A remarkable discovery occurs in the preaching event when you and I probe some very ordinary life situations to their biblical depths. We find the Eternal God appearing as Stranger in the stress and strain of these situations.
The Presence of God becomes vivid in the most unlikely and strangest of ways in what would otherwise be considered today as a “secular” event. The yearning of a childless couple for the birth of a child, the heat of the controversy between two brothers, the appearance of an unusual traveling companion on a journey — these and many other biblical events reveal the Presence of God as a stranger.
“Life-situation” sermons often come through as an exercise in conventional “how to” advice from the pulpit. This need not be. These sermons can be the occasion of the preacher and the congregation literally being caught unawares by the Eternal as the Stranger who participates intensely in the struggle of people with themselves and each other in the testing situations of life.
The Strange Presence of God and the Prayer for Children
One of the most mysterious and strange experiences even in the presence of modern medical technology is the process of conception, gestation and birth of a child. The most advanced of medical intervention in this process still is encompassed in mystery, awe, and wonder.
People still struggle prayerfully, month after month, hoping for genuine evidence that they will become parents. Anticipation and frustration collide with each other. If the soul’s sincere desire — unuttered or expressed — is prayer, then these parents agonize in prayer.
They must fend off the crass humor of their friends. They are pained by the quizzing of too-eager, demanding grandparents. The ease with which others about them, often against their own desire, have children bothers them. The fact of casual attitudes about abortion alarms them. Their own intimate love life becomes stilted, tense, and counter-productive to their realization of the dream to become parents.
Such was the plight of Abraham and Sarah when three strange men appeared first to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-6). Abraham brought them water to wash their feet, invited them to rest under the trees, and provided them with food. This may be the Old Testament background for the admonition in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
These men asked: “Where is Sarah, your wife?” God persistently involves the marital partner of those with whom He converses and forms covenants. In this case, Abraham and Sarah were told by the harbingers of God’s Presence: “I will surely return to you in the spring, and your wife will have a son.” The good news became reality when Isaac was born.
If you are preaching on this kind of event, you have other instances of the Presence of God in the birth event. The messenger of the Lord appeared to the wife of Manoah (Judges 13). She did not ask him nor did he tell her his name. He was a stranger to her. He then appeared to Manoah. In both instances they were assured and reassured that they would have a child. Samson was born.
Hannah, who could not stop crying nor could she eat, found assurance in the Temple that God would grant her petition. She ceased to be sad, ceased weeping and began to eat. Her petition was answered as she had asked and Samuel was born.
Zechariah and Elizabeth “had no child because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years” (Luke 1:7). A messenger of the Lord came to Zechariah in the temple and assured him that his prayer was heard, and that Elizabeth would bear a son. John the Baptist was born.
Coincidences? Miracles? Unknown laws? Wrestle with this mystery of prayer and participation in the Presence of God in the birth event. The sermon introduces the factor of Presence and promise into the awesome events of childbearing.
Your sermon is no longer a lecture of relaxation and self-help for childless couples. It becomes a purveying of the Presence of God in dialogue with the parents to bring peace and promise to them.
In preaching on such a subject, the frustration of the couple who say: “… but I have prayed and prayed, and nothing has happened!” must be faced. One question they prompt is: “Is the Presence of God a means to their desire for a child, or a Companionship with God which is the supreme desire of the person? However you wrestle this out in your sermon, you have shifted the focus from an obsession with a proximate concern — having a child — to an ultimate concern: the Presence of God, who loves them whether they have children or not.
The Presence of God as Stranger in Family Conflict
When you listen to a family conflict between siblings, the Presence of God becomes a meditative question of yours: “Where is God in all this furor?”
The story of Jacob’s cleverness in stealing the birthright from Esau provides the basis for grappling with this issue in a sermon (Genesis 28 and 33). Jacob put himself in exile from his parental home and from Esau. He spent years working for, with, and in competition with his father-in-law, Laban. After much success and accumulation of wives, children, and property, he started the journey back home.
