Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Presence of the Lord

We’re going to go back to Genesis 4 to look at what might seem to be, at first glance, a throwaway sentence, something that isn’t all that important. But, as I think you realize, there are no throwaway sentences in the Bible. The point that I want to make is going to be about worshiping and enjoying God. But it will take me a little time to get there.

Here’s the sentence that I’m thinking about.

Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Genesis 4.16

So, what is so interesting about this sentence? There is an assumption here that is actually quite significance: the presence of the Lord is located in a place. And we know this because Cain was moving away from the presence of the Lord. He went away from it when he moved to the east, to the land of Nod. So, Cain could have said, ‘I am here, but the presence of the Lord is not here. He’s over there’. The presence of the Lord is located in a place.

Now, some of you might be thinking, ‘But how can that be? What about the Bible’s teaching that God is omnipresent, present everywhere?’ One example of that is Psalm 139.

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? ​If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! [That’s high and low.] If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. [That’s east and west.]

David is pretty clear here. God is everywhere. So, what do we do with our verse in Genesis that teaches that God is present in one particular place? We can’t just ignore it. We know that all the verses in the Bible fit together. Part of wisdom is understanding how. Here’s what I’ve learned. There is a sense in which we can say that God is present everywhere, and there is a sense in which we can say that He is present in one place.

Another psalmist understood. From Psalm 42:

As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. ​My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?

The psalmist is longing for what he used to experience. (Read the rest of the Psalm) He is longing to be in the presence of God. He yearns to appear before God in that place where He resides. With Cain, the psalmist could also have said, ‘God is not here. He’s over there.’ And then add, ‘And I want to be over there with Him.’

But please note that this psalmist also says this.

My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.

Who’s this ‘you’? Who’s he talking to? He’s talking to God. He’s praying. So, in some other sense God is where he is so that He can hear the psalmist’s prayers.

And this is why I say: There is a sense in which we can say that God is present everywhere, and there is a sense in which we can say that He is present in one place.

Consider the Garden of Eden. What was the big deal about that? It wasn’t that there were pretty trees and friendly animals there. The big deal was that God’s special presence was there. And that’s why being exiled from the Garden was so terrible for Adam and Eve. They were being excommunicated from God’s special presence even while, in that other sense, God was present everywhere.

This explains the Tabernacle that God commanded Moses to build in the desert. Without going into detail let me just say that the Tabernacle was a picture of the Garden. And in the heart of the Tabernacle was the special presence of God, the Ark of the Covenant. If you were to ask an Israelite back then where God was he’d point to the Tabernacle. That was where the special presence of God resided.

This is quite clear when we get to the Temple. Listen to how the Psalms call the people of God to worship Him there.

Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! … Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!

The psalmist is referring to the gates and courts of the Temple.

And did you ever wonder why Daniel, who lived in Babylon, prayed with his windows open to Jerusalem? It was the place of God’s special presence.

The special presence of God resided in a place. And, sadly, throughout the centuries, there have been those who, like Cain, have moved away from that presence. 

Now, let’s fast forward to today. Has anything changed? For thousands of years, up to and including Jesus’ ministry, God made clear to His people that His special presence was located in a place. Does He now want that idea to be washed away and forgotten? That makes no sense. Starting in the days of Adam and Eve, God began to erect a building from the foundation up. It had some scaffolding that was only temporary, but now that Jesus has come the building remains and more is being added to it. Jesus did not start from scratch. The theme about God’s presence which is part of that building continues today.

We have more than just the pattern of the books of Moses and the Psalms that I have laid out to you. Here is something from the book of Hebrews that assumes this pattern for today. Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our High Priest.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. ... Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, [that’s God’s throne, His special presence] that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Nothing has changed. In Moses’ day there was a high priest who entered into the place of God’s special presence. In our day we have Jesus, our great high priest, who does the same. In Moses’ day the high priest acted as the mediator between God and His people. Jesus does the same for us today. In Moses’ day the high priest did this so that the people could enter into God’s special presence through him. In our day, Jesus does the very same thing. In Moses’ day the high priest did all this not so that the people could enter that presence individually, but as a group, as the people of God together. Today, Jesus does the same thing. In fact, that is exactly what He is doing now as we together, through Him, have entered the special presence of God to worship Him. Nothing has changed.

We have heard the call to worship in those Psalms.

Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! … Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! … Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise!

We have heard that call and have entered into His presence through Christ our Lord.

Why is this important? I want you to understand what our worship together is about. Each Sunday we enter the special presence of God through Jesus so that we might worship Him.

This really makes a difference in a multitude of ways. I’m going to mention just three.

First, no one who meets with the one, true and living God remains the same after that. So, imagine some Sunday you come to church to enter the presence of God so that, with the others here, you can worship Him. But the hymns aren’t that familiar to you, the sermon doesn’t make that much sense, you have a head cold and there is a fussy baby behind you crying for most of the service. And yet, you have met with God. And so, He blesses you. Church word alert! Let’s translate. God sees that you have come to meet with Him and so He acts to change you for the better. Nothing made sense during the service. You didn’t learned a thing. And your sick body ached through it all. And yet, no one who meets with the one, true and living God remains the same after that. I hope that most Sundays aren’t that bad for you. But even if they are, coming here to meet with God will change you. So, come to church to meet with God, to worship Him and to be changed by Him as a result.

Second, if we are really meeting with God then there is a way to do that. Those Psalms that I read to you called us to come to God with gladness, with joy, with singing and thanksgiving. Why? Not because we sing favorite hymns or because we hope that the sermon will be especially enlightening or anything like that. We come in those ways because we are meeting with our God! Imagine a husband away for a week on some business trip. He and his wife talk on the phone each evening during the week. But when he shows up at home the hug lasts a little longer and the kiss is a little sweeter. They haven’t seen each other for a week. We come with gladness and joy and singing and thanksgiving because it’s been a week since we’ve met with God in the place of His special presence. That’s the pleasure of Sunday worship.

There’s more about the way that we worship God. From Hebrews.

… let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.

We come with joy and gladness and all the rest. But we also come with a sense of reverence and awe. Our God is our loving Father and dearest friend. But He is also a consuming fire. He is the God whom we are to honor and fear. And it isn’t coming either in joy or in reverence. It’s always both. 

Here’s the third difference this makes. At the end of the service you don’t ask yourself, ‘Did I enjoy that?’ or ‘Did I get anything out of that?’ Rather, you say, ‘I just met with God. I worshiped Him as He deserves, and He blessed me as a result. It has been good for me to be in the house of the Lord.’ And if you also enjoyed the songs and the sermon and all the rest, well, that’s a bonus.

Let me tie this all up with this one last thought. Consider your God. We’re back to that question, ‘What is God like?’ He could have come in Jesus, provided salvation and upon leaving, tossed a book to you, saying, ‘I’ll see you after you die. Have a good life.’ But instead, each week He creates a situation where we can meet with Him to enjoy His presence, to tell Him that we love Him and to hear Him say the same to us. And at the end of our time with Him He sends us off with a kiss of blessing so that we can, in fact, have a good life. Consider your God and enjoy Him.

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