For the week of February 16, 2008 / 10 Adar 5768
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 27:20 - 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27

Religion Can Get in the Way of God

There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God. (Shemot / Exodus 29:43-46; ESV)

This may sound a little strange, but one of the things that religious people seem to miss in their pursuit of religion is God. Yes, I know that they may refer to God regularly or perhaps incessantly, but the reality of God himself may be absent.

People that are committed to religion tend to fill their lives with religious activities. They regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities, which may or may not include singing spiritually oriented songs, reading religious texts, praying prayers, and giving their money to support their preferred religious organization.

None of this type of activity necessarily engages God himself. Years ago a Chasidic rabbi told me that he didn't experience God personally. His way of relating to God was through the keeping of the mitzvot (Hebrew: the commandments). In his understanding, God through Moses had communicated what was expected of the Jewish people, and that was that.

I wonder how many religious people are just like that rabbi. They give themselves to whatever they think are their religious obligations and that's that. God is referenced but not actually known in any personal way.

It is popular among some Bible believers to deny that they are religious. They say things such as, "My faith is not a religion; it's a relationship." Let's not be fooled by our pithy slogans. Spouting a creed doesn't make it real. Denying to have the kind of spirituality that the rabbi clearly expressed, doesn't automatically mean that we are any different from him. Just because his type of religion is very structured and ours is less so, doesn't mean that ours is immune from the way religious activities can become the end-all of our so-called spiritual existence.

Through the Torah, God gave to ancient Israel clear directives regarding their religious life. It would have been easy to focus on those directives and lose sight of the God who gave them. But as we read these directives we see over and over again that it is all about God. We read at the start, "I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God" (Shemot / Exodus 29:45; ESV). Central to the life of ancient Israel was the understanding that the God who personally rescued them from oppression in Egypt lived in their midst. The keeping of God's directives was to be a response to God's presence among them, not simply the performance of rituals to support the religion.

This is similar to what a congregation of New Covenant believers would be told many years later:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12,13)

The reference to "God who works in you" may be best understood as "God who works in your midst." The community was encouraged to live their lives with a sense of reverential awe, because God was in their midst. God's presence should have made a difference in everything they did both as individuals and as a community.

Please don't think that I am saying that the religious activities I listed earlier such as singing, praying, etc., are in any way undesirable for people who love God and want to serve him. But let us remember that these activities will only fulfill their God-intended purpose as we do them in response to him and his presence in our lives.

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