Experiencing The Presence of God: An Advent Sermon
The season of Advent which begins on the first Sunday of December, will shortly be here. I pray that this homily will help you prepare for this in the deepest recesses of your heart and soul, the great festival of the Christian calendar, we call ‘Christmas’. The Greek word parousia for ‘advent’, referred to the privileged visit of a Roman emperor to a Roman city, often commemorated by the erection of a new civic monument or a new coin for its commerce.
How far greater is the celebration of the Incarnation, of God becoming Man, to enter our imminent world of space and time, as the source of all transcendence. Cosmologists have us staggering to accept ‘the big bang’ theory that all the cosmos was birthed some 14-16 billion years ago. But we are celebrating the event of the Incarnation, before even the cosmos was created. For it was eternally the nature of God, to love and to embrace human beings to dwell with and within them, as Immanuel, God-with-us, God-within-us. Truly, says the apostle, “God with us is the hope of glory”. As my dear colleague and friend, Bruce Waltke and I struggle to compose our third volume on the Psalms, ’Psalms of Redemption and Creation’, we are realizing in awe and wonder, that our redemption precedes in the mind and will of God, His creation of the cosmos. The Church calendar has given us then, four Sundays to reflect upon the length, breadth, depth, and height, of the love of God for us, before we actually will celebrate Christmas day, on Dec. 25, and the next two Sundays. Then in the Epiphany season of the month of January, we begin with the appearance of the baby Jesus to the three Magi, and end with the appearance of Jesus exalted in the heavens, in his appearance to Saul of Tarsus, as well as to the Apostle John in the book of Revelation.
It is this very rich season where immanence and transcendence are conjoined. It is living our own lives by the clock with chronos, yet living also in the mystery of kairos, time eventful and salvific as God’s time. You may have seen the drama or read the book by Samuel Beckett, the Nobel prize winner, Waiting for Godot. It plays with chronos/ kairos, the two tramps bored how long they have to wait by the clock, yet highly anticipatory if Godot does arrive, to utterly change their lives (‘Godot’ being a play on the name of God). It is like Xmas time, when a little child eagerly awaits the gift Santa will bring down the chimney, or when the child sings with deep faith, “When Jesus comes into my heart”. The event can be so trivial, or it can be so majestic, beyond human words!
The Proclamation of God’s Presence as Shalom
“A voice of gladness has run through our land” cries the Psalmist (Ps.119:117), a voice of rejoicing and of salvation in the tents of the sinners” like a military shout of victory, to set the prisoners free. Creation shouts out too, as “the mountains, give praise in jubilation, and as the trees of the forest clap their hands before the face of the Lord”, for “He is coming, and the sea roars and all that is it”. (Isa.55:12; Ps. 96:12). For Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born as a babe in Bethlehem of Judaea, the most despised peasant territory of Judah’, which means ‘confession’! Indeed, “what good can come out of Bethlehem?” (Jh.1:46), meaning “house of bread”. Look then at his condescension: He came not to Jerusalem, the royal city, not even to a home, but born on a stable floor. Let us then dwell in the sanctuary of Judah in our confession, and receive confidently in our arms, and within our hearts, the babe born in Bethlehem as our Lord and Savior. Let Jesus Christ be born within our innermost being.
In the O.T., the Heb. Word for ‘presence’ is multi-varied in meaning. Usually it is defined as ‘completeness’, which then ranges from being ‘sound’, to having ’wholeness’ ‘wellbeing’, ‘health’,’ tranquility’, ‘peace’, ‘concord’ and ‘friendship’. It is the ‘totality’ of an abundance of life. We cannot conceive of anything more superlative for the blessed life. It is used 250 times in the O.T. It is the Aaronic blessing of Num. 6:24-26:” the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace”.
Echoes of blessing fill the Gospel narrative of Luke, as when the shepherds are afraid “when the angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said unto them, fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David…yes a babe wrapped up in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk. 2:9-12) Then a heavenly host began their song, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, among those with whom He is well pleased!”
The Humility of God’s Presence as the Gift of Childhood (Isa.9:6)
In the musical echo of the Messiah, the words ring in our ears:” For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given”, or in the Gregorian chant of the Middle Ages, we recite puer natus est nobis, “a child is born to us, a child is given to us”. Not only has all creation been given to us, but He has given himself, the Lord of all the cosmos. What a gift indeed!
