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Grounded in His Glory

March 3, 2024 | by Pastor Peter

When Jesus visited the temple in Jerusalem he saw people were so distracted by the practices that were supposed to bring God close that they weren’t attentive to his presence with them. We can fall for the same temptation, getting so busy with religious doing that we forget our service must be grounded in his empowering presence in us.

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Gary fancied himself a Romantic. So on the occasion of his 10th anniversary to Shelly, his beloved bride, he decided he would make the grand gesture of preparing her favourite meal, a complicated dish that would take him all day to make. Shelly appreciated Gary’s willingness to go to such great lengths to show his love. But then Ellie, their five-year-old, slipped and fell, knocking out a tooth. Shelly needed Gary to help look after the other kids while she took Ellie to the dentist, but Gary insisted he needed time to make everything perfect. After Shelly came home from the emergency dentist visit, Sonny, their two-year-old son, plugged the toilet, which overflowed. Shelly begged Gary to fix the toilet, but he protested that everything must be perfect. The preparation went on so long that, exhausted from the day’s misadventures, Shelly had fallen asleep by the time dinner was ready. Gary’s grand romantic gesture seemed kind of hollow given how inattentive he was to Shelly’s genuine needs.

I hope this story is an exaggeration. Most husbands would understand that the ritual of cooking dinner for their wives to celebrate an anniversary is less important than attending to her actual needs. But in the realm of religion, this sort of example is less exaggeration and more reality. 

When God Came To His Temple

Consider the story where Jesus (God’s presence with humanity) enters the temple (the place where people come to meet with God).

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts, he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:13-22, NIV)

Jesus–God in the flesh–walks into the temple, and no one notices him because everyone is busy attending to the sacrificial system–the system meant to allow people to experience God’s presence–work. The Jewish religious system had lost the plot. Somehow the religious practices meant to allow the people to dwell with God had become more important than God’s presence with them.

The Point of the Laws

The law, the temple and the sacrificial system allowed the unholy people to live with a holy God. After God brought the people up from Egypt, God showed that his end goal was to live among the people: 

“I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God” (Exodus 29:45-46, NIV). 

Israel as a nation is born as God sets up a tent, the Tabernacle, to dwell among the people. 

The sacrifices remind the Israelites of the need to live holy lives because a holy God lives among them. But the sacrificial system is imperfect and becomes too important. So God’s prophets begin to voice God’s dissatisfaction with the system that God instituted. ‘”The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. 

“I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats”‘ (Isaiah 1:11, NIV). 

The sacrifices were intended to make the people attentive to God’s presence. When they become the end themselves, they serve no useful purpose at all.

This whole situation was also made worse by politics. Around the time this was happening, there was a conflict brewing between Caiaphas, the high priest, and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). The Sanhedrin wanted more power, so they moved the council meetings out of the temple (where Caiaphas had more influence) into the marketplace in the Kidron Valley (just outside the city walls). Caiaphas was so angry with the people who ran the market for allowing this to happen that he invited rival vendors to set up their stalls within the temple grounds. So the high priest weaponized the sacrificial system for personal political ambition. All of this just goes to show that religious people can take things that are holy and good and corrupt them with impure motives.

The temple, with its attendant rituals, had become the point. But the temple was never meant to be more than a signpost pointing toward a time when God would dwell with his people more immediately. But when God fulfilled that promise, the people demonstrated, by their hostility to Jesus, that they preferred the temple. Jesus shuts down the sacrificial system because its time has ended. But the people’s hostility towards Jesus showed they would rather have the old system. 

Imagine a couple meeting online and falling in love over emails and Zoom calls. They agree that the man will come to where his girlfriend is so they can marry and start a life together. But when he gets there and they wed, the woman asks if they can keep living apart and relating over Zoom. This is how the Jewish religious establishment is treating God.

When Our Religion Is Busyness

While we don’t have a temple or a system of sacrifices, we can make the same mistake: we can get very focused on religious activities to the point where we are inattentive to God’s presence with us. A personal example from my week. On a normal Sunday, I go home after church and immediately start work on next week’s sermon. Last week, we had Games and Grub, so I stayed longer at the church. When I got down to work on this sermon, I felt a time crunch, so I didn’t spend as much time as I should have in prayer discerning what I should preach about. I tried to plow ahead, and I got stuck. I had to sit with God in prayer for quite a while before I figured out how to preach this sermon. So I couldn’t write a sermon that says we need to attend to God’s presence and serve out of that, by ignoring God’s presence to serve him. My own experience writing this sermon proves the point I’m trying to make. It’s easy to do religion without God. 

Consider the church in Laodicea, a prosperous town in Asia Minor at the end of the first century. In Revelation Jesus dictates a scathing letter to John indicting the Laodiceans for their lack of attention to Jesus. In one memorable quote, Jesus says: 

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20, NIV). 

