Sunday, March 06, 2016

On Being Distinct

The golden calf episode at Mount Sinai was a moral disaster for Israel.

Idolatry was bad enough, but national idolatry on such a scale so soon after formally accepting the privileges and responsibilities of being called by Jehovah to be a people uniquely his own gave the lie to everything Israel was supposed to stand for. It made a mockery of Israel’s promises and a joke of its testimony to the nations around it. God struck the people with a plague, and Moses struck them with the sword of the House of Levi, killing three thousand.

Basically, a disaster.

Hey, It Could Have Been Worse

But it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened to Israel.

In the wake of the crisis, God said these words to the people through Moses:
“Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way.”
Now THAT’s a disaster, and that’s exactly what the writer of Exodus calls it. Even the people finally seemed to grasp the consequences of their treachery: “When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments.”

The Real Calamity

The KJV translates “disastrous word” as “evil tidings”, and that’s the sense of it. It’s the same Hebrew word first used in the Garden of Eden to describe the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where disobedience led to the first and most fundamental moral disaster in human history. It is variously translated “evil”, “wicked”, “calamitous”, “miserable”, “distressing” and of course “disastrous”.

Plague and death by the sword from their own brothers was plenty disastrous enough. You would think the people would have cheered the departure of Jehovah from the company of Israel. After all, God was not condemning them to a return to Egypt or a slow death in a wasteland. No, he said to them, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey”. And the offer was no trick. There was no bait and switch involved. God still intended to keep his covenant with Israel. Only his immediate, personal presence was to be withdrawn. He said, “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites”. The conquest of Canaan was still on, despite Israel’s betrayal.

Doesn’t that sound like a good deal to you? No more plagues and sword-wielding Levites to worry about. All the benefits of being the people of God without any of the dangers. The only catch? You have to go on without his presence.

Departing Glory

Strangely, this didn’t sound like a good deal to Israel. They mourned. They took off their ornaments, and they kept them off. The thought of God’s presence and glory departing stopped them cold. The sense of impending loss was palpable enough, at least in the moment, to turn them around in their tracks. Moses expresses it very well in saying:
“Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
That’s a powerful thought Moses is expressing here: It is not the blessing of God, the provision of God, the word of God, the testimony of God, the service of God or even the power of God that makes his people unique among all the peoples of this world.

It is God’s presence with them.

The departure of God’s presence is the disaster of disasters.

Cultivating the Presence of God

As believers in Jesus Christ, if we are to truly be distinct in this world, it is the presence of God with us that we must cultivate above all else.

Sure, being blessed and provided for by God is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t make Christians unique. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

And yes, it’s a real compliment to be called “people of the Book”. Quite a testimony. But Mormons have the Book, Jews have the Book, Jehovah’s Witnesses have the Book … even Muslims have the Book, and all claim to follow it, at least to one degree or another. Flakes and cranks and loonies have the Book. Possession of the word of God and some sort of testimony in the world do not make Christians unique either.

And it’s certainly awe-inspiring to be used by God in his service and to display his power, but God used Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and thousands of others throughout history in tremendous displays of power and authority. More than half of them didn’t even know they were serving God and displaying his power. No, that doesn’t make us unique either.

In My Name

This is why gathering in the name of Jesus Christ is so important. It is not some mantra to be invoked in the opening prayers of a church meeting, as in “Oh Lord, we are gathered in your name …” Maybe we are, maybe we are not. The question is: Have we welcomed him with obedience, devotion, love, mutual agreement and submission to his will? When he stands at the door and knocks, do we open and receive him, not for salvation but for fellowship? Because it’s very possible to leave him outside.

Is he with us when we gather? That’s the only thing that matters.

The Transforming Presence

In fact, it is the only the real and personal presence of the Lord that transforms each of these other features of the Christian experience and makes them consequential to us at all.

Think about it for a second: being blessed in this life only matters if we are going to be with the Blesser one day. Providence that doesn’t proceed out of a personal relationship simply prolongs an existence that is otherwise futile. After all, if we are bound for an eternity in hell, a little rain or sunshine here and there in the present doesn’t help us a whole lot. The word of God is great, but without the Spirit of God to apply it, it is like a sword without a soldier. If I am admired by my neighbours but lack the indwelling presence of Christ, all my good works are in vain. If I serve God but he does not dwell in my heart, I may display his power to the whole world and end up as nothing more than a cautionary tale.

As a church, if we metaphorically take Canaan by storm without the Lord among us, we may as well stay in the wilderness.

It is the presence of Christ that makes us distinct, nothing else.

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