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23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Vicar Kaleb Yaeger
God Comes in Clouds and Glory
Where’s God? It’s a good question. It’s the kind of question a child would ask, along with “What’s that?” “What are you doing?” and “Why?” There’s a few different ways you could answer this question too. One answer might be “God’s in heaven.” That’s true, God is certainly in heaven, reigning over the world from His eternal throne. Another answer might be “God is everywhere” Which is also true. It’s a function of God’s divinity, His omnipresence, that He is everywhere. He’s in the middle of the ocean, He’s on the road, He’s in the house, He’s here with us right now. Both of these answers are true.
But there’s another way to answer this question. To do that, we have to go back. Back to the beginning. Ask Adam and Eve “Where’s God?” and they will tell you that He’s walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Fast forward just a few years, ask Moses and the answer changes depending on when you ask him.
Early on if you ask Moses where God is, he would have told you that God is in the burning bush. When God said “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” Ask Moses and the people of Israel a bit later where God is and they will tell you that God is in the plagues with mighty power, that He turned the Nile to blood, brought locusts and hail upon the land, and death to the firstborn of the Egyptians, but not to the land of the Israelites. Ask them during the Exodus and they will tell you “Well, He’s right over there, in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, leading us through the wilderness and to the Red Sea.
When the Egyptian armies came against the Israelites, they would point and say “There’s God. He’s between the Egyptian armies and us, protecting us while we cross the Red Sea on dry ground.” The pillar of cloud and fire had become a wall, protecting the people of Israel from the Egyptian armies. God fought on behalf of His people.
Ask the people of Israel a bit later, when they had crossed the Red Sea, after God had thrown the Egyptians into the water and drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh in the sea, and they would point with a trembling finger to the top of Mt. Sinai and say “There He is. On top of that mountain, with fire and smoke and earthquakes and thunder. We are afraid. We dare not go up to that mountain, so we sent Moses alone.” And indeed, Moses alone stood within the clouds of fire and smoke, interceding for the people and receiving the law of God.
Something has changed here. At the beginning, God walked with His people in the garden in the cool of the day, and now, at Mount Sinai, His chosen people are terrified of Him. God hides Himself in clouds, fire and smoke. What’s changed? It’s mankind. Mankind has fallen. Mankind is sinful. God is holy. God’s holy might, were it to be revealed to the people of Israel would surely annihilate them in an instant. God in His holiness cannot abide sinful man. So He hides Himself in a cloud. Even Moses, who went up into the cloud, could not see the face of God. The closest he got was seeing God’s back, and even that caused his face to glow so that the Israelites were afraid.
On that mountain of God, God gave instructions to Moses to build a tabernacle, or a tent, that God could go with the people of Israel. The tabernacle was encircled by walls. In the courtyard between the tent and the walls, was the altar where sacrifices would take place. Inside the tabernacle was the holy place. Some ministrations would take place here, but at the back of the holy place was a veil. Behind that veil was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy place. Here was the Ark of the Covenant, and inside the Ark of the Covenant, below the atonement cover, or mercy seat, was the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Here also, was the special presence of God.
So special was God’s presence, that the high priest alone would enter the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest, and only on one day, the Day of Atonement. After going through extensive purification rites and sacrificing animals for his own sins and the sins of his family, would he enter the Holy of Holies. Before entering, the high priest would burn incense in a cloud to hide himself from the holy presence of God. He would sacrifice a goat for the sins of the people of Israel and sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat. A goat would die in place of the people.
When the tabernacle was finished, a cloud of glory covered the tabernacle, so that not even Moses could enter it. It was a cloud by day and fire by night. The special presence of God had moved from pillars of cloud and fire, from the smoke and thunder of Sinai into the tabernacle. God guided the Israelites through the desert. When He withdrew His cloud, the people knew to travel, and when He rested in the tabernacle, the people made camp. God guided His people through His special presence.
Years later, when Israel had entered the Promised Land, in the reign of Solomon son of David, Solomon built God a glorious temple. The temple mirrored the tabernacle, with a courtyard, holy place, and Holy of Holies which was only entered on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When he had finished, a cloud covered the temple, so that even the priests could not stand to minister before the LORD. God’s special presence had moved. No longer would Israel wander in the wilderness, for God had moved His presence into this house.
Time passed, and Israel fell away from God. As punishment, about 400-500 years later, the Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar, took Jerusalem, enslaved the people of Israel and destroyed the temple. This was God’s way of saying that His people had turned away from Him too often. He was withdrawing His special presence from among them.