As Jacob contemplated facing his brother, anxiety and dread overwhelmed him. Then at the ford of Jabbok he sent his family, servants and property ahead of him. He remained alone. That night he wrestled with a stranger, a messenger of God. He did not know his name. Nevertheless, he said: “… I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”
He was a changed person, given a new name by the Presence. When he met his brother Esau, he offered him gifts as a sign of peace. Esau said: “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said: “No, I pray you, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor you have received me.”
Once again, the Presence of God became the central and ultimate concern and their grievances with each other were resolved. In the alienated, strange face of his brother, Jacob experienced the Presence or “face” of God.
Biblical resources abound on the conflict between brother and brother: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 3 7, 43-45), the elder brother and the prodigal son (Luke 15), the brother asking Jesus to bid his brother divide the inheritance with him (Luke 12:13ff.). Tension between sister and sister is seen between Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42), for example.
Yet the theme of the transcendent Presence of God is more predominant than the conflict itself. When siblings fall into conflict with each other they become strangers to each other. God is presenting Himself to them in the face of their brother or sister.
One of the most effective ways of preaching on this subject would be to take the whole paragraph of Luke 12:13-21 as a text. Two brothers are in conflict over how their deceased father’s estate shall be divided. Jesus refuses the role of judge or lawyer to be a “divider” over them. Yet He did not leave it there.
He became their teacher telling them the story of a man who had built bigger and bigger barns, a larger and larger estate. Enter the Presence of God! The whole atmosphere changes. The man is faced with his own death. In that event, whose will all these things be? They will be his childrens’ inheritance to fight over!
This man who had asked that Jesus tell his brother to divide the inheritance with him was more concerned about the inheritance than his brother, he was unaware of what his own father’s death had to teach him about life, and so concerned about the inheritance that he did not know that this Stranger from Galilee was God incarnate! Put this on your agenda for preaching on “Asking for the Trivial in the Presence of Christ.”
The Presence of God as Stranger in Unusual Fellow Travelers on a Journey
When you do even a minimum amount of travel, you often meet and converse with strangers. The dialogue between you becomes an occasion for the visitation of the Presence of God.
These people as strangers become to you the very Presence of God. Their hospitality, their questions and their observations “strangely warm” you. Sometimes a traveler may be going through your city and for some reason strange to you and to him or her, “drops in” on your worshiping congregation. These are serendipitous events. Yet, they often become the catalyst for an acute awareness of the Presence of God.
The most vivid account of such a serendipitous happening that I have found in the Scripture is that of the two men on the road to Emmaus. “… Jesus Himself drew near and went with him. But their eyes were kept from recognizing Him” (Luke 24:15-6).
As they later sat at table to eat, in the act of His blessing, breaking and giving the bread to them, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:30-31). Yet in this chance meeting, a purpose, an interpretation of the meaning of the Scripture, and the warming of their hearts in their grief of separation from Him by the crucifixion took place.
Jesus, in the Last Judgment scene says: “… I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matt. 25:35).
Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul did not know Him. He asked Him: “Who are you?” He revealed Himself to him and Paul took Him into his life, thereby changing the history of the Gentile world.
It seems that we are so encapsulated in our known group — our family, our church, our denomination, our work situation, our nation — that the Presence of God has little vividness. We are consumed by the tyranny of the familiar. Consequently, when we are on a journey, detached from all these preoccupations, God has His best chance to meet us face to face in the strange and the stranger. The stranger becomes a purveyor of God’s Presence to us.
One of the major issues of preaching is to overcome the separation between our emphasis upon individual redemption and our need to meet the social needs of the sick, the poor, the bereaved, the oppressed.
A sermon on the Presence of God can transcend this dichotomy on many people’s minds. You or I could choose a topic like: “Human Hurt and Divine Presence.” The Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 is an excellent basis for an exegetical sermon that would deal with three consecutive issues:
– A vision of human hurt and an ear for the “still sad music of humanity.” (See William Words-worth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”) In this you would describe the specific social situations which you are appealing to your people to meet.
– The vision of the Presence of Christ in these people. Illustrate this with examples of people in your own city who have indeed met the Living Christ as Saviour and Lord in the very act of caring for others.
– The basis of God’s judgment or the integrity of our devotion to Him.
These are a few examples of how God as Stranger lifts our sermons out of the earthly trivialities of human preoccupation to the transcending and transforming reality of His Presence.

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