Mirabile dictu, sometimes fancy-schmantzy words are actually useful. One such is metanarrative. The metanarrative is the grand, overarching story tying together and giving meaning to apparently disparate tales. For instance, is The Lord of the Rings about finding lodging in Bree, meeting Tom Bombadil, running away from Ringwraiths, and encountering talking trees? Of course not; those and the other dozens of stories served the greater narrative of the War of the Ring.
Similarly you could argue (inelegantly) that the Bible's metanarrative is something like this: man flees from the presence of God, and God acts to restore man to His presence.
Think of the first story in the Bible. The world is created for Adam and Eve, who embody God's image and enjoy God's presence — until they plunge into the ruin of sin. Then they hide from the presence of God (Genesis 2:8), and are expelled from it (3:24).
Focus with me on a single word that first appears in that latter verse, Genesis 3:24. It is the Hiph`il (causitive) imperfect form of the root sh-k-n, dwell. Most English versions have something like that God "placed" or "stationed" cherubim at the entrance to the garden; more woodenly the Rotherham has that God "caused to dwell" (cf. Young's Literal Translation). The cherubim dwelt at the entrance, so that man could no longer dwell in God's presence in the garden.
The next occurrence of that verb is in Genesis 9:27a, which Walter Kaiser renders, "God will enlarge Japhet, But He will dwell [weyishkon] in the tents of Shem" (Towards an Old Testament Theology, p. 82). Yahweh would sh-k-n, would dwell, would be present, in the tents of Shem, from whom would come Abram, in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3).
Fast-forward (this is, after all, a post, not a book) to another theologically weighty occurrence of sh-k-n. It is in Exodus 24:16a—"The glory of the LORD dwelt [sh-k-n] on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days." This was an awesome sight, etched into the minds of those present. But it was a temporary dwelling, a passing presence, if you will.
However, on this occasion, Yahweh immediately gives instructions to make possible a more abiding dwelling place: "Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it." The word translated "tabernacle" is mishkan, which is simply the root sh-k-n with the letter mem prefixed. In Hebrew, a prefixed "m" often denotes the place where something happens. Hence z-b-ch is "sacrifice," m-z-b-ch is an altar, a place where sacrifice takes place.
Yahweh is giving instructions for the construction of a mishkan, a place where He can sh-k-n, He can dwell, in the midst of His people. God repeatedly impresses on Moses the importance of making the mishkan exactly according to His specifications (cf. Exodus 25:9, 40; 27:8; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44; Hebrews 8:5). This was because the tabernacle would serve as a divine depiction of what it means for Yahweh once again to dwell with man.
Back in Eden, enjoying the presence of God was simplicity itself. Nothing beclouded that communion. But matters have changed since Eden. Innocent Adam and Eve could stroll freely with God in the garden; now, all that has changed. Now God must be approached in a specific manner.
And what is it that confronts us as we approach God in the similitude of the tabernacle? First, we see that God is far off. We stand at the entrance, and see well within the enclosure a rectangular structure, called the Holy Place. But God's presence is not manifested even at the door of this inner structure; no, it is in its back, in a smaller room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place.
Before you head straight back, you have to confront the first piece of furniture. And what is it? You look down, and see brown-stained earth, at the foot of a large object. That object is an altar. Here innocent, perfect, unblemished animals are sacrificed as substitutes for the sinful worshiper who would approach Yahweh. First he must deal with his sin, and God's appointed means for atonement requires the shedding of the blood of a substitute (Leviticus 17:11).
Then beyond that is a large bowl of water, for cleansing from the defiling filth of sin. Then we come to the entry of the Holy Place, within which is a lampstand, a table set with bread, and an altar of fragrant incense. Beyond these hangs a thick curtain. Beyond the curtain lies the Most Holy Place, where God manifests Himself above a solid gold lid on a large box, overshadowed by statues of angelic guardians. This is the place of propitiation, where God's wrath is turned from the congregation by the annual application of blood (Leviticus 16).
This was the picture of God's presence. It was an eloquent picture, but it was after all a building, mobile and temporary. Eventually it was destroyed. Even when the mishkan stood, God's presence was not open to all. Only one man could enter the Most Holy place, and that only once a year, with blood (Hebrews 9:7-8).
Fast forward another fourteen hundred years, to that day we mark each year on December 25. A baby was born that day. The Bible gives no support to superstitions of any miraculous means of birth. It was not the birth that was miraculous. No, it was the conception that was miraculous, as the seemingly oxymoronic prophecy of a pregnant virgin was fulfilled in young Mary.
What was that, in her womb? Who was it? The angel Gabriel had said to Mary, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). But what is the full meaning of this child's birth?
It is found in what is probably my own favorite Christmas verse, John 1:14. Here is my translation of that verse: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us as in a tent, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the unique One from the Father, full of grace and of truth!" Focus with me for a moment on the single word translated "dwelt...as in a tent." It is the Greek word skenoo. Do you notice anything about that verb? What are its consonants? They are s-k-n, the equivalent (as Greek has no "sh") to the Hebrew word we discussed earlier, sh-k-n (dwell or abide). That word is in fact used often in the Old Testament, both in verbal and noun form, for both the Hebrew shakan and mishkan.
John is telling us that the passing picture of the Tabernacle has become eternal truth in Jesus Christ. In this baby, God Himself has tabernacled—permanently. He has come to be Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14), in the fullest sense. He has come to do in truth what was previously done only in picture-form: to dwell among us, to make atonement and propitiation for our sins, to cleanse us from their defilement, to give light to our darkness, food to our souls, and to make intercession for us. The shadow has become substance. In Jesus the presence of God is restored, and that fully and permanently.
In Jesus God comes to indwell us now (Colossians 2:9-10), and because of Him we shall dwell with God forever, and God with us.
"And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place [skene] of God is with man. He will dwell [skenosei] with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:3-4)Jesus Christ is both the fulcrum and the goal of the Bible's metanarrative. He restores the presence of God to us, and us to the presence of God. In Him God has come near, does come near, and shall come near forever.
Sad that so many Christians waste this day perpetuating the false notion that Christmas is wholly a pagan holiday, or in being deflected to the world's substitutes and mythologies. This day marks the moment in history when God came nigh to us, that He might bring us nigh to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19-21; Ephesians 2:17-22; 1 Timothy 1:15). It affords an opportunity for proclamation of Christ. Isn't that worth a song? Isn't that worth a day? Isn't that worth a celebration?
Surely it is worth all that and much, much more!