Our God Is Near Us

Pillar of Fire

Deuteronomy 4:7 “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

Life was not easy for Old Testament Israel, a nation of shepherds. For most of them, their entire life was a forty year camping trip in a desert. Imagine going camping with the entire population of metropolitan areas like Portland, Oregon; Orlando, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Las Vegas, Nevada; or Cincinnati, Ohio! Then remember that everyone wasn’t merely taking a dog or a cat, but entire flocks of sheep and goats. These people weren’t living in RV’s but tents, and there were no water or electric hookups, no bathhouse in the campground. Life was not easy.

But Moses helped them to see the clear advantages of being people who belonged to God. First, Moses says, look at your God. Look at how real he is, and how closely he is involved in your life. The oldest people listening to him were in their late teens when God dropped ten miraculous plagues on Egypt, and then made a dry path through the middle of the Red Sea so that they could escape. They saw enough food and water for 2 million people miraculously appear in the desert. They heard God’s voice from Mt. Sinai. They followed the pillar that looked like it was made of cloud during the day and fire at night. Other nations had gods who kept their distance from their people, acted like spoiled children, and occasionally did magic tricks once upon a time in a land far, far away. Israel’s God lived among them and saved them over and over again. Which faith made sense to follow?

We serve and follow that same God. Now maybe we are tempted to think, “Our God doesn’t seem so near or so real today. We haven’t seen miracles like Israel saw.” Perhaps. But has he really grown fuzzy and distant? With Jesus, we have more, not less. We don’t have a mysterious voice thundering from a mountain, or an unapproachable pillar of fire out in a desert. We have God with flesh and bones, a man like us who laughs, and loves, and listens. He isn’t just present in our world. He is a member of our family, a distant relative connected to your very own family tree. It’s true, it’s been two thousand years since he came here to live and die to save us. But he lives again. There is an empty tomb just outside the old city of Jerusalem that says it’s so. We have the eyewitness reports of hundreds recorded by a half dozen or so recorders.

And he still shows up. We hear him speaking, not with one mouth, but with thousands. We hear his voice in the voice of our pastors confronting our sins and proclaiming forgiveness full and free. He has left us with hundreds and thousands of pages of his love letters to us–more than dead words on a page, but living and active words, words in which he himself is living by his Spirit, words full of life and of power. He still meets with us right here personally, bodily, really during those precious moments when we stand before his altar and receive the Supper by which he whispers to our hearts, just to you, “I am here. All is forgiven. All is peace. All the blessings of my cross are your very own.” He doesn’t hide himself in a tent or a temple. The same Jesus who walked the streets of Jerusalem now lives in your own body, in your own heart by faith–not as a happy memory or a collection of historical truths, but as a person who has moved in and made this place his home.

“Still,” we might think, “I would like to see the power. I would like to see the miracles.” Open your eyes, my friends! On the one hand, if you aren’t in imminent danger of death because some enemy army is hunting you down; if you aren’t in imminent danger of starvation for a lack of food, no miracle is required. That’s a good thing, right? Do you suppose God’s power isn’t involved in making your life so safe? And if you still want more, get to know some of the sober stories from your contemporaries on the front lines of God’s battles today. I am not thinking so much of the person who threw their crutches away after attending a tent revival. Talk to the missionaries and evangelists who see the gospel making disciples for Jesus out of the most unlikely candidates, humanly speaking. Is there a greater miracle than a story about a Jewish man who died as a criminal 2000 years ago winning the heart of a hardened atheist or converting devout followers of other gods in some place where the Bible isn’t even available in their own language?

The answer to Moses’ question is easy: “There is none.” No other people is so privileged to have a god like ours who lives with us and gets his own hands dirty in our lives. That was true for God’s chosen nation over three thousand years ago. It is still true for you and me, his “chosen people…a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9) spread across the earth today.

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