Skip to content

In the Presence of the Lord

December 30, 2015

“In the Presence of the Lord” 1 Samuel 2:21 and Luke 2:41-52 © 12.27.15 Christmas 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“In the presence of the Lord.” Some of you of a certain generation will recognize the phrase as the title of a song by rock icon Eric Clapton from his Blind Faith era. “I have finally found a way to live,” he told us, “in the presence of the Lord.” It was a testimony to his peace with his life after leaving the super-group Cream at the height of its popularity.

I don’t know if Clapton got the idea for his tune from reading the Bible, but over and over, especially in the Old Testament, we hear about living, serving, eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord. We could also translate the Hebrew as “before” or “in front of” or even “with” the Lord. We’re told that Samuel grew up “in the presence of the Lord” and that his mother had brought him to the shrine to appear “in the presence of the Lord.” The idea is that God is on a throne, watching all the earth, and particularly his people. Occasionally, the phrase is used in a military sense, in the description of an onslaught; no enemy of justice and right can stand “before the Lord” (e.g., Psalm 76). But mostly, we are meant to think of God as receiving petitioners, reviewing events, and enjoying the show put on by all creation, as it were. “All the world’s a stage,” as the bard said, “and all the men and women merely players.”

When we are in the presence of the Lord, we are first of all aware of our behavior and accountable for our work. That’s not hard to understand. Parents don’t or ought not argue with each other in front of the children or colleagues disagree in the presence of clients. Certain language might be always inappropriate, but we especially refrain in front of those for whom we are an example or whom we don’t want to offend. There are secrets and confidential information in government, business, and the military that we keep from prying eyes and listening ears. And some things we simply don’t do in public.

So, too, in the presence of the Lord, we act appropriately, given that the Sovereign of all is looking on. That used to mean that on a Sunday we dressed a certain way, namely, in our “Sunday best” or we refrained from running in church or didn’t cry or say a bad word or tell an off-color joke or you had to talk about something spiritual all the time. How many times has somebody apologized to me, as a representative of the Holy, for cursing? But those behaviors are merely externals. When we’re in the presence of the Lord, which is of course, all the time, what God truly expects is laid out over and over in the Bible. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” “Do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick.

“In the presence of the Lord” also implies accountability. Suppose someone is looking over your shoulder as an evaluator while you do a task or is standing in the back of the room making notes while I teach. We are carrying out our work “in front of” someone in authority over us. Even if he or she is not physically there, but watching by surveillance video, our actions are still being taken in our employer’s presence. Or if you make a promise to one of your kids in front of another and/or your spouse, you are accountable to those who heard you make it. In law, an affidavit is sworn in the presence of a notary, who affirms that a person showing sufficient identification appeared before her and attested to the facts in the document.

So when we are in the presence of the Lord, we are accountable for the carrying out of our mission. Jesus, even at twelve, knew that, according to Luke. When our Lord calls God “Abba, Father,” he’s thinking in part of the subjection to a father’s authority that was common in that day. Jesus submitted himself to the will of his Father and made accomplishment of the Father’s work his goal in life. The Son follows the Father. That’s the background of Jesus’ saying to Mary and Joseph. “I had to be in my Father’s house.” The things of his Father took priority.

Jesus had a sense of mission. The Greek of the text conveys a driving sense, an urgency about the work. Later on, Jesus will set his face to go to Jerusalem. He is compelled, propelled, and he can’t fight or shake the feeling. Luke emphasizes this time and again as he tells about Jesus’ ministry. “I must preach the kingdom of God….” “I must go on my way today and tomorrow” toward Jerusalem. “The Son of Man must suffer many things…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?”

Our Lord, at whatever age, gives us the example to follow. We are accountable to God. We minister in his presence in all of life. We don’t leave the church building and suddenly escape the eye of God or our calling to be disciples of Christ. In every hour of our daily routine, in every place we go, in everything we do, we like Samuel and like our Lord minister before the Lord. Everything we do and say and think ought to bring glory to the One to whom we will give account.

But if the biblical writers remind us that living in the presence of the Lord implies a certain way of life for which we are accountable, so also do they invite us to celebrate his watchfulness. To be in the presence of the Lord or to come before the Lord is a Hebrew way of saying we are worshipping. We might be alone. More likely, we are in community. It’s before the Lord that prayers ascend in confidence that he will hear. It’s in the presence of the Lord that priests like Samuel serve, sacrifices are offered, vows are made. In the Deuteronomic tradition of which 1 Samuel is a part, the people are invited to feast “in the presence of the Lord.” The authors write: “And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your households together, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you…. [Y]ou shall eat in the presence of the Lord your God at the place that the Lord your God will choose, you together with your son and your daughter, your male and female slaves, and the Levites resident in your towns, rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God in all your undertakings” (Deuteronomy 12).

