Exodus 40:16-38 – No Matter Where We Go, God Is with Us

Israel Encamped Roundabout the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai
John W. Kelchner (1866-1942)

Moses followed the Lord’s instructions. And on the first day of the first month of the second year, the sacred tent was set up. The posts, stands, and framework were put in place, then the two layers of coverings were hung over them. The stones with the Ten Commandments written on them were stored in the sacred chest, the place of mercy was put on top of it, and the carrying poles were attached. The chest was brought into the tent and set behind the curtain in the most holy place. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The table for the sacred bread was put along the north wall of the holy place, after which the bread was set on the table. The lampstand was put along the south wall,then the lamps were attached to it there in the presence of the Lord. The gold incense altar was set up in front of the curtain, and sweet-smelling incense was burned on it. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The curtain was hung at the entrance to the sacred tent. Then the altar for offering sacrifices was put in front of the tent, and animal sacrifices and gifts of grain were offered there. The large bronze bowl was placed between the altar and the entrance to the tent. It was filled with water, then Moses and Aaron, together with Aaron’s sons, washed their hands and feet. In fact, they washed each time before entering the tent or offering sacrifices at the altar. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Finally, Moses had the curtains hung around the courtyard and at the entrance.

Suddenly the sacred tent was covered by a thick cloud and filled with the glory of the Lord. And so, Moses could not enter the tent. Whenever the cloud moved from the tent, the people would break camp and follow; then they would set up camp and stay there, until it moved again. No matter where the people traveled, the Lord was with them. Each day his cloud was over the tent, and each night a fire could be seen in the cloud. (Contemporary English Version)

There is no place we can go where God is not.

The presence of God is an overarching theme, not only of the book of Exodus, but of the entire Bible.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and formed man and woman as the apex of divine creative work. Humans alone bear the stamp of God’s image and likeness. People were created to be with God. 

Sadly, however, humanity took their own path, apart from God, and fell into the suffering of guilt, shame, and misplaced love. 

“No one can hide so that I can’t see him,” declares the Lord.
“I fill heaven and earth!” declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:24, GW

Ever since the fall of humanity from their majestic position with the Lord, God has been on a determined, yet patient, mission to restore, reconcile, and reclaim lost humanity so that they can be together again. The Lord longs for people to find their way back to the peace and rest of the garden.

God chose Abraham and set apart his descendants, the Hebrews, to be a people and a kingdom of priests, to reverse the curse. 

The Lord chose Moses to free the people from bondage, giving them laws and commandments to communicate that the divine presence is among them. For the ancient Hebrews, God was like a pillar of cloud, a sentinel watching over them. 

Eventually, in the fullness of time, when it was ripe for the promised Savior to come, God sent the Son, the Lord Jesus, the “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”

Jesus lived a holy life, died a cruel death on our behalf to atone for all guilt and shame. Christ rose from death so that people might experience new life and once again connect with God and enjoy the divine presence forever. The Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, and now watches over us, interceding on our behalf. 

And that’s not all; until Christ comes again to this earth, to judge the living and the dead, God’s Holy Spirit has been sent to be the continuing presence of Jesus for this present time. The Spirit is with God’s people, always.

There is no place you can go where the Spirit of God is not already there.

It just doesn’t matter where we are located geographically; it doesn’t matter if we screw up; and doesn’t matter what kind of situation we find ourselves in. The truth of the matter is this: God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. 

God’s eyes are on human ways,
   and he sees all their steps.

Job 34:21, CEB

There are no guarantees in this life that things will turn out well, or that everything will go our way, just because we are believers. In fact, we are promised the opposite – that there will be suffering and hardship. Yet, what makes all the difference for the believer, is that we have the abiding presence of God with us.

The Lord has gone to the greatest lengths possible to make relational connection happen. And it is the persistent and pervasive presence of God that enables God’s people to face and endure all things with faith and confidence.

No matter where we travel, God is with us.