The twelfth century Cistercians reveal themselves most fully when they are contemplating the grace and mercy of God in the mystery of the Incarnation. Among them Guerric of Igny, a successor of Bernard of Clairvaux, sees deep implications in the dative-nobis, of Christ as the child, given to children. All the treasures of God are given to us in Christ, making himself a little child by which to receive the wisdom and the love of God, in all humility. The sublimity of the gift is given to the simple in faith and the humble of heart. This echoes our Lord’s teaching on the nine beatitudes, how God’s blessings are given and to be received. Begotten the eternal Son, He was born in time for us. As Guerric meditates, “it was not enough to become less than the angels by taking on our human nature, but He became less than man by taking on the age of a helpless baby”. (p.29) In being Immanuel, Jesus Christ became “the Child-God”.
“A Son is born for us!”, so Guerric reflects: “How blessed Child Jesus, how amiable is Your Nativity that rectifies our birth, betters our condition, repairs our defects, and repeals the decree of damnation against us. And if anyone is ashamed of being born reprobate let him remember he can be reborn most blessed. But all those who did welcome Him He empowered to become the children of God (John 1:12) … and confident in the hope of attaining glory as the sons of God (Rom. 5:2)”. (p.39-40)
The Apostles Varied Experiences of God’s Presence
But did the disciples who recorded the Incarnation, all receive and experience Christ’s presence among them, in the same way? No, as the narratives are edited, they were all different. Matthew as a Jew, addressing a Jewish audience, interprets God’s presence with his people genealogically, and within the confines of temple worship. He emphasizes too, that the Kingdom of heaven is for little children, as he welcomes them into his arms in Matt. 16 and challenges the Jews of the need to become as “a little child” in Ch. 18. Jesus’ presence is in being a rabbi/teacher, with the new expression of saying everything in parables.
Mark, too, reflects more the psyche of Peter his mentor, as always very active, very busy, doing great works for the Kingdom. But ‘presence’, no, Mark does not give it to us anymore than Matthew.
It is the charismatic historian Luke, in his unique presentation of his Gospel of healing, and of the further acts of the apostles after Pentecost, who portrays the healing presence of the great Physician, followed by the Pauline mystical experience of being encountered by the presence of the Crucified, becoming radically identified no longer as Saul of Tarsus, but now as being “in Christ”; repeated 166 times in his epistles.
Then there is John, ‘the Beloved disciple”, always in the presence of his Lord, as he leaned upon his breasts of grace and mercy. He alone records, the triune presence of the Father with the Son, in the Holy Spirit in the unique prayer of Jn. 17.
This vignette of ‘difference’ should comfort us that each of us differently will experience and witness to Christ’s presence intimately and uniquely different, for the Good Shepherd calls us all ‘by name’.
A Metrics of God’s Presence in Renewed Ecumenicity
Since the Reformation the tragic internecine debate among Christians as Protestants and Catholics have created a stark dichotomy between presence and absence, a coordinate or formula of Catholics = presence, and of Protestants = absence. In my own fundamentalist past, ‘the breaking of bread service’ was always ‘the remembrance’ of an absent Lord, whose ‘Second Coming’ was being anticipated. Catholic mass seemed a magic act of the priest to raise the host on high, bread and wine becoming ‘human flesh and blood’. Both parties should be shocked to realize the futility of their debate, if God’s presence is in all the cosmos, as well as within our loving hearts. How can we debate over the mystery of God’s presence, although I also do it, when I get drawn into a ecclesial debate.
Recently, I was in a Catholic Sunday morning service, where the worship selected all Puritan and Wesleyan hymns, while the embrace given to all Christians to receive the Eucharistic meal was offered to all the worshippers, and the glory of the musical worship profoundly moved me to experience the presence of the Lord, as I have never witnessed before in my life! Yet my mother as a single Protestant missionary was stoned out of her village, and my father too suffered Spanish persecution! How blind we all can be in our religious narratives!
As we close let me ask you three deep questions, as I have done several times in this past year, in settings as different as in the Faroe Islands, in Japan, in Hong Kong, in Brazil, as well as here in Vancouver.
What is the earliest relational wound you can remember you received as a small child?
What compensatory behavior have you adopted, to act as your own physician/ redeemer, which reflects upon your childhood?
When do you now experience the presence of the Lord in your life? Since God is absent when our compensatory behavior is strongly present, demonstrating we are acting as our own redeemer, when are the periods of crisis, helplessness, emptiness, even despair, when you uniquely experience the gift of His presence?
It is then, and only then, that the Christmas message becomes so real and intimately so personal. ‘Born-Again’ Christians can tragically remain still-born, never having much sense of the divine presence. While others like Brother Lawrence are experiencing the presence of God in every situation, every day, all the time.
“May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be experienced as divine presence, always and by all means, Amen”.