In The Presence of God
Genesis 3, Exodus 3, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 1
For about five dollars you can buy a four-inch plastic bobblehead Jesus that bounces on a metal spring and adheres firmly to the dashboard of your car. One advertisement for this product says you can “stick him where you need forgiveness” and he will “guide you through the valley of gridlock.”
The dashboard Jesus has become a cultural phenomenon. In the song “Plastic Jesus” Billy Idol sings, “With my plastic Jesus, goodbye and I’ll go far, with my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car.” Paul Newman sang it in the movie Cool Hand Luke. The words begin, “Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus sitting on the dashboard of my car.”
To lots of people, Jesus, church, and Christianity are cultural trappings but not life-changing realities. Author Josh McDowell warns that many people today see Jesus “like a plastic statue on a car dashboard – smiling, robed, a halo suspended above his head.” But that superstitious or sentimental view of Jesus is a myth. Jesus of Nazareth was no plastic saint. He’s a real-world kind of Savior.
It’s not important whether you have Jesus on your car’s dashboard, but it’s vital to know he’s living in your heart. He isn’t plastic, he’s powerful. He’s not small, he’s infinite. He’s not a good-luck token. He’s the risen Lord of time and eternity.
Today, we’re going to take a journey through scripture, from beginning to end – we’ll start in Genesis and end up in Revelation – and we’re going to look at what happened when people found themselves face to face with the living, creating, holy, righteous, all-powerful, all-knowing, aways-present-everywhere God of the universe.
Let’s start at the beginning. Turn with me to Genesis 3:8-9. Let me set the stage for you. Scripture begins with God creating the cosmos – all the is. The universe, the multiverse, whatever “everything” is, God created it simply by speaking. All that is, whether we’re aware of its existence or can even reach that plane of existence, is created and sustained by God. And here, in our little corner of the solar system called the Milky Way Galaxy, in our little cul-de-sac, our solar system, God created a planet capable of sustaining life. He breathed life into this little planet we simply call “earth.” And as God-created life sprang forth, he added a special part of creation, formed not by the word of his mouth but by the work of his hands, and called it humanity. And he gave humanity a special little corner of this planet, the Garden of Eden, as a playground. Everything they needed was there.
But God also wanted us to CHOOSE to love him, because for love to be love, it has to be freely given by choice. And for us to choose to love God, there had to be the option to choose to love ourselves, and that option came in the form of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God commanded Adam and Eve, our spiritual and physical predecessors, not to eat the fruit of that one tree. They could eat any other fruit they wanted, but not the fruit of that tree. And of course you know that, tempted by Satan in the form of a serpent, Adam and Eve did eat that fruit. And when they did, they became aware of their nakedness and sewed fig leaves together as the first ever pairs of underwear.
Now, lets look at Genesis 3:8-9. The word translated as “walking” here, God was “walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” is in a Hebrew verb form that suggests that this was something that God did regularly, as a habit. Today, in English, we might add the words, “As was his custom,” or “Like he always did.” It was the custom of God to spend time IN his creation, WITH his highest creation, humanity, walking around in the garden. It was something God and Adam and Eve did regularly in the evening. But on this day, something is different. God is there, walking in the garden, but Adam and Eve are hiding from God, because they have done the one thing God told them they were not to do. This was no game of hide and seek. They were afraid.
So God called out, “Where are you?” Now, think about that for a minute. Did the all-knowing, always-fully-present-everywhere God really not know where Adam and Eve were? Of course not! God knew exactly where they were, AND what they had done. But God doesn’t go marching into the garden demanding that they appear in front of him as an angry parent might. He asks. “Adam, where are you?” God doesn’t drive them out, he draws them out. He responds with tenderness, not toughness. Oh, there will be punishment meted out to be sure. But God isn’t responding in uncontrolled anger. He is responding tenderly, and in sadness. The relationship with God that Adam and Eve AND GOD had enjoyed has been destroyed.