Ever-present God, your grace and mercy overwhelm the universe. Thank you for your constant and abiding love, even in the midst of hate and violence. Enable me to always live in awareness of this reality so that my life might confidently follow you anytime and anywhere; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas Day

Ethiopian Orthodox Church icon of the Nativity

Merry Christmas! Christ is born! Joy to the world!

On this glorious day for Christians everywhere, the following are the lectionary readings for today. I suggest reading them aloud – with flavor – alongside your family and friends. May you find in the Christ child newfound hope and enduring encouragement.

Old Testament lesson: Isaiah 62:6-12

Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
    I have appointed sentinels.
Continually, all day and all night,
    they won’t keep silent.
You who call on the Lord, don’t rest,
    and don’t allow God to rest
    until he establishes Jerusalem,
    and makes it the praise of the earth.
The Lord has promised
    with raised hand and strong arm:
    I will never again give your grain
    as food for your enemies.
    Foreigners won’t drink your wine
    for which you labored.
Those who harvest will eat it
    and will praise the Lord;
    those who gather will drink it
    in my holy courtyards.

Pass through, pass through the gates;
    prepare the way for the people!
Build, build the road;
    clear away the stones!
    Raise up a signal for the peoples.
This is what the Lord announced
    to the earth’s distant regions:
Say to Daughter Zion, “Look! Your deliverer arrives,
    bringing reward and payment!”
They will be called The Holy People,
    Redeemed By the Lord.
And you will be called Sought After—
    A City That Is Not Abandoned. (Common English Bible)

Psalm lesson: Psalm 97

The Lord rules! Let the earth rejoice!
    Let all the islands celebrate!
Clouds and thick darkness surround God.
    His throne is built on righteousness and justice.
Fire proceeds before him,
    burning up his enemies on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
    the earth sees it and trembles!
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of the whole world!

Heaven has proclaimed God’s righteousness,
    and all nations have seen his glory.
All those who worship images,
    those who are proud of idols,
    are put to shame.
    All gods bow down to the Lord!
Zion has heard and celebrates,
    the towns of Judah rejoice,
    because of your acts of justice, Lord,
    because you, Lord, are the Most High
        over all the earth,
    because you are so superior to all other gods.

Those of you who love the Lord, hate evil!
    God guards the lives of his faithful ones,
    delivering them from the power of the wicked.
Light is planted like seed for the righteous person;
    joy too for those whose heart is right.
Rejoice in the Lord, righteous ones!
    Give thanks to his holy name! (Common English Bible)

Nativity by Chinese artist He Qi, 1998

New Testament lesson: Titus 3:4-7

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life. (Contemporary English Version)

Gospel lesson: Luke 2:8-20

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (New King James Version)

May the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise, the obedience of Joseph and Mary, and the peace of the Christ child be yours this Christmas. And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

All Saints Day

All Saints Day by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911

In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect or broken people and transforming their lives. On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us. This day is meant to be a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is much more than a focus on extraordinary persons; it highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith. We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected.

Remembering is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture. Over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant with people and redemptive actions on their behalf; to remember the needy and those less fortunate; and, to remember the significant persons who influenced us in our journey of faith.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis: “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in my home for a week and helped me do a searing examination of my wife. I will always remember his words: ‘You are momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or you can embrace this pain and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your heart during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’”

We truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith and patience. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith when we remember them and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Today is an intentional day of remembrance. We remember answered prayer and salvation. We recollect the people who gave us the life-giving gospel message in both word and deed. We remember the death of Christ and recall that he said he is coming back.

All Saints Day by Kandinsky, 1913

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter did for a church which needed to recall and remember the mighty acts of God:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

Our memories are accessed through symbols and with taste and sight. God uses symbols as a means of revelation. For example, when the Lord wanted to demonstrate the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told the Israelites to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. Yet, the worshiper never walked away from the experience scratching his head and wondering what it was all about because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

Symbols have the power to access other parts of our being in knowing God. We are more than thinking beings; we are also emotional and sensory creatures. We need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. Every year faithful Jews gather to remember and re-enact the Passover – the story of how they were enslaved in Egypt, oppressed by Pharaoh, and set free by God. To this day pious Jews still remember the Passover by eating and drinking together and telling stories.

