Among the many fascinating events in scripture, I think often of the account in Exodus 33, where Moses is talking with God about God's presence with Israel. The issue is how people around them will know that Israel is really God's people. What sets them apart from all the rest? Here's part of the passage:
Then he said to Him, "If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?" (v. 15-16 NASB)
The question, I think, is how someone can tell God's people from anyone else? It isn't something I have heard asked much by American Christians. But it was important to Moses, it's important to the world around us, and it should be important to us. After all, if nobody can tell the difference, what's the point of it all?
So how did folks know that God was with Israel? It certainly wasn't because they were just all-around nice guys. They were anything but. In fact, too often they were a pain in the divine butt.
Nor was it because they and others got some sort of nice, warm feeling inside. The truth is, those who encountered God often felt anything but nice and warm inside. They were more likely terrified.
Here's the bottom line: It was evident that God was there because there were visible, obvious differences, and the differences were only partially in the people. When God was present, the world was different. When God was present, things changed.
I have been thinking this after a visit to a church where I had never been, but had been asked to come. I took some friends with me and we visited the main Sunday morning service. The "contemporary" one.
I came with some questions, such as, "Is this a place where God might use me and where my friends would be accepted and grow in their faith?" And, "Is this a place where people expect to see the hand of God present and at work among them?" The two are not unrelated.
I came away without a sure answer. On the one hand, God can use me - or you - anywhere. And people can grow anywhere. But in some places the probability is much greater than in others. Not all soil is good soil.
So was God there? Well, I am hesitant to say he absolutely was not. I think that's presumptuous, and it claims that I have total knowledge. However, the signs of his presence were hard to see.
The sanctuary was less than half full, in a fairly large and long-established church for the main service of the day. Not good. The music was notable for the total lack of expression or animation in the musicians. The vocalists looked like mannequins holding microphones. Not good. The demographics of the congregation were not encouraging. A great many of those in attendance at this - the "contemporary" service, for the young people - were long past being young. Not good.
In many aspects, I saw indications of a willingness to accept things not done well.
The service was a traditionally organized one, and it reflected little thought for the purpose of the gathering or who would be in attendance. The sermon was exclusively about how and why to be "saved," followed by an invitation to come to the front and be "saved."
That made me ask myself what percentage of the audience was comprised of followers of Jesus, or at least "saved" people. Were most just flat-out pagans? Because that's who the message was aimed at.
Was God present and working in that place? If he was, it was not evident to me, or to my friends, who said they were not interested in coming back.
A different question concerns whether God calling me to that place, whether I saw him there or not. Was it God who invited me to come there? I don't know.
I ask myself what are the possible reasons God might want me there. I cannot, of course, know them all, but some that occur to me are not dependent on the church being a dynamic place, tingling with the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it might just be that a "dead" place is a place where God wants to do something, and he wants to use me as a part of that.
I don't know, but it's something to be considered.
I often come back to Paul's words to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:20) that the kingdom of God is not merely words but power. And as I wander - both aimlessly and purposefully - I look for evidence of God's power at work. If I don't see it, then the questions I want to address are much different.
This weekend I in fact attended "worship" services at two different churches. One, only 8 years old, was packed out (a fairly large facility) for four very enthusiastic services. The other, many multiples of that age, was less than half full of nice, but largely unengaged people.
So where would God have me be a part? I'm not sure. It could be either one. Or it could be both. In one I would receive and recharge my spiritual batteries. In the other I would give and charge the batteries of others.
Only God knows. But it's certain that he will make his will known to me.
I'll let you know.