Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Presence

I have been thinking a lot this last week or so about 2 Chronicles, chapters 5 through 7. This is the account of Solomon finishing the Temple, and its dedication.

Some of you are sort of joining me on part of my sabbatical by reading Gordon Fee's book Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (for ease of typing, I am going to refer to this book as Paul). I read this book before going on sabbatical, and in preparation for my reading of the companion book by Fee, God's Empowering Presence (likewise for ease, I will refer to this book as Empowering), which offers the academic work which lies behind the smaller book. The second chapter in Paul deals with the "Spirit as the Renewed Presence of God." When I first read this, it really spoke to me and now as I am reading Empowering I am thinking more about this concept of God's presence. In the second chapter of Paul, Fee talks about how God has come to dwell with us, his people, though the Holy Spirit living within us. That, quite naturally, was not a new concept to me. Fee goes on, however, to link this dwelling of God in us with the dwelling that God did in the Tabernacle while the children of Israel journeyed through the wilderness, and the with the way God dwelled among his people in the Temple.

This connection--that the New Testament indwelling of each believer, and consequently of the church, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament's dwelling of God among his people--caught my attention like never before. What an amazing idea, and Fee does a great job in both books of anchoring the idea in scripture. It is clearly what God promised in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and Jeremiah 31-31-33. I just never really thought of it in that way. But think of it. When the Tabernacle was finished, God showed up as a Cloud of Glory by day and a Pillar of Fire by night (Exodus 40:34-38). Again, when the Temple was finally built by Solomon in 2 Chronicles 5-7, God showed up again and filled the place with his glory so that the priest could not even go inside. Everyone fell down and worshiped.

Viewing the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit from this perspective brings new meaning to the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. There was a rushing wind (the cloud?) and what seemed like tongues of fire (the pillar of fire) on that day, as well, as the Holy Spirit filled the disciples and the church was born. This is the New Testament fulfillment to those Old Testament events and images, and it means we are the chosen people, the people of God, loved by him, filled with his presence. But in our case, it is not just the facility that is filled (the Tabernacle or the Temple), but it is our hearts. We are the Temple of God and thus God is with us always. And when a group of us gather for worship, God is there in a big way.

Part of me is saying that I have known this all along; but another part of me is saying that there is something new here. Fee says somewhere in one of these books that the distinguishing mark of the Christian is the Presence of God. If that is so--if God lives in us--then it ought to be readily apparent. We should know it and others should sense it. And sometimes we do and they do. Also, if God dwells in the church as he did in the Temple (God dwells in us and we are the church), then his presence should be felt in the church. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it is not. I believe this second chapter holds importance for my life and for our congregation.

I was wondering as I pondered this, if when I am heading out to attend church on Sunday morning, if I am thinking mostly about the encounter with God I will have as I gather with other God-filled persons for worship, or if other things occupy my mind. Is worship about encountering the God who dwells within me and among us, or is it about fellowship or tradition or something else? Is worship about God or about me? Of course too often for me, Sunday morning worship is about preaching and doing the work of ministry. One thing the gift of this sabbatical has allowed is for me to worship freely without the responsibilities of leadership.

As you know, I have been seeking a new/renewed experience with God during this time apart. As I have been thinking about this concept of dwelling and reading Fee and the Bible, I have also been listening to another song that has held special significance for me during the last year or so. Let Your Glory Fall was our theme song a few years ago when we did the Elijah series in worship. When I first heard it, I thought it was about the Mt Carmel experience of Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al. But then I realized that it was based on the time when God filled the Temple as recorded in 2 Chronicles. Here is a link to the song; join me in my prayer that I, and the church, experience a transforming visitation of the Holy One.