Living in the Story: Return from Exile and Forgiveness of Sins
- We began the series by noting it was important we know the story we’re in so that we’re shaped by the biblical story rather than the story of the western world.
- We then considered the story of creation; how it was the story of God creating his temple to be the place of his presence and rule. We also saw the vocation given to human beings to subdue and serve the world and to be the means through which God was present to his world.
- Then we saw how humans mucked all that up through trying to set up a centre of functioning outside of God. Instead of order it produced chaos.
- Two weeks ago we saw how Baptism recapitulates the exodus story and a gift to the church to remind us that we are the new exodus people.
- Last time we saw how through Abraham God’s intention was to begin the process of restoring creation. We considered the parallels between the original creation and God’s covenant, noting the themes of life, land and presence.
Today as we consider the next part of the story in which we live, we’re going to consider an opposite: presence—absence, a significant theme we see woven throughout the OT. The story begins with presence.
(Much of the following is adapted from Tom Wright The Day The Revolution Began.)
We’ve already seen some of the ways in which God was present both to his creation and to people, starting with Adam and Eve in the garden. We know Adam and Eve’s disobedience disrupted the way in which God was present, but his presence still remained a theme.
In Genesis 12 we saw the story of God making himself present to Abraham and making a covenant with him that would also apply to his descendants.
Jacob had a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending [Gen 28:10-17] i.e. heaven and earth once again being connected. God spoke to him and promised he would be with him and his descendants.
God was present with Moses in the burning bush, which was something entirely new because he also revealed his name.
God was also present with Moses and the people as his glory entered the tabernacle once it had been completed.
Exodus 40:34 (NRSV) Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
The place of God’s presence in the tabernacle was the mercy seat which was on top of the ark of the covenant.
Exodus 25:22 (NRSV) 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.
Reminiscent of God being present in the tabernacle was the glory of his presence filling the temple when Solomon dedicated it.
2 Chronicles 7:1 (NRSV) 1 When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
The temple was the ultimate place of God’s presence, the place where heaven and earth met. God’s presence was never just for the sake and benefit of Israel. His presence in the temple was a sign in microcosm of his ultimate intention that his presence would once again fill the earth in the same way.
Let’s now flip to the opposite.
God chose Abraham, and ultimately Israel, as the means by which he was going to set the world right again. That would have worked well apart from one major problem: Israel itself became part of the problem. As we well know, they were themselves disobedient and failed miserably in fulfilling their calling. Much of the OT feels as though it’s the story of Israel going off track, getting back on, going off again—with that same story continuing over multiple generations. God sent prophet after prophet to the people of Israel in order to call them back to true worship and to warn them of impending judgement. Time after time they refused to listen. God was extremely patient and forbearing, but even his patience eventually wore thin. He had repeatedly warned that the people would eventually be banished from their land, and that’s exactly what happened in 587BC when Jerusalem was sacked and the people sent to exile in Babylon.
The passage from Ezekiel describes in quite graphic and symbolic terms what happened to God’s glory and presence after the people’s continual disobedience.
Ezekiel 10:18-19 (NRSV) 18 Then the glory of the LORD went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. 19 The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the LORD; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
The glory of the Lord left the temple.
Some of you may have been to Monash playground in its heyday. The builder, Grant Telfer, was somewhat eccentric, but he was an engineer with an inventive mind who put it to use in designing playground equipment which he built for free for the community. It was great fun. My grandkids were there during the school holidays and I saw a couple of pics on FB. Unfortunately it’s now one of those sanitised playgrounds that are risk free and therefore deadly boring. It’s as though the playground was de-telferised and as far as I’m concerned would never be the same again.
That’s something similar to what it must have been like when the glory of the Lord and his presence left the temple. In that instance it was made worse by the temple itself being destroyed, but God no longer being present would have been devastating for the people and their worship. Israel had no one but themselves to blame because their exile was directly due to their sin.
Lamentations 4:22 (NRSV) 22 The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer; but your iniquity, O daughter Edom, he will punish, he will uncover your sins.
If the condition of exile was to be undone, integral would be forgiveness of sins.
Let’s again move back to presence. While the prophets warned of impending judgement, they also spoke of a coming restoration. The passage we read from Jeremiah spoke of God making a new covenant with the people of Israel, a covenant not written in stone but on their hearts i.e. it would be a covenant of a whole different order. It speaks of God’s presence being restored because he would be their God and they would be his people. Not only that, they would all know him and their sins would be forgiven. In other words, exile would be undone and God would again be present to his people.
But it got even better than that: God would again be present in his temple. Here’s a later prophecy from Ezekiel which describes the glory of the Lord again returning to the temple and filling it.
Ezekiel 43:4-5 (NRSV) 4 As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, 5 the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.
God’s presence would once again be restored to his people and creation, and they themselves would be restored. God would reign.
The Second Temple
Remember the plot of the biblical story:
- Happy ever after.
It we just read Ezekiel 43, we might be forgiven for thinking we’d finally come to the last part. However, there was a little problem! We know from the story of the OT that the temple was again rebuilt, along with Jerusalem itself. But, in contrast to the stories of the building of the tabernacle and the first temple, there is no hint of the glory of the Lord again filling the temple. The temple was still significant for the people—even to this day—but there was never any suggestion that God had returned in his power. That’s where we leave it hanging for this week—a tantalising promise that doesn’t yet seem to be fulfilled.