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January 22, 2024

Coram Deo: In the Presence of God

January is the month in which Christians celebrate the feast of Epiphany. Depending on whether Western or Eastern Christians are celebrating it, Epiphany centers on the Magi bringing gifts to Jesus or on Jesus’ baptism or on his miracle at Cana. The idea in all three cases is to lift up Jesus’ human and divine presence with us. The visit by the Magi shows that the Incarnation is for Gentiles as well as Jews, and Jesus’ baptism and first miracle show that in Jesus’ presence God is present. He is “Immanuel,” God with us.

In an earlier blog post we saw that John Calvin wanted to emphasize that for the full run of our lives, it is God with whom we have to do. We are not confronted only by other creatures. We have negotium cum Deo—dealings with God. And we are to live with the circumspection and awe that this remarkable fact requires.

Similarly, Calvin wanted to remind his readers and listeners that we live coram Deo—before the face of God, in the presence of God. A moment’s reflection suggests that before this feels like a blessing it can feel like a nightmare. It can feel downright scary.

Think about this plain fact: God is inescapable. 

The sober fact is that I can’t get away from God. Where would I go? As Psalm 139 says, if I fly high, so does God. If I sink low, so does God. If I rise with the dawn, or set with the evening sun, God rises and sets right along with me. Up, down, east, west, never mind. No exit anywhere. Even burrowing into the womb of the earth, brings me back to God. I can’t get outside God. God’s house has no outdoors.

I can’t even retreat to the sanctuary of my own mind because God tracks every thought. God records all the devices and desires of my heart. God knows not only what I say, but also what I think. God knows not only what I say, but also what I almost said. God knows the kind word I forgot to say and the kind word I never dreamt of saying.

It can make a person crazy. I always have company. I never have privacy. Everywhere I go, I am being watched. Around every corner, at the end of every hallway, up or down any flight of stairs, there is God.

But what if God’s knowledge of me is the knowledge of a loving creator who wove me together in my mother’s womb? What if the all-knowing God has got me not trapped in a lab, but cradled in grace? What if I quit fighting the inescapable God and surrender to God? What if I give in to the God I cannot escape?

Then it would be a comfort that God alone knows us through and through, because nobody else is up to the job. Our secrets are safe only with God. Think about it. When our bad secrets get out other people discuss them and exploit them and get self-righteous about them, but they do not respond to them with the perfect sorrow and perfect love of God.

When our good secrets get out, other people may doubt them or envy them or mock them, but they do not respond to them with the perfect joy and perfect love of God.

Nobody else can know our secrets and still love us unconditionally. Nobody else can know us through and through and still be a comfort to us. In Psalm 139:4–5 the writer says, “O Lord . . . you hem me in behind and before and lay your hand upon me.” And we’re so afraid that God’s hand on us will be too heavy.

But what if the hand of God upon us is a wounded hand—wounded by our transgressions and bruised by our iniquities? What if God keeps his watch not like Big Brother, but like Jesus Christ in Gethsemane, watching and waiting to do his terrible work of love even though it is midnight in his soul?

Then the fact that we are always coram Deo would not weigh on us but lift us. It’s important to recall that in Scripture when God the Son or God the Father states, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20) or “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), this is a promise. The presence of God is our oxygen.

Of course this is never truer than when we are at worship. Worship is a dialogue in which God speaks and we respond. God speaks in the worship greeting, in Scripture read or sung or preached, and in a closing blessing. We respond in prayer and song and offering and creed. There can be no dialogue without both parties being present and alive to the other.

Implications? In true Christian worship, prayers are clearly addressed to God. We don’t say merely that “we are grateful” for health, healing, and life. We say, “Thank you, Lord” for such gifts. We introduce a reading from Scripture in some way that reflects that God is speaking to us in it. So, “God’s Word comes to us this morning in John 3.” In many Christian services of worship, the reading of Scripture is also followed by some such pronouncement as “The Word of the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

Offerings are given to God and not just to a fund. Hymns are sung to God and not just to each other. Even silences are experienced as pregnant with the presence of God.

God’s presence is not just an acknowledged fact. It is an experienced reality that surrounds, envelopes, and blesses. God always fills the room.