern of God's presence being with those He sends to bless others throughout the earth runs constant throughout the entire story of God in the Bible. Moses led Israel out of Egypt with God as He revealed Himself as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Moses and the people came to a mountain to be "with" God, and God manifested His presence through fire that came down from the heavens to the mountain. During this special time, God revealed He is love, He is light, and He is a consuming fire to His people. But while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people of Israel grew impatient in waiting and fashioned a golden calf and worshiped it. So God, in holy justice and 
brokenhearted disappointment said He would send His people onward to the promised land, but that He would withdraw His presence from them (Exodus 33:3-4). Moses interceded and said, "If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. ... Is it not by Your going with us, that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all other people who are upon the face of the earth?" (Exodus 33:15-16). Moses knew that no matter how good the pleasures of the promised land were, God's people were not His people apart from His presence. God listened to Moses' cry and went with His people. Shortly thereafter a tabernacle was built, and a pillar of flame came down from heaven to represent God's presence at home with His people. The next several accounts of Moses encountering God's presence around the tabernacle tell of the care, attention, and understanding needed for anyone to be in close physical proximity to God's presence. His presence is so viscerally real and good and powerful, everyone needed to know how to engage Him according to His Word because His holy presence is at the core of His work among His people as He sends them to bless all nations. Years later, in the Promised Land, a beautiful temple was built and stood in the middle of Jerusalem as the nation's meeting place with God's presence, as well as an invitation for all other nations to come meet with God (as King Solomon prayed in 1 Kings 8). When King Solomon finished praying at the temple's dedication, fire came down from heaven and the presence and glory of God filled the temple (2 Chronicles 7:1-4). The temple is where the people came to be present and reconciled with this God of love, light, and a consuming fire as they prayed to Him and worshiped God Him. The great art and poetry of songs and prayers in the Psalms that were sung by the people of God in the temple repeat the the powerful theme of God with them. Psalm 46 says ... 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The Lord of hosts is with us ... He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariots with fire. 10 “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold. + Psalm 46:1, 4-7, 9-11 

Notice the words with, in the midst, present, and dwelling. Throughout the Bible they are some of the most important words for God showcasing God with us. As Psalm 46 makes clear, God's presence dispels violence; it brings peace and stops vain striving. He rules in and through His presence, which brings the richness of love, reconciliation, and justice to the earth. 

But too often God's people disregarded His presence. Yet He reminded them again and again in the Law, through the Prophets, and through the Psalms to be still and be present with Him (Psalm 46:10). However, over time, God's people repeatedly left Him behind, rebelling, committing wicked acts, and disregarding God's holy and good presence for false, dark, and barren idols and plans. So eventually God left His temple (Ezekiel 10) and it was soon destroyed. The people were dispersed in exile among the very people whose lesser idols and gods they worshiped. Nonetheless, God promised to renew His presence among His people (Ezekiel 37:27). He promised that one day His holy goodness would flow to them and throughout creation like streams of living water from the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). He would resurrect their dead dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), cleanse them with His Spirit and water (Ezekiel 36:25-36), and write His Law on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34). God promised to come again to renew the broken relationship, forgive the people of their sins, break the hold of violence, and be with them.

Christ: This promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, Immanuel, "God with us" in flesh. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is born of Mary in fulfillment of the prophecy, "The Virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Jesus came in the flesh to be the very presence of God among us. The Gospel of John describes this same dynamic, invoking the language of the tabernacle in the wilderness. He declares that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt (tabernacled) among us" (John 1:14). Why? Because "God so loved the world that He gave us Jesus (John 3:16). Jesus said, "I am the Light of the world" (John 9:5). And John the Baptizer said Jesus would baptize with "the Holy Spirit of God and with fire" (Luke 3:16). In Jesus, we see God revealing again that He is love, He is light, and He is a consuming fire. The amazing reality of the living God having come to dwell with us cannot be missed in the presence and mission of Jesus.

And yet, there is the reality that even with Jesus as our Immanuel, the embodied presence of God with us who desires to fulfill God's Word to us and baptize us with water and God's Spirit and presence, we still wonder, "Is He really the best God has to offer?" We still tear down this only begotten Son, this tabernacle and temple of God by crucifying Him. But praise God, Jesus says, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days." Death could not hold Him down nor keep His presence from us. His love, light, consuming fire was greater than our disregard, apathy, anger, and rebellion against Him. Though we did attempt to dismiss and destroy Him, just as Jesus promised, resurrection did happen. Jesus rose again for us, atoning on the cross for our sin, shame, and guilt that separates us from God's presence, bringing reconciliation to our God, each other, and His creation through His resurrection. He did all this for us so we can be in God's promised presence, experiencing complete restoration, healing, and wholeness when His streams of living water will flow through the reconciled heaven and earth forever (Revelation 21:3).

Jesus is the presence of God from which rivers of living water flow to us (John 4:10). And when Jesus tells the disciples that He will need to go after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He will not "leave (them) as orphans" (John 14:18). Instead He will send His Holy Spirit to be with them always. The God Father and the Son by the Spirit will make their "abode" with them (John 14:23). "Abide in Me, and I in you," Jesus says (John 15:4). God's presence has been renewed to us in Jesus by the Spirit as He ascended and the sent the Spirit so He will be with us always (John 16:5-7). In Jesus' parting words in Matthew's Gospel He promises to be Emmanuel, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20).

Church: God poured His presence by the Holy Spirit on men, women, and children, sons and daughters, prophets and prophetesses as Peter proclaimed during his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2 reflecting the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32). God came to be among His people, and His presence is seen once again in the image of fire as His Holy Spirit comes to cleanse, ignite, and fill people (Acts 2:1-3). The Church, children, women, and men who follow Jesus from all tribes, tongues, and nations, are now God's "temple" in the midst of the world (2 Corinthians 6:16). We are no longer strangers to God but fellow citizens of "the household of God," being knit together into "a holy temple in the Lord; ... for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:19, 21-22). Because of what Jesus accomplished, God extends His own presence to the earth by the giving of the Holy Spirit to His people, and sends us into the world to represent His love, His light, and the consuming fire of His presence among others as He draws more and more to Himself (John 20:21-22).

(New) Creation: In the final chapter of the book of Revelation we are told of when God will be with us on earth always in the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. Revelation depicts the image of the new city of Jerusalem as the place of God's indwelling, where no temple is needed. Indeed, the new heaven and earth are described in terms of the dimensions of the temple, the dwelling place of God (Revelation 21:15-22). The voice in Revelation 21:3 says, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them." This is the goal of God's redemptive work: that we will be restored, along with all of creation, to be with God and He with us. The knowledge of His glory will fill the new heaven and earth (Habakkuk 2:14), and everything will be made new as those who rejected His love and practiced separation from Him are brought to light and judged rightly, completely removed in a consuming fire, and the powers of hell's depravity on the earth will end (Revelation 20:11-15). The Scriptures, from beginning to end, tell the marvelous story of God returning His good, right, and beautiful presence to all creation, and removing all destructive forces when He reconciles heaven and earth (Revelation 21-22). It always was God's intent to be with His creation in the fullness of His presence, Immanuel, God with us. And when Jesus returns to reign, He always will be.

You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore. + Psalm 16:11

Recent posts on overviews of the Story of God found in the Bible:

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