From the Garden to the City,
Trees along the way
Genesis 13:14-18, 18:1-5
(c) Copyright 2007 Rev. Bill Versteeg
Brothers and sisters in
The Great Trees of Mamre witnessed the presence of God. This morning we want to survey that profound theme as we witness the evolution of the presence of God from the Garden to the city in scripture.
You will remember that in the Garden of Eden, God was present with Adam and Eve, walking with them in the cool of the Garden. God talked with them, had conversations with them. There is a reason why many of us like a quiet walk in the forest. We sense in our spirits that this is a place of tranquility, peace, a place where God has walked. God, in revealing to us his power and glory through creation gives us a sense of his presence in creation.
But when Adam and Eve fell into sin, they were removed from the Garden of Eden, removed from the presence of God and especially the tree of life. And the removal was because of sin. Isaiah, the one who witnessed the angels crying out “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty” came to understand that the reason for separation from God was because of sin. The Lord says in Isaiah 59:2
Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.
The profound incompatibility between a holy God and an unholy people becomes the relational problem of scripture to be solved. How can God walk with his people if there are such significant differences and problems between them? As Amos (3:3) in God’s law suit against Israel says 3 Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so? How is this resolved? In Genesis 3:15 we get a hint of an answer - the Lord says: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” But to Adam and Eve, that statement was certainly a mystery. Separated from God because of sin, they live out their lives experiencing the pain and the toil of the curse. How will this problem with the incompatibility of a Holy God and a sinful Human Race be resolved? How can God become present to us again?
Well, first we find Abraham - in the passages we read, God became present too him. And we must ask - how can this be? If sin was already the big problem, how could Abraham and God be present to each other? The answer has to do with Faith. Abraham was a man who believed God’s promises and scriptures in Genesis 15:6 tell us that this belief, this faith, became something by which righteousness was credited to Abraham. Paul has an extensive discussion of what this means in Romans 4, and James 2:23 points out that it was because he believed that not only righteousness was credited to Abraham, he was also a friend of God. God was present to him because Abraham was gifted with a righteousness that made them friends.
Just because Abraham was righteous does not mean his family was filled with faith. If you know the story of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, you know that he was a sneaky deceptive young man who learned to trust the Lord only in the very difficult school of hard knocks. For Jacob, God is almost always far away.
By the time we get to Moses and the Mosaic covenant, we discover that God is being very separate from his often rebellious and often idolatrous people. And so part of the Mosaic covenant included the building of the tabernacle which in a certain sense was an insulator between God and his people. It has been said that “Good fences make good neighbours.” That was the truth of the tabernacle. The presence of God was a limited presence - behind a fence - the walls of the tabernacle deep inside the Holy of Holies on the ARK of the covenant. We know that once a year the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of sacrifice on the altar. Tradition has it that in time the High priest would go into the Holy of Holies dragging a rope around his ankle just in case he had some sin that was not atoned for and the glory and presence of the Lord struck him dead. At least with a rope around his ankle, someone could drag him out.
Now I mentioned glory and presence in the same sentence. There is a reason for that. When Moses had finished the tabernacle and fulfilled all the covenant requirements in preparing it, according to Exodus 40:34 the Glory of the Lord descended onto the tabernacle in the form of a cloud of fire and smoke. That glory was the presence of the Lord, able to be among his sinful people because the insulator, the fence between him and his people had been properly built. It was this same glorious fire and smoke that arose and led them through the desert in their wilderness wanderings, but all the time he kept himself apart from his people.
Now I could talk about the Ark and what happened to it because in a very real sense it represents the presence, power and authority of the Lord. But to make a long story short, when Solomon made the temple, the temple also was designed as a great fence to separate God from his people in such a way that he could be with them. And like on the tabernacle, the glory of the Lord, the presence of the Lord descended onto the tabernacle in glory. Again, you remember the history of Israel. The Kings became unfaithful. The priests became unfaithful. Many of the prophets started prophesying lies. The faithful and true prophets we have recorded in scripture and they were persecuted and killed. In time the temple was destroyed, the ark of the covenant symbolizing the presence of the Lord taken away and we have no knowledge of where it went. In short, God, because of sin was thoroughly separated from his people. With a small exception. The teaching of Jeremiah was that the Lord went with his people into exile. But for the rest, it is unknown.