But about 20 years later, led by the command of God, Ezra the prophet spearheaded the rebuilding of the temple. At first, the temple was small. It paled in comparison to the glory of Solomon’s temple that had come before. This was God’s sign that His special presence was returning to the people of Israel.
Years later, after the time between the old and new testaments, Herod the Great expanded the temple, fulfilling the prophecy of Haggai that the second temple would exceed the first in glory. Herod doubled the area that the temple covered, expanding it to about 35 acres. He truly spared no expense. Even if Herod’s faithfulness was in question, the result was that the temple, the house of God’s special presence, was glorious.
The temple, for the people of Israel, was where God had promised to be. The people of Israel were told to bring their worship and sacrifices nowhere else. They were not to sacrifice on the high places, but in the temple. For it was only here that God had promised to be. It was only here where the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and offer a goat in place of the people. It was here that God’s special presence was hidden from the people behind a veil.
This was the temple that Jesus and His disciples were walking around in our Gospel text today. This is the temple that the disciples marveled at. It’s no surprise, since the temple was beautiful. Even the offerings that were brought to the temple were beautiful and richly adorned. So how does Jesus respond to this praise of His Father’s house?
As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.
Jesus prophesies the temple’s utter destruction. This temple, which was greater than Solomon’s temple, would be thrown down and destroyed. The temple where God had promised to dwell with His special presence among the people of Israel. This could only mean one thing. God’s special presence wasn’t going to be in the temple anymore. That’s what it meant when the Babylonians destroyed the first temple.
The truth was, the special presence of God was in Jerusalem. He was walking in her streets in the cool of the day. He is teaching in her temple. He is staying in her houses. The special presence of God comes, not veiled in clouds and fire, but veiled in human flesh. He speaks, not with thunder, but with the voice of a man. The Messiah has come. Jesus has come. And the days are swiftly approaching when the faithful will not worship God in His temple, but in Spirit and in truth.
This is most clearly seen on Good Friday. Jesus dies. Darkness falls. The ground shakes. In the temple, there is a great tearing sound. If there was a priest in the holy place, he looks up with terror as the curtain, the only thing separating his sinful self from the all-consuming holiness of the Most High God tears in two from the top to the bottom. He cringes back, averting his eyes lest he be consumed before the presence of God. But nothing happens. There is no glory cloud in the Holy of Holies.
The curtain tore from top to bottom. If a man were to tear the curtain, it would have torn from the bottom, the top was simply too high for any man to reach. God tore the curtain. From top to bottom.
The only reason anyone ever entered the Holy of Holies was on the Day of Atonement. There, the blood of a goat would be offered so that God’s chosen people would not die. On this day, on Good Friday, that day has reached its fulfillment. Blood has been poured out before God. It is more valuable than all the blood of goats offered through all the years of Israel’s history. So, God has opened the Holy of Holies to the whole world. The special presence of God is no longer locked in a temple.
So now we’re back to the beginning. Where’s God? Or, more specifically, “Where’s the special presence of God?” Jesus tells us:
Wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, there I will be also.
God is here. God is with us. We are God’s temple. We are God’s house of living stones. We gather in the name of God, and He has promised to be here with us.
The temple was there so that the people had a place to offer sacrifices to God. But sacrifices are no longer necessary. Jesus’ death is more than enough. There’s no need for the temple anymore. Even if the temple were rebuilt, God’s presence would not inhabit it. God no longer promises to be in the temple. He promises to be here, in church.
And He is here.
He is here when the Word is read and preached in your hearing. He is here when we baptize in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He is here when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, in the bread and wine which is His body and blood. This is where God has promised to be. So, we gather around these firm promises. We do not gather anywhere else, for God has not promised to be anywhere else. He’s promised to be here. Forever.
I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.
God promises always to be with His church. As the old hymn says, “We are God’s house of living stones built for His own habitation.” This temple shall never be destroyed. God will be with us always, even unto the end of the age. At the end, He will be there too.
then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
God will once more come to earth in a cloud of glory. But He will not be hidden in that cloud. We will see His face, the face of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, the crucified one. And God’s body has scars. Scars in His hands, His feet, and His side. And He will welcome you with those nail-scarred hands into His heavenly kingdom.
Until that day of great joy for we who worship in Spirit and in truth, we earnestly pray:
Come soon, Lord Jesus.