Where Can I Go from Your Presence? A Sermon for Jan. 17

Texts: Ps. 139:1-18; John 1:43-51

The auto-correct feature is a lot of fun. This week I sent a text to someone trying to say that, indeed, I did have Cormac McCarthy’s book in my office. Auto-correct told them I had a book by an author named “Corkscrew McCarthy.” I imagine many of us have similar stories. I say this just to assure you that I know what an auto-correct error can do, and that my chosen topic today is not that kind of a mistake. Today I would like to talk about the “omnipresence” of God. I realize this sounds like a terribly boring topic. But I assure you it is not. So, no, “omnipresence” is not a typo. That’s really what I want to talk about.

Let’s pray, God of all life, today we are especially conscious of being connected to followers of Jesus around the world. And so we pray for unity. We pray that the unity of your church would be a sign and witness to all. Now, as we reflect on a portion of Psalm 139, we ask for your light to shine in our hearts and minds as it does for our siblings in other communions.  

I’d like to begin by introducing you to someone: In 17th century France there was a monk who went by the name Brother Lawrence. This was not his birth name however. His birth name was Nicolas Herman. Nicolas was born into a poor family, so as a young man he joined the military. He fought in the Thirty Years War. During the chaos of that conflict he was wounded and imprisoned. But he also had a spiritual experience. He was 18 when it happened. He saw a tree, bare of leaves in the wintertime, and for some reason the fact that this tree would become green in just a few months became for him a picture of God’s care—God’s guiding presence. The experience was a spiritual high-point that left him wanting more.

After leaving the military Nicolas became a footman, or a servant, to the individual in charge of the national treasury. But Nicolas was clumsy, perhaps the result of his injury. He dropped things. He didn’t do a great job. He was drawn to something simpler. And so at age 26 he joined a group of Christian brothers, a community of monks living in Paris. He took the name Lawrence of the Resurrection. As a member of that community his job was to help in the kitchen.

Strangely, at least from our perspective, people began to look to Brother Lawrence for advice. We’re taught to look to people with amazing resumes for advice. Brother Lawrence was a dishwasher. What drew people to him was the peace that others saw in his life. Brother Lawrence was open and unpretentious. Even when the kitchen in which he worked was bustling, he was calm. He didn’t worry. And people never got the sense that he wanted to be in any other place or any other moment aside from where he was.

People would write him asking for advice. Sometimes they would even visit. What Brother Lawrence would tell them was that he had discovered the importance of recognizing the presence of God at all times. It didn’t matter if others thought the work he did was admirable or not, what mattered was that he went about his work with a grateful awareness of God. For him doing something mundane, washing dishes or chopping vegetables, could be just as prayerful as being at a prayer service. His chapel, his worship space, was his own heart. Prayer for Brother Lawrence was simply acknowledging and marveling at God’s omnipresence.

Brother Lawrence didn’t make this up. Omnipresence is one of the longstanding Christian teachings about God. Again, this is the idea that God’s presence has no spatial or temporal limit. God is omnipresent, we say, because God is transcendent. God overflows the boundaries of space and time. Also, God is omnipresent because God is imminent. That is, in every place and every time God is right there. God is not like a roving supervisor whose attention we must attract or avoid. No, the Christian community across the centuries, has said that all things exist in the presence of God. God is omnipresent.

Our text today, Psalm 139, is one of the places in the Bible where this idea steps to the front of the crowd. Now, whenever we read the Bible (or other literature) there’s a danger of reducing poetry to propositions. Poetry isn’t just a tricky way to convey data. It’s meant to facilitate an experience. So let’s be careful here as we recall a few of the poet’s lines (vv. 7-12):

  Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
  If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
  If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
  even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
   even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

As much as the poet may be working with a received concept of God, he is also working with his own experience. Think about the poet’s ancestors enslaved in a foreign land. They found God was there. Think about them camping in the wilderness for a generation. They found God was there. Think about their journey from one land to another, their experience of famine, even their experience of turning from God—in all those places and at all those times they discovered that they were still in God’s presence.