We come to the new testament. The time between Malachi and Matthew has been 430 years of political intrigue and domination by foreign powers. The faithful in Israel long for the God that has disappeared from them. And then in Bethlehem a baby is born. And the angels tell Mary that this one born to her will be called Immanuel - which means God with us - God present with us, God near to us, God come in human form to walk with us. Suddenly there are no fences, no great temples to divide the divine from the sinful, the Holy for the fallen. Just flesh, a baby, the presence of God among his people.
King Herod was in the process of building a great temple - a structure that might come close to Solomon’s temple, an astute political move to appease troublesome Jews. But Jesus with his disciples looks at the temple in John 2:19 and he says “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” His statement to those who heard it was offensive because they believed that temple was the evidence of the presence of God among them even though it did not contain the Ark of the Covenant, even though there was nothing in the Holy of Holies. Jesus was referring to the presence of God, but he was referring to the presence of God in his body that would be destroy but then in three days, it would arise again.
The presence of God had come to
walk among people. John says in John 1: 14
John is clearly painting the picture that Jesus was the presence of God among his people in all of his glory. Now the scriptures get very interesting, especially in John 17. Listen to these words from Jesus High priestly prayer.
My prayer is not for them
alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their
message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me
and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe
that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me,
that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May
they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent
me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
What an interesting sentence. Jesus
says that he has given to those who believe in him the glory of God.
Jesus is referring to that very glory that came down on the tabernacle
and the temple, Jesus is referring to the glorious presence of God. And
he has given not to just a few of us, he has given it to us not just
individuals, he has given it to us as the community of faith.
Now I can go further - because we
discover in the scriptures that with them coming of Pentecost, there
were flames licking on the heads of the disciples, distributed among
them - the flame of the glory of God the presence of God. The community
of those who put their faith in Christ had become the temple in which
the Lord himself is present through the power of the Holy Spirit. And
so when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7
We together are the body of Christ, we together are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Now that has some profound implications.
It has been asked again and again - can a person be a Christian without being part of the church? Paul is telling us that the presence of God comes to the community of faith, a group of people who together come to celebrate God’s promises. We were never designed to survive as Christians apart from the community. Wherever two or three are gathered... the Lord is present.
For the world to be touched by the presence of God, they have to be met by the church. Sin still separates. But where sin is atoned for by the blood of Jesus, there God is present. The only way that the world is going to experience the presence of God is through the church being in the world, at work, in politics, in business, in school, in art, in the sciences, in history.
And what we do in the privacy of our lives is what affects the whole body. We are called to be people who honour God with our body - that God is present among us to forgive, to heal and to restore us into the blessings of Abraham.
You see, ultimately, it is the blessing of Abraham that this is all about, the blessing of being visited by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 3 makes it so very clear that we receive the presence of the Lord in only one way - (Slide 18) like our Father Abraham, by faith we receive the presence of God through the Spirit, by faith we are joined to Jesus and the promise is to us and our children. Acts 2
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.
From a God who visits to a God who is separate to a God who dwells within us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of the Gospel. This is the promise of new life that can be lived today, eternal life experienced today, the true knowledge and leadership of God in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit today. To be a Christian who denies the reality of the Holy Spirit is to deny that God is present with us today.
Let me bring to a conclusion this them with the conclusion of Scripture in Revelation 21
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The amazing truth about this
passage is that God wants to be with us. He earnestly desires to be in
our presence pouring out on us the blessings and the gifts of the Holy
Spirit. He longs to be completely with his people. There is no flaw in
his desire, he is faithful to his covenant with Abraham. We
have been made righteous by Christ. Now he desires our company, no
fences, no big curtains, no big walls. And it is all by faith in Jesus.
That is as simple as it is. There is no works you have to do. There is
no dance that needs to be accomplished. Just by faith in Jesus and the
presence of God is restored to us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
the Garden to the City - Trees Along the Way
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.