What does it mean to enter into the presence of God in worship?

I was asked this question not too long ago by a visitor at our church. It’s a good question to reflect upon and you too may have wondered why your pastor says this at the beginning of the worship service. Like this visitor, you may have wondered, isn’t God everywhere present and thus aren’t we always in his presence? And the answer is yes, God is everywhere present and, in one sense, we are always in his presence. But what happens in public worship on the Lord’s Day is something special. We experience God’s presence in a unique way that is unlike the common presence of God that everyone experiences 24/7.

For example, the author of Hebrews describes new covenant worship in terms of “entering” and “drawing near”:

Heb. 10:19  Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

To be sure, God is everywhere present, but in worship we “enter” his presence in a unique way. And that is because presence is not just about physical space, it is also about relationship. For example, I can be in a room with my wife and be present physically, but not really be present, if for instance I am not paying any attention to her and am instead checking e-mail, Facebook, or surfing the web on my phone. You see the important thing in this instance is not so much physical presence but relational presence. Another example would be when a friend says to another friend, “I need you to be here for me.” This doesn’t always mean physical presence. While it may include that, it is usually much more. It means being a good friend by loving them in word and deed, encouraging them when they are down, serving them when they need help.

And so, when a minister says let us be mindful of the fact that we are about to enter into the holy presence of God, don’t think so much in terms of space, but in terms of a covenant relationship. We are about to be present in a covenantal conversation with God, where he speaks to us by His Spirit, through His Word and sacrament, and we respond to Him in prayer and praise. Worship truly is a divine encounter. But it’s not about God, who fills all things, filling a space that he didn’t already fill nor is it about being physically transported somewhere. It’s about entering into God’s blessed presence by faith. And as we hear his Word by faith, He promises to work in our hearts by His Spirit to convict us of sins, comfort us with grace, and to conform us more into the image of Christ. But our blessed hope is that one day we will enter into the fullness of God’s blessed presence in the new heavens and new earth and experience ALL of the benefits of Christ by sight when we see Christ face to face. Even so, Lord, quickly come!