Harrowing Of Hell
December 10, 2017

Standing in the Presence of God

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

What if what the Bible says is true: that our purpose, our core human purpose, is to stand in that gap between heaven and earth, as kings with feet firmly planted on the ground and as priests with arms in the air, and eyes cast upward toward the Lord? What if we were made a royal priesthood to praise God and care for creation?

I sometimes imagine a day when, through artificial intelligence maybe, humanity no longer has to be the engine of the economy and our survival is no longer tied up in our productivity.  And then, freed from servitude of needs as well as cultural expectations, we worship in the beauty of holiness, as priests, and care for all of creation, as kings who walk dogs, and till gardens, and brush horses, and care for the environment; as priests who make art and music into worship.

And then I turn to scripture and am reminded that the Kingdom of God is here already, and we are a the royal priesthood made for these things, right now.

Today’s scripture reawakens in me, and I hope you as well, this vision of our royal priesthood, as articulated by the Apostle Peter in his letters.Today we step into an instruction manual for the royal priesthood and how to live our lives with eyes cast upward and feet firmly planted on the ground.

This instruction manual drops open near the end of Peter’s second letter, with these words: “Since all things are to be dissolved away, what sort of person ought you to be as you await the coming of the Lord?” (para 2 Pet 3:11) In other words, when all else is stripped away, and we are left with nothing other than our character, standing in the presence of God, who are we?  Who are you?

That day will come, Peter reminds us, so don’t let it sneak up on you like a thief in the night, rather be prepared, and more than that, wait for that day expectantly, with patience and hope.

That is what we practice in the season of Advent, waiting expectantly with hope for that day when we can stand, stripped of all the dross of our life, all context and occupation, all race and gender, all family identity and material preoccupation, stripped, standing there, eyes cast up to the Lord. That is what we contemplate and indeed anticipate in the season of Advent.

But if that seems daunting or even scary, please know that is not the intent. This exercise of seeing into the core of our own character is not so as to reveal our true self to God; God already knows us, and even still God loves us. No, this exercise of putting our finger on the core of our character, is done to bring others to see that they too are beloved to God; so that they too know they were made for the royal priesthood, feet firmly on the ground, and eyes cast up to the Lord.

I sometimes wonder if we have been given a foretaste of what it is like to be fully known through the mechanism of the Internet, and the social network it webs over the world. Facebook, to my mind, provides a model of this. For me, though, it is a counterfeit analogue for standing alone before God. Facebook is the perfect vehicle through which to craft our own little kingdom, with ourselves at the center, as kings, alone, ruling our domain, and curating our character for all the world to see, as we want them to see it.

And that works well enough, until, as happens occasionally, the world digs a bit deeper, and a person becomes more fully known. And when his façade is breeched, the truth gratuitously leeches it way through the web taking great pleasure in mocking the liar as he stands there, with eyes cast down, all pretense stripped away, revealing the true nature of his character; even as he painfully denies it. But God already knew.  God had already seen.

And God wept with each ugly indiscretion, each uncalled-for word, each power play, each unwarranted violation. God already knew, God had already seen.

As for me, as I look upon the sad state of a tipped over soul, I hear through the cacophony of my contempt and judgment a story told about a monk who lived 1600 years ago in the Egyptian desert: Father Bessarion.  One day he was in church.  A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest.  Father Bessarion got up and followed him out.  “’And as I did,’ he said: ‘I too am a sinner.’” (Where God Happens, p. 21)

As a royal priesthood, ours is to let God be the judge, and for us to model what it is like to stand with our character alone in the presence of God.

I’ll share another story from the desert Fathers this time from the life of Marcarius the Great.  It goes like this:  “Marcarius goes to visit a monk.  When he is alone with him, Marcarius asked, ‘How are things going with you?’  The other monk replied, ‘Thanks to your prayers, all is well.’  Marcarius then asked, ‘Do you not have to battle your fantasies?’ He replies, ‘No, up to now all is well.’ This monk, it seemed, was afraid to admit anything. But Marcarius said to him, ‘I have lived for many years as an ascetic and everyone sings my praises, but, despite my age, I still have trouble with fantasies.’ The other monk said, ‘Well, it is the same with me, to tell the truth.’  And Marcarius went on admitting, one by one, all the other fantasies that caused him to struggle, until he had brought the other monk to admit all of his own as well.  Then Marcarius said, ‘What do you do about fasting?’  ‘Nothing till the ninth hour,’ replied the monk.  ‘Fast until evening then and take some exercise,’ Marcarius instructed.  ‘Go over the words of the Gospel and the rest of scripture.  And if an alien fantasy arises within you, don’t look down upon it, but look up to the Lord.’”

This is what it means to curate your character; to acknowledge first that God has already seen.  And then, since nothing can be hidden from God, as Marcarius did, seek to draw another into the reality of what it is like to stand, with your character alone, in the presence of God.

This action provides an ethical corollary to social media. It is singular.  It is not gratuitous.  It is intimate.  It is honest.  It goes to ugly parts of ourselves, not the curated parts of ourselves.

Like with anything, this is uncomfortable at first, but with time, you grow used to the honesty, and the liberation that ensues. The intimacy of Marcarius’ conversation happened between spiritual friends. A spiritual friend is someone you can practice standing in the presence of God with.  They are a person who is trustworthy, willing to be vulnerable, and seeking in their own life to see themselves as God has already sees them.

I have such a friendship.  It has grown out of my small group that has been together for the last 14 years.  I call this friend and I say, “Can we meet?”  And we meet.  And I say, “I need to confess.”  And he replies, “Please do so.” And then I express my hearts regrets, and he then does the same.  And it is not for all the world to see or know, but rather for us to acknowledge together as brothers what God has already seen.  And God already knows. And my spiritual friend then grants me forgiveness of my sins, and says, “Go and sin no more, but remember, God loves you and always will.”

“By the quiet personal exposure of failing,” Rowan Williams writes in his book Where God Happens, “we prompt the same truthfulness in someone else; and in this way meet our neighbor, and maybe even win them over to the Christian way of life.” (p.  27) The church is a place where we cultivate spiritual friendships, often through small groups. And it is in the church, as William’s notes later, that self-satisfaction and self-obsession are dealt with as we meet people in the truth of our own brokenness. (p. 27) And when we do we free them, as we free ourselves, to stand with our character alone in the presence of God.

As this happens our royal priesthood emerges, and we are, to use Peter’s words, “without spot or blemish;” (2 Pet 3:14) not because we are perfect, but because we understand that we are perfectly loved, and perfectly safe, and beloved by God.  We understand that we are already seen, fully and clearly, and so, we need to spend no more time curating our false image, least it gets spread across the world on a web of lies.

No, Christianity presents a better approach, honest intimacy with a spiritual friend, so both of you can come to more clearly see yourself as God does.

That is what we practice in Advent. It is this practice, that keeps us awake and alert, preparing the way of the Lord, as we cast our eyes up to God and keep our feet firmly planted on the ground.