The manifest presence of God. I’ve heard this phrase used quite a bit these past few years. Studying church revitalization, I’ve been told that one of the reasons why churches lack growth and vitality is that people just don’t feel the manifest presence of God. And so we need to seek more to bring people to experience his presence.
Okay. Got it.
Now what does it mean?
Honestly, this is something I have wrestled with. It sounds good with a biblical ring and so forth, but when I’ve asked people to describe the phrase the answers haven’t been very clear. Along these lines I have heard prayers about God making himself more known to us, the Holy Spirit showing up, and fire falling upon alters. But again, I’m left scratching my head a bit.
What would it look like for God to show up at church?
I like tangible and clear.
I think part of my problem with this language is that we are grasping for an experience of the spectacular. And certainly God shows up at times in just such ways. Survey the Old Testament: you find God rescuing his people through ten plagues followed by a wall of water and dry land where a sea is meant to be. God lead his people by a pillar of cloud during the day and fire by night. He at times showed up in a bright shining glory that drove people away from the tabernacle and temple and left Moses’ face glowing. He used prophetic dreams and visions, some of which (Ezekiel) are quite fascinating.
The New Testament isn’t short on the spectacular either. God’s voice booming from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit coming down with tongues of fire, filling the disciples who then speak in a variety of languages. There are also more dreams and visions and bright lights. Let’s not forget walking on water and the raising of the dead either.
Yet, there is also what we might call mundane, ordinary, and normal.
God manifested his presence as he walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. He showed up and spoke to Abraham in the form of a man. He wrestled with Jacob, again in the form of the man, and let Jacob fight him to a draw. When Elijah was upon a mountain there was shaking ground and rock shattering winds, yet God was not in them. Instead he manifested his presence in a quiet whisper. And in the New Testament, God himself took on the flesh of a child who grew to be a humble carpenter who seemed to be off the scene for much of his first thirty years of life.
Normal. Ordinary. Sawing wood. Laying bricks. Day after day—God manifest.
In Ephesians 5:18-21 Paul spoke of being filled with the Spirit. Language that indicates to people who already possess the Spirit (1:13-14) how to experience more of the fullness of God, just like we are searching for: the presence of God manifest among us! Paul mentioned three things about how this Spirit-filled, God-manifested life looks: (1) praising God together in a variety of song as we sing to God and to each other; (2) being devoted to thankful prayer regardless of the situations around us; and (3) humbly serving one another because we revere Jesus.
That’s not overly spectacular. In fact that sounds a lot like how the ordinary daily Christian life and our gatherings as church should be. Granted a lot of times we get in the way. Maybe that’s why we don’t see God in the ordinary? We’re too concerned about our preference (“I like those hymns, but could do without those spiritual songs” or vice versa), we don’t devote ourselves to thankful prayer, and we’d rather be served than humbly serve. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that God isn’t showing up in ways we think are spectacular, manifesting himself in fire or smoke or moved emotions. Maybe the problem is we’re not aligning ourselves with the way God says “I will be among you” on a daily basis.
In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus gave a promise of power—all authority in heaven and on earth is his. Jesus also gave a promise of presence—“behold I am with you always.” With you always—God manifest. And in between these promises Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Maybe we don’t feel the presence of God because we let excuses get in the way of being discipled and discipling others? (“That’s not my job—right?” “I’m just too busy.”)
Then, of course, there is Galatians 5. Paul wrote exactly how to know if God’s Spirit is among us. How to know if the power and presences of the Holy Spirit is actively involved in our lives and churches. There will be something manifest—there will be a result, something to see. There will be fruit.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
The fruit is character. Character growth is sometimes slow and steady, and other times rapid and sudden. Either way it is change with time. The Spirit shapes us to become more and more like Jesus as we live our lives following him. That is a grand experience of the manifest presence of God in our lives.
I feel that sometimes we get too fixated on the excitement of an experience. How awesome (and possibly life-ending frightening) it would be to see fire fall and glory to shine. Yet, in looking for the excitement and experience do we miss the fact that if we are faithful to God then even when things seem mundane and ordinary the Fire dwells within us and God’s glory shines bright as he shapes us to be more like Jesus and to make disciples? When we sing together, pray together, and serve each other. When we love more, have more joy, have more peace, and show more patience.
God is there. He is manifest.