My guess is most people, regardless of their religious background, are familiar with the exodus story. (A quick recap if you don’t mind…) After centuries of growing into a nation in Egypt, Israel faced the threat of a new Pharaoh who felt no allegiance to the memory of the once national hero Joseph or his people after him. In an effort to regain control over these foreigners living within his borders, Pharaoh instilled harsh policy meant to drastically reduce their numbers. Slavery followed by genocide. This was not God’s dream. Greatly concerned for his people, God called a reluctant rescuer, a runaway shepherd by the name of Moses to go back to his former stomping ground and demand the release of God’s people. Upon first encounter, Pharaoh refused, citing that he has no knowledge or loyalty to this “God” for whom Moses speaks. God himself then introduced himself to Pharaoh ten times, the last of which caused Pharaoh to command Moses to take his people and leave Egypt at once. God had done it – he had rescued his people from their oppression and misery.
But this was just the beginning.
God’s desire was to lead the Israelites from dwelling in the slavery of Egypt to dwelling in the freedom of a new promised land. The point, however, wasn’t just to get them out of Egypt (though we cannot overlook the importance of this event). The point of their rescue was to take this nation that was now as numerous as the stars in the sky (God’s promise to Abraham), and bless them and then use them to bless the whole world. God would use Israel to put himself on display for all the nations to see, drawing them to Israel which in turn, would draw them to himself. Israel’s journey out of Egypt took them to Mount Sinai, where God would formally enter into a covenant with his rescued nation, teaching them what it means to live as his people so that they might put God on display (Mount Sinai gives us the important context for the Ten Commandments, rather than just an arbitrary list of rules to follow). It is on this mountain that God himself exchanged vows with Israel and enters into a marriage of sorts (this groom/bride language continues throughout the rest of the Bible).
But again, this was just the beginning.
The next several chapters of Exodus contain the details of the covenant and it can get pretty thick (and probably is where many readers might feel inclined to skip ahead a bit). But don’t miss this – after showing Israel in great detail what he expects from his people, he instructs them to collect offerings from among the people. The purpose? Then have them make a sanctuary (a sacred space) for me, and I will dwell among them. The God who is everywhere present…the God who stretched out the heavens and set the world into motion…this God, in some mysterious and yet very tangible way, was moving in! He was coming down.
God wanted to dwell among his people.
As Moses completed the final step of the tabernacle (a portable dwelling that would travel with the Israelites in the desert), something amazing happened. A cloud covered over the camp and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Just as promised, God moved into the neighborhood! The question for Israel now was “How do we live with God as our neighbor?”
Over the next several centuries, God would dwell among his people in a very real way. Despite repeated rebellion and disobedience, God continued to make his presence personally known to Israel. Later, King David desired to transform the temporary tabernacle into a permanent dwelling place for God, but this privilege would belong to David’s son, Solomon. After the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, Israel gathered for a dedication service. At that service, the very presence and glory of God filled the temple. Once again, God was moving into the neighborhood so that he might dwell among his people.
Unfortunately, the story of Israel from this point on is quite tragic. Sure, there were some bright spots (think Josiah and Hezekiah), but there were many more dark days ahead for Israel. Wicked kings took the throne who had no concern for putting God on display or living according to his instructions. At one point, things get so bad that the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the temple in Jerusalem where God himself takes the prophet on a tour to see how the temple had become a home for all sorts of idol worship…the very same temple Solomon had built so that God could dwell among his people! God warned Ezekiel about what he saw, saying that these utterly detestable things are going to drive me from my sanctuary. These were not empty words – God actually moves out. The glory of the Lord leaves the temple in Jerusalem. God no longer dwelled among his people. And soon enough, the nation itself is exiled from the land. But even in the midst of judgment, God promised through the prophets that one day their exile would end and they would return to the land.
Even more important though, God promised that one day, he himself would return.
The Old Testament story of Israel ends with God keeping his promise to Israel- many exiles return to the land after three-quarters of a century away. The returning Israelites even rebuild the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. However, when I search the account in the book of Ezra, I cannot find anything about God dwelling in that temple. It seems that, despite their efforts, God does not move back in (don’t confuse this with him being distant- it does still say he was working and filled them with joy). So the question for the returning exiles is this:
When will God dwell with us again?
They will wait a long time for an answer to this question. Four hundred years in fact. Four hundred years of silence. Four hundred years of waiting.
And then the silence breaks.
The Gospel writer John poetically penned these words –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Now this is a little lost on us because John was doing something very significant here to connect with his Greek audience, but John refers to Jesus as the “Word”…the eternal Word that came from God but at the same time was God. What John says next about this “Word” is absolutely incredible. The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us.” (The phrase “made his dwelling” is literally the verb form of the word “tabernacle”.) In other words…
God took on flesh, and pitched a tent among us.
God was moving back into the neighborhood(!), but this time not in a tabernacle in the desert or a temple in Jerusalem. Rather, God made his dwelling among us in Jesus. As the apostle Paul would later write, God was pleased for his fullness to dwell in Jesus. And just as God’s glory filled the tabernacle and later the temple, John continues saying, we have seen his glory!
So as you consider the birth of Christ this Christmas, it would be my sincerest hope that you would also consider this story God has been telling in history (and is still telling). That, as we consider the manger, we would also consider that…
Jesus is the living picture of God continually moving toward rather than away.
Jesus is the living picture of a God who has been pursuing his wayward people throughout history, determined to be with us regardless of the cost to himself (read how Paul finishes his sentence above to see this in action).
Jesus is truly the picture of Immanuel – God with us.
In Jesus, God has made his dwelling among us!