In Boxes

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 20:40 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

You’ve probably heard someone say something like, “Don’t put God in a box.” It usually means that we should not set limits on what God can do. And that’s true. We should not say, “God can’t do this,” or “God can’t do that.” We should not think that the limits of our imagination, or the limits of our understanding, have anything to do with what God can or can’t, will or won’t, do.

But there is a world of difference between saying that you or I should not put God in a box made of our own limits, and the boxes that God puts Himself in. The blessing of God always comes to us in boxes of His own making. He prescribes His own limits for our sake. He puts Himself in His own boxes.

This is the way it is throughout the whole Scriptures. When God wants to give His blessing to people, He wraps Himself up in boxes and gives Himself in ways that are limited not by what is possible or what He can do—there is no inherent limit in what God will or won’t do—but by His own gracious choice. In fact, the record of God’s interactions with His people is a record of those boxes. There are a lot of ways that He does this, but the most prominent are the tabernacle and later the temple, and the ark of the covenant that goes in the most holy place within the tabernacle and the temple.

In Exodus, God gives very, very specific instructions about the construction of the tabernacle. He tells the people what materials to use for the tent, what colors, how big it is supposed to be, what decorations to make, what furniture to put in the various sections of the tabernacle. He tells them who can go where, and when they can go there. There is nothing left to chance, and nothing, really, left to the imagination of the people. This is not their box, in which they can contain God. This is the box in which He chooses to put Himself, for their sake, to be present with and among them, to lead them to the land of promise.

When they get to the land, and finally it comes to the point where Solomon is going to build the temple, he builds what is simply a larger, more permanent version of the portable tabernacle. And Solomon knows that this is not something he’s building to contain or control or limit God. In his prayer of dedication, Solomon says to God, Heaven and earth cannot contain You, let alone this temple that I have built. And yet, You have chosen to put Your Name here. So when people pray toward this place, where You have put Your Name, then hear from heaven and forgive. Where God puts His Name is where He chooses to dwell, to forgive and save.

And the ark of the covenant is the literal box that God commands them to make, which goes in the very heart of the tabernacle, and then the temple. God tells them how to make it, what materials to use, and how to carry it. He tells them to make the cover of the ark, of the box, out of gold, and that it should have two angels, cherubim, on top, with their wings spread out toward each other. And God says that that is going to be His seat, the place where He will dwell for them in mercy.

God, of course, is not bound to that box like an idol made of gold. He chooses to be there, but if the people ignore or reject Him, it is not as if He has no choice but to be stuck with the ark. When the people disobey Him and take the ark anyway, God does not go with it. At one point, Israel’s enemies, the Philistines, capture the ark and put it in the temple of their god, Dagon. But when they come back in the morning, Dagon has fallen over, in worship before the ark. The next day, he has fallen over again, and broken off his hands and head, face down before the ark. Every idol will fall down before Yahweh. These idols cannot hear or see or think or act. Every false god—the boxes we construct for our spiritual desires and experiences—will be destroyed by the box in which Yahweh puts Himself.

In 2 Samuel 6, David is going to bring the ark up to Jerusalem, to the “city of David,” from the house of Amminidab on the hill. So he gets 30,000 people and they get the ark, and they put it in a cart to take it up to Jerusalem. While they’re on their way, one of the men driving the oxen pulling the cart—his name is Uzzah—sees that one of the oxen stumbles, and he puts out his hand and grabs hold of the ark to keep it from falling out of the cart. And God strikes him dead right there on the spot. And David has the same response you probably have to that: he’s mad at God for killing Uzzah. It doesn’t seem right. All he did was try to keep the ark from falling out of the cart. But the ark was never meant to be in a cart. That’s how the Philistines return the ark to Israel after judgment on them and on their gods. God told them how to carry the ark, but they’re not doing it. And because of that, Uzzah, who is not allowed to touch the ark, has to touch it.

