Exodus 40:34-38 - God With Us
December 21, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 40:34–40:38
[Exodus 40:34-38 Sermon - "God with Us"]
Israel is about to set out from Mt. Sinai to enter a vast wilderness on their way to a promised home with YHWH. Their God rescued them from Egypt. He brought them safely through the waters that destroyed the army of Egypt. He made a covenant with Israel to be their God and for them to be his people. And even though they immediately broke that covenant by worshipping the golden calf - he renewed it, answering Moses' pleas for pardon and restoration.
And soon they'll be leaving this place, heading into a wilderness where they'll face questions and fears and doubts. Trials and enemies lay ahead as they walk past fierce nations who will not like the sight of a Hebrew nation looking for a home. And as troublesome as the enemies around them will be, Israel will face a more fearsome enemy within themselves. Because within each of them lays a rebel heart - quick to rebel, prone to doubt YHWH's goodness and promises again and again.
Will God be with them when enemies threaten? And - perhaps even more pressing - will God be with them when they themselves act like his enemies? When unholy, rebellious hearts show themselves, will God be with them in mercy? When an enemy rises up; when sin rises up from their hearts I can imagine the question on their lips because I've asked it myself - "Is God really with us?"
But not everything will be crisis and angst for Israel. They'll also face the mundaneness of life. They'll see the ordinary challenges of raising children and gathering firewood; of trusting God for their daily bread (from heaven) and water for their little ones in a parched, dry land. When their kids are asking why they're walking through the wilderness; when the water skins are starting to run dry I can hear them asking the question each of us has asked - "Is God really with us?"
"Is God really with us?" We still ask that question today. Even for us God's Church today, we who have heard the good news of Jesus still wonder sometimes if what we've heard is true. Because even now we're celebrating Jesus' Incarnation - the coming of "God with us" - but what we see around us can make us ask the question....
When Christ's Church around the world suffers the taunts and swords of her enemies - is God really with us? When the people of God suffer - is God really with his people?
Is he really with us when life is hardest - when our marriages are strained; when our marriages break; when our kids are wandering from the paths of faithfulness? Is he really with us when our depression is at its darkest; when its weight seems heaviest? Is he with us when these bodies fail and death is no longer a far-off thought? Is he really with us when we sin, failing him for the ten-thousandth time? Is he with us when our "performance" as a Christian doesn't measure up to his perfection?
And is he really with us in the mundane things of life? Is he with us though the midnight feedings and the diapers? Is he with us when we're teaching a squirmy kid (who doesn't know how to whisper) to sit and listen to the Good News of Jesus? Is he with us to provide our daily bread? Or when we're sitting with mom and she can't seem to find the right name? Is he with us when we realize we're just like our parents - including the ways we didn't want? Is he with us when we stand at crossroads and truly don't know which way to go? Is he with us if we go the wrong way?
In big and small ways, at times conscious or unconscious, we're so often asking the question – “Is he really with us to finish this Story of Redemption? Is he really with us to restore all things? Is this all just a cathartic ritual to observe each Sunday?”
When we aren't sure he's with us, you and I know what that feels like. It feels like insecurity, like anxiety. Where there is reason for grief, that grief deepens if we feel distant from God. Where there is mourning over sin, that misery intensifies if we aren't assured of God's gracious presence. Where there is reason for groaning, that groaning loses direction, becoming the groaning of hopelessness rather than expectation if we forget that God is with us. When we doubt God is with us, the mundane feels empty of its true, eternal weight. And when we doubt God is with us, other saviors seem so plausible, so much more accessible.
So, when we ask the question of the wilderness - "Is God really with us?" - what we're really asking is if we're alone in this world; if we're lost in sin or lost in illusion. We're asking, "Are we on our own?"
Or is this God with us, mighty to save?
[Read Exodus 40:33-38 (including v.33 for context)]
When Israel walks into the wilderness, if they ever wonder if God is with them, they simply need look up to the Tabernacle set in the middle of their camp (see Numbers 2 for the orientation of the tribes around the Tabernacle) to see the presence of God with them. The cloud and the fire that fills the Tabernacle answers their question; calms their fear. They don’t live in a world where God is a distant deity. Seeing the cloud and the fire in the Tabernacle is Israel's proof that God is with them to save them.
Being with his people was his stated purpose for rescuing them from Egypt. In Exodus 29 (vv.43-46), YHWH speaks of this tent of meeting, saying that through his glorious presence and the work of the priests God's people "...shall know that I am YHWH their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am YHWH their God."
