Sermon illustrations

God’s Presence

A Consuming Fire

“Holy, holy, holy.” What are they saying? Have you ever wondered that? What does that mean? Many people have tried to understand what God’s holiness means. Some describe it as his perfect morality. God’s holiness means he is sinless and untouched by corruption, which of course is true. But do you imagine the angels essentially crying out, “Moral, moral, moral is the LORD of hosts!” That doesn’t quite seem to capture what’s happening. It seems to domesticate it a bit, doesn’t it? Others have tried to explain it through the category of the “complete Other”—that God is Creator, eternal, but we are not.

We are creatures, finite in our being. The Bible seems to say over and over and over that there is no one like God, no one beside him, no equal in worth, being, and power. Yes, we must agree, God is the God of otherness. But when we then imagine again our seraphim singing “Other, other, other,” something is still missing.

When the Bible seeks to explain God’s holiness, it says that God is a “consuming fire” (Exodus 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29)—a dangerous and terrible presence. The presence of not just a fire that warms our hands and charms our campsites, but a consuming fire. Turn away!

And so the angels do. When Isaiah encounters this God, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost;” (Isaiah 6:5). Translations differ: “I am lost!” or “I am undone!” or “I am ruined!” Something is coming apart in Isaiah in the presence of God. Yet, at the same time, Isaiah and the seraphim don’t flee the terrible presence. The danger is real, but obviously so is the splendor. So terrifying and attractive, so immense and wonderful is God. So much so, when God is looking for someone to go to his people on his behalf, Isaiah says, “Here I am! Send me” (v. 8)

Taken from The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke Copyright (c) 2020 by John Starke. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


We must journey to the edge of heat if we would catch the flame. When Blaise Pascal died in 1662, his servant found a scrap of paper hidden in the lining of his coat. It turned out to be a testimony of something that had happened eight years earlier: “From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve FIRE…

Whatever happened to him that Monday night, “FIRE” was all Pascal could say about it. For two whole hours, nothing but fire. Not the fire of philosphers and scholars but the fire of God. And when the fire has burned through us, our passion is the evidence that we are aflame with significance.

Calvin Miller, The Sermon Maker: Tales of a Transformed Preacher, Harper Collins Publishers, p.34.

The God of the Commonplace

If God does not enter your kitchen, there is something wrong with your kitchen. If you can’t take God into your recreation, there is something wrong with your play. We all believe in the God of the heroic. What we need most these days is the God of the humdrum, the commonplace, the everyday.

Peter Marshall, Sr., Leadership, Vol. 17, no. 2.

God’s [Perceived] Absence

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Faber & Faber.

God with the Professor

The offer of this with-God life has not expired in our day. When my friend Kim was a young girl, her dad pulled the car off the road one day to help a woman change a flat tire. While he was lying under her car, another vehicle accidentally swerved to the shoulder, and in the collision the car was shoved onto his chest. His right thumb was torn off at the joint, five of his ribs were broken, and his left lung was pierced and began filling with blood. His wife, who is barely five feet tall, placed her hands on the bumper of the car and prayed, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and lifted the car off his chest so he could be dragged out. (Some weeks later she found out that she broke a vertebra in the effort.) Kim’s father was in a state of shock as he was taken to the hospital.

Doctors prepared for emergency surgery. “His thumb won’t do him any good if he’s dead,” one of them said. His survival was iffy. Suddenly, spontaneously, the man’s skin changed from ashen to pink. He experienced a miraculous healing. He invited a surprised surgical team to join him in singing “Fairest Lord Jesus.” They did not even bother to hook him up to oxygen.

He did not find out until later that this was the precise moment his father-in-law, who was a pastor, had his congregation start to pray for him. Sometimes these stories come from not-very-credible sources—such as publications sold in grocery checkout lines that also carry news about extraterrestrial creatures secretly playing third base for the Boston Red Sox.

In this case, however, the subject was James Loder, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. His life was not only saved, but changed. Until then, although he taught at a seminary, God had been mostly an abstract idea to him. Now Jesus became a living Presence. Kim writes that her father’s heart grew so tender that he became known at Princeton as “the weeping professor.” He began to live from one moment to the next in a God-bathed, God-soaked, God-intoxicated world.

John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think, Zondervan.