The very first encounter a human being has with God after the creation reveals God wanting and seeking relationship with his people, and responding tenderly but firmly, and with great sadness, when they disobeyed him and destroyed that relationship. And in the very first word God utters, his curse upon the serpent, set in motion God’s plan to restore that relationship. The first messianic prophecy is actually uttered by God himself in Genesis 3:15. Yes, you, Satan, will strike the heel of the woman’s offspring. But he will crush your head. You will cause him pain, but he will destroy you. God wants a relationship with you. He is pursuing you and a relationship with you. In spite of everything you’ve done, in spite of all of the wrong that lives inside you, God is pursuing you and wants a relationship with you. God deeply loves you. The first time someone stood face to face with God, they found intimacy, and then intimacy severed.
The second passage we’re going to look at is Exodus 3:1-6. The Bible tells us that it was the Angel of the Lord appearing to Moses appearing to him as flame in the bush. The Angel of the Lord. When the Bible uses that phrase, it isn’t talking about an angel as we think about angels. It’s referring to God himself, manifest and fully present, in a form that is fully God and yet distinct from God. It represents God fully present and protecting his people. In a sense, the Angel of the Lord is God accommodating in a way that he, a holy and righteous God can be present among a sinful people.
I mean, that’s God’s problem, right? After the relationship was broken by our disobedience, after we became unholy and unrighteous – how does a righteous and holy God make himself known to his unholy and unrighteous creation without his holiness consuming and destroying them? By entering that creation in a form they can fathom. Who does that sound like? Jesus, right? God incarnate? God in the flesh. Moses is standing face to face with the pre-incarnate Christ, the second member of the trinity.
When Rebecca Pippert was an agnostic, someone who isn’t sure if God exists or not, she had one question she continually wrestled with: How can finite limited human beings ever claim to know God? How do they know they are not being deceived? And then, she says, “One sunny day I was stretched out on the lawn … when I noticed that some ants were busy building a mound. I began to redirect their steps with twigs and leaves. But they simply bounced off and started a new ant mound. I thought, This is like being God! I am redirecting their steps, and they don’t even realize it!
At one point, two ants crawled onto my hands and I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if one ant turned to the others and said, “Do you believe in Becky? Do you believe Becky really exists?” I imagine the other ant answering, “Don’t be ridiculous! Becky is a myth, a fairy tale!” How comical, I thought – the hubris of that ant declaring that I don’t exist, when I could easily blow it off my hand. But what if the other ant said, “Oh, I believe that Becky exists!” How would they resolve it? How could they know that I am real? I thought. What would I have to do to reveal to them who I am?
Suddenly I realized: the only way to reveal who I am, in a way that they could understand, would be to become an ant myself. I would have to identify totally with their sphere of reality. I sat upright, and I remember thinking, What and amazing thought! The scaling-down of the size of me to perfectly represent who I am in the form of an ant! I know; I would have to do tricks! Things that no other ant could do!
Then it hit me: I had just solved my problem of how finite creatures could ever discover God. God would have to come from the outside and reveal who he is.
Moses is standing in the presence of the Angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ, and is told not to come near the bush, and to take his shoes off. Why? Because the ground he was standing on was holy because God was there. Holiness and righteousness are related, but they’re two different things. To be righteous is to be morally pure, right before God. To be holy is to be set apart for God’s special use. And the ground Moses was standing on was now holy, because God was using it. So Moses couldn’t stand there, and even without shoes had to keep his distance, lest God’s holiness destroy him, an unholy man. You see, God’s holiness isn’t a passive attribute, like the color of your hair or eyes. Nice enough and interesting enough, but they don’t really do anything to anyone else. That’s a passive attribute. God’s holiness isn’t passive like that. It’s active. And it actively consumes all that offends it and embraces all that conforms to it. Kind of like fire. Fire consumes all that is flammable, and embraces fire itself. God’s holiness is a part of who God is. It isn’t something God commands. It is something God IS. And that act of being holy by nature consumes and destroys all that isn’t holy. God can’t set aside his holiness so that we can related to him. So Moses needed to keep his distance even as God sought to communicate with him. And remove his shoes, simply obeying as God instructed him in how to be there. And then he hid his face. So awesome was the presence of God, even as a flame in a bush, that Moses couldn’t bring himself to look.
God longs for and pursues a relationship with you and with me, but his holiness keeps us away, for without a holiness of our own, we cannot approach God. We would be consumed.