In the face of fears and questions, this God gives himself to his people. He comes down to be with his people. And within their sight he is with them to meet all their needs, to quiet fearful hearts, to set them apart as his people, and to lead them to their home with him.
Because when their sinful hearts lead them away, he is with them to atone for their sin. We have to remember that at this time in the Story, the sin that separated an unholy people from the holy God has not been fully dealt with. The curtains and the spaces of the Tabernacle - together with the Law of God - stand as reminders to God's people that they need him to deal with sin once and for all. So, it's no coincidence that after YHWH comes down into the camp, he gives Moses the book of Leviticus. And through the sacrifices and ceremonies in Leviticus, YHWH makes a way for his people to survive - and enjoy - his presence.
But even as God was with his people to deal with their sin, he was with them to lead. Verses 36-38 emphasize the way YHWH leads his people throughout their journeys, showing how YHWH guided his people on their way to the Promised Land. When his cloud went up it was time to go. If God didn't move the people didn't move. But think of how his visible presence could impact more than just the timing of their travels.
How might God's visible presence impact the heart and mind of these people when an enemy threatened? They could look to the Tabernacle and see the cloud of the God who humbled Egypt with his power, finding hope in the strength and love of their God. Or how might God's visible presence impact the heart and mind of the old woman going out each morning to gather the manna YHWH provided for her and her family? She could gather her food, lifting her eyes to the place where her God dwelt, praising him for providing again that morning - as he had every morning.
In their sin; in their severe trials; in the mundane, ordinary things of life - Israel had a God who was with them, mighty to save. They had a God who was with them, leading them through the wilderness to their home with him. Israel had every reason to trust him, to rest in his love and care for them. Israel had every reason to walk forward in the confidence of God with them. Because they could see it was true with their own eyes.
But if Israel had every reason to trust him, you and I have more. Because something better than the Tabernacle has come. Something better than the visible presence of God in the camp has come. It was promised through the prophets even during Israel's darkest times of rebellion, when the glory of the LORD left his dwelling and his people. But even then he promised to return again to his people.
Isaiah said, "Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you."" (Isaiah 35:3-4)
Malachi wrote the word of YHWH himself, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts." (Malachi 3:1)
And in the Gospel of Jesus we hear that God has come again to be with us - and more closely than with Israel of old. Through faith in Jesus he is in our hearts in his Spirit. And he is still mighty to save.
Everything pictured here in the Exodus teaches us about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Because Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God seen in the exodus. Jesus is the better Moses, the truer Tabernacle, the perfect sacrifice for sin and the architect of our redemption. So, when God sent Jesus to put on flesh and make his tent with ours (John 1), it shouldn't surprise us that Jesus was full of the Spirit of God, just like the Tabernacle was filled with the glorious presence of God.
And that's what we see when Jesus came. At his baptism, the heavens tore open and the Spirit descended, coming to rest on Jesus and never leaving. And he himself went out into the wilderness to be tested, tempted like Israel was. Only Jesus never doubted or strayed from God as Israel did.
And after the faithful One made atonement for our sin once and for all on the cross, our resurrected Lord sent his Spirit to fill you, his Church, giving us his powerful presence with the promise, "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)
Whenever we’re afraid, whenever our circumstances tempt us to doubt or question whether God is with us, we are called to look again to Jesus in faith, trusting that God is still with us no matter what our circumstances tell us. Because Jesus is still Emmanuel – not as a baby in a manger but in the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has come to apply the salvation won by Christ to us and to lead us through this wilderness to eternal life with our God.
This is the beauty of Emmanuel and the purpose of the Incarnation of God – to deal with our sin once and for all and to lead us from death to life - "You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you." (Romans 8:9-11)
And if by faith the Spirit of Christ is with us to make us alive in Christ, then will he not be with us to lead us through this wilderness? Though he is less visible than of old he is closer to us – dwelling in our hearts – giving us hearts that believe in Christ, hearts that are learning to rest in him, hearts that are learning to trust him more and more in every circumstance.
