Often we come to Scripture with our own questions, such as, “How can I be saved?” This isn’t always bad, but it can cause it to miss what Scripture is actually telling us about the true purpose of creation!
We live in a western, post-Enlightenment world that is extremely focused on the “me.” The main people in our lives are: “me,” “myself,” and “I.”
When we take photos, we don’t take pictures of things of interest, but rather we take “selfies.”
And, when it comes to the Bible, we are less concerned with the narrative of the text and more concerned with the question, “How do I get saved?”
As N.T. Wright has shown in his book, Surprised By Hope, good Christians don’t go to heaven when they die. Instead, we look forward to the uniting of heaven and earth. Or, in Orthodox terminology, we look forward to the transfiguration of the world and a union (theosis) with God.
As we attempt to set self-interest aside to see the bigger picture, a good question comes to mind: what is, exactly, the purpose of creation?
I submit that the purpose is exactly what Orthodox theology has been teaching for 2,000 years: union of creation with God!
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. (Genesis 2:1-2 RSV)
Often, we hear “rest” and we think that God did nothing at all on that 7th day. However, I submit that what is meant by “rest” is rather “resting-place,” as in God came and dwelt in creation as if it were his temple.
The Psalms give us this sense:
For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place for ever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” (Psalm 132:13-14 RSV)
And, if we keep reading Genesis, we also get this impression.
And they [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:8 RSV)
Creation wasn’t meant to a place absent from God, but rather a place for his glory to dwell. A place where heaven and earth meet.
We all know how the story progresses. Adam and Eve sin and they are cast out of paradise. Sin now separates us from God. It prevents his glory from dwelling with us.
However, starting with Abraham, God starts to put it back upright.
Finally, after enslavement in Egypt, God leads his people into the Promised Land, and He gives them instructions to build a large tent, the Tabernacle.
So that God can again dwell among his people.
After receiving instructions for the Tabernacle, the Hebrews quickly get it built.
And when it’s finished, we received this glorious passage:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel. (Exodus 40:34-38 RSV)
God is again fulfilling the purpose of creation and dwelling among his people. (For a discussion about how the Tabernacle was symbol for all of creation, see my post here.)
Eventually, the Tabernacle becomes the Temple, built by the third king of Israel: Solomon.
Again, God’s glory descends upon the Temple and He resides with his people.
Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. … And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. (1 Kings 8:6, 10-11 RSV)
However, the people did not obey the commandments of God and the warnings, in the form of curses, given to them by Moses came true (see Deuteronomy 27-30). They were exiled among the nations because of their sins – cast out of paradise, if you will.
But we can’t just think of exile as being under the rule of foreign kings. It also means no longer having God dwell in your midst.
The prophet Ezekiel does not hold back.
Then the glory of the LORD went forth from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth… (Ezekiel 10:18-19 RSV)
It seems that God has abandoned his people. But this isn’t the end. Ezekiel tells us that one day people will again start listening to God. When they do, they will receive a circumcision not made by hands, and they will be God’s people.
And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20 RSV)
And when this happens, creation’s purpose will be fulfilled and God will again dwell among his people.
And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the east; and the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. And the vision I saw was like the vision which I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision which I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face. As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple. (Ezekiel 43:2-5 RSV)
But, in the first century, at the time of Christ, this had not yet happened. Yes, the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem and a 2nd Temple had been built, but God’s glory had yet to return.
Nehemiah, a prophet at the time of the building of the 2nd Temple make this clear.
Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. (Nehemiah 9:36 RSV)
The people had returned to the land but they were still exiled from God’s glory, His presence.
At the time of the first century, Rome ruled over what had been the Promised Land. The Israelites, or by this time, the Judeans, were awaiting God to fulfill creation’s purpose: to come and dwell among them.
This was the hope of the people.
The surprise of the New Testament is not that God comes to live among us, but how he does that: through the person of Jesus Christ.
Here’s how St. John tells it:
In the origin was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god. …And the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14 David Bentley Hart’s translation).
I use this translation because it translates the Greek exactly, that the Logos “pitched a tent among us.” In other words, what St. John is doing is making a connection between the tent where God dwelled in times of old – that is, the Tabernacle – and Christ.
If the Tabernacle was how God once dwelt among his people, that Tabernacle is now Jesus Christ.
St. John is announcing the end of the exile and the return of God.
Creation’s purpose is once again being fulfilled.
This is where the Feast of Theophany comes in.
This feast is celebrated by Orthodox Christians on January 6th. It’s the celebration of the baptism of Christ, an event that follows that passage cited above.
Another way to think about it is as a rewording of what St. John just said, God has “pitched a tent among us.”
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34 RSV)
It’s clear that God dwells in this man, Jesus Christ. He is God in the flesh, the God-Man.
In short, God has come into his “resting-place.”
Today, as Orthodox Christians, God dwells in our presence at every Divine Liturgy. The Altar becomes the Holy of Holies as the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Through communion, we, as those gathered together, come forward to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ and, in turn, we become the Body of Christ.
We, as Orthodox Christians, are God’s presence in the world. We are God’s glory. At the end of Liturgy, we are called to go out of our church building and be God’s glory for others.
P.S. So come, this Saturday, celebrate Theophany and the fulfillment of creation’s purpose!
St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
This Saturday, January 6th: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am followed by a blessing of the Mississippi River.
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am
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