Isaiah and Ezekiel get even more dramatic visions of God. Turn first to Isaiah 6:1-6. Isaiah’s vision of God was so breathtaking, so overpowering that the only thing about God himself that he could describe was the train of his robe. His eyes could go no higher than the train of his robe. He chose to describe the Heavenly King’s mighty attendants – the Seraphim – instead. Now, when most people think of angels, of cherubs and seraphs, as the Bible calls them, we think of the chubby little fat-bellied cherubs with wings, the stuff of cartoons and Hallmark cards. But the word Seraphim literally means “fiery ones” or “fiery serpents.” Almost sounds like a dragon, doesn’t it? Look at verse 3. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” Isaiah doesn’t tell us how many of these creatures he saw. But when St. John, in the New Testament, had a similar experience, he said that he saw thousands of thousands, literally millions of these magnificent creatures, hovering in constant motion, ready to do the will of their master. Their voices alone, lifted in praise to the one they worship and serve, cause an earthquake. Dragons with six wings, two of which they each use to cover their faces in the presence of the majesty of God.
And the one word that these fiery, mighty, winged creatures can say about God is “Holy.” You are holy. They say it over and over again. “Holy holy holy.” They aren’t just repeating the word. They’re emphasizing it. No other threefold adjective appears in the entire Old Testament. The holiness of God distinguishes him absolutely from all else that is, even from the sinless majesty of the angels. The Bible speaks of the majesty of God’s holiness, the splendor of God’s holiness, the incomparability of God’s holiness. One commentator says that God’s holiness is simply his God-ness in all of his attributes, works, and ways. There’s no good way in human language to describe it, so Isaiah turns to that which we so often turn to to describe or explain the inexplicable … he turns to song. But he didn’t write this song. He simply wrote down what the Seraphim with every breath proclaimed … that he is holy, that he is set apart and above all else. A holy God, attended by flaming dragons.
Now, flip over to Ezekiel 1:1. And then down at Vv. 4-11. And then down at Vv. 2-25. The cherubim, who carry the throne of God itself as God sits upon it. They looked like flaming humans with four faces and four wings each. Notice the four faces: a human face, the highest being in creation. The face of a lion, the highest of the wild animals. The face of an ox, a powerful bull, the highest of the domestic animals. And the face of an eagle, the highest of the birds. What is Ezekiel doing here? He’s trying to describe that which cannot be described. He’s saying, “you haven’t seen anything like these cherubim.” And they aren’t God. They are simply God’s chamber attendants, carrying his throne.
And then Ezekiel tries, as best he can, to describe the one sitting on the throne. Look at Vv. 26-28. Power. Might. Majesty. Brightness. Fire. Holiness. And what was the response of Isaiah and Ezekiel to these encounters with God? Look at Isaiah 6:5. And then Ezekiel 1:28. Ezekiel falls on his face before God. Isaiah comes undone. Do you realize that this is the God into whose presence you have come this morning? The God who allows you and I to know him, to worship him. And what do we do? We glance at our watches, wondering when the pastor will be done so we can get on with our day. We daydream. We fall asleep. Who do we think we are?
And that, right there, is the problem of sin. Sin puffs us up, and reduces God in size. It makes us more important, and God less important, until, from our own perspective, we are the most important being in the universe, and God is the least. Sin flips everything upside down. How different would you live if you knew that you would one day answer to a God the writers of Scripture themselves, who saw these things, can barely describe, surrounded and attended by servants that are multi-headed, multi-winged mighty dragons, and they aren’t breathing fire, they ARE fire?
The bad news is, no matter how hard you tried to live a life you could be proud of before that God, sin would always get the better of you. Before that God, you and I are toast. We are done. Isaiah, the prophet himself, despaired and wailed in hopelessness when he saw God in his throne room. And Isaiah had been living as rightly as he possibly could before God. So what hope is there? Before we get to that, I want you to see one more encounter a person had with God. Turn with me to Revelation 1:12-19.
This is the encounter John, the disciple Jesus loved, had with the risen Christ while in exile on the island of Patmos out in the Mediterranean Sea. John is face to face with Jesus in his return to glory, the glory he set aside when he became a human. Johns words aren’t any different than the words of Isaiah and Ezekiel, are they? The whiteness of purity. The brightness and flame of holiness. And coming out of his mouth? St. Paul calls it the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Every word of this book that I hold in my hand, that gathers dust on our bookshelves, unread, unpondered, unmeditated upon, has been spoken by Christ himself through prophets and apostles. It is his gift of himself to us. And we can’t bring ourselves to pick it up. It’s too boring. We can’t find the time to participate in a Bible study. We’re too busy. Who do we think we are?
