“In Christ, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2:22)
“You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house” (I Peter 2:5)
The vast majority of the world’s 65-70 million displaced people are homeless out of love, love for life, love for God, love for justice, or love for family. They include refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution or extreme poverty in Central America, Central Africa, Syria or Sudan. Some have lost or surrendered highly paying professional positions in their home countries, for jobs here that do not make full use of their skills and education. But they count the sacrifice worthwhile, so that their children can get the education and careers they are willing to work for, even the ones their parents had to leave behind.
Some of my high school classmates in a Great Lakes Rust Belt auto company town became homeless after the assembly lines started closing in the 1980’s and 90’s. Some left for work in the Sunbelt. Others stayed, to be near a parent in a nursing home, or for their children to finish high school with all the friends they had made since kindergarten. They counted on their home equity, unemployment insurance, savings and retirement accounts, and the local food bank to carry them until they got other work. After they burned through pensions and retirement funds, they were more likely to get multiple addresses than other jobs, or at least, jobs that would pay for food, a home and healthcare. That’s typical of homelessness today: not that people have no address, but that they go through many addresses, the first one foreclosed and with a tax lien, others on friends’ couches, over a short period of time. Often, again, for love.
For even greater love is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is “homeless.” Yes, the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, infinite and eternal God of the Bible who more than fills every inch of this infinite, expanding universe, and then some. The trajectory of the whole Biblical story is effectively “The Homeward Journey of Our Homeless God.” This God is homeless out of love for us, because we keep changing addresses on him.
God’s homeward journey begins “in the beginning,” the first few chapters of Genesis. On the 7th day of Creation, “God rested.” That does not mean that, after making the earth and the universe, God was bushed, and needed to kick back, put up his feet, wipe his brow, rest, recover and catch a nap. In the ancient Near East, a God was said to have “rested” when the deity accepted, blessed, moved into and took up residence in a temple, a sanctuary, or a shrine prepared for him or her, after the requisite ceremonies and sacrifices. Genesis 2: 2-3 tells us that God accepted, blessed and entered the temple that we call “earth,” a temple that God made by himself and for himself, and for us, where we can dwell with and worship God. That’s why Sabbath rest in the Bible is always associated with worship, and not just knocking off work and putting up our feet. What if we looked at this beautiful planet that way, as God’s temple?
Ancient temples usually included a place where the presence of the deity was most powerful, immediate and intense. It might be called “the inner sanctum,” or “the most holy place,” or “the holy of holies.” Only a few can go there, and never without proper conduct, preparation, and certain restrictions. Was the Garden of Eden the first holy of holies, the inner sanctum for Temple Earth? For there we read that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God intimately in the cool of the evening. And they had to observe one major restriction.
But when the first-recorded snake-in-the-grass convinced us to try and kick out the god of this inner sanctum and take his place, we all ended up homeless, “east of Eden,” at least spiritually speaking. As St. Augustine so famously prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they find their resting place in you, O God.”
Gods of the ancient Near East were understood to have permanent local addresses, on mountaintops or in sacred groves or temples. They were not to trespass on each other’s turf, without that being understood as an insult, an invasion, or an attempt at a hostile takeover. But our homeless God of Bible walked boldly and openly with his homeless people through the domains of many other deities. In Ur of the Chaldees—Iraq today—God tapped Abram and Sarai on the shoulder, to come walk with him into the land of Canaanite gods. There he dwelt most intimately with the nomadic livestock herding family of Abraham’s descendants. This same then God accompanies his people to the turf of Egyptian gods, where he dwells with them even in the slave labor camps.
This God then leads their descendants through the Sinai desert. There God also establishes another inner sanctum, a holy of holies, atop Mt. Sinai. There God directs the construction of a portable home, the tabernacle. Inside that tabernacle is also an inner sanctum, a holy of holies, into which the fiery glory of God’s presence, “the shekinah,” which had led them through the desert by night, moves in and rests over the mercy seat.
A few hundred years later, Solomon oversaw the construction of a stone temple for God in Jerusalem. After six days of celebration, on the seventh day, Solomon prayed, “Now arise, Lord God, and come to your resting place…(2 Chronicles 6”: 41). The fiery glory of God’s presence then took up residence in the new inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. There the high priest could enter only once a year.
And there God “rested,” in the inner sanctum of the temple, the holy of holies, until the Israelites filled the temple and the holy city so full of idols, immorality and injustice, that the fiery glow of God’s glory left and headed east, toward Babylon (Ezekiel 10). The Hebrews would dwell there in captivity for 70 years. Even in Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw visions of God’s fiery glory (Ezekiel 1). God also displayed his power in contests with local deities, in a fiery furnace with three young Hebrew men, and in a lion’s den with an aged Daniel.
After the Exile, Israel returned to Zion and rebuilt the temple. But no fiery glow of God’s presence ever returned to the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, despite all the promises of the prophets and the prayers of the Psalms to that effect. Whether God “rested” there or not remained an open, painful and controversial question.
Or did the glory of God return to “rest” in this temple? When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple for the rite of redemption for a firstborn son, the elderly prophet, Simeon prayed, “Now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your glory [italics mine], which you have prepared in the sight of all nations….”
Is Jesus the reentry of God’s glory, yet “resting” in his temple earth? That would certainly fit with the words of John’s Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. and we beheld his glory…(John 1:14).” Speaking to fellow Jewish Christians, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:3).” That certainly fits with what Jesus himself said, “Destroy this temple and within three days I will rebuild it (Jn. 2:19),” by which he meant his own body. The homeless Jesus, who said, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Mt. 8:20),” who, at the end of this earthly life, had only the clothes on his back as an estate, is God’s address with us in the flesh, God’s walking, wandering inner sanctum, God’s holy of holies “tabernacling” among us in our exile, “east of Eden.” “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Col. 2:9).”
Jesus’ ascent to heaven (Acts 1) does not mean that God has moved away, upstairs, to leave us on our own. When the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 in Jerusalem on that Pentecost Sunday after Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 2), God moved into another earthly residence: the church. The flaming tongues of fire above each disciples’ head are another reappearance of God’s shekinah glory in each individual member of the church. In Christ, we carry within us an inner sanctum, a “holy of holies,” where the glory of God dwells like a fire generating the warmth of faith, hope and love after the manner and image of Jesus. Each disciple of Jesus then is a currently known address for our homeless God.
But more often does the New Testament speak of the church, together, corporately, as God’s “resting place.” “…in Christ you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Ephesians 2: 19-21).” The word, “you” is plural, not singular. Peter also calls us “a house for God,” when he writes, “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:5).”
In its many different shapes, forms and sizes, the church is to be a home for our homeless God, among us, with us, and within us. But we are not God’s final, permanent address. That final address we read about in John’s Revelation, chapter 21: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!’”
Typically, we mortals look to a local congregation and wonder, “Will I find a home there? Will it remain a home for me? Will I feel welcome? Will I be fed there, spiritually and relationally? Those are valid, crucial questions. I hope the answers are all affirmative.
But it’s funny that we should ask such questions. We’re not the only ones. Someone else is wondering about that, too, Someone whom we often overlook, the One who says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with that person (Revelation 3:20).” Let’s be at least as concerned about who and what church is for God, as we are about who and what church is for others and ourselves: a home for the homeless God who, for such great love, guides and journeys with all of us spiritually homeless people east of Eden, on the way home to the New Zion.