Sermon: God with us (Exodus 40:17–21, 34–38)

Text: Exodus 40:17–21, 34–38
Midweek Vespers for the Second Week in Advent
Listen to the sermon here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

During the season of Advent, we pray and sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means “God with us.” And that is what we desire: for God to be with us, for God to come and dwell with us. But how does God dwell with us? When we talk about God’s presence, what are we referring to? Some imagine that God’s presence is made known through our feelings, or maybe a vision or dreams. Is God’s presence just a spiritual experience you have? Or, perhaps this “God with us” is not just about having warm feelings?

God Dwelt Among Israel in the Tabernacle

In the first reading, we encounter the Israelites after they were freed from Egypt, travelling in the wilderness. God gave the Israelites a blueprint for a mobile temple called the “tabernacle.” God’s glory and presence in the form of a cloud filled and covered the tabernacle. Instead of only encountering God’s presence through spiritual experiences or dreams, the Israelites had consistent access to God wherever they went. It effectively created an overlap between heaven and earth after humanity was banished from the garden.

Exodus gave detailed instructions on how to build the tabernacle. The tabernacle was set up in the middle of the camp and constructed out of the finest materials. All the embroidery and metalwork in the tabernacle depicted garden images. Entering the tabernacle was supposed to feel like entering the garden of Eden, where God and humans once lived together, where heaven and earth overlapped.

Within the tabernacle was the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant was located. The ark contained the two stone tablets, which God had given to Moses, and on it was the Mercy Seat, where the Lord came to meet with His people. God himself was present among His people as a cloud in this tabernacle. When the cloud rose above the tabernacle, the Israelites would journey. When it remained on the tabernacle, they would stay where they were. God’s presence was not somewhere else, far away in the skies or another land. They did not have to rely on dreams or visions. No, God dwelt among his people. That tabernacle was the place where heaven met earth.

They built their lives around the rituals that made God’s continued presence possible. The tabernacle brought God’s presence to the Israelites, creating some problems. Remember, the reason for the split between heaven and earth, between God and man, was our rebellion in the Garden of Eden. God’s plan to come and live among the Israelites, just like he had in the garden, had to address the problem of human sin and rebellion. So, God’s presence was accessible, but that access was limited and dangerous. Average Israelites could visit the outer court of the tabernacle. First, they had to sacrifice something, such as grain, wine, or livestock. They also went through various purity rituals. If Israelites wanted to come close to God’s presence, they had to sanctify themselves through the purification process. Being close to God was like being close to the sun. If you don’t follow the procedure, you’re going to get hurt.

Even though it was limited, this access to God was really good news to the Israelites. He dwelt among them. They were his people, and he was their God. But it doesn’t end there. God planned to bless all the nations and reunite all of heaven and earth. The tabernacle was just the beginning of God’s invasion of human space. The tabernacle was a small, pocket of heaven on earth, it symbolised God’s intention to fill the whole world with his presence.

God Dwelt Among us as a Man

Well, all that the tabernacle gave the Israelites, all that the Old Testament tabernacle foreshadowed–all of that is fulfilled in an even greater way in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the presence of God among us. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This is what the Gospel of John says: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). The word for “dwelt” here, mans “tabernacled,” “pitched his tent.” John says that in Jesus, the new tabernacle has been built, and God’s presence has returned at last. God has become flesh. Jesus literally and metaphorically tabernacled among us. Jesus “set up His tent” in our midst. Because the same Lord who dwelt in a tent made of animal, skins have taken on our human nature—flesh and blood, body and soul. The glory of the Lord dwells in human skin in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The tabernacle that Jesus descended to fill was our humanity. And He did so not just for a little while but for all eternity.

This helps to explain why Jesus said, “Destroy this temple (referring to his body), and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). Jesus was calling himself a temple; a tabernacle. He was claiming that God dwelled in him. Jesus constantly did and said things that implied that he was taking over the role of the tabernacle, like forgiving people of their sins. Usually, Israelites would sacrifice a lamb or goat at the tabernacle as a means of atonement to cover their sins. Then Jesus came along, announcing that people’s sins were forgiven simply because he said so. He is the all-atoning, all-availing sacrifice for our sins. Our guilt and our uncleanness are removed and washed away by the blood of the Lamb–Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus ended the sacrificial system by cancelling the need for sacrifice with his own sacrificial death.
That’s why Christmas is such a joyous time for us. It celebrates this very reality. Though we had separated ourselves from God and exiled ourselves from His presence through our sin, in His incarnation, Christ crossed that canyon we had created. He bridged the gap between heaven and earth and brought us back to God. Through the human nature of Christ, we have been reconciled to our heavenly Father. Heaven and earth have literally been reunited in Jesus, and now we have access to heaven by His holy blood. The human and the divine are one in Christ, and so through faith in Him, we have been made one with God. We have been restored to His holy fellowship. This is the glory of Christmas.

And Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” Our risen Lord assures us, “And lo, I am with you always–all the days, every day–to the very end of the age.” How is Christ with us now? Does he comes in feelings? Should you expect him to show up in dreams and visions? While he may occasionally act that way, there’s not where you should expect him. You should expect him in the Word and Sacraments around which He gathers a people. There, God comes to be present, there we may come into His presence, call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks. That’s the glory of the Divine Service on Sunday. Each Lord’s Day, the God incarnate, born from virgin’s womb, still comes to be with His people below. In the centuries leading up to the incarnation, God descended to His Ark; today, he descended at His Altar. Upon this altar, we confess that we don’t just receive bread and wine but also the Body and Blood of Jesus. We call this “the real presence” because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is really, truly and substantially present with the bread and the wine. Heaven and earth joined together.

Wherever God is present, there he comes to save His people: In the burning bush before which Moses stood. In the tabernacle in the wilderness. In the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the incarnation and the self-revelation of God. In the Divine Service. The One we worship is not merely a God who is above and beyond us but a God who comes to be with us and live among us. And this is all pointing forward to the grand fulfilment.

Revelation 21 describes the fulfilment of our Advent hope. A new heaven and a new earth are joined together entirely and forever. The word ‘dwell’ in verse 3 is that same word, pitched his tent, ‘tabernacled’, in our midst. Heaven and earth were joined together in Jesus; heaven and earth will one day be joined fully and forever. The Incarnate God himself will dwell, pitch his tent, among us. He will be our God, and we will be his people. No more isolation or exile from God. We will fully know the meaning of Emmanuel, God with us. The one true God who made the first creation loved it so much that he came to redeem and renew it. God himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes. That’s an act of utter gentleness. It’s not performed not by some junior heavenly official but by God himself. Rejoice, rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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