Because when we rest in the promise of “God with us in Christ,” the Spirit himself ministers to our insecurity and anxiety, replacing them with security and confidence – not confidence in ourselves, but confidence in Christ who is still mighty to save. The Spirit comforts us in our mourning and speaks words of peace to those suffering in the misery of sin; he directs our groaning back to God and replaces hopelessness with hopeful expectation for God to save according to his purposes. The Spirit convinces us that the ordinary, mundane things of life are actually full of eternal significance so that in things great and small we might give glory to the God who cares about things great and small. The Spirit does all this by pointing us back to Christ who came to save his people, to give us life eternal with him.
The call for us is to trust in Christ, our Emmanuel, and to walk forward in this wilderness assured that God is with us; that his Spirit dwells in us through faith. And as we walk forward with our trust in Jesus, we walk resting in the truth that…
He is with you when your tears fall over those whom you miss.
He is with you when you fail for the ten thousandth time but look to Christ once again.
He is with you when you struggle in temptation, to remind you of the freedom from the guilt and power of sin he won for you by his blood.
He is with you when life is hardest - when our marriages are strained; when our marriages break; when our kids are wandering from the paths of faithfulness.
He is with us when our depression is at its darkest.
He is with us when our "performance" as a Christian doesn't measure up to his perfection.
He is with you when you're changing diapers of the young and old.
He is with you when you're sitting with someone who can't remember your name.
He is with you providing for your daily bread, though he is often behind the face of the baker or your brothers and sisters in his Church.
He is with you when it's hard to breath, hard to speak, hard to walk, hard to get out of bed.
He is with us when these bodies fail.
Because of the faithfulness of Christ, God is with us when we stand at crossroads and truly don't know which way to go. He is with us if we go the wrong way, to even turn evil to work for our good for the sake of Christ.
The Good News of Jesus tells us God is with us in this journey, leading us through this Story that is going somewhere. Because although Jesus is with us now in Spirit there will soon come a day when he is with us in the flesh once again. Jesus himself says, “Surely, I am coming soon.” (Revelation 22:20)
But until Jesus comes, making all things new – what does it look like to be a faithful people living with God’s presence?
First, we always heed the call to repent and believe the Gospel once again. This is every day and every hour for believers in Christ. This is the everyday looking up from our circumstances to enjoy the truth – that God has come to us to rescue us from sin and death and he did it through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. To help us be faithful in this way, we must take hold of what he has given to help us – the means of grace: God’s word (promises in Christ), the Sacraments (signs and confirmations of his promises), and Prayer (talking with God and making our requests known while submitting them to his will. But where we often individualize these things, the biblical picture shows us that we best use these means of grace in a context of fellowship with fellow believers.
On that context of fellowship, one writer said this – "No matter how goofy or insignificant your church may seem, fellowship in that body of believers is fellowship with God. Those serious about communing with Christ, will be diligent to share in fellowship with other Christians (Acts 2:42; Heb. 10:24-25). In more than a decade of pastoral ministry I've never met a Christian who was healthier, more mature, and more active in ministry by being apart from the church. But I have found the opposite to be invariably true. The weakest Christians are those least connected to the body. And the less involved you are, the more disconnected those following you will be. The man who attempts Christianity without the church shoots himself in the foot, shoots his children in the leg, and shoots his grandchildren in the heart." (Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Holiness, pg. 132 – writing on the implications of 1 John 1:3.)
Apart from repenting and trusting in the God who was with them, an Israelite of the exodus could not be counted as faithful even though God was with them in the camp. In the same way, we cannot be counted as faithful no matter what we do unless we repent and trust in Christ alone.
But as we repent and believe the Gospel, we hear the call to go out into the world to make disciples, to show mercy, to love one another and to love our neighbors so that they know God is with us. In this we hear that we are to follow the pattern of Jesus’ Incarnation – to empty ourselves in humility as he did when he put on flesh like ours; to serve others in love; to point them (as the Spirit does with us) back to Jesus, Emmanuel mighty to save.
How might that look in your family? In your neighborhood? As you encounter the people who live just across the street and two houses down? Could it be that a mundane meal could open the way for them to hear good news of great joy? Could it be that an everyday gesture could be used by God to lead another sinner into life with him?
The people of ancient Israel carried on their backs the proof of God's presence, carrying the parts of the brand-new Tabernacle into the wilderness. But you and I are the people on whom the end of the ages has come; on whom the light of Emmanuel has come and will soon come again. And until then we carry in these bodies the proof of God's presence - his Holy Spirit given to those who trust in Christ. Through the Gospel he convinces us that God is with us – still mighty to save. And the Spirit of Christ keeps us believing until we see him with our own two eyes.
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.