But when David sees this, he’s not only angry, he’s a little afraid. And he says, How should the ark of the Lord come to me? And he decides that maybe he doesn’t want the ark in his house in Jerusalem. So they turn aside and the ark goes into the house of a man named Obed-edom. And the ark is there for three months, and the entire time God blesses Obed-edom and his whole household. God’s blessing comes in boxes of His own making. When David hears that God is blessing Obed-edom, he decides that maybe he does want the ark after all.

When Mary comes to Elizabeth’s house, and greets Elizabeth, the six-month-old infant—the fetus!—inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy. And that’s not just a mother getting sentimental about her baby kicking. Luke says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t lie. Elizabeth says, When the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of everything that God has said to her.

Elizabeth says something else as well. She says, “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And Mary, the mother of the Lord, stays in Elizabeth’s house for three months. This is how the blessing of the Lord comes into the world. The eternal Son wraps Himself up in the box of human DNA, of flesh and blood, as a tiny zygote and embryo and fetus and infant. He puts Himself inside the box, inside the flesh-and-blood limits of Mary’s womb. He puts Himself in the box of the man Jesus, until He is put in the box of a borrowed grave. And then He destroys all the boxes of human making, in order to be present in boxes of His own making, for our sake, for our salvation.

It is sort of a cliché to say that we should not put God in a box. And at the same time, we put Him in different boxes. Sure, not those old dusty boxes of things like Scriptures, or dry doctrine, or creeds, but in our own boxes nonetheless. Sometimes it’s not really because we don’t think people shouldn’t limit God, but because we don’t like the limits God Himself sets for Himself. We don’t like the ways that God has chosen to come to us, how He has given us the blessing of Himself, and we would rather create our own spirituality, in ways that better fit our own views of ourselves and our feelings. Water, and words, and bread and wine are all fine, but we want more.

But God will destroy those idols as surely as He cut off the head and hands of Dagon in that Philistine temple. He will be found exactly as He chooses to be found, or He will not be found at all. And He chooses to be found in the ways He reveals exactly so that we don’t have to go looking, so that we can be sure whether it is actually the true God or not. He doesn’t want us to have any doubt, any uncertainty. And blessed is the one who believes that there will be a fulfillment of everything God has said.

The word blessing here in Luke 1 is literally “good word.” God speaks a good word, and we believe it, because in that good word, in that blessing, is everything. And the blessing comes when and where and how God chooses to wrap it up. And in the fullness of time, He wrapped up His blessing in the body of Mary, and she believed that blessing: she said, let it be to me as You have said. Blessed are you! Elizabeth said. You believed there would be a fulfillment of everything He said to you! The seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent, and destroy the lie of death, has come to its fruition in Mary’s womb. Blessed are you and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

The poet John Betjeman has a famous poem called “Christmas,” (maybe you’ve heard it) where he writes, “And is it true? And is it true,/This most tremendous tale of all,/Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,/A Baby in an ox’s stall?/The Maker of the stars and sea/Became a Child on earth for me?/ And is it true? For if it is,/No loving fingers tying strings/Around those tissued fripperies,/The sweet and silly Christmas things/Bath salts and inexpensive scent/And hideous tie so kindly meant,/ No love that in a family dwells,/No carolling in frosty air,/Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/Can with this single Truth compare—That God was Man in Palestine/And lives to-day in Bread and Wine” (“Christmas,” John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, 189-190).

Do not despise the boxes in which God hides Himself, because His blessing is there, wrapped up, limited by His own chosen limits, for you. Here He chooses to be, to save you by water to which He has joined His holy word; here He chooses to be, to deliver forgiveness of sins to you that He has put into the mouth of a sinner; to put within the box of bread and wine His own living Body and Blood for you. Blessed are you! And blessed are you who have believed that there would be a fulfillment of every good word that God has spoken. No doubt, no uncertainty, no question about where God will be. Just Immanuel, God with us, in the boxes into which He has put Himself: temple and tabernacle and ark, the Law and the priesthood and the bread from heaven, fulfilled in Jesus, conceived in and born from Mary, believed by her, and by Elizabeth, and by John, and by you.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/18/21

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