Christmas is around the corner, and for the Christian church this is the beginning of the Advent season.
Advent is a season when we are reminded that God is with us. In fact, one of the names for God that we hear often during Christmastime is Emmanuel, which means: God with us. (Isaiah 7:14)
However, many times we don’t feel that God is with us. So today I want to address this concern: is God with me? Perhaps many of us have asked this question.
What I do know is that most people struggle with feelings of loneliness or abandonment at some point in their lives. They have felt the heavy weight of loneliness through the loss of people we love or missed opportunities in life. These experiences set on us as a heavy burden and make us wonder if God cares about our lives or if God is with us at all.
Other times, as it relates to our faith, we believe that God is not with us or that God does not want to have anything to do with us because either we don’t think we deserve the presence of God in our lives or simply that God does not care enough to be with us. Even more, our acting sinfully causes us to struggle with shame, guilt, and fear and these sentiments make us distance ourselves not only from God but also even from the people we love.
In such times of loneliness when we are confused, afraid, tempted, hurting, or discouraged, what does God do for us? How does God speak to our needs? Are any of us, today, feeling alone or abandoned?
One of the things that I have learned by ministering to people and by having my own personal challenges is that God is always with us, but we don’t always feel God’s presence, right? Well, feelings are not infallible; sometimes our feelings are misplaced and misguided. From this, I have learned that God is with us not because you or I feel it, but because God has promised God’s presence in our lives.
So, when we feel alone and struggle with all kinds of heavy thoughts and emotions, there is a gift we can always rely on: God’s presence. The God we believe in has chosen to be present in all of our pains and needs. Our God joins us in our brokenness. Our God feels as we feel. Our God has been with us since always.
Psalms 139 gives witness to the presence of God through the struggle of someone that thought deeply about the same things we are thinking right now. Hear the Word,
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
King David wrote this Psalm. A beautiful one indeed. In this Psalm, David tells us that he knew that God knows everything, and God is everywhere. He is reflecting about a place and time where he may find himself truly alone, yet there is none. Even if he goes deep into a pit of darkness, God will meet him there. Even before he had a consciousness while he was being formed in the womb of his mother, God was there with him. And, he says: I come to the end of everything I can possibly think of, and I am still with you.
But he did not know this always, he experienced a great deal of loneliness in his life and endured a myriad of struggles that led him to write this and many other Psalms.
He was the youngest of seven brothers, often left out of any important family discussion. Throughout his life, David was persecuted by people he loved; was left to die in the hands of his enemies; he committed dreadful sins like killing and adultery, and he did so many other things that we wouldn’t think a man of God would do. Yet he always came back because in spite of all his mischiefs he truly loved God, and the moment he realized his wrongs he would return to God confessing and imploring for God’s presence to not abandon him. (See Psalm 51 as an example of this.)
David soon learned that God’s presence never abandons us but that it is we humans who run away and hide from God, even reject God, because we have yet to realize how much God loves us. We say things like: “God would never want me. God would never welcome me. God has abandoned me because of what I have done. God does not care.”
King David would challenge these statements because he learned that God’s love was greater than any of his fears, shame, and guilt; that even though God knew his brokenness or lack, God had never abandoned him.
This knowledge or revelation of God’s heart changed everything for King David and can change everything for us too. God, knowing everything and being everywhere, was not a cause for fear but for comfort, hope, and confidence in the future. Even when he felt alone or forsaken by all others, he knew that God was there with him. To this, David exclaims (v. 6): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.”
And so, David reflects: God isn’t just everywhere, but everywhere I go God lays hold of me (v. 10). God’s presence is not like a force field that follows me but is personal, a warm, caring, and guiding embrace that upholds us.
The Bible is the constant narrative of God’s work to bring God’s presence into our lives, of God’s continual struggle to be with us. If anything can be said about God, it is not: “why have you abandoned us,” but, “why do you keep insisting on being with us?”
This is a very significant theological theme in the Bible: the unwavering presence of God. This is so important that it changes the way we pray, worship, and practice our faith if we realize its meaning.
To explain this properly, I need to elaborate on a particular theme in the Bible: The Temple.
In general terms and across religions, a temple is a place of worship. In the Bible, it specifically was the place where heaven and earth met, as if heaven and earth were two separate circles, and the circles overlap in the middle, and they called that place the temple.
This is because heaven was seen as God’s dimension. The place where God dwelled. And the Jewish people saw the temple as that space ripped down from heaven here onto earth. Once they entered the temple, they were entering the space where human space collided with God’s.
Jefferson Bethke writes in his book It’s Not What You Think about the meaning and significance of the Temple and the presence of God in the Bible. He explains,
“All temple-building texts had two huge markers to distinguish themselves from other literature. The first thing to recognize is all temples, when they would be completed, would put the image of that god in the temple on the last day as a sort of seal or marking that it was done. The second thing would be the builders would rest and celebrate the day after they had finished, and formally invite the god to take up residence. It was an ancient version of an inauguration ceremony. It would be seen as a day of rest where you would invite the god [or goddess] to flood the temple with his [or her] presence.” (Chapter 2)
This observation takes us back to the beginning: the book of Genesis.
