This Christmas I have been reflecting once again on the wonder and radical implications of Christâ€™s coming: the harbinger of the restoration and transformation of all life, the ultimate meaning of Christâ€™s â€˜tabernaclingâ€™ presence with us in the flesh. In our fretful times it is all too easy to neglect, underestimate and understate the immense reality of Emmanuel, God with us. Life without the incarnate Word is surely aimless and empty, breeding in fallen humanity both boredom and despair. Indeed, the human condition is, as Blaise Pascal so aptly described it, â€˜inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.â€™
The ironic loneliness of â€˜mass manâ€™ in our spiritually uprooted era leads to a striving for fellowship and community by a radical leveling, a revolt and emancipation from authority in a collectivized society. An unlikely and awkward cultural prophet of the modern age, the Danish melancholic, SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard predicted many changes that would occur in Western society as a result of a life without God; his solution was appealingly simple:
When the generation which in fact has sought to level everyone and everything, has wanted to be emancipated and to revolt, has wanted to demolish authority, has eliminated individualities and all that is organic and concrete and has substituted such concepts as humanity and numerical equality among men â€¦ then it will be said: â€œLook, everything is ready; look, the cruelty of these abstractions exposes the illusions of the finite; look the abyss of the infinite is opening up â€¦ look, God is waiting! Leap, then, leap into the arms of God.Kierkegaard, in Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament: A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky. (Little, Brown, 1976).
Only the presence of God in his glory, the personal manifest reality of Emmanuel, is sufficient to our troubled times and all our needs, for underneath us are the everlasting arms.
At the remarkable close of Exodus 40, when Moses had finished building the tabernacle according the to the Lordâ€™s instruction â€“ a mysterious kind of model of Eden where the first kingly priests were to rule and subdue in fellowship with God â€“ we are told that the Lord God Almighty moved in to dwell with the people and the Lordâ€™s glory filled the tent. He was now with them in that fiery glory cloud throughout their journey in the wilderness, through all the struggles, conflicts and difficulties. God resided with them fulfilling His purposes, despite their doubts, troubles and fears.
This Christmas we are again reminded that â€œThe Word became flesh and dwelt (lit. tabernacled) amongst us â€¦ and we beheld his gloryâ€ (John 1:14). Because of the incarnation, this very day, Christ is with us, living among us, manifesting His glory. Since the wonderful day of Pentecost, as the body of Christ, we Christians are the temple of the living God where His glory dwells and He fills His holy temple throughout all the nations, â€œDonâ€™t you yourselves know that you are Godâ€™s sanctuary and that the Spirit of God lives in you?â€ (1 Cor. 3:16). The living God has become tangible in the lives of those in whom His Spirit dwells, being made manifest in their kingdom life, testimony and service.
It is true of course that when the glory of God came so close and visible to the people of Israel on their sojourn, their response was not always what we might expect having had so powerful and immediate an experience of God â€“ reverence, awe and obedience. Instead, they were frequently rebellious and disobedient on their journey, despite Godâ€™s throne room being present amongst them. The same is true today, even though the Lord Jesus Christ, the glory of God and exact representation of His being, has come so close, tabernacling in the flesh and abiding with us in the person of the Holy Spirit. On the journey of His people, we see apostasy and backsliding and are easily discouraged. We are frequently surrounded by unbelief and disobedience to the gospel. More shocking still, like the older covenant people, the newer covenant people can be equally presumptuous, careless and disobedient to His Word. And just like Israel, we are faced, even in our church culture, with cowardice, compromise and unbelief. This makes for a poor witness to a despairing and lonely world.
Yet, because of the marvel of the incarnation, we cannot and must not lose heart. Moses was easily depressed by the peopleâ€™s behavior, as was the prophet Elijah, a mocked and persecuted man â€“ faithful cultural prophecy in terms of Word of God has never won popularity contests. Yet God always works with a remnant, with those who choose to stand on the Lordâ€™s side in the face of a generation in revolt against maturity and authority. As such, history has never been dominated by majorities, but only by faithful minorities who stand unconditionally upon their faith.
Whatever the tests, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for you and your family in the coming year, be mindful that we have the unfathomable privilege of beholding daily His glory with unveiled faces, being transformed from one degree of glory to another because Emmanuel, God is with us! His glory truly dwells with us as His people and so whatever battles, triumphs and suffering are in store, be assured God almighty is with us, â€œAnd if God be for us, who can be against us?â€ Let our only response to his tabernacling presence again this Christmas be awe, reverence and joyful obedience. The glory cloud must be allowed to fill our hearts and His Spirit overtake us so that when our anxious thought is exhausted, our faith sees through to the other side. As Kierkegaard confessed:
I once contemplated the possibility of not letting myself be taken over by Christianity, to do nothing else but expound and interpret it, myself not a Christian in the final and most decisive sense of the word â€¦ And only now, with the help of heavy sufferings and the bitterness of repentance, have I perhaps learned enough about dying away from the world that I can rightly speak of finding my whole life and my salvation through faith in the forgiveness of sins.Kierkegaard, in Muggeridge, A Third Testament.
As we look both behind and ahead this Christmas season, let us do so in hope, gratitude and faith in Christâ€™s forgiveness of our sins, finding joy even as we emerge from the bitterness of repentance.
Despite appearances to the contrary, Christ our glory is bringing all things into subjection to Himself, first our own hearts and then all of His creation. It has been rightly said that the story of Scripture is that of the constant victories of Godâ€™s kingdom, often cleverly disguised as defeats. The glory cloud that once covered the little tabernacle in the wilderness, which now fills our hearts and dwells among Godâ€™s kingdom people among the nations, shall one day cover the whole earth. â€œFor the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the see.â€ Take heart, the increase of the government and peace of Christ our newborn king, shall know no end!