In the last century, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard observed that God is the audience for worship, and we are the performers. We may get something for ourselves from this experience, but it is first and foremost about giving to God. Worship is about providing delight to God, bringing God joy, and in turn, finding it for ourselves as we let go of our burdens and lay them in the presence of the Lord, as we “sing in exultation” with Christmas angels, “repeat the sounding joy” with fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains.

So we worship. We live faithfully. And neither is confined within the walls of this or any building. If we have finally found a way to live in the presence of the Lord, we will also live in the presence of, and be present for, other people. In other words, in the day-to-day world, in the midst of and through normal human interaction and experiences. Samuel was not magically changed from a boy to a man because he ministered in the presence of the Lord. No. His mother brought him a new robe every year because he had outgrown the old one, just like any kid on the way to his or her full height. He learned to read and write and think and properly and profitably interact with his peers and his superiors, like Eli.

One commentator observes: “The little robe is…symbolic of Samuel’s growth in faith and knowledge. He has not begun with all the wisdom and understanding he needs for God’s work. He must learn. Each year as he grows out of the linen robe, he is given a new and bigger one, symbol of his growing maturity as man of God. In [the text] there is a gentle reminder of what this growing wisdom and maturity means. The person who finds favour with God will also be held in high regard by his or her fellow human beings. A godly person will reconcile others to each other, and to God” (Howard Wallace, http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/ChristmasC/Christmas1.html.

Like Samuel, Jesus also grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and people. The incarnation of all God is did not turn away from the world. Instead, he was present to and for it, even to his death. “He went down to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents,” says Luke. Jesus’ relationship with God didn’t make him haughty or lead him to separation. Instead, it plunged him into the middle of life and led him to take responsibilities with work and family with great seriousness. He is “God with us.”

Through the years, Christianity has not always understood or practiced that kind of involved holiness. Some have gone to the desert to live alone. Others have taught that pleasure is sinful or that only priests and ministers are called by God in their work. For example, Thomas á Kempis, in his famous Imitation of Christ, said that to imitate Jesus one had to withdraw from public life.

Jesus, on the other hand, found his holiness and his relationship with God in everyday human relationships and activities. He was no strange eccentric, off-center, no troubled and odd loner. In fact, he was the only human being who has been right on center of what it means to be human.

Someone has observed that just like our Lord, we need to grow in faith—in favor with God and humanity. “Faithful service to God,” he says, “is a slow journey of growth and learning with aspects of loss and vulnerability along the way” (Wallace, link above).

Let me suggest briefly two ways in which we grow. One is by learning to recognize the activity of God, clues that we are ever in the presence of the Lord who watches, hears, and acts. As novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner reminds us, it’s in listening to our lives that we will discover how God is at work. The writer was brought to faith through the preaching of George Buttrick, but as he tells it, God had been seeking to speak to him for some time before that Sunday through people and experiences. A face of Christ in an art book. Religious references in poems. Buechner’s negative reaction to the profane use of Christ’s name by a drunken friend. A priest trudging down a lane in Bermuda that without speaking, somehow touched Buechner’s heart. A man with a beard who searched all the faces of people disembarking from ships. Even his father’s suicide note. So he invites us to hear God’s voice in everything. “There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak,” he writes. “Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him” (The Sacred Journey: 77, 78).

So we grow by paying attention. The other way is to advance in wisdom and in favor with God and people by breaking out of the boxes in which we are often encased, the mire in which we may be stuck. James Fowler in 1981 identified six stages of faith which relate directly to our learning and our social interactions. There is a certain sort we have as children, then as teens and young adults, then perhaps another we reach at mid-life. They influence and are influenced by how we see the world.

Later, M. Scott Peck simplified Fowler’s six to just four. Peck’s categories are instructive. Sometimes, even many times, people never leave one stage or even realize that they are stuck. Listen for how the way we believe impacts the manner in which we relate to others and is at the root of so many of the problems of our day. These categories, by the way, apply to any belief system or spirituality, not just Christianity.

The first is chaotic-antisocial. As a resource puts it: “People stuck at this stage are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. If they do end up converting to the next stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way.”

Then there is formal-institutional. “At this stage people rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and get extremely upset when these are called into question.”

Third is skeptic-individual. “Those who break out of the previous stage usually do so when they start seriously questioning things on their own. A lot of the time, this stage ends up being very non-religious and some people stay in it permanently.”

Finally comes mystical-communal. “People who reach this stage start to realize that there is truth to be found in both the previous two stages and that life can be paradoxical and full of mystery. Emphasis is placed more on community than on individual concerns” (http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html).

If we are finally to find a way to live together in the presence of the Lord, in families, in communities, in this nation and world, then we need to break out of the box of inadequate faith in which we are often trapped, of our own accord or by circumstance, and grow up. God is on the throne, and he is watching. We are in the presence of the Lord. May he grant us a new sense of that in the coming year.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: