Searching for Presence
Based on Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
David G. Benner in his book entitled, “Presence and Encounter” writes: “…The world is full of presence. Every moment of life is crammed full of potential encounters with people and things that are present to us even though we may not be present to them: the presence of a city – vital, decaying, dangerous, enchanting, oppressive; …the comforting presence of loved ones – long unseen, sometimes long dead, the troubling presence of people with whom we have unfinished business; the evocative presence of a sacred space – perhaps a cathedral, a grove of trees, a shore’s edge, or wherever we are called into awareness of the transcendent…
What is this strange thing called presence? Presence is the awakening that calls us into an engagement with some aspect of the present moment. Presence makes us feel alive, or perhaps better, it lets us know that we are alive. It demands that we notice, and in so doing, the distance between whatever we notice and us is suddenly reduced. We feel connected. Sometimes, this might feel like more connection than is comfortable, but no longer are we on the outside looking at life through a thick glass. Suddenly, we have passed through that which distanced us, and we are inside and a part of life. We are involved. We are participants, not simply spectators….”
This encounter which awakens us to God’s Presence is the search of all believers. Our scripture texts today lay open before us the good news that God is present to each of us. Whether it is the promise of good fortune to Jerusalem for those Babylonian exiles who return to that ruined city or the way that the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian believers (Jews and Gentiles) that they are already “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” or the end of the journey for the kings from the east at the foot of the child-king, Jesus. All who diligently search for God will awake to God’s presence already within them. Before we go farther, let us go to God in thanksgiving for God’s constant presence in our lives…
The prophet Isaiah is speaking to those persons who have been in exile for 70 years in the wonder that was ancient Babylon. The Babylonians have been conquered by the Persians and now the Jews are released to return to the rubble and ruin that is Jerusalem. We cannot be certain what pictures they have in their minds of what they will find at the end of their journey, as these are the descendants of those who were originally exiled. However, the reality of the devastation that they encounter after a long journey home would have depressed even the most optimistic among them. Into this bleak reality, the prophet/poet invites his depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” The prophetic witness anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new center of international trade. “…Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…” Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring prosperity. This is cause for celebration. God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace, and the promise of God’s continued presence is certainly welcomed.
Early in his letter to the believers in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul has reminded them that both Jews and Gentiles are reconciled and joined together in the presence of the Christ. Paul writes, “…In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God….” Our reading today emphasizes and builds on this theme with Paul telling his Gentile church members that God’s presence is with them through Jesus and that they are full members in the Body of Christ and heirs to God’s kingdom promises.
The kings from the east have completed their long journey at the feet of the child-king, Jesus. Their navigating by the star was very good, in the days before GPS, and they only missed the One by nine miles. The good news is that they were able to reorient themselves after their visit to King Herod and his religious scholars. They quickly cover the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and find Jesus at home with his mother. Immediately, they feel themselves to be in the very presence of the One for whom they have spent years searching. Continuing to follow the leading of the presence of God Almighty, they bypassed a return to Herod and left for their own country by another road.
Like the Wise Kings in the Gospel of Matthew, we are constantly searching for guidance on how we can come into the presence of God. Seeking a connection with the divine in which we are no longer spectators or consumers, but intimate participants with God. A 17th Century monk, known for eternity only as “Brother Lawrence”, is the subject of a small book entitled, “The Practice of the Presence of God”. This tiny tome is filled with insights from this pious man about how he sought after God in every moment of his life. His guidance to establish a connection to the Presence is, “…That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him….” He goes on saying, “…That in order to form a habit of conversing with God continually and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we would find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty….” Finally, he states, “…that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we know does not lead to God; that we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and in simplicity. That we need only to recognize God intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have finished….”
Searching for the Presence of God means that we must put away all the things that distract us and concentrate on that which is always with us. As David Benner said in the opening of this reflection, “…Presence is the awakening that calls us into an engagement with some aspect of the present moment. Presence makes us feel alive, or perhaps better, it lets us know that we are alive. It demands that we notice, and in so doing, the distance between whatever we notice and us is suddenly reduced. We feel connected….” When we finally awaken to the God-with-us reality, then we find ourselves suddenly at the feet of Jesus – just like the Kings from the East. Let us begin today to search for the divine presence in our every moment by entering into a life-long communication with Emmanuel, the presence that brings us to life and connects us with the source of our lives. May God continue to bless this life-long journey! Amen.