This week we look at what it means to truly live in God's presence. Only when we can achieve this, can we "pray continually" (1 Thessalonians 5:17), "pray in the Spirit on all occasions" (Ephesians 6:18), and "continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise" (Hebrews 13:15). What would it look like in our lives of faith today to really be able to achieve this?
This message is based on readings from 2 Samuel 6:1-5 and Psalm 24.
George Zimmer, the founder of the Men’s Warehouse, made his first television commercial in 1986. Staring into the camera, he made a promise that has become familiar to us all; do you remember what he says? “You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.” Most of us are familiar with that line. What we probably don’t know is that it was a mistake. He wasn’t supposed to say, “I guarantee it.” He was supposed to say, “That is the fact, Jack,” which was the catchphrase that Bill Murray made popular in the movie “Stripes” filmed five years before.
Stripes was very popular movie in the mid 80’s, and people were very familiar with that line, so they were hoping that it might make a connection with folks. But the line, “I guarantee it,” also connected with folks. Probably in a much deeper way than the original line might have. It formed a simple promise that resonated with people and made them want to visit one of his stores. It means something to have someone standing behind their product. He made a promise that he would be there if you didn’t like the clothing you bought from him.
That promise is not that different from the promise in our readings this morning. The promise that God would be here, the promise of God’s presence, is the cornerstone in our relationship with Him. The cornerstone of our faith and of our Christian witness. Because God keeps His promises – His promises to love us, to forgive us, to care for us, and to be present with us.
Our first reading from 2 Samuel 6 is the story of King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The promise is that wherever the ark resided, the community would be blessed with God’s presence. And David wanted God’s blessings to be on Israel. So he moved it to Jerusalem, the new capital of Israel. Because he knew in his heart that if God was Israel, if God was personally present with Israel, then no harm could fall upon them, and the nation would know peace.
When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, he is associating his rule with the lordship, power, and presence of God. It was symbolically saying that this was God’s people, and that David would follow God’s Will for the people. God would be the real king again. He was pledging to do everything in his power to keep the nation looking toward God.
David, and 30,000 others, were dancing before the ark to express their adoration and praise of God. Verse 5 read, “David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.” They were celebrating the very real presence of God that was so surely there. The singing and the dancing that went on was a very real celebration, because God was with them, and they were celebrating with praise.
What if we could praise God like that every time we got together? If we were so happy to be in God’s presence, that we couldn’t help ourselves. Some of you might think that would be so contrary to what you know church is like, but in the Bible, that’s how they praised God. With celebration, with music, and yes, even with dancing. Because being with God, and knowing you are in the presence of God, is a pretty incredible thing. It is certainly cause for celebration, and David and the nation of Israel celebrated it.
I’ve recently re-read a book that I first read right after seminary. It’s called Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence. I had read parts of that book in seminary, and really wanted to pick up a copy and read the whole thing, so a few years after seminary I found a copy and read it through. Just a month or so ago I read it again. Brother Lawrence was a monk that lived in the 1600’s, and while he was incredibly meek and humble, he had an incredibly strong faith that was admired by everyone who met him.
The secret to the strength of his faith, if you can call it a secret, was that he knew that God was with him. That no matter where he was, or what he was doing, that God was present with him. As a result, he would talk with God all the time, all throughout the day. That’s probably what Paul was referring to when he wrote to the Thessalonians and told them to “pray continually.” And in his letter to the Ephesians when he tells them to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions. That’s what was meant in Hebrews when it said to “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise.”
In order to do this, we need to know without a doubt that God is with us. We know it in our heads, but do we know it in our hearts? And if we do know it, we need to lift it into our conscious thinking so that we’re always aware of it. Because if we’re aware that God is with us, that He is personally present with us, then sin won’t be as big of a problem. While we’ll still be tempted, if we know that God is personally present with us, we can choose God over that temptation.
And if we know that God is personally with us, prayer will be easier, too. We’ll talk to Him just like we would talk to anybody else that might be with us. That’s what Brother Lawrence did. And it got to the point where he greatly preferred those mundane tasks that he could do alone, so that he wouldn’t be distracted from the presence of God. So that he could talk to God continually. And just enjoy being with God continually.