And now, it seems, the poet has experienced this same trait of divine character. He shares it with us through the art of verse:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
  You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
  You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.

Jumping down a few verses to read again:

[I]t was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

So, for Brother Lawrence one obvious implication was that to fully experience and appreciate our world we need to be aware of God’s presence. All times and all places—when we’re making a pot of soup, shoveling the walkway, sitting down at our computer, putting our fingers to the keyboard, joining an online class, participating in a meeting, or connecting with our church family over the internet, we are in God’s presence. That realization can turn our world inside out.

Here’s another implication. It connects a bit with the fact that this week is one when we pray for unity. As you may know, the World Council of Churches designates these upcoming days as an annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Let’s think a bit more expansively.  

Here’s another person I’d like to introduce you to, his name is Randy Woodley. Woodley describes himself as a “follower of Jesus from a Keetowah Indian heritage.” Woodley is a seminary professor, but he and his wife Edith also run an organization called the Eloheh Indigenous Center for Earth Justice. The center is located in Oregon and its goal is to use traditional Indigenous knowledge to help people learn to live in a good way. Woodley looks to his Indigenous heritage for guidance on redeeming the biblical language of the “kingdom of God” to address the problems of our generation.  

I find this to be a marvelously integrative vision. Woodley says his approach to life is grounded in three sources of wisdom, the Christian scriptures, creation itself, and what he calls the “Native American Old Testament.” These three sources form his canon. He calls them the book of Creation, the Christian Bible, and the book of Tribal Traditions (see his essay in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry).     

Now, maybe you find this a bit odd. How could a Christian leader like this give such authority to his Tribal Tradition? Why would he say that it’s similar to the First Testament in our Bible?

Well, one answer is something Christians have purportedly believed in since the beginning. The omnipresence of God. Wouldn’t it have been great if when those early European traders and migrants came to the shores of North America they assumed that God was already here, that God had already been revealing truth on these lands, that the people here had something to teach them about God and about living well?

This old teaching—that God is omnipresent—it’s dynamite! Maybe that’s a bad analogy. Let’s say its good leaven. This old teaching about God’s omnipresence–it’s good, wild yeast! Can we say that? If we work this old teaching back into our spiritual lives we’re likely to see new growth.

So, all things in God’s presence, all times and all places, all activities and all peoples.

I will leave you with a caveat auditor–a warning from Brother Lawrence. He says that thinking of God’s presence in everyday things will be just as satisfying for you as when you nursed at your mother’s breast. For that reason he calls prayer the bosom of God. I don’t know what to do with that, but I leave it with you as a warning.

With that warning, I encourage us all to try something this week: look for two moments in your week, one a moment of tension and another a moment that is simply mundane. Acknowledge God’s presence in those moments, then tell someone about your experience.

Let’s pray. And by pray, I mean let us recognize the presence of God. . . . Amen.  

4 thoughts on “Where Can I Go from Your Presence? A Sermon for Jan. 17”

  1. This is interesting because like all good sermons, it informs, breathes, and prompts further questions. It begs the question: If the we do this will we too, like brother Lawrence, experience this peace?

    Cheers – Jarred

    Jarred

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    1. My honest answer is that I’m not sure. ‘Practicing the presence’ as it’s often called hasn’t been a consistent part of my own prayer life. But there are lots of others who attest to it’s positive impact. I doubt any form of prayer ever has an automatic output, but I do find myself drawn to the simplicity of Bro. Lawrence’s practice.

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  2. When acknowledging God’s presence minute by minute I think one becomes more satisfied with each task and activity. Instead of living for future experiences one gives value to the mundane. Only this is not a cognitive exercise -. mindfulness practice is learning to connect the mind to the fact that the body can only be in the now But without God being present.

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