And what is John’s response to being in the presence of the one whom we could easily argue was his best friend when he walked this earth? Look down at V. 17. John falls on his face motionless before the one who, all those year before, had washed his feet in the upper room, who was beaten and spit upon and whipped until he couldn’t stand. Who was nailed to a cross and mocked by the crowds as he died. Having lived a holy, righteous, sinless life, he died in our place, on our behalf, the death that by rights, before God, we should each have to die. And he offers to us HIS holiness, HIS righteousness, so that we can come before this mighty, holy, righteous God who is attended by flaming dragons, with confidence. THAT … is our hope.
There’s one more passage I want to look at this morning. It’s found at the end of the book of Revelation. Flip over to Revelation 21:1-4. What are we seeing here? Relationship restored! God WITH … us. Our unholiness dealt with and consumed on the cross. No more distance. No more barriers. God WITH God’s creation, as it was always intended to be. Are you going to say no to this God? Who do we think we are?
One dad tells this story of a trip he took with his family: A few summers ago, we took a family vacation to Toronto. We’d never been there, and we didn’t know what to see, but all the guidebooks said, ‘You have to go up the CN Tower, the world’s tallest building and free-standing structure.”
I didn’t think that was a good idea, because I have a great fear of heights. Just the thought of being 1,815 feet above the ground made me queasy. But the kids said, “Aww, Dad, we gotta go. C’mon, Dad,” so against my better judgment, we went.
I was the last one into the elevator, and I turned around, as some unwritten “Law of Elevators” says you’re supposed to do. Then we started up. It was only then that I realized that the door of this elevator was actually made of glass, and that this elevator was affixed to the outside of the tower. So as we rushed up the side of the CN Tower, I could see the city of Toronto falling away at my feet. I was only inches from the door—and from the air outside and a freefall.
My palms started sweating, my throat got tight, and I started breathing really fast. I told myself, Just hang on. Soon you’ll be on the observation floor.
I stumbled out of the elevator onto the observation floor, where I thought it would be safe. But I found that some sadist had installed a glass floor there, so that people could walk on it, and look straight down to the ground.
The kids were laughing as they walked onto the glass floor, jumped up and down, and even laid down.
“C’mon, Dad!” they yelled.
I didn’t care how thick those blocks of glass were; they were installed by the contractor with the lowest bid, so I wasn’t going to chance it.
That same year, we went to the Grand Canyon, where you can stand at the South Rim and peer 6,000 feet straight down. At the Grand Canyon, you are not separated from your doom by blocks of glass 2½ inches thick. So every year, an average of four or five people die while visiting. Some deaths happen because of (in one website’s words) “overly zealous photographic endeavors.”
Still, the Grand Canyon is so beautiful that I was drawn to it. I had to see it, to get near it. I knew I couldn’t do anything too foolish near the edge, but the same awesome beauty that caused me fear drew me toward it.
When the Bible talks about “fearing God,” what is it talking about? Is it talking about the kind of fear I felt at the CN Tower? Or is it more like the fear I felt at the Grand Canyon?
For most of my Christian life, preachers and writers have told me it’s like the fear I felt at the CN Tower. “When the Bible says to fear God,” they explained, “it doesn’t really mean fear. It means awe or reverence. You should respect God, of course, but you don’t need to actually fear him. It’s like you’re standing on the glass floor 1,100 feet up in the CN Tower. Being there may give you a thrill or a quick feeling of awe, but you’re completely safe. So if you do feel any terror with God, it’s unnecessary or even irrational.”
That all sounded good. I believed that. And I told other people that.
But the Bible disagrees. Isaiah prophesies, “The LORD Almighty is the one … you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.” And Jesus says, “Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.”
So when the Bible talks about fearing God, it means not just awe, and not just reverence. It also means fear. It’s the kind of fear I felt at the Grand Canyon, where I was drawn to the amazing beauty, but I also felt a realistic fear at the danger, because people who acted foolishly near it have died. Let us pray.