So know that God is with you, no matter what happens. Know that you are in the very presence of God. I’ve been working on this. And I’ll admit that I have a long way to go, but I think I’m making progress. Here’s an example of a really bad day. I was reminded of this reading through a journal I was keeping at the time. The Almond Church used to host a music festival – an all-day event with several bands, starting about 2 in the afternoon, and running till about 9, I think we did it three years. I think this was the last year we did it, it was going to be on a Saturday, and Friday morning was a little tough.
I got to the office Friday morning to a message that one of the groups had to back out of the music fest. My reaction was probably the same as some of yours might have been. I got angry. What do you mean they’re backing out the day before the Festival? I was frustrated, a little discouraged. My son Stewart was in a band at the time, and they were the opening act, and were set to play for an hour. I talk with him, and he said they’d take another hour, they’d just do some praise songs or something, no problem.
So I’m still a little frustrated and discouraged as I head back to the office and get settled into work, when the phone rings again. This time it’s Cindy Talley. We know Paul and Cindy Talley, they’ll be here again in August. They were going to be the headliner. They were scheduled to start at about 7:30 and go to the end, about 9. But Paul was in the hospital with a severe asthma attack Thursday night, his asthma was still bothering him, his allergies are out of control, and they had to cancel. He was in no shape to sing. More frustration, more discouragement. So two of the five bands we had lined up had backed out the day before the festival. I go talk to Stewart again, and we decide to end it at 7 instead of 9. I changed the sign out front and got back to the office.
The phone rings again. There might be a problem getting the stage. One of our Deacon/Elders worked at Alfred University, and they had a stage that he said we could use, but another group on campus signed up for it. We were able to resolve that issue, there was an another stage, much older, not in as good a shape, but if we used a little extra bracing, it should work. So in two hours’ time, it almost felt like the bottom dropped out three times. And I was feeling discouraged.
But this was right after I had read Brother Lawrence’s book the first time, and I remembered that God was with me. That I was personally in the presence of God. As a result, I began to realize that while I sure didn’t understand everything that was happening, I knew that God allowed it, and so He must have had a reason for it. And I was able to begin to praise God for working through my plans. I began to understand that for whatever reason, this was His will. And while I may never understand it, I do know that His will is infinitely better than my will. That what He wants is infinitely better than what I want. And I got to the point that that frustration and discouragement was replaced with praise, because I was aware of God’s presence.
God can turn your frustration and discouragement into praise the same way. The realization of the presence of God in our midst is available to every one of us. If we can just remember that He is here. If we can just know in our hearts that He is with us. And if we can trust Him. Not just with those things that we think are beyond us, but trust Him in everything. Then when the bad things come, we will have the assurance that things will get better for us. And we’ll have the assurance that even when they don’t, God is here.
The psalm that we read cautions us that to enter into God’s presence, we must stand with honesty and integrity. Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart, who doesn’t lift up his soul to an idol, and who doesn’t swear by what is false, can enter into God’s presence.
A mistake that we tend to make in the Church today is trying to be too accommodating. We try to be accepting to everyone. We try to make everyone feel welcome and invited. God loves us all, but He expects something from us. He expects our honesty, our integrity. He expects us to live according to our faith. He expects us to love those things that He loves, and to stand against those things that He stands against.
I think there’s one more thing that God expects of us. He expects us to truly desire to belong to Him. He expects us to long for the presence of God, to truly desire to be in the presence of God. There is a chapter in Practicing the Presence of God, where a priest writes of his visits with Brother Lawrence. At one point he writes, and I quote, “God gives light for those who truly desire to belong to Him. He told me that if I had this desire (the desire to truly belong to God), I could ask to see him whenever I wanted without fear of being an annoyance to him, but without this desire, I should not come to see him at all.”
What if the church said that. Instead of being so open and welcoming to everyone, what if we said that if you have that inner desire to be in the presence of God, you can come anytime, and you will be welcome. But if you don’t truly desire to be in the presence of God, perhaps you should not come at all.
God is present with us whenever we gather and worship together. But He is just as present with us when we go from here. Just remember, when you go, He goes. Pray with him continually so that you never forget that he’s there. And trust in Him, not just to be there, but to lead you into His good and perfect will in every situation.