When the Old and New Testaments speak of the Presence of God two recurrent metaphors are used.
The first metaphor is found in the words for “face”: panim in the Old Testament and prosopon in the New Testament. It conveys a deep sense of the “otherness” and “overagainstness” of God in God’s awesome difference from us, His demand and expectation of us.
God said to Moses: “you cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). In the New Testament, Paul tells us: “God … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).
In the presence of God in such transfiguring glory, we do such things as take off our shoes, fall on our faces in fear, or say, “I am a person of unclean lips and live in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” We feel undone, shaken at the foundations of our beings. When we preach, God increases and we decrease.
The second metaphor for the Presence of God is different, however. It is found in the New Testament word parakletos. Here God comes alongside us, walks with us, guides us, works together with us, comforts and fortifies us, and provides us with courage for the living of these days.
He may take the form of a friend, a stranger, a fellow preacher, a particular section of the Scriptures, a church member, or a beloved family member.
Or, more often, in our solitude, in our fear of God in His overagainstness, God infuses His Presence into the lowly functions of our own minds and spirits. He causes us to stand upon our feet and converse with Him. He works in us both to will and to do His own good pleasure. We become laborers together with God.
Our own personal spiritual life as preachers in relation to God shifts from one of these modes of communion to the other and back again. To live in one or the other only would be like doing away with either the systole or diastole of the heart, its emptying and filling.
We live in a rhythm of both the overagainstness and the alongsideness of the Presence of God. Both we as preachers and our preaching tend to languish when we lose this basic rhythm of the spiritual life. A theology, a congregational fellowship, a pastor’s relationship to a congregation, or any other relationship tends to atrophy when this rhythm breaks down.
A Key to Biblical Interpretation
This shifting rhythm is one very useful way of interpreting what would otherwise seem to be severe contradictions in the Scripture. The story of Moses is an excellent example.
At the Burning Bush, Moses felt the Presence of God over against him, laying demands upon him which he was unequipped to accomplish. He asked that some other person be assigned the task (Ex. 4:13). The overagainstness became so intense that “at a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him” (Ex. 4:24). But He let him alone finally.
And Moses, like you and me, was repeatedly over against God.: “O Lord, why hast thou done evil to this people? Why didst thou ever send me?” (Ex. 5:22). When the people of God had been delivered from bondage, Moses was filled with praise and sang to the Lord “for He has triumphed gloriously …” (Ex. 15:1). Yet it was still an awesome overagainstness.
Later it turned into impatience and anger toward God when the children of Israel complained that their diet had no meat.
In Numbers 11, both Moses and the Lord were filled with anger and displeasure. He said to the Lord: “Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou dost lay the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that thou shouldst say to me, ‘carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land which thou didst swear to give to their fathers?’ … I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me. If thou wilt deal with me thus, kill me at once that I may not see my wretchedness” (Numbers 11:11-15).
Then a great shift took place in their relationship. The Lord told him to “gather seventy men of the elders of Israel and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit which is upon you and put it upon them; and they shall bear it with you. that you may not bear it alone” (Ex. 11:16-17).
What was an overagainst relationship became an alongside fellowship with God, who created a community of mutual burden-bearing.
Just as the story of Moses can be interpreted in terms of the rhythm of overagainstness and alongsideness, so can the experience of Jesus and His disciples. In their daily dialogue, they shifted from being overagainst Him in their inability to heal, to deal with the inhospitable Samaritan village, and especially in the difference between His conception of the coming Kingdom and theirs. The eternal qualitative difference between Him and them was most vivid on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Yet He repeatedly comes alongside them, as in the comfort of Mary and Martha at the death of Lazarus or as He calmed their fears in the sea during a storm.
Probably the most vivid examples of His coming alongside them were in the post-resurrection appearances. He was a fellow pilgrim with the two men on the road to Emmaus. He walked with them and talked with them and opened their eyes to the meaning of the Scripture.
The most dramatic shift was the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to be with us. As teacher, guide, and Comforter, the Holy Spirit is alongside us.
Yet even the experience of God as Holy Spirit also includes an overagainstness. People can grieve the Holy Spirit, lie to the Holy Spirit, and become insensitive or hardened to the teaching and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Presence of the Holy Spirit comes to convict us of sin and to bring the gift of discernment between good and evil. The rhythm of distance and relation, confrontation and companionship, sovereignty and mutuality continues in the creative work of the Holy Spirit.
The Preacher’s Parallel Process with a Congregation
Not only is the rhythm of overagainstness and alongsideness a key to interpretation of the Scripture, a parallel process-similar to that we have with God-exists between the preacher and the congregation.
This parallel process stands out like Mount Everest in the description of our calling in Hebrews 5:1-3:
For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.
We are constantly shifting from being overagainst the ignorance, waywardness and hardness of heart of people as we preach. Preaching is one long experiment in patience with people’s reluctance, foot-dragging, obstinance, and general contrariness.
In order to maintain the integrity to be confrontational in our preaching, we maintain a rugged independence of their seductive gifts and blandishing compliments. We cannot be so fear-struck of their approval or rejection that these become the selective principles of our preaching. We are overagainst them.
Yet we are wounded healers among them, sinners addressing sinners, aging people talking to aging people, fallible people talking with fallible people. We preach to our own sins as well as to theirs. We come alongside them to comfort, fortify, and encourage them in times of crisis.
The rhythm between these two priorities is inherent in and necessary to the liveliness of our preaching. The heart-beat of this rhythm makes the difference between our preaching the Word of the Lord and making cleverly-devised speeches about religiosity.
We are called to thrive on the tension between being an example to the flock and taking our place alongside them as a fellow-struggler, a fellow-sinner, a fellow-seeker after the grace and mercy of God. We are by the very act of preaching a living paradox of ethical judgment and pastoral empathy.
We can do so only in the power of the Presence of God-both overagainst us and alongside us as we seek His Face and enjoy His companionship.

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