In Genesis 1-2, on the last day of creation, God placed Adam and Eve in the garden as God’s image-bearers and rested from all the work, making the seventh day the Sabbath –a day of rest and enjoyment. Hebrew and Israelite listeners and readers would have recognized those markers and said, “God is following temple-building patterns in the telling of the story.”
The meaning of this is that Genesis is all about a temple being built: the creation itself. But the strange thing about this text that is completely unique and different from other ancient Eastern religions is that there is no building or imageries of metal, wood, or stone placed in a temple. In Genesis, the images are flesh: spirit, flesh, love, and humanness. And the Temple is the whole of creation. While other gods were regional and controlled only particular elements of nature such as the sun or sea or field, this God was God of all and God of everywhere. The whole world is God’s temple.
But this is just the beginning of temple-building work. Soon after, as Genesis tells, sin broke into the Creation, and those who were the reflection and witness of God’s presence couldn’t carry it anymore. What Adam and Eve lost in the Garden of Eden when they sinned was the presence of God –not because God abandoned them but because they rejected God. Nevertheless, God continued to carry on pursuing all people and designed a new plan to make himself available to humanity.
As the story continues and goes beyond Genesis, in Exodus, God tells us that God, “will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God.” For this, right after God pulled the Israelites out of slavery and oppression in Egypt, God provided instructions for building a tabernacle, basically a tent, a new means and place for God’s presence to manifest and dwell temporarily.
As the story continues, once the Israelites had settled in their new land, God gave Kings David and Solomon permission and instructions for building a permanent dwelling place for him: The Temple.
However, this did not last long. The people of God rejected God and lost everything again like back in Genesis: their home and this time their new Temple. This exile was such a disaster for the people of God because they were away from God’s presence. But what happened next changed everything.
This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is Godself becoming flesh to dwell among us. In the very words of John 1,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and [dwelt] among us… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (v. 1, 14, 16)
A significant detail in this text is that the Greek word translated as “dwelt” in verse 14 is eskenosen, which can literally mean “to fix a tent or tabernacle.” With this, John is saying that Jesus himself (Bethke would say) is “pitching his tent” (that is, his holy tabernacle) among us. His body was now the place where heaven and earth met together.
This means that through Jesus God was pitching God’s tent with us—to be with God’s people. Jesus is the ultimate and perfect manifestation of God because “God became flesh and [dwelt] among us…” In other words, Jesus was the walking Temple of God, the very presence of God’s self. What Jesus did, what he said, everything he accomplished was a manifestation of God’s heart for humanity, for all of us.
Hence, when we ask: How does God uphold us? How is God present in my life? How am I not alone? What is the value of God’s presence? We need to look no further than to Jesus. He was fully present in everything. Fully caring, for everything. Completely invested in all people.
But now what? Jesus is not here anymore. Is God still present? Does Psalms 139 still hold true today? Well, there is one more thing that Jesus accomplished that answers these questions.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled his promise of sending his Spirit to dwell in us. Now, God’s presence is not just walking among us, but truly dwelling in us! Jesus spoke very clearly about this. (I won’t quote the whole chapter, but I do encourage you to write it down and study it later in your home.) This is from John 14, excerpts from verses 15-20,
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day (when the Spirit comes to you) you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
What we hear and read here from Jesus himself is that the overarching theme of God’s presence in Scripture is the progressive movement of God to dwell with God’s people. God in creation, God in the temple, God in Jesus, and now God in us through the Holy Spirit.
King David saw a glimpse of this, and he shared it with all of us through Psalms 139: “God, you are with me always; I am with you always. I am never alone or forsaken. I come to the end, and I am still with you.”
Let me ask you now: What is the “end” for you, when you feel like there is nothing else left for you?
My friends, there is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still. And there is no “end,” no place where we can be completely lost, or we can run away to because God is already there. Hope and new beginnings can find us in all places and circumstances. We may come to what we think is the end, but God is still with us giving us the power to change everything for good.
Today, let us know that dwelling is God’s goal.
This is what the apostle Paul wrote in the letter to the Ephesians,
“[Through faith in Jesus] You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Ephesians 2:19-22
We, the people of God, are the dwelling place of God, we are the overlapping middle place where heaven and earth meet. We are the Temple of God forever. We are now the dwelling place of God. So, we can’t go anywhere that God is not with us and in us. As King David said, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? I come to the end, and I am still with you.”
When we are confused, God’s presence will guide us; when we are afraid, God’s presence will protect us; when we are tempted, God’s presence will help us resist; when we are hurting, God’s presence will comfort us; when we are discouraged, God’s presence will encourage us; when we are lonely, God’s presence will be our companion. God sees us, walks with us, and cares for us no matter where we are.
In the beginning, God impressed his presence in everything he created, including us –particularly us. But now, through Jesus, God’s presence is not just an impression on us, but we are now a dwelling place of God, where the fullness of God’s presence is our gift forever.
Let us come to God today and always, and dwell in the fullness of the gift of his presence: Jesus, Emmanuel.