This lesson we will examine a vital idea in the life and experience of Ancient Israel, as well as the New Testament Church. But, interestingly, it is an idea that is so pervasive throughout scripture that one doesn’t necessarily find just one narrative that can capture it all. The idea is–God’s presence with his people. Jehovah, the God of Israel shows himself again and again to be a God is ‘right there.’ He’s not some far off God, abiding in the heavenly realms, distant and detached from his people. The experience of the exodus and the subsequent wilderness wanderings will have to be edited together here into a sort of highlight reel to demonstrate this vital concept.
Where is God? Where do you find him? God is everywhere, you are told, and yet you can’t see him anywhere. Sometimes it almost seems like God is playing hide & seek. He’s here and then he’s there. Someone gets a peep of him over yonder; but it’s a real brief look; a little out of focus…blurry like a not-too-clear shot of big-foot.
God appeared to Moses as a burning bush. But that’s a little ambiguous. Does God really resemble shrubbery?
God sent Moses on his behalf. And Moses objected, “people will never believe me that you sent me. If I tell them that I saw a bush on fire and that it gave me an assignment, and so I have a mission from God, they’ll lock me up thinking that I am crazy. You can’t just tell people that you have seen God, but that they can’t, so they’ll just have to trust you,” Moses insisted.
God said, “I see what you mean.”
So one of God’s first big public acts was dividing the Red Sea so that the people could get across on dry land while Pharaoh’s army guys were hot on their trails. At that time God added some special effects. In order to show the people that this wasn’t just an ordinary, run of the mill, splitting of seas, God dressed the scene up and put his special signature on it by means of a great big pillar of fire and smoke.
This is one of those things that you have to see to believe it. And I would have liked to have seen it, and not just read about it in a book. I don’t know quite how to picture it. Maybe you have to close your eyes and use your imagination a little. This thing…whatever it was…was described as a pillar; a great, big, tall cylinder…a tube like thing, like a hose or a chord connecting heaven and earth; the sky and the ground. And, on this occasion, when God was running the people through the Red Sea, this pillar was like it was made of two halves. On the one side it was burning fire. And the other side was smoke. The fire-side was facing the people of Israel and served as a night-light while they went through the dry, sea bed during the dark hours of the night. On the other side, instead of fire, the cylinder-thing was all smoky. And if you’ve ever been at a campfire or somewhere else where there was a lot of smoke, you know how smoke gets in your eyes and your face and you can’t see anything. Well that smoky side was the side of the big column that faced the Egyptians. And it helped to throw them into complete confusion during the chase because they couldn’t see well.
This pillar that had these two halves presents us with a wonderful image of God. He’s different things to different people. Or, maybe better said, God can look very differently to us depending on where we are facing him from.
Well, anyway, the pillar was, like I said, a powerful demonstration of God’s presence to the people of Israel in this very first of his big, public appearances. By public appearance I mean, God makes his presence known or felt to a whole group of people all at once. It wasn’t just a matter of one guy seeing God in a burning bush out in the desert. All of the people of Israel were made aware at once that God was there and was doing something dramatic.
It seemed to work out pretty good.
That column of God’s presence stayed with Israel all through their journeys across the wild desert. Every day the pillar was there, parked over a little tent that Moses had set up; a place where he could and would go speak privately to God. But that pillar stayed there over that tent so as to say, “We’re open”–like you see on store-fronts. During the daytime the pillar was a kind of a cloud or smoky. But then at night it would blaze like a fire; like a torch. God was saying, “We’re still open. In fact it was as though God was on duty and on call 24/7.
Then God said to himself, “I really like this idea of giving the people something visual; something that they can see to confirm to them my presence. People need something solid; something that they can touch and put their hands on.” So God got to thinking, “I should give them something big and accessible; so that everybody can get to it and enjoy it. Here with this little column of smoke and fire there is a tent for Moses and he can come in here and see me and be with me, but I’d like a more public space.”
That’s when God thought up the tabernacle. Now a tabernacle is just a fancy word for a big tent…a much bigger tent.
You know how Noah built a big boat? We call it an ark. Noah’s ark was about a thousand times as big as an ordinary boat. Maybe more. Well, in the same way, the tabernacle was like that little tent that Moses met with God in, only way bigger so that it wasn’t just Moses who could have access to God.
God had a very clear idea of what he wanted that tent to look like. He was very precise, right down to the decorating. There was nothing that God didn’t think of. And he described it all in great detail to Moses. God described what he wanted the tabernacle to look like in such excruciating detail that most people get bored reading or hearing about it. In fact, the book of Exodus ends with 16 long chapters of descriptions of the tabernacle and its furnishings.
Why was God so boring? I mean…this isn’t really riveting stuff in terms of storytelling. There’s no action; no car chases; no shoot-outs. It’s just a description of a big tent that goes on and on and on and on.
Well, it seems boring to us. But getting it exact must have been really important to God. This really meant a lot to him. And i think that it meant a lot to him because he knew that it was going to mean a lot to his people. They needed some kind of sign that God was right there with them; that he hadn’t wandered off into the wilderness or drifted up into the clouds one night when they were sleeping. God was and is a right-now and right-here kind of a God. He doesn’t want to be occasionally thought of and then forgotten about. He doesn’t want to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind.
So that big tent (the tabernacle) was one way of dealing with the problem that people easily forget that which is not kept right in front of them all of the time.
Later on there would be other problems attached to this temporary solution of God locating himself in a structure or building like a tabernacle; like people thinking that they had God cornered and could keep him trapped. Later the temporary shelter of a tent that could be picked up, folded up, carried along and put back up somewhere else was replaced by a more permanent structure. Israel would call that building the temple. That story is a ways away. But the idea remains the same. Where is God to be found? Where is he to be seen; not just by one or two or a few, but by all all at once?
As long as everybody was grouped together in a tight little crowd it wasn’t a big problem. All of the people of Israel saw that pillar of cloud and of fire. They were all standing around all in the same space. But when the people spread out; when the crowd of people got to be too big for them to all live in the same space, how could everybody see God all at once from where they were at? People could travel to the tabernacle and later to the temple. But travel takes time. And you can’t be gone too long. You’ve got to get back home to mow the grass.
Well, for right now…as the people of Israel are off together on this big camping trip; traveling together as a group, a pillar of fire and of smoke will do. And the tabernacle will do for a while, when they move into their new homes. But God keeps adjusting and readjusting how he works with people in all sorts of changed circumstances. But he wants people to know that he’s there…that he’s right here, 24/7, whether you can see him or not. Imagine something being an inch away from your nose but you don’t even see it or don’t even notice…like the air. But, for all that, it’s no less there. It’s no less real. No air…no you. If there isn’t the air, you can’t breathe and you can’t live. But how often do you think about it? How often do you really consider that the air and all of life is really this precious gift and that it could not be? What is is. And it could just as easily not be.
LIfe in the wilderness, where Israel was now about to roam for 40 years, is a wide open place. It’s dangerous. But it’s also instructive. You learn a lot being out on your own in the quiet and the solitude of silence, One of the things that you learn is that you’re not alone. But sometimes you have to sit awfully still and be awfully quiet to realize that you’re not alone.
The ongoing presence of God is enacted by the church in the sacrament of the altar. In fact, one could say that the church is defined by this enactment. This is what we do. This is who we are. It is a communal activity. The sacrament of the altar is God’s presence for all at once, together. It’s Jesus; way of saying, ‘Here I am; here among you.’ And then becoming a part of us, through metabolism, that presence remains a 24/7 sort of thing. God’s presence goes one step closer; not just standing there before you; but entering into the inner-space of your own personal identity. God sets up camp inside of you.