Religious people keep trying to confine God to special places and to keep his people back at a 'safe' distance - but he always breaks out!
This article was written by Alan Halden and is reproduced here by permission.

I was watching a programme a while back called 'God-in-a-box' which showed the methods and programmes of some American evangelists using the 'box' to present their message. The presentation was smooth, the participants wholesome and the phone-in was a computerised miracle. He had been well and truly packaged and presented - poor God!.

Isn't it odd, though that, way back in the past, the Israelites also packaged him in a box?* Admittedly a very ornate one - but a box for all that, and we have been trying to get him back into one ever since. I doubt if originally any of them thought he was actually in it, but superstition always grows rapidly from symbols. They built a special tent to cover the box, and he used it as a sign of his presence. There was a great advantage in the whole thing being movable, for when he moved on, it moved on and all the people followed. But he was never confined to it.

When they finally got into the promised land, they thought it would be a good idea to build a house to hold the box where they could all meet together more comfortably and do away with all this tent nonsense. God did tell them that he didn't live in a house made with hands, but they insisted; so he said, 'OK if that is what you really want.' They built him a special box-room and appointed special people to look after it. Later on, when superstition about it all made them neglect God, he sent the Babylonians who destroyed the house, stole the box ... and it was never seen again. God was still about though!

When the Israelites built later houses for him, they always had a special 'boxroom' (with no box!) separated from the rest of the house by a gorgeous curtain, because God visited there, and no ordinary, sinful Fred Smith was allowed - only special people offering sacrifices for sin on his behalf.

When Jesus died and dealt with the whole question of sin once and for all, the separating curtain was mysteriously ripped in half from the top to the bottom. God, you see, will not be shut in; not even by symbols and routines which he starts himself. As for the curtain, the priests sewed it up, hushed it up, and pretended it was business as usual. They were too late, of course. He wasn't there - again! He was on the loose, looking for Fred Smith.

We daren't laugh too loud though, because the church continues to make the same mistakes. Special people always need a 'box', or a special place, or some privileged access to God to justify their office. Without them they would be redundant. But God will not be confined to our boxes, places, methods or organisations. He is always on the move. As with Jesus in the tomb, just when we think we have him all wrapped and sealed, clearly defined and operating in our pigeon-holes - whoops - he's done it again, and like Macavity, he's not there! The Spirit (and the one born of him) is utterly unpredictable. He won't fall in line with our programmes. He has his own. Like the wind, we don't know where he's coming from or going to. Exciting isn't it?

Down by the well at Samaria, Jesus said that the time of having to meet God in a special place, through special people, was over - and therefore there would be no quarrelling about which was the right way. From then on, worship was to be in spirit and reality; our spirit with his. That could take place anywhere we happened to be: on a mountain, in Sainsburys, or in a meeting, because we are now the incarnation of that first box - God's portable arks of the new covenant. He also said that his father would go on looking for such containers. He would come to them! From being shut out of the box-room, Fred Smith - by the grace of God - has become a box himself.

So we begin to see that the church is not the place where we meet, nor is it a recruiting organisation which will proceed to plan and organise the lives of the recruits to keep them fully occupied. I used to think that the church was a kind of highly-concentrated kingdom of God that would organise to spread its influence 'out there'. A sort of divine Raj establishing an up-market empire. On the contrary, it is the kingdom - the sovereign rule of God - that is central to the church. Long before he mentioned the church, Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was imminent; in fact, was 'in you'. In effect, the kingdom must always begin in our spirits, on the inside. The local church is all those individual kingdom-boxes, wherever they are, whether around the breakfast table, in the pub or at a meeting. It is a corporate human expression of the spiritual kingdom that already is.

* The Ark of the Covenant

© Alan Halden - 1990