Goliath on the Beach

Pastor John Ortberg shares  a story from his own life meeting a young kid while surfing:

A few weeks ago, when I was out surfing, there was no one else in the water. In fact, there was no one around at all, except a guy the size of Goliath doing tae kwon do on the beach. After I’d been out a little while, a tiny wisp of a kid came paddling up out of nowhere—I couldn’t believe he was out there by himself. He pulled his little board right up next to mine. He was so small he hardly needed a board. He could have stood up in the ocean on a Frisbee.

Anyway, he started chatting with me like we were old friends. He told me his name was Shane. He asked me how long I’d been surfing. I asked him how long he’d been surfing. “Seven years,” he said. “How old are you?” I asked. “Eight.” He asked me about my kids and my family. Then he said, “What I like about surfing is that it’s so peaceful. You meet a lot of nice people here.” “You’re a nice guy, Shane,” I said. “That’s why you meet nice people.”

We talked a while longer. Then I asked him, “How did you get here, Shane?” “My dad brought me,” he said. Then he turned around and waved at the nearly empty beach. The Goliath doing martial arts waved back. “Hi, Son,” he called out. Then I knew why Shane was so at home in the ocean. It wasn’t his size. It wasn’t his skill. It was who was sitting on the beach. His father was always watching. And his father was very big. Shane wasn’t really alone at all. Neither are we.

John Ortberg, I’d Like You More If You Were More like Me: Getting Real about Getting Close, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

I am a Christian

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

How To Practice the Presence of God with a Full Schedule

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling shares the powerful story of the missionary Frank Laubach:

Frank Laubach, a missionary to the Philippines known for his Letters by a Modern Mystic, began to experiment with practicing God’s presence when he first arrived on the mission field. In those early months, Laubach described himself as “a lonesome man in a strange land.” He had a lot of time on his hands with which to give focused time to noticing God’s presence and work. After a while, the demands of ministry began to increase, and Laubach was with people every moment of every waking day. In that context, he wrote:

Either this new situation will crowd God out or I must take Him into it all. I must learn a continuous silent conversation of heart to heart with God while looking into other eyes and listening to other voices. If I decide to do this it is far more difficult than the thing I was doing before. Yet if this experiment is to have any value for busy people it must be worked under exactly these conditions of high pressure and throngs of people.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

I’ll Be There

There’s a wonderful scene in The Grapes of Wrath, where Tom Joad says a final good-bye to his mother and assures her that his presence transcends physical boundaries—even when she can’t see him:

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.

Taken from John Ortberg, I’d Like You More If You Were More like Me: Getting Real about Getting Close, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Is Your Soul In Your Hands?

Several times during the day, but especially in the morning and evening, ask yourself for a moment if you have your soul in your hands or if some passion or fit of anxiety has robbed you of it…. If you have gone astray, quietly bring your soul back to the presence of God, subjecting all your affections and desires to the obedience and direction of His Divine Will.

St. Francis De SalesIntroduction to a Devout Life.

Lacking Presence

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling describes the challenge of experiencing God’s presence, even in the relatively slow world (in comparison to our own) of the fourteenth-century:

It is said that fourteenth-century philosopher and theologian Catherine of Siena once asked the Lord why he seemed so present to his people in the time of the Scriptures but seemed so absent in her own time.

God’s answer is as true today as it was then: [God seemed so present to people in biblical times] because they came to Him as faithful disciples to await His inspiration, allowing themselves to be fashioned like gold in the crucible or painted on by His hands like an artist’s canvas, and letting Him write the law of love in their hearts.

Christians of [Catherine’s] time acted as if He could not see or hear them, and wanted to do and say everything by themselves, keeping themselves so busy and restless that they would not allow Him to work in them.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

A Life Re-Defined by The Spirit of God

In his excellent book on worship, The Dangerous Act of Worship, pastor and president of Fuller Seminary Mark Labberton shares a story of the transformation of one of his former congregants:

Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me.

One Sunday I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C, for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection.

There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Love of God Wrapped About Him

The sense of Presence! I have spoken of it as stealing on one unawares. It is recorded of John Wilhelm Rowntree that as he left a great physician’s office, where he had just been told that his advancing blindness could not be stayed, he stood by some railings for a few moments to collect himself when he “suddenly felt the love of God wrap him about as though a visible presence enfolded him and a joy filled him such as he had never known before.”

