Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s video.
The crib scene here at Hereford Cathedral is more appropriate than many. It's still Advent and quite rightly, Jesus is yet to make an appearance. It feels incomplete, and yet it's also powerfully symbolic of many people’s experience. Just where is God in the midst of the pain and suffering of life? This time of year is especially poignant, particularly if this approaching Christmas is the first one without a loved one. One of Jesus’s titles is Emmanuel – God with us, but what does that mean in reality? At Christmas in Bethlehem, the baby is present in a moment in time. He promised just before the ascension that this physical presence, so joyfully celebrated now, would continue with us always even to the very end of the age.
But for many Christians, this presence seems elusive. Mother Theresa is reported to have said she had no sense of the reality of God for the last 30 years of her life. We know in our human relationships that the presence of those closest to us can be healing. I know when my new grandson is upset, his first thought is to run to mummy or daddy. We know the value of presence, but when such presence is spiritual how do we know? There is a well-known, if rather, mawkish poster of one set of footprints in the sand with an improving narrative alongside it. Someone is complaining to God, asking where he was in a difficult time in life, to which God replies that was when I carried you. (not as some wag once said, “that was when we hopped!”).
The whole Bible in some sense explores the notion of the presence or absence of God. He appears to Adam and Eve in the Genesis story in the cool of the day. The stories in Genesis give way to encounters in dreams or manifestations through angelic beings. It is as if God is visible out of the corner of your eye. The presence of God is sensed in worship but validated by interventions in history. There is actually little talk in the Old Testament of inward spiritual experiences. God’s presence is much more seen in his actions.
The prophets even seem suspicious of religious experiences as evidence of God if they are not accompanied by moral behaviour and working for justice. I have certainly had what felt like vivid experiences of the presence of God in worship of all types, but I recognise my discernment is flawed. The choir and large congregation singing Lo He Comes with Clouds descending, never fails to move me, but is that an emotional response to the rousing music or something deeper and how would I know the difference?
The New Testament cites the evidence of the Spirit’s work more in terms of His effects. Jesus talks about it being analogous to the wind blowing the trees. You can’t see the wind, but you can see what it does. In human lives, the genuine presence of the Spirit of Jesus is to be seen in lives being transformed by his grace – the fruits of the Spirit mentioned by Paul. He is to be seen in gifts distributed to his people as Paul lists in 1 Corinthians and Romans 12. He promises that when the word of God is faithfully preached and expounded we will encounter God. In gathering around his table he promises that He will in some extraordinary way be present in bread and wine – without going into the sort of details that we might like him to. Given the imperfections of the Church we are amazed he said that when two or three are gathered in his name there He will be in the midst of us. These are objective promises of his presence. None imply they will be accompanied by vivid spiritual experiences, although they sometimes are.
So, when we have no sense of the reality of God with us, that doesn’t mean he isn’t. We must be alert to the signs. When we discover that extra burst of psychological energy to do the thing we didn’t think we could do – that is the presence of God. When in that difficult conversation we
discover words coming to us and we’re not sure from where, that is a manifestation of Jesus promise to the disciples that when they found themselves up before the authorities they would be given words no one could contradict. When that thing happens, at the absolutely right time, or that chance encounter leads to unexpected help or succour – that is the presence of God.
All of these things encourage us to trust and to pray. I finish with this marvellous poem by RS Thomas which sums up our experience of prayer and presence so well.
Prayers like gravel flung at the sky’s window,
hoping to attract the loved one’s attention.
But without visible plaits to let
down for the believer to climb up,
to what purpose open that far casement?
I would have refrained long since
but that peering once through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected the movement of a curtain.