Thursday, November 29, 2012

God's Special Presence

That we do in truth enter into God’s special presence in the midst of his gathered congregation must never be slighted or forgotten. The reality of God’s special presence with his people on the Lord’s Day has come under considerable attack in recent years. All of life is worship, we are told. God is present everywhere all through the week; therefore, what we do on Sunday is not really any different than what we do on other days. God cannot be more present on one day or in one place over against another. So let's drop all this talk about "coming into God's presence" when we gather for worship at church.

What are we to think about this kind of reasoning? Well, for one thing, it is certainly true that God is present everywhere. But his omnipresence is not what I am referring to when I talk about God's special presence with his people on the Lord's Day. God has promised to be present with his people in a special manner when they gather on Sunday. The one who skips church for the golf course or shopping mall or State park may not argue from God’s omnipresence to justify his not being in church. Sure, God is present on the golf course, just as he is present in hell. But this general presence of God doesn’t do the people in hell much good. Think about it. God is present in heaven and hell, but he is not present in the same way in each of these locations. There is a huge difference.

Even if we cannot define it precisely, God is nonetheless present in a heightened, special sense when his people gather as the church on the Lord’s Day. For one thing, he is present there pro nobis (“for us”). This is the place and time where he gathers his people to hear and receive his gifts through the Word and Sacraments. He has promised to be there for us when his people gather.

It is not so much that God was not present in, say, China, when the pillar and fire led the people of Israel out of Egypt or when his presence filled the Tabernacle upon its completion (Ex. 40). Rather, the Lord was at these appointed places in a special, life-giving way. The people of Israel were given singular signs of God’s special presence as they gathered around Mt. Sinai and the Tabernacle.

Similarly, it is not that God is absent from the food court in the mall on Sunday; rather, he has promised to be present in a special way, the way of salvation and blessing, at the Communion Table in church. The bread and wine are singular signs designed to assure us of his special, gracious presence with us. He has not promised to be in the mall on Sunday for you. Actually, if you refuse to heed the Lord’s summons to gather with his church, he may be present there against you so that you could very well experience his judgment and curse, rather than his promise of blessing, life, and salvation.

Moreover, when we are in God’s special presence with his people every week, receiving from him his promise through his Word and Sacrament, we can leave the gathered congregation into the world with the full assurance that God will be with us and for us wherever we may be during the week. Without being in the Lord’s special presence we have no assurance that his general presence will be of benefit to us. When delight in his special presence then we can be sure of his omnipresent help in every situation and location (see Gen. 3:8; 4:16; Exod. 33:14-15; Deut. 4:37; Deut. 12:7, 18; 14:23, 26; 15:20; Judges 18:6; 2 Kings 13:23; 17:18-23; Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:18ff.; etc.).

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