Last term in our homegroups we spent time reflecting on the character of God. There is a limitless wealth of material when you do that and, inevitably, you cannot say everything. But there is one reality that I wish I had focused on more because I am not sure it is a strength of conservative evangelicalism. The God we worship is not admired from a distance. He is a God who is near.
I recently wrote about Hudson Taylor’s ability to hold on to God in the midst of difficult circumstances. In one of his earliest letters from China he said, “I am pressed beyond measure but Jesus is here.” But it was a phrase from the end of one of his wife Maria’s letters that struck me when I came across it a few months back. She signed off with this greeting- “Yours, in a present Saviour,…”. Isn’t that a lovely description of Jesus? It is taking Jesus at His own word- “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18) or “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). Linked to the presence of Jesus was an expectation that He would be at work. Alongside their passion for souls, Hudson and Maria Taylor were known for their trust that the Lord would provide- whether that was money to live on, food for the hospital they managed or missionaries for the Chinese field. The Jesus they trusted and served was one who was not removed but present and, therefore, actively involved in all the details of life. The question going through my mind when I spoke on Hudson Taylor was this- Is that really my image of God? Or do I have One who is less involved because He is less near? Wonderfully Maria Taylor had it right- we have a present and, therefore, “actively at work in our lives Saviour”.
A similar thought occurred to me after preaching on Sunday. It was the first in our series on our vision verse for the year- “The Word of God is alive and active.” (Hebrews 4:12). The bulk of the sermon was built around Hebrews 3:7, especially the way in which the writer introduces Psalm 95- “as the Holy Spirit says…”. The Holy Spirit is speaking to us today and He is speaking Scripture. When we hear the Bible we are encountering the present day voice of the Spirit. Of course, the nature of the Spirit’s work is that He does not speak that Word from a distance. As we gather as God’s people the Spirit is amongst us speaking to us. That has major implications, not least for our approach to preaching. It seems to me that the great 20th century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones was clearest on this: “What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this: it is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence.” That has to be right, for the preacher’s aim is to communicate the Word of God- the voice of the Spirit who is present. Again, I wonder we have a sense of that or whether we simply listen to preaching to gain information or be entertained.
Years back when I was a student I was in a more charismatic church. There would be now be minor areas where I would differ from them but I do remember gathering at church with the expectation that I would meet with God. We believed- rightly- that He was present amongst us. That’s how we should approach church- or even our personal reading of Scripture. God is present and we expect to encounter Him and hear from Him.
The reason we looked at the character of God in our homegroups is that, left to ourselves, we tend to diminish God and mentally rob Him of some of His attributes. In the same way we will forget the Lord’s presence unless consciously we remember this wonderful reality. So perhaps we need to offer a prayer as we start the day. “Lord Jesus, thank you that you are a present Saviour. Help me to expect you to be at work in me and around me today.” And as we come to the Scriptures- “Lord Jesus, praise you that you are here by your Spirit as you now speak to me.” And as we gather as a church- “Lord God, thank you that you will be there. Help us to meet with you and hear you.” We would then approach life, Scripture and church with faith, boldness and eager expectation. For- praise God- we have a present Saviour.