Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Our Spiritual Story, Part 1: In the Beginning

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and dark, and the Spirit moved over the waters. Then God brought light into the world, spread stars and planets across the heavens, and commanded the waters to gather into seas so that dry land appeared. He made the seas burst with life, launched birds into the air, and caused all kinds of plants, creeping things, wild animals, and cattle to inhabit the freshly created land.

From the dust of the earth God made a man, Adam, in His own image and likeness and breathed into him the breath of life so that he became a living soul. Then God formed a woman, Eve, the mother of all the living, to be Adam’s suitable compliment. In the East, in Eden, God planted a garden where He placed our first parents. He blessed their mystical union and dwelled with them in the midst of the Garden of Paradise.

Although our first parents lived in Paradise in communion with our Creator, who lavished His ever-flowing love and grace upon them, they wanted something else. Not content with Paradise, their self-centered desires turned their hearts away from the One who made them. Their rejection of the source of Life brought physical and spiritual death into the world. The harmony and wholeness permeating creation turned to corruption, brokenness, and chaos. Because of our first parents’ sin, every generation of descendents to inhabit the earth after them would be born with a corrupted nature, endowed with an inclination toward evil and destined to taste both the pain of sickness and bitterness of death.

Although the invisible attributes of God are clearly visible in His creation, our self-centeredness drew us away from our Creator. Our ancestors who lived in ancient times forgot the One in whose image they had been created, for when they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God nor were they thankful for all He had done for them. Instead, their thoughts became worthless and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and traded the glory of the immortal God for images of humans, birds, and animals.

Since humans can only truly know their Creator by living in relationship with Him, our ancestors drifted away from the Truth, losing their spiritual knowledge of God. In ignorance they devised myths and developed religions patterned after what they observed in the creation, but were blind to the Creator Himself who possesses all wisdom, knowledge, power, goodness, and love. Sensing their spiritual natures, humans craved a connection with God, but they had lost the intimate communion they once enjoyed with the One in whose image they had been made.

A people known as the Israelites (descendents of a man named Jacob, also called Israel) lived in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to build cities for the Pharaoh, but they cried out to God, praying for relief from the oppression of their slave masters. One day an Israelite named Moses, who had run away from Egypt, was watching his father-in-law’s sheep in a far-off land. He saw a curious sight, a bush unconsumed by fire though engulfed in flames. Approaching the bush, Moses heard a voice from within the flames call his name: “Moses. Moses.” Through the fire, the Immortal One who created all things spoke to Moses these words: “I have seen the suffering and oppression of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their slave masters. Now I will send you to Pharaoh so you can bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” By divine appointment, Moses reluctantly became a prophet, the one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery and into a future of hope.

As Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, the Creator remained with them and guided them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He led them through the desert to a mountain called Sinai (on the modern Sinai Peninsula). At Sinai, the Creator spoke to the Israelites, these newly liberated slaves: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I brought you to myself on eagles’ wings. Now, if you will obey me and keep my covenant, then you shall be my prized treasure above all people. The whole earth is mine, but you shall be my kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The Israelites agreed to follow the ways of the true and living God. Although the nations of the world continued to live in spiritual ignorance, our Creator chose to reveal Himself to this one nation, His own. He gave them specific teachings to help them live as a good, holy, and loving people. Even more, God gave Moses this incredible, mysterious message: “Tell the Israelites to make me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” According to the exact pattern God gave them, the Israelites made the Tabernacle, a sacred tent where the Creator would live in the midst of the people He had chosen as His own.

The centerpiece of God’s holy sanctuary was a wooden chest covered in gold called the Ark of the Covenant. On the Ark’s cover rested two golden cherubim, winged angelic creatures, who faced each other with wings outstretched to overshadow the Ark. The faces of the two cherubim look down in humility toward the cover. The Ark of the Covenant would become the throne of the Creator on earth where the divine presence would dwell among the people.

When the Israelites completed the Tabernacle as God had commanded, a cloud covered the tent and the visible glory of the God filled the Tabernacle. The Creator who cannot be contained had moved into His new home. The cloud remained over the Tabernacle by day. By night the divine fire burned within the cloud in the sight of all the Israelites.

From Mount Sinai, the Israelites journeyed to the land God had prepared for them, the land given the name, “Israel.” The greatest king of Israel, King David, desired to replace the Tabernacle with a permanent Temple, a house where God could live. “Look here,” said David, “ I’m living in a house made of cedar, but the Ark of God is still in a tent.” God responded, “Are you to build me a house to live in? I haven’t lived in a house since the time that I brought up the Israelites from Egypt, even to this day, but I’ve dwelled in a tent. In all the places I traveled with the Israelites, did I ask any of the rulers whom I had commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house made of cedar?’” Although God did not intend to move from the Tabernacle immediately, He promised David that his son and successor, Solomon, would build a Temple in Jerusalem. When Solomon ascended to the throne of his father, he indeed built a majestic Temple for God to dwell. At the completion of the Temple’s construction, King Solomon called the elders and leaders of the Israelite families and tribes together. When all the people had gathered before the Temple, the priests lifted up the holy Ark, the throne of God, and carried it into the Temple. When they had set the Ark in its place in the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the divine cloud filled the Temple. The priests could not perform their service because the visible glory of the Lord had filled His house. When he saw this, King Solomon said, “I have built you a house to live in, a place for you to dwell forever!”

God promised the Israelites that He would live among them as long as they lived lives of spiritual purity and goodness, reflecting the holy, loving character of the One who dwelled among them, but even though the Holy One lived in their presence on the earth, the Israelites turned away from Him and drifted toward self-centeredness, darkness, idolatry, and other forms of evil. Time after time, because of His great love, God raised up prophets and sent them to warn His people, calling them to end their rebellion and turn back toward Him, but the people would not listen.

Some Israelites in Jerusalem, full of pride, believed that they were invincible no matter how they lived because the Temple stood in their city. God sent His prophet Jeremiah to stand at the gate of the Temple, God’s house among humanity, and proclaim His message to the people:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and what you do, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Do not trust in lies, saying, “The Temple of God! The Temple of God! The Temple of God!” If you thoroughly change your ways and your behavior, if you execute justice between a man and his neighbor, if you stop oppressing the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, stop shedding innocent blood in this place, and stop following other gods to your own hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, you trust in lying words that don’t benefit you. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you don’t know, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe to do all these abominations?” Has this house which is called by my name become a den of thieves in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it.
The Israelites did not listen when God reached out to embrace them. Since they continued to live in rebellion against the God who loved them, they lost the material things in which they placed their hope and trust. The nation of Israel was taken captive, the city of Jerusalem seized, and the Temple destroyed. Empire after empire ruled the land. By the first century A.D., Herod the Great, King of Israel under the Roman Empire, had built another glorious Temple where Solomon’s Temple once stood.

Since the beginning of time the spiritual story of humanity had been unfolding. God made the nation of Israel, called them to a special purpose, and had been actively involved in the lives of the Israelites to prepare the world for what He was planning to do. During this time, the reign of the Roman Empire, the world we live in and the relationship between us and our Creator was about to change forever.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Adapted from “The Spiritual Story of Our Human Race,” The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees. NASA imagery is in the public domain.