We need both words and sacraments. Therefore, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of kindness and gratitude in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of care and redemption. Jesus told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words. 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you” (Luke 22:7-20). Rather than analyzing the bread and discussing the wine’s vintage, the disciples simply ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink. They also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

God is good, all the time; and, all the time, God is good. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is present with us through our ritual of fellowship and food. When the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin was asked how Jesus is present to us at the Lord’s Supper he explained, “Now if anyone asks me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either the mind to comprehend or my words to declare….  I rather experience it than understand it.”

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are historical events which happened and are forgotten. Then, there are past actions which linger with continual results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continue to exert powerful force into the here and now.

Saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Believers are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ until he comes again. So, let us respond to God’s wooing invitation to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through faith, hope, and love. For God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help.

Genesis 31:22-42 – On the Run

Jacob and Laban by Nicola Grassi
Jacob and Laban by Italian painter Nicola Grassi (1682-1748)

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrel and harp? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.

So, Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.

Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So, he searched but could not find the household gods.

Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine and let them judge between the two of us.

“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” (NIV)

Jacob’s in-law issues did not magically disappear when he sneaked out of town with his entire family. I am glad God is faithful and acts on our behalf even when we are fearful with little faith. Far too often we do the right thing in the wrong way. It is far too easy to run away from people we don’t like. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Sometimes we plain need divine intervention to deal with people in our lives.

To Jacob’s credit, he obeyed God and headed back to the land of Canaan. However, he did it in a deceitful way which avoided confrontation. Out of fear of facing his father-in-law Laban and the worry of what might happen, Jacob got out of Dodge. It seems Jacob’s wife Rachel also acted out of fear by taking her father’s idols. Fear can cause us to have some skewed ideas and do some stupid things which get us in trouble.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” –Jerry Seinfeld

Laban found out what was going on with Jacob and was anything but a happy camper. He went after the upstart Jacob with gusto and finally caught up to him. Despite having the power and ability to deal severely with Jacob, Laban backs off because Jacob finally found his voice and took his father-in-law to task. Embedded in Jacob’s rehearsal of their relationship is the God who intervened and took care of Jacob when Laban didn’t.

Jacob Confront Laban by Jan Steen, 1669
Jacob Confronts Laban by Dutch painter Jan Steen, 1669

The lengthy dialogue between Jacob and Laban was a power struggle: Laban wanted to keep the status quo authority as family head over Jacob’s family; but Jacob asserted himself as having his own distinct household.  In the end, they ended-up on equal footing because of God’s intervention.  Whereas Laban had his own intentions for Jacob and his family, God had other plans.  It was God who enriched Jacob with a wealth of flocks and herds, even as he was being oppressed and intimidated by Laban.

The same God, who was with Jacob, is with you and me:

  • God is with us through difficulty, oppression, and injustice.

Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20, CEB)

  • God does not give up on his people. We Christians are often living contradictions, like Jacob, who acknowledge God and give him glory but at the same time act out of fear and insecurity. Out of the compost of human sin, the sovereign God accomplishes his will.

Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us… while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:6, 8, ERV)

  • God cares both about what we do, and about why and how we do it. Ethics is the difference between morality and legality; and, between what I ought to do, and what is required of me. Jacob did what was demanded of him by God; yet, he did it out of fear along with unwise methods.

Anything that is not done in faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b, GW)

  • God’s intervention is needed. Without divine help, we are hopelessly lost. Furthermore, we continue to need God so we can deal with the unpredictable attempts of others to control us and push us into a mold outside of trusting in God.

Give all your worries to God because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NCV)

  • God instills confidence in us. After twenty hard years of service, Jacob returned to the land of Canaan prosperous and more confident in God than ever. Jacob’s trials with Laban gave him a growing sense of dependence on God. Jacob struggled, suffered, and endured – and came out the stronger for it.

You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4, NRSV)

God loves us enough to not always give us an easy out because he is concerned for our walk of faith and our education in grace. So, may you discover the intervening God and exercise trust through those times when others give you a hard time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.  –The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951