"For the Lord dwells in Zion." These are the closing words of the prophet Joel (after whom my second son gets his middle name). And what a profound statement it is! The writer of Hebrews says:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Zion represents the covenant community of God's people, and as such finds its ultimate fulfilment in the church. It is in the church, to the church, and through the church that God chooses to make manifest his glory.
When we come together as the people of God we are coming to Zion, and the awesome manifest presence and glory of God himself. This is what gives the church its true identity, nothing less. It is the assembled community of God's people where God himself is made manifest.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. (Psalm 50:2)
It is a tragedy most profound when God's people trade this identify for mere meetings, activities, programmes, schedules, form-filling, number-crunching, seat-filling irrelevance. If we cease to make known the awesome wonder of a genuine encounter with the living God in our midst, we have lost what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.
In Exodus 33 the Lord offers Moses such an exchange:
"Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people."
The Lord offered them everything they wanted: their inheritance, victory over their enemies, abundant provision, even angelic visitation... but at the cost of the very thing that defined them as God's people - the presence of God himself.
When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. (Exodus 33:4)
This was one of the rare times when the people caught the heart of God straight away. It didn't matter how much "blessing" they had, if God was not present with them it was "a disaster!"
Imagine a meeting where people press into that which has eluded them for years, where the abundant provision of God is poured out in finance, heath, peace, and where there is even an angelic visitation! I wonder how many of us would describe such a meeting a "disaster" because we realise that what is most important is - "Did we encounter God himself?" If God didn't show up, would he even be missed, or have we been so caught up in the activities of church that we have forgotten what it's really all about.
I thank God that I attend a congregation where the presence of God is regularly manifest and highly valued... but loosing focus can be a real and present danger for us all, no matter what our church background.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
It is not just on the last day that we shall stand before God in glory. For those who are joined to a genuine expression of Zion, the church of God, it should happen every time we come together!
"For the Lord dwells in Zion." Nothing less than the manifest presence of God in every meeting. Anything less is a disaster!