An amazing timeliness of the Invading Love, as the Everlasting stole about him in his sorrow. I cannot report such a timeliness of visitation, but only unpredictable arrivals and fading-out. But without doubt it is given to many of richer experience to find the comfort of the Eternal is watchfully given at their crises in time.

Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper & Bros., 1941.

Practicing the Presence

During my work, I would always continue to speak to the Lord as though He were right with me, offering Him my services and thanking Him for His assistance. And at the end of my work, I used to examine it carefully. If I found good in it, I thanked God. If I noticed faults, I asked His forgiveness without being discouraged, and then went on with my work, still dwelling in Him.

Joseph de Beaufort, “The Life of Brother Lawrence,” in The Brother Lawrence Collection, Wilder Publications.

A Saint Like Us

For the most part, when we think of saints or heroes of the faith, we think of people who are altogether different than we are. They seem to embody a quality of communion with God that is impossible for the rest of us. On closer inspection, we find that most great “saints” are ordinary people who, in the midst of daily living, discover and interact with the reality of God’s presence.

One man like this was Nicholas Herman. His life seemed much like our own. Nicolas had a number of jobs in his life, starting out in the military and then in the transportation industry. After that, he found work in the food service industry, serving as a short-order cook and bottle-washer.

Eventually Nicholas became deeply discouraged by his life. He spent a lot of time, like us, thinking about himself. “Am I saved” was a particular question that burrowed deep into his soul. He struggled deeply with worry, until one day when everything changed. On that day, he was looking at a tree, not the most thrilling exercise, but something occurred to him: what makes a tree flourish is not its self-reliance, but it’s rootedness in something other than and deeper than itself.

With this in mind, Nick began an experiment to have a habitual, silent, secret conversation of the soul with God. Today we know Nick as Brother Lawrence, whose book, The Practice of the Presence of God has become a spiritual classic, continuing to beckon readers to a deeper, more intimate relationship with God 300 years after it was first written.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Searching for Meaning

In the wake of the violence of the Bolshevik Revolution, a member of the Russian Imperial Diplomatic Corps emigrated with his family to Paris. His teenage son found himself adrift in the sudden shift from fighting hardship and danger to the relative ease of safety and peace. Happiness seemed meaningless if there was no purpose behind it. He decided that if he did not discover a meaning for his life within the next year, he would commit suicide.

As he neared the end of the year with nothing to show, the young man was asked to attend a lecture by a Christian speaker. He did not believe in God and had absolutely no use for the Church, and the lecture did nothing to change his convictions. Angry at what he had heard, he went home and asked his mother for a Bible so that he could check to see if the Gospels truly supported these views or not.

He chose to read the Gospel of Mark because it had the fewest chapters and he did not want to waste any unnecessary time. He was in for a surprise: I do not know how to tell you of what happened. I will put it quite simply and those of you who have gone through a similar experience will know what came to pass.

While I was reading the beginning of St Mark’s gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will…. This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist.

It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. This was the “gestalt” of Father Anthony of Sourozh, who established the Russian Orthodox diocese of Great Britain and Ireland.

Although he was not looking for Jesus when he went to the Bible, he found him nonetheless—or perhaps more accurately, Jesus found him. He was examining the “pieces” of the Bible’s witness to Christ, but it was the reality of the risen Christ that revealed God to him and enabled him to read the rest of the Scriptures in relationship to this central reality.

Richard J..Foster, Life with God, HarperOne.

Secure in Her Presence

Sigmund Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening. “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.” His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do? You can’t see me.” “That doesn’t matter,” replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light.”

This child was not afraid of the dark but of the absence of someone he loved. What he needed to feel secure was presence. We all need the same; knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us.

David G. Benner, Presence and Encounter: The Sacramental Possibilities of Everyday Life, Brazos Press, 2014.

Suffering is Evidence of God’s Presence

Suffering is not evidence of God’s absence, but of God’s presence, and it is in our experience of being broken that God does his surest and most characteristic salvation work. There is a way to accept, embrace, and deal with suffering that results in a better life, not a worse one, and more of the experience of God, not less. God is working out his salvation in our lives the way he has always worked it out—at the place of brokenness, at the cross of Jesus, and at the very place where we take up our cross.

Eugene H. Peterson, adapted from Foreword of Alan E. Nelson, Embracing Brokenness: How God Refines Us Through Life’s Disappointments (NavPress, 2002)



See also Illustrations on Comfort, The Holy Spirit, Presence

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on God’s Presence. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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