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A Dwelling in which God lives

June 3, 2018, Speaker: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Ephesians 2:11-22) Part of the Ephesians sermon series, preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Ephesians 以弗所书

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Title: A Dwelling in which God lives
Date: 3th June 2018
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Let’s begin with a thought experiment. I want you to imagine that God is your roommate. Do you think that will affect your life in any way? I can hear some of you already saying “Duh?, you think?” But please put it in concrete terms, in what ways exactly would it affect your life? As I imagine it, if God were to be my roommate, I would be super concerned about whatever I might say or whatever I’d do in his presence. So, think about it, how would your life be transformed if God were living with you?

Now let me take this a little further. What if I were to say this is not just a thought experiment but the actual will of God? Think about the vision in Revelations 21: 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” God living with his people is a consistent vision from the beginning in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, to the tabernacle in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, to the Temple in Jerusalem when the kingdom of Israel was formed. God wants to live with his people. But in your thought experiment you might have already wondered, “But what about God’s holiness?” When the prophet Isaiah met God, he expressed the same concern, in Isaiah 6: 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Today, I want us to reflect on this conundrum: God wants to live with his people, but his holiness can be a terrifying reality, because those who are unclean will die.

Let us now examine the Israelite solution. They are the people with the most experience with living in God’s presence. How did they solve the conundrum?
The problem is stated at the end of Numbers 17: 12 The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?”
Numbers 18 provides the solution: The Lord said to Aaron, “You, your sons and your family are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.2 Bring your fellow Levites from your ancestral tribe to join you and assist you when you and your sons minister before the tent of the covenant law. 3 They are to be responsible to you and are to perform all the duties of the tent, but they must not go near the furnishings of the sanctuary or the altar. Otherwise both they and you will die. 7 Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary is to be put to death.”

This is the way I interpret the Israelite solution. In order to limit unnecessary deaths, Aaron’s family would be fully and exclusively in charge of the duties inside the sanctuary or the altar. Then Aaron’s fellow members of the Levite tribe would help with other duties inside and around the tent. The rest of Israel could then live and communicate with God through these people who served in the holiest of places. Do you like this solution? They look like rings of concentric circles to contain the effects of death that the holiness of God might bring. Before I share with you my reflection on this solution, I want to first show you a picture[1].

“Two millennia ago, the block served as one of several Do Not Enter signs in the Second Temple in Jerusalem, delineating a section of the 37-acre complex which was off-limits for the ritually impure — Jews and non-Jews alike. Written in Greek, they warned: “No foreigner may enter within the barrier and enclosure around the Temple. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.” [2]

I believe that what developed from the initial stages in the early days of Aaron and Moses in the wilderness, to the era of the 2nd Temple built by King Herod was inevitable. While the intention of limiting death by the holiness of God was good, the layers of concentric circles eventually became layers of division and segregation, physically manifested into actual concrete “walls of hostility” (Eph 2:13). On one hand, you want to ensure that the unclean would not come near to God, but on the other hand, in the process of enforcement, you also start to judge everyone and every activity by how clean they are. Think about the world that Jesus entered into. Lepers unclean. Tax collectors unclean. Prostitutes unclean. Gentiles unclean. Oh dear! Keep the unclean away from God! And stay away from the unclean so that you can stay clean! But Jesus came for the sick and unclean. Mark 2: 17 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” God said to Peter in Acts 10: 15 “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” At that very moment, Peter realized that God had a very different mindset towards the unclean. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Brothers and sisters, don’t we also have a mindset just like the Jews of Jesus’ time? We also have concentric circles of purity. Maybe pastors and church leaders in the middle, then Christians who are like us in the inner ring, and other Christians in the next ring, then perhaps Catholics in the outer ring, and maybe non-believers outside the circles. But there are 2 major reasons why I MUST challenge such a mindset. The Jewish solution is not a good solution. The first reason is that these layers of rings create a distance between people and God. As Paul described in Ephesians 2: 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Look at all the negative words. With every layer of division, it just means that people become further and further away from God. If the intention of God is to live with his created people, those at the fringes of the concentric circles are as good as separated from God.

But you might be concerned: what about God’s holiness? One might argue that we are trying to protect the unclean from the judgment of death by God. That brings me to my second and interrelated reason to challenge the mindset of concentric circles. God is not death. God is Life! Our purpose should not be about separating people from God, but bringing God to the people because God is life! This is the problem of the mindset of concentric circles: in our zeal to separate the sacred from the common, we forget that God who is at the very centre is also the one with the power to cleanse the unclean. So instead of a mindset of concentric circles, I recommend the mindset of a shining star, with points always reaching out to the far reaches of our world. Bring God to the world. No more layers.

