God With Us and In Us

10-23-22 Sermon        by Pastor Teddie McConnell
Psalm 84:1-7
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. 3 Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. 4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah
5 Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
Joel 2:23-32
2:23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before. 24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you. 26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame. 28 Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.
31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Bible is such a long, detailed and sweeping account of the history of the world and the people of God that it’s easy to lose sight of the overall plot when we study just one or two passages. When I took classes to become a pastor, I studied the Old Testament for one semester, then the New Testament for a semester. As I looked back over that massive amount of information and inspiration, I could see the plan that started in Eden, bloomed at Easter, and continues today. The grand story is the creation of the world and of us flawed and rebellious creatures, saved by our creator in the ultimate sacrifice of the Son, God with us, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God in us.
God gave us free will because God wanted us to be beloved children, people who could choose whether or not to love him. The angels do God’s bidding automatically and without questions. They have no choice, don’t even think about disobedience. But love is most meaningful when it is given freely, in a relationship that is mutually satisfying. It’s sort of like the difference between owning a robot that does whatever you tell it versus owning a puppy. When the puppy chooses to obey you out of love, it’s so much more satisfying than ordering a robot around!
While Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they were always with God. It was literally paradise. They were the first vegetarians, and there was no violence. God gave them stewardship of the garden. They were as innocent as newborn babies, and had no idea life could be any other way. They could have lived forever.
Then they made the really terrible choice to disobey God by eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent lied to Eve about what would happen, planted the idea that God had something tricky going or they wouldn’t have been forbidden that particular fruit. But the serpent didn’t pick the fruit for them, didn’t force them to eat it. Their selfish sin nature came out. They succumbed to the temptation to make their own decision, even if it was wrong. They found out the hard way that life would change forever, and then they would die. Even after evicting them from Eden, God stayed with them and helped them figure out how to stay warm by clothing them in skins, an animal sacrifice that was a predictor of the sacrifice of Christ. Their first son, Cain, killed their second son, Abel out of jealousy, and the legacy of sin continued.
Much later, God gave us the Ten Commandments through Moses in an effort to keep us safe from bad choices, to make completely clear what God expects from us. The commandments are designed to help us live in community with mutual respect, peace, and harmony. They are a blessing. God gave Moses the design for the Arc of the Covenant, the acacia wood box that would hold the stone tablets on which the commandments were written. The Israelites carried the Arc before them when they traveled or went to war and set it in its own special tent when they stayed in one spot for a while. Once the temple in Jerusalem was built, the Arc was kept there. They believed that God lived on the mercy seat on top of the Arc. Funny how often people try to put God in a box, even though God promised in Deuteronomy 31: 6, “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
The sins of the fathers passed down through the generations. The high priests came up with over 300 lesser commandments to try to avoid sin, including the dietary laws about keeping kosher. But people’s emotions can be more compelling than the commandments. Dean Koontz wrote, “To many people, free will is a license to rebel, not against what is unjust or hard in life but against what is best for them and true.”
Often children learn to do the wrong thing by watching the people around them. Parents are fond of saying, “Do as I say, not as  I do.” Some children learn to do the right thing most of the time by studying the Bible, but not many. Only through experiencing the broken relationships and painful results of breaking the law do most of us learn to love God and each other, learn enough empathy not to give in to our selfish nature. Eventually, the unforgiven hurts we inflict on each other, individually and as groups, lead to suffering, conflicts, divided families, killings and even wars.
The prophet Joel tried to warn the Israelites about their sinful ways. Today’s excerpt is the only time in the three-year lectionary that we read from his book. The rest of it is full of his predictions of doom and destruction. It would be great if we could get right to the good part (as the lectionary tries to do) without the experience of that which is sad and terrible. We must experience regret and repentance before we can experience redemption.
In these particular verses, though, there is hope. Instead of God speaking only through a few chosen people, Joel predicted that God would pour out the Holy Spirit onto just about everyone. God would do a new thing. We would all be able to see visions, dream dreams, and understand God and God’s kingdom in a way no one had since Adam and Eve. Joel was pointing to Pentecost and the release of the Holy Spirit onto all believers through Christ.
