One of the shortcomings in the church today is the lack of God’s tangible presence. What good is it to have a theology that asserts God’s presence is everywhere if there is no evidence of it? Has God gone on vacation? Has he left the building? These are important questions for us individually as disciples, corporately as the church, and these questions also go to the heart of whether we can put the wisdom and power of God on display for the world to see.
The Biblical narrative opens and closes with God’s tangible presence in the midst of his creation and his people. The first two chapters of Genesis are marked not only by his creative activity, but his personal presence in those activities: God personally forms humanity from the dust of the ground, kisses the breath of life into the first man, instructs and guides his children as he walks in the garden with them. The final chapters of the book of Revelation depict the restoration of all things and again highlight the intimate nature of God’s personal interaction with his creation. “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Revelation 21: 3)
Nor is he absent from the world in the stretch between Genesis and Revelation. God visits Abraham, makes covenant and even eats a meal with him. Jacob finds himself in hand-to-hand combat with none other than the creator of the universe! God talks with Moses face to face the way friends speak to one another. He reveals his presence in the cloud and the fire around the people of Israel. As Solomon dedicates the temple, God manifests in a cloud so thick with his presence that no one can remain standing or perform the duties of worship. Ezekiel saw God’s traveling throne. Isaiah saw the temple filled with God’s presence and glory.
In the New Testament the presence of God becomes something even greater: the Incarnation. From the beginning of John’s gospel we are told, “God arrived and pitched his tent among us.” This marks even greater intimacy and presence: God not only interacted with the world he created, he became part of that world. The reality of his presence also encases Matthew’s gospel like bookends. In the opening verses we learn, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’--which means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1: 23) The final words of the gospel are: “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28: 20) Along with instructions to his followers, Jesus gives the promise of his presence. In fact, his instructions require the experience of his presence.
The activity of the Holy Spirit also constitutes God’s living, tangible presence in the world as well. Jesus spent most of the final Passover evening instructing his followers to tune their eyes and ears to his presence mediated through the Spirit. When he tells his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me,” (John 14: 18 – 19) he is indicating that the presence of the Holy Spirit is equivalent to his personal presence. Even when he was still physically available to be with his disciples in the 40 days after his resurrection, began to give them instructions “through the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1: 2) After Jesus ascended into heaven he appeared to the Apostle Paul personally, years later. Paul tells us his gospel came by direct revelation from Jesus himself. (Galatians 1: 12)
Unfortunately, scripture also reveals that it has been the habit of God’s people to be afraid of, or unaware of, the presence of God. As the people of Israel followed Moses in the wilderness, the smoke and lightning that accompanied God’s presence caused them to plead with Moses to act as an intermediary (Exodus 20: 18 – 21). The miraculous works of Jesus brought people face-to-face with the reality that something greater than Moses was in their midst, and the reality that God was breaking into their well-ordered world brought alarm instead of acclaim. Religious observance always runs smoothly when divorced from God’s presence. God’s presence, on the other hand, usually upsets the tables, shrines, and instruments we have set in place. As C.S. Lewis remarked about his Christ-figure, Aslan, in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He’s not a tame Lion!”
So the Bible teaches that God is omnipresent, but forget that: do you experience his presence?
If there is any hope for transformation as a follower of Jesus, we must be able to recognize and experience his presence. We must not settle for anything less than the experience of his presence. We must, in the language of advertising, accept no substitutes. Can you think of any substitutes for the presence of God? I can think of at least two big ones, but that's for another day!