The Presence of God

This week’s blog installment takes the form of Luke’s sermon from yesterday (Sunday 30th August) at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, London.

Read, comment and join the conversation!

116.

Does anyone want to fathom a guess at what that number could mean?

[Encourage guessing from the congregation.]

Well in fact, today marks that it is only 116 days until Christmas. We have well and truly passed the halfway mark so I recommend that you get your lists together and get shopping before everyone else does when Debenhams puts their decorations up in early October. In fact, Selfridges already has their Christmas store up and running. Just saying.

I am unashamedly the biggest fan of Christmas. I love it all: the tree, the food, the decorations, the presents, and the never-ending playlists of Christmas songs that I just don’t get tired of… all of it! I especially love the countdown and the air of expectation and excitement and I do not believe the knowing it’s only 116 days until Christmas it at all excessive.

I love the afterglow of Christmas too; that Boxing Day feeling of snug warmth. You see, Christmas for me really, is the gift that keeps on giving.

As Christians we believe that Christmas marks (slightly inaccurately) the birth of Christ – the moment which has forever altered history by God choosing to become one of us. It’s a familiar story that even those that profess no Christian faith probably have some sense of understanding about.

Being close to God is incredibly important to “us Christians”. We talk about it rather a lot. Actually, we talk more about feeling distant from God than we do about feeling close. We’re also very good at making people feel distant from God and asking them lots of obnoxious questions along the way: “why do you feel God is absent?” or “can you think of anything in particular that may have separated you from God?” Which basically translates as: “you must have done something wrong, so own up and be done with it.”

Duncan read to us earlier from the book of Deuteronomy which expresses the importance of the law in Jewish tradition. Through the law, which God revealed to Moses and Moses delivered to the Israelites, those who were born into the Jewish faith could seek a closeness of God’s presence that the Gentile would never be able to find. The closeness, or nearness, of God was directly partnered with the law, as we heard in Deuteronomy 4:7 & 8:

“For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?”

By obeying God’s laws, the Israelites were brought closer into the presence of God and therefore, we logically progress, when they disobeyed the law (as we read in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, that they so often did) they experienced a separation, a remoteness from the One who created them.

Prior to the law which Moses received, we learn of circumstances in which humanity managed a stirling job of disobeying God’s best – Adam and Eve started the whole mess when they chose to selectively choose which of God’s commands they were to follow and thus experienced a very physical separation from God, as we learn in Genesis chapter 3. Humanity’s figurative Mummy and Daddy had just taken from the fruit and are suddenly very aware, that all is not as it was moments before and so it reads in Genesis:

“8 Then they heard the Lord God walking in the garden during the cool part of the day, and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees in the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said, “Where are you?” 10 The man answered, “I heard you walking in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” 11 God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat fruit from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “You gave this woman to me and she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “How could you have done such a thing?” She answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate the fruit.” 14 The Lord God said to the snake,

“Because you did this,
a curse will be put on you.
You will be cursed as no other animal, tame or wild, will ever be.
You will crawl on your stomach,
and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
15 I will make you and the woman
enemies to each other.
Your descendants and her descendants
will be enemies.
One of her descendants will crush your head,
and you will bite his heel.”

16 Then God said to the woman,

“I will cause you to have much trouble
when you are pregnant,
and when you give birth to children,
you will have great pain.
You will greatly desire your husband,
but he will rule over you.”

17 Then God said to the man, “You listened to what your wife said, and you ate fruit from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat.

“So I will put a curse on the ground,
and you will have to work very hard for your food.
In pain you will eat its food
all the days of your life.
18 The ground will produce thorns and weeds for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 You will sweat and work hard for your food.
Later you will return to the ground,
because you were taken from it.
You are dust,
and when you die, you will return to the dust.”

20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. 21 The Lord God made clothes from animal skins for the man and his wife and dressed them. 22 Then the Lord God said, “Humans have become like one of us; they know good and evil. We must keep them from eating some of the fruit from the tree of life, or they will live forever.” 23 So the Lord God forced Adam out of the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 After God forced humans out of the garden, he placed angels and a sword of fire that flashed around in every direction on its eastern border. This kept people from getting to the tree of life.”

By their own actions, Adam and Eve became quite literally removed from the presence of God – so much so that a flaming-sword wielding angel prevented them for ever returning to that intimate closeness they had previously experienced in the Garden. Drama.

At times, we read, humanity goes out of its way to hide from God – to remove themselves from the presence of the divine. Over the last few weeks, we have been following the narrative of Jonah, and how he had a remarkable talent of trying to avoid God and his presence. Unfortunately his remarkable efforts didn’t quite stretch to becoming remarkable realities and God time and time again brought Jonah back into his presence. This should, I hope, give us some comfort – that even the God of the flaming-sword wielding angel (the ultimate nightclub bouncer, I think we’d all agree) still fights to bring us back into his presence, even when we do all we can to get out of it.

The other thing about God’s presence is that everyone believes they have the market on it.

The Israelis believe just as adamantly as the Palestinians, that they are in the presence of God and that the defence of the land is divinely ordained.

In every courthouse in the United States you’ll find the words “In God We Trust” displayed for all to see; stating boldly that through the presence of God, justice will be fought for and won.

Acts of terror perpetrated by the likes of Al-Qaida and ISIS are carried out in the name of God – believing that whatever harm they inflict on the infidel is to the glory and witness of the divine.

Do any of these, in our opinion, convey what we believe to be the presence of God?

How does our behaviour, if it does indeed at all, express that presence?

For the Pharisees in our Gospel reading, God’s presence was only accessible through a series of ritualistic behaviour – that if completed incorrectly or not at all would bar the perpetrator from fully experiencing the divine.

Such legalistic action was a warping of the law given by God to the Israelites and that warping became the very foundation for much of the Jewish understanding of who and how God was. By enforcing rules for every aspect of life, the Temple itself had the monopoly on access to the presence of God – something that the incarnation of Christ subverted.

For Christ, it matters very little what we do with our hands or say with our mouths if our heart, our intentions perhaps, aren’t orientated to God. In fact, Jesus argues, it’s all very good living according to the instruction of the Temple, but what really is of concern is what comes from within us – our inner most thoughts and behaviours – it is those that have the ability to cause disconnect from God. And perhaps, more dangerously, cause a rift between others and the presence of God.

It is this morning’s passage from James that really sets the final tone and brings both the texts from Deuteronomy and Mark together. For James, there is little worth in hearing of the goodness of God’s presence, if we then don’t go out and act upon it – truly as if our lives have been changed.

Our Old Testament is filled with recollections of humanity being drawn into God’s presence and then promptly finding a startling way of getting out of it. Our New Testament is a warning to all those who bar others from seeking God and dwelling in His presence. The passage in James takes us then to the “so what?” of the sermon. Dawn, one of the ministry team here at Bloomsbury, uses a phrase which I will credit her for because I’m not sure if she was the author of it or not: “What God… and so what?” We have the what kind of God – the God who time and time again draws us into his presence, but so what?

The “so what” is fundamental to our expression as 21st Century Christians – we live in a world that we might often feel is so completely devoid of God’s presence. So what?

If you type into Google: “God’s presence” you get all kinds of results – some moderately helpful, perhaps pointing to different pieces of Scripture, some… less than moderately helpful. It seems that seeking some sort of spiritual presence is all the rage still. The irony? God’s presence is so, well, “present” that a 21 step programme through a month of rigid and self-deprecating prayer and Bible study isn’t going to make Him more “present”.

For Jesus, and therefore the authors of texts which follow – such as James, God’s presence wasn’t an adjective for receiving something, but rather a verb for getting out there and doing something. It’s oh so very easy for us to sit back and decree “isn’t it AWFUL, you know… EVERYTHING that’s happening in the world at the moment?” but as James so astutely wrote:

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”

Have we looked into the perfect law of liberty and continued in it? And then, not forgetting what our own reflection looks like, have we gone out to be a doer of the work – which I think we’d all admit is plentiful?

It can seem daunting, I know, to stand at the precipice of all that need, all that hurt, all that anger and angst. In arriving to Church today you would have passed through one of the most diverse cities in the world. A city filled with the richest and poorest, the healthiest and those that need desperate medical attention. A city filled with awe-inspiring buildings but with a history of neglect and elitism. Nevertheless, a city filled with the presence of God.

But did you notice, that James didn’t suggest that we go out and tackle the causes of all these issues head on, issues that he too would have faced in a society dominated by patriarchal structure and class system? No, his, advice on how to be in and share God’s presence?

27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Who are your orphans and widows to visit?

During our evening services we take time each week to reflect on the presence of God – it’s a method of reducing the large scale and intimidating question of “where is God and so what?” to something more accessible. More personal. The questions are worded in such a way that acknowledges even when we are feeling as if God has well and truly left the building, He is in fact still there – should we just turn to find Him.

So…

Where, in our experience this week, have we wanted to say with Jacob, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place’?

Where, in our experience this week, have we wanted to say with the Psalmist, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’?

And let’s continue in that silence, lifting our hearts, minds and actions to the One who made it all.

[Pause for silence.]

Amen.

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