Before Jesus came, the only place God was believed to dwell was in the temple in Jerusalem on the horns of the Arc of the Covenant. The Jews held worship services wherever they lived, but they turned their faces toward Jerusalem as they prayed to honor God. There was a curtain in the temple between the people and where the Arc was kept, the Holy of Holies. Only a priest could go behind the curtain and only at certain times of the year. The priests were concerned enough about being struck down by God’s holy power that they tied a rope to one ankle and had bells on their robes. That way, if they stopped moving for long enough  to indicate something was wrong because the bells were quiet, their assistant could pull them out from behind the curtain without endangering themselves as well.
Psalm 84 is a song of pilgrimage, of heart-felt, intense longing for being in the presence of God during the annual trip to the temple in Jerusalem. They didn’t have God with them as we do, 24/7. They prayed, but only kings, priests and prophets could hear from God directly. Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every person, and it cannot be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Christ changed everything. He was and is the pivot point of history, the creator of a new relationship with God. His name is Immanuel, God with us. He spoke to God, he heard from God, he had power through God unlike anyone else in history. God sent his son to break the chains of sin and death by willingly dying for us. At the moment he died on the cross, the curtain in the temple between the Arc of the Covenant and the people was torn from top to bottom in a miraculous sign of God’s Spirit being released into our world. The Spirit gives us the power to bless others as we could never do in our own strength. The Spirit is a little like the oxygen in the air, giving us life.
We Christians often take the Spirit’s presence for granted, just as we do breathing. It’s only when we stop and pay attention to our breathing, like when we’re afraid our air will run out when finding ourselves in a tight space, that we really appreciate it. It’s easy to miss how much we gain by having the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We can forget to ask the Spirit to give us the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control that are available when we ask. How often do we stop and ask the Spirit to keep us from sinning by giving us its supernatural goodness and self-control?
Often the word “spirit” is overused to the point where it loses its special meaning in this context. We talk about “team spirit” or “the Christmas spirit” or being “spiritual” when you run up into the mountains to observe God’s creation. The young people who fill out surveys about religious affiliation tend to check the box that says, “None.” They describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” We’ve all been told when we lack the enthusiasm we’re supposed to have, “Get into the spirit of the thing.” Theologian Scott Hoezee said, “There are many different ways, both good and bad, to get carried away by something.  Thankfully, for baptized believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, God has poured out the ultimate Spirit on us all, helping young and old, boys and girls, men and women “get carried away” but in good ways that open us up to all the glory of God!”
Paul was under house arrest in Rome for two years, but his second letter to Timothy was probably written after that from one of Rome’s worst prisons. It may well have been his last letter before being put to death by the authorities. In it, Paul spoke of how none of his friends came to his defense, but the Lord stood by him and gave him strength.  Rome at that time was ruled by the ambitious and cruel emperor Nero, who had a reputation for being tyrannical and self-indulgent. One historian, Suetonius, reported that many Romans blamed Nero for setting the Great Fire of Rome to clear land for his planned Golden House. When criticized for this, he blamed Christians for the fire and burned some of them alive as scapegoats. While Roman law allowed Paul to call his friends as witnesses to testify for him, none of Rome’s Christians showed up in court to help him. I think their fear was understandable. It seemed to Paul, though, that he had fought the good fight for the gospel, then reached the end without any friends to support him.
And yet, Paul felt the presence of God with him. God and Christ stood up with him in that Roman court room and strengthened him. Paul was ready to finish the race however God made that come about. He had the peace that came from the Holy Spirit living in his heart. Even when it feels like we have no human support, God is here, living in our hearts, giving us the spiritual support that only God can. Even if everyone else abandons us, God never leaves us nor forsakes us, staying with us and within us no matter where we go, no matter what we go through. God is there when we visit the doctor or go to the unemployment office or feel betrayed by our friends or move into assisted living. God stands with us when we face threats to our way of life, changes we didn’t want, grief we didn’t ask for. God even supports us as we share the Gospel with people we know, even if just by how we live. St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel, and when necessary, use words.”
All through the Old Testament, prophets had predicted the coming of Christ. God loved us enough to have our redemption and salvation planned from the beginning. Because Jesus brought the Holy Spirit, God lives not just with us, but within us, in our hearts. We can hear directly from God, can receive supernatural love, guidance, healing, and help even when we are otherwise alone. We can look forward to being with God through eternity after we die. We can be more than conquerors through Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. And all God’s people said, Amen.

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