If you are keen to, you can bring God to the people, and here is where I want you to pay close attention. I am going to share with you God’s salvation plan. None of us can ever live a life so holy and righteous that we can live in God’s presence. But God wants to be with us, we who are unclean and unworthy. So God sent his Son, Jesus, who lived a blameless life of obedience to God, and this life was vindicated by God through resurrecting Jesus from death. What we cannot do ourselves has been accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus. Now here is the most brilliant part of God’s plan. We become in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. I do not care which layer of the concentric circle you might have been in. Whichever layer you were in, you were still separated from God. Yet by the Holy Spirit, there is now only one single layer, or in the words of Paul, one new humanity (v.15), a new creation in union with Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Do you see how brilliant the plan is? This is how God cleanses all humanity who are unclean: by becoming a new person in Christ by the Spirit. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. And in this way, God can live with us. This is also how you will bring God to the people.

At this point, I want to talk about what it means for God to live with us. And I think it is best illustrated with a story.
Bishop John Reed tells about driving a school bus in Australia that carries whites and aborigines. He was taking them out on an outing, and as the trip went on they were exchanging jibes with increasing intensity. Tired of all the squabbling, he pulled over to the side of the road and said to the white boys, “What color are you?” “White.” He told them “No, you are green. Anyone who rides in my bus is green. Now what color are you?” The white boys replied, “Green.” Then he went to the aborigines and said, “What color are you?” “Black.” He told them “No, you are green. Anyone who rides in my bus is green. Now what color are you?” The aborigines boys replied, “Green.” The situation seemed resolved until, several miles down the road, he heard a boy in the back of the bus announced, “All right, light green on this side, dark green on that side.” [3]

Brothers and sisters, we are a new humanity, created by being in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus Christ is a person, a life that must be lived. The Holy Spirit works by prompting, and not by possession. We are persons co-creating a life with God, but through our free will. In simple terms, our new humanity in Christ cannot be forced or automatic. Our new selves have to be willingly exercised with the prompting of the Holy Spirit to become more and more Christ-like. We have the full potential to live in peace with God and fellow men, and let this Gospel of peace shine forth throughout humanity. In Christ, we are the vessels to bring about world peace. Let the entire world be one new humanity with God living at peace with us. But for that vision to happen, we have to fight our mindset of concentric circles: the mentality of clean and unclean, and who’s in and who’s out. We have an innate tribal mentality. We feel safe within our comfort zones with those who are like us. Even if we are green, we want to differentiate into layers of light and dark green. We have all heard the phrase, "if you aren't with me, you are against me." This way of thinking has, tragically, become a leading source of conflict, whether in the workplace or in our family.[4] This can happen even in a place like Singapore that promotes multiracial, multi-religious harmony. [5] This can happen even in Church.

However, we already have the divine solution for peace: God. We have the almighty God living with us, in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Let’s go back to the original thought experiment, and imagine again what it means for God to live with us, except this time it is not fantasy but actual reality. God is dwelling with us by the Spirit, because we are all in Christ by the Spirit. Whatever we do, keep this in mind. In Christ, we pray to be transformed. God is here to change our hearts from stone to flesh. In Christ, we act as peacemakers. God is here to tear down the barriers and open doors. In Christ, we defend against the temptations of the evil one. God is here to shield us with his love. Wherever you are, you become a husband in Christ, a wife in Christ, a father in Christ, a mother in Christ, a child in Christ, a worker in Christ, a boss in Christ, a citizen in Christ, a pastor in Christ, a church member in Christ. Because of you, because of us, God is present and active everywhere when we are living as a person in Christ. What a beautiful world, what a beautiful life, when God is living with us. Emmanuel, God is with us.

[1]https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jerusalem_Temple_Warning_Inscription.jpg
[2]https://www.timesofisrael.com/ancient-temple-mount-warning-stone-is-closest-thing-we-have-to-the-temple/

[3] R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians, pg. 90-91

[4]https://www.the2percentfactor.com/blog/workplace-conflict-still-the-result-of-a-tribal-mentality
In Singapore, our main source of division may be our social inequality. “Recognising this, the Government has supported the nurturing of shared experiences between communities to promote social bonding and empathy in spite of the socioeconomic plurality. This is, however, an uphill task. Singaporeans are not immune to the visceral desire to be close to people of the “same kind”, be it based on ethnicity or class. This easily translates into a tendency to reside in locations that resonate with their own socio-economic standing.” In short, we know where are the poor neighborhoods, and where the rich will hang out in Singapore.

[5]https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/inequality-in-singapore-exists-across-within-neighbourhoods-10276898

Ephesians 2:11–22 (Listen)

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

(ESV)