The season of Advent in the church calendar marks the days leading up to our celebration of Jesus’s birth. During this time, churches and individuals await Jesus’s coming and coming again. It is rife with anticipation, preparation, and expectation. Follow this three-part series to enrich your Advent season and deepen your Scripture reading practices.
This morning I prayed to be brought into God’s presence. It’s the type of prayer I’ve heard and even prayed many times throughout my life. It has the potential to be perfunctory. But I meant it. What will it look like for God to answer my prayer? What does “God’s presence” actually mean?
I can only begin to answer that question by facing why I asked it. It’s a felt lack that drove me to that prayer. This lack is an inky darkness seeping in at the edges of day-to-day experience. It’s the knowledge—either shadowy or precise—that I’m weak, frustrated, isolated, afraid. When I ask for an encounter with God’s presence, I’m longing for God to comfort me in my fears and to take care of me in my neediness. I want to feel satisfied, and at peace.
In the Old Testament, God’s people knew that they could find God’s presence in a physical building. Now, long after the temple is gone, we don’t have to journey to a temple, but we can do tangible, physical things to make ourselves more receptive to God’s comfort, more satisfied in God’s nearness.
Traditionally, the church has designated the weeks preceding Christmas as a time to make room for God. We put aside our other desires and focus on our deepest need: for God to come near us—again. Advent is a season of waiting to celebrate Jesus’s birth. It’s also a time for acknowledging that we need him to come again. Advent makes room for us to be honest about our lack, our longing before the God who strengthens the weak and comforts the needy.
Coming into God’s Presence
One thousand years before Jesus was born, a woman named Hannah brings her sorrow to God’s house. Hannah’s grief at her barrenness consumes her. She “wept and would not eat” (1 Samuel 1:7 ESV). Her own resources have failed her. She is aching, vulnerable. She begs God to “remember” her.
My circumstances are different from Hannah’s, but I recognize the same lack that led me to seek God’s presence. In the house of God, Hannah silently cries out in prayer. The priest Eli approaches to question her. “I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation,” Hannah tells the priest (1 Samuel 1:16 ESV). In compassion, Eli prays for her. Hannah leaves God’s house, and “her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel 1:18 ESV).
What happened to Hannah that her pain is relieved? She received no revelation that God would answer her prayer, only Eli’s empathetic prayer and hope. Before, Hannah was mired in her grief, hopeless. Now, she has stepped outside the routine of her grief to bring her needs to God. She has voiced them to another person who prayed for her. Hannah knows she has been heard, and she is comforted.
Later, Hannah praises God for hearing her prayer: “He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap” (1 Samuel 2:8). Hannah’s song reveals what she has learned about God. God is compassionate. When we’re stuck in our neediness, when our own resources fail us, God hears us and acts for us.
On my own, it’s hard to believe that God hears me and acts for me. Even if I want to believe God hears me, sometimes I doubt it. I need reassurance. But I can count on experiencing God’s presence when I’m with God’s people.
Advent is an opportunity to purposefully pray with others. Plan to meet with a trusted friend once a week during this month. Be vulnerable in prayer together. Jesus promises to be with us when we pray together (Matthew 18:20). When your friend listens to you—know that God is listening to you. As you comfort your friend—you are comforting him with God’s own comfort (1 Corinthians 1:4).
Waiting for God’s Presence
Long after Hannah prayed for consolation, the Gospel writer Luke tells how Mary and Joseph bring their infant son to the temple. As they arrive, an old man and woman approach the family (Luke 2:38). These two had been expecting someone.
The great artist Rembrandt seems to have been fascinated by the biblical characters Simeon and Anna—this elderly pair who greet Mary and Joseph and their new baby. He painted them multiple times throughout his life. One painting focuses on Anna alone, in a moment imagined by the artist. In it, the old woman bends forward to read a large book of Scripture. Light comes from behind her, illuminating one wrinkled hand that presses the page, as if trying to absorb its words into her skin.
Luke tells us that Anna was widowed as a young woman and has spent the rest of her life “in the temple, worshiping and fasting night and day” (Luke 2:37). Now she is old, her body weakened. Yet when she sees Jesus, she feels new strength. She bursts into praise for God, exclaiming to the people around her.
During Advent, we can follow Anna into a deeper commitment to God’s presence. Her practices make room for us to wait to meet God. Rembrandt grasped that Anna’s constant meditation on Scripture, prayer, and worship had filled her with light, with joy. We can have that, too.
It takes effort; we’re already too busy, too tired. Discipline can feel like deprivation on top of lack! But God loves to meet us. Paradoxically, in our weakness, we’re more open to that encounter. Anna’s practices had made her sensitive to God’s presence, able to recognize Jesus as God’s promised Savior.
Trusting in God’s Presence
Before Mary brought her son to the temple, God’s messenger told her that she would be the mother of the God’s promised Deliverer. She was the first to know God fully human, with her. Indeed, her child would be called Immanuel, “God-with-us” (Matthew 1:23).
Mary could not fully know what God’s presence would mean for her. But she tells the angel simply, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She offers her life to be used by God. Later, in the temple, Simeon will warn her that a “sword” will pierce her soul (Luke 2:35). We can imagine Mary remembering that prophecy as she watches her son be crucified.
But now, at the angel’s message, Mary sings in joy, demonstrating her confidence in God’s character. Her song praises God, echoing Hannah and celebrating that God feeds the hungry, helps the poor, and gives strength to the weak (Luke 1:46-55). Even when she doesn’t know what will happen to her, she bases her obedience on God’s trustworthiness and his promises of love.
Sometimes when we move to be closer to Jesus, we are like Mary, offering ourselves to God without knowing if our lives will turn out the way we want them to. God’s presence doesn’t mean we’ll bypass pain. For Mary, God’s presence ensured that she would suffer. But like Mary, we can rejoice that God is able to console us—even satisfy us—in our pain.
This Advent, read Mary’s song of praise. Read it slowly. I have found that her song exposes my pretensions: “He scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… The rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51, 53). I’m not able to control my future or fill my own sense of lack, that something missing from my life. But, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49). This song reminds us that God helps people who can’t help themselves. Her song reminds us of the character of one who loves us and wants to be with us.
Be confident to approach God
In a season like Advent, when I press in to be near to God, I reexamine my habits and my thoughts. I slow down to practice solitude or prayer. I’m more intentional about worshiping with others. Even when my circumstances don’t change, I start to notice that I’m more grateful, at peace. As I make room to meditate on Jesus’s coming, I can see more clearly the purpose of his coming: to bring me into God’s presence.
I have found that when I meditate slowly through a psalm, or focus on praying while I walk, or give up some comfort in order to retrain my attention towards God, I become less anxious. I’m not as worried that I won’t have enough or that things won’t work out. The few times I’ve fasted, I read and prayed Scripture verses and found that in my physical hunger, the Word of God gave me profound satisfaction. It’s a different experience to read Scripture when I’m empty than when I’m full. I feel my need of God more. As I fill my mind and time with thinking about Jesus’s work and with talking to him, I trust him more. I’m more satisfied, at peace. This Advent, I look to the answer to my prayer: to be brought in to God’s presence.
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