They are so busy doing church that they don’t understand that Jesus is outside asking to be let in. It would be like going to a birthday party where, at the very beginning of the party, the guest of honour gets locked in the garage. While they pound on the door to be let in, no one notices that the birthday boy is missing. We can pray, read our Bibles, serve the poor, and conduct worship services without noticing that Jesus is outside pounding on the door asking to be let in. How do we avoid making this mistake?

Drawing Life from God’s Presence with Us

We need to be attentive to God’s presence with us because our service must flow from his presence with us. Being attentive to God’s presence always begins with prayer and prayer is hard. First, prayer can feel like inactivity. When we feel a sense of urgency, we want to get moving, so prayer feels contrary to our purposes. But sometimes you need to stop so you can go more effectively. If you’re going on a long drive, you need to stop and fill the tank with gas before you go. Taking off right away makes you feel like you’re making good time, but if you’ve only got a quarter of a tank for a full-tank drive, the time you’ll spend stalled on the side of the road while CAA brings you gas means that in the end, you’d have been much better off to stop at the gas station. Prayer allows us to tap into God’s presence and power with us. We may be late to get moving, but if we move in his power, we’ll get more done.

The second reason stopping to pray is difficult is that it involves surrendering control. We want to go. But we can’t rush God. Sometimes he makes us wait (his timetable is not ours). We have a direction we’d like to pursue, but maybe God has different plans. To serve God out of the place of his presence, we need to do his will in his time. But sometimes we just want him to bless our agenda and our timetable. 

The alternative to serving God in his power is to serve him in a way that accomplishes nothing. As Jesus tells his disciples: 

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15: 5-6, NIV).

We become as unfruitful as a branch clipped from a vine if we try to serve God while not remaining attentive to his presence. 

Our service must begin with prayer, but it can’t stay there. When we look at the example of Jesus, we see a balance between prayer and service. Jesus goes out to pray a lot. But he isn’t some mystic who lives by himself in a cave somewhere. He’s constantly ministering to people’s needs. We need to follow his example. So our formula should be

Prayer > Caffeine (technically optional, but highly recommended) > Spirit Empowered Service. 

The Dangers of Serving In Our Own Strength

So what happens if we try to serve God in our own strength rather than relying on the Spirit’s power? Jesus says we’ll whither. What does that look like?

Self-Serving Service

The first danger is that our works will serve ourselves rather than God. Maybe I head up church ministry so that I can feel good about myself. I find value in controlling the ministry. But now when someone else wants in, my identity is threatened, and I will fight to maintain my position. The harm that I do to others often outweighs the good I could have done.

Unsustainable Service

When we try to serve God without drawing the Spirit’s power, we will probably burn ourselves out. Ministering to people can be exhausting. There is no end to people’s needs. We minister to broken people who keep making bad choices, so we become frustrated and judgmental. Compassion fatigue sets in, and the work that we began falls flat. People who have learned to depend on us conclude they are on their own.

Another related danger is that when we aren’t connected to the Spirit, we don’t know when to say yes and when to say no. None of us can respond to every need around us. But if we haven’t connected to God and been guided by his Spirit, some of us will feel the need to say yes to everything we are asked to do. As a pastor, it’s easy to ask for help from people who always say yes. As a result, though, you may be diverting the energies you can give to the thing God wants you to do so that you can do the thing God wants others to do. When you are connected to the Spirit, you can say, “no” to certain things so that you can more effectively say, “yes” in the places where God has called you. The Apostles, for example, appointed deacons to look after practical needs because they understood their calling was focused on prayer and teaching.

Misguided Service

Another danger in not listening to the Spirit is that we miss out on the best opportunities to serve God. Sometimes the people who are ready to respond to God aren’t the people we think would be most ready to respond. The Samaritan woman at the Well (John 4), the Demon-possessed man (Mark 5) and Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9) seem like unlikely candidates to become Christians. Yet the Spirit has been at work preparing them. When we try on our own to figure out how to serve God, we cut ourselves off from the Spirit’s direction. “I know this person looks like an unlikely person to respond to an invitation to receive Jesus, but I’ve been at work in their life.” When we work with the Spirit we’ll find success in places we don’t expect to find it. 


We need to be attentive to the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with us and then, from that place of connection to God, serve others in love. 

The Temple was the symbol of God dwelling with his people. It was replaced by Jesus (God’s incarnate presence dwelling with us), But after Jesus ascended to heaven and after God poured out the Holy Spirit onto the church, the church became the place of God’s presence. So what would happen if Jesus walked into the church? What would he say? “I’m so glad we can meet here and spend time together?” or “What’s all this going on without me?”

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