Expecting the Presence of God
Based on Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
If I asked you to define the word, “expectation”, how would you go about explaining it to me? The word expectation is really another way of speaking about beliefs. If I expect/believe that I will retire someday near a river, for example, then I will set about to do things to move me in that direction. If my expectation is met, then I refer to my circumstance as happiness or contentment – if my expectation is not met, then I feel sad, let down, frustrated. Expectation can also mean one’s prospects of inheritance, such as the character Pip in Dicken’s masterwork “Great Expectations”. Sometimes things happen outside of our worldly expectations and if positive then we are elated or say that something miraculous occurred; if negative then we often are despondent and if awful enough, shattered.
Expectations play a role in our everyday lives. You expected to come to church today and have a worship service that was predictable. You expected a sermon (or possibly hoped I would skip that part this week) and some hymn singing. You expected I would be leading the worship, that we would have a piano player, and that your friends and family would be gathered around you beginning at our usual start time. You possibly expect each week to learn something about God and how we understand God to be at work in our world (aka Theology). Of all the things that you expect each week when you come to church, do you expect that God will be present here with you and for you?
Our scriptures for today point our expectations towards the many ways that God is present with us. For example, we can expect God to put a call on our lives like the young prophet Jeremiah. We can expect to hear about the promise of salvation through God as in Psalm 71. We can expect God to be present through prophetic warnings and promises like contained in Hebrews. Finally, we can expect that God’s inspired scriptures will contain words of healing for us and our world as in the Gospel of Luke. The Bible teaches us to expect that God will always be present with us if we open ourselves to God. Let us open ourselves to God’s presence now in prayer…
The Apostle Paul is exhorting the believers in the letter to the Hebrews to be disciplined in their spiritual journey. They are to expect of one another that they will interact peaceably and with grace. They are to help each other live lives that are upright and worthy. They are to be thankful that they have come to “the city of the living God” and have thus entered an unshakable kingdom. They are reminded that the expectation from God is for them to “offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe;…”
We have come to expect that Jesus will do the unexpected. In today’s reading from Luke, He frees a woman from demonic possession that had lasted 18 years. He did this while He was teaching in the synagogue and he was reprimanded by the leader of that congregation. Jesus pointed out that the leader would take care of his animals on the sabbath, why should the woman not expect to come to the synagogue on the sabbath to be set free? This Gospel story points out the difference in coming to church expecting the binding of the rules and doctrine versus the freeing presence of God’s love incarnate in Jesus.
Jeremiah is “only a boy” per his words, and he was not expecting the Holy One of Israel to come to him and anoint him as a prophet. Jeremiah would serve some 40 years as God’s prophet to the people and leadership of Judah and Jerusalem, during a time leading up to the destruction of the Exile to Babylon. The boy was afraid (not surprisingly) but God consoled him by telling him that God would be giving the words to say to all to whom he was sent. God promised to deliver him and to help Isaiah do God’s work in the world ruling over nations and kingdoms – destroying and overthrowing, but also building and planting. Whatever Jeremiah had expected his life to be the moment before God entered it, God’s presence changed those expectations forever.
It is clear from our scripture passages today that the Bible teaches us to expect God to show up in our lives. From the moment when God speaks creation into being until the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, the biblical witness is clear that when we believe that there is a living God, then we can connect with that divine being. It begs the question then, do we believe that God is present and active in our individual lives, as well as in our life together and in the world at large? It is this belief/expectation that drives what we call faith. There are many people who don’t expect that God is a living God, a God who is active and moving in their lives and our world, which is why there is really no reason to come to church, no reason to pray, no reason to expect anything but what exists to their senses.
Dr. David Livingstone, the famous British missionary to Africa, returned to England from the Dark Continent towards the end of his life. He was honored by Queen Victoria and was asked to address the students at Cambridge University. Very simply and very quietly he said to them, “Gentlemen, shall I tell you what it was that kept me true to my resolve through all those years in the dark continent? It was the words of Jesus, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.'” This was a man who was stranded in some distant places, far away from anything he had ever known – truly at the end of the earth in the late 1800’s. What kept him working for God all those years apart from civilization was the expectation that God in Jesus was present to him no matter where he lived and worked.
This truth and reality of God’s inescapable presence got hold of the writer of Psalm 139 and it so overwhelmed and overpowered him that he had to tell others about it. Listen again to his song starting in verse 7: “Whither shall I go from your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from your presence?” If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me….” The writer knew, the writer expected that God would be present every moment of every day, even if the man decided to make his bed in hell.
People, whether you like it or not, whether you can believe it even partially, God is always present in your life. John Wesley termed this form of God’s inescapable and unconditional love as “prevenient grace”. This grace comes to us when we cannot believe – cannot expect; when we have no faith that there could be a love so powerful and pervasive that no matter what choices we are making in our lives, it is always there. We can deny the very existence of God, right up until our last breath, but it doesn’t change the truth that God is always with us. Prevenient grace plants the seed of the desire to believe in God – to expect that God is present with us always.
If you find yourself, as most people do at one point or another in their faith walk, wondering if God is really present in your life I point you to two books that have been meaningful to me as I have walked the path from agnostic to minister of the Word. The first is a very small book written by a 17th Century monk named Brother Lawrence, entitled, “The Practice of the Presence of God”. The other is, “Living in the Presence” by Tilden Edwards who founded the Shalem Institute more than 45 years ago in Washington, D.C. Both of these books offer practices such as prayer and spiritual exercises which can realign the whole of your life so that you can develop your spiritual selves to expect the presence of God every moment of your day.
Deep and abiding faith comes from the expectation that God is indeed present and active in your life. This expectation comes from learning from the biblical witness that the God who was, is and always will be is not just a story from a book – God is alive and well and seeking a deep relationship with you. When you open yourself up to expecting the presence of God in your life, you begin to realize the promise of salvation, your unique call to be God’s emissary in the world, and the healing that is available for all the brokenness of the world. You also will begin to seek how it is that you can use your God-given gifts where God is already at work. It’s time to begin to expect that God is present in all our lives and to explore what difference that makes for you and for all creation. Amen and amen!