Presence

Somehow, in the last few centuries, the sermon became the central event when the church came together. I distinctly remember my early training as a pastor when we were told that worship was to prepare the hearts of the congregation to receive the Word of God through the sermon. The centrality of the sermon is clearly expressed by the number of churches that record and offer the sermon each week. In fact, the bookstores in larger churches will offer dozens of sermon series with a sprinkling of worship CD’s thrown in. No one seems to question the emphasis. But what if we gathered primarily to experience the presence of God rather than to study God? How would that change our gatherings?

 

I am not saying that preaching or studying the Word is not important. It is. But is it more important than His presence? Even under the Old Covenant, the presence of God was everything. The Ark of the Covenant was the central furnishing in the temple. It sat in the Holy of Holies with the stone tablets on which the commandments were written, a sampling of manna, and Aaron’s priestly staff within the ark. The lid of the ark depicted the throne of God surrounded by cherubim. God said to Moses, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you…” (Ex. 25:22). The amazing and fearful thing about the Holy of Holies was that the presence of God was there. The entire point of the temple was that it housed the presence of God and The Presence was a source of blessing.

 

During the wilderness wanderings, the presence of God was also experienced as a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud which hovered above the tabernacle except when it was time for Israel to move. In those moments, the cloud moved ahead of Israel. Speaking of that pillar, Moses said to God, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex.33:15-16). It was the presence of God that set Israel apart from all other nations. It is the presence of God that sets us apart.

 

First of all, the presence of God dwells within each of us as the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit and the power of the Spirit should cause each of us to be observably different from all other people. But there is another dimension of the presence of God that can be experienced when God’s people gather together. When gathered and hearts are focused directly on the person of God, there seems to be a synergism of the Spirit that manifests the presence and power of God in amplified ways. Jonathan Welton describes such a moment in Brazil. He says, “ I was with 5,000 home group leaders at a church in Manaus, Brazil. The presence of God was incredibly tangible during worship…as she (Kathy Oates) took the microphone, she began to prophecy over the nation of Brazil, and a powerful wind began to blow through the church…Inside, the wind was whipping around like on the Day of Pentecost – a mighty, rushing wind had come in to the house. It blew the potted plants on the stage wildly and even blew open two large arched doors on the stage. While this was happening, I stepped outside the church to see if there was any natural explanation for the wind. Outside, it was eerily calm and peaceful…team members were later to talk of strong winds blowing in a circular motion around them as they ministered…virtually everyone prayed over that day was instantly healed.”

 

I noticed that Welton said the wind began to blow as they worshipped. The scriptures declare that God inhabits the praises of his people (Ps.22:3). Praise draws the presence of God in ways that preaching will not. On the day of Pentecost, the tiny group of Christ-followers were in an upper room praying and fasting when the Holy Spirit showed up in spectacular fashion. The Spirit seems to manifest the presence of God in greater ways when his people are encountering him directly through praise and prayer.

 

One of the reasons that the 21st Century church has been rendered powerless is because we have exchanged experiencing God for the study of God. When the early church met, the presence of God was manifested through worship that was offered in spirit and truth, through intense prayer often fueled by fasting, through the gifts of tongues and prophecy and the expectation of healing. Seeking the presence of God brought those manifestations and the church turned the world upside down.

 

Again…preaching, teaching, and the study of the word are essentials but our goal must be His presence. Rather than worshipping to prepare our hearts for the message, perhaps the message should prepare our hearts for worship. Instead of an opening prayer, perhaps we need a season of prayer. Even in our personal time, we should give more thought to experiencing the presence of God rather than simply reading about him. It is his presence that changes everything.

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