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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

People of the Presence

Hamish and I are trying to get into a bit of a rhythm of reading two psalms a day, one in the evening and one in the morning. Yesterday's evening psalm was 114, which completely stopped me in my tracks. It's one of those all-too-easy-to-skip-over psalms: neither ridiculously long (like 119) or surprisingly short (117), not usually read at weddings of funerals and about Israel's history and therefore slightly harder to do any kind of generic immediate application with. But it is an absolute gem.

When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.

The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams,
the hills like lambs.

Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.

The Israelites were awed to have the presence of God in their midst. And yet, for them, that presence was untouchable: a huge, towering pillar of fire guiding their way (Exodus 13:21) initially and then, later, once the temple was completed, that presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies. A place of awful beauty and fear. A place where no one dare to tread, where only the high priest was allowed once a year and never without blood. (Hebrews 7:9) To look upon the face of God was to die (Exodus 33:20). To be in the presence of the living God was an unthinkable and terrifying privilege. (Isaiah 6:5)

How utterly incredible then, how almost blasphemous, would it have seemed to the disciples when Jesus told them that the presence of the living God was no longer going to dwell in a temple, but inside their very hearts? That they, and the generations after them, would be those to fulfil the prophecy of Ezekiel and be given a new heart that was able to host the Spirit of God. (Ezekiel 36:26)

"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them...Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." John 14:15-23

We are too quick to judge the dullness of the disciples; we join in with Jesus when he rebukes them for their lack of faith and yet surely these words from Jesus would have been entirely unpalatable to them. How could the Spirit of the living God possibly dwell inside them? Such a thing would have seemed unattainable. God did not dwell within dirty vessels. God's perfect holiness could not come into contact with the frailty of fallen humanity. 

We are of a generation that has forgotten the awesome, sacredness of this truth: we are the people of the presence. Moses was so dependant on the presence of God that he would not move without being absolutely sure that God would go with him: Do not bring us up from this place without your presence? What else will distinguish us from the peoples of the world? (Exodus 33:15-16) For Moses, he spoke of the cloud; he spoke of the fiery pillar. For us we know that God will go with us because His Spirit dwells inside us. Where we go, we take the presence with us. 

This is radical. Beautiful. Compelling. And yet terrifying. We are those who host the presence of the living God. This should make all the difference in the world. How is it possible that we so easily forget the truth of God with us? God in us? Jesus followers should be the most distinctive, most scintillating people on the planet. We should be distinct. But all too often we forget to communicate with the Spirit within us. We ignore Him. We forget about him in the midst of everyday life. We grieve him by our failure to ask his opinion. If Jesus could only do what he saw his Father doing as it was revealed to him by the Spirit (John 5:19) then surely we must ask the Spirit the same questions. Holy Spirit, what is my Father doing right now? What can I join in with? 

O God and Father, I repent of my sinful preoccupation with visible things. The world has been too much with me. Thou hast been here and I knew it not. I have been blind to thy Presence. Open my eyes that I may behold Thee in and around me. For Christ's sake, Amen. (A.W. Tozer, 'The Pursuit of God.')

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