What was the moment in your life that you felt God was most present? What was the time and where was the place where Jesus' presence was undeniably real and you were absolutely certain God was present?

In asking these questions, the vast majority of people who answered did NOT refer to an experience in a church building. Yes, a few have, but just a few. And while I have had some incredible moments of worship in a religious box, my most powerful encounters with the presence of God had nothing to do with a religious cubbyhole made for worship performance.

The real shame is that many folks can't think of a time where God's presence was undeniably real. Tragically, there are many religious folks who do not even expect to have an encounter with God's presence. They go to church, but they don't really expect to experience an encounter with glory — there, or anywhere else!

For Jesus' little band of followers, their expectations really didn't include an encounter with God's glory either. Moses had one on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Elijah had one on Mount Carmel in his battle with the prophets and priests of Baal. Isaiah had one that rocked his world in the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel had his bizarre visions of God's glory.

But they were just fishermen, tax collectors, normal folks who had normal expectations. They weren't really expecting anything spectacular to happen to them.

So Jesus rocked their world in four consecutive events — and notice especially where they occurred:

  • A boat on the Sea of Galilee with a rag tag band of men no one but Jesus would have put together (Luke 8:22-25).
  • A cemetery in a non-Jewish region across the Sea of Galilee in the presence of a man whose life was out of control and at the mercy of the evil inside him (Luke 8:26-39).
  • A grieving set of parents and the death bed of their daughter as friends surrounded the house grieving with them (Luke 8:40-59).
  • A bunch of gawkers mobbing Jesus to see his latest miracle that was interrupted by the desperate interruptive touch of a woman who was socially outcast because of her physical condition (Luke 8:43-48).
In these four events, Jesus confronted his closest friends with the glory of God when he faced down the "Big 4" primal fears we all face as humans.*

So what are we to make of this?

What is the Holy Spirit trying to show us in these powerful encounters in such strange places?

Our human minds want to put our life experiences into manageable boxes of expectations. They can be boxes on our calendars that fit our schedules. They can be the religious boxes in which we worship God. They can be limiting cubbyholes of our expectations about where and how God can and will show up. So our faith gets stuck in these boxes. We only expect God to show up in our nice and tidy spaces that won't invade too much of our lives. We try to keep God in cubbyholes to keep him from challenging our expectations and our nicely ordered view of reality. And then in the strangest places — like a raging storm, a scary cemetery, a hopeless moment of grief and despair, or an unruly crowd (Luke 8:22-39) — God shows up in Jesus and changes everything.

Truth be told, as much as we think we want life to be like a roll top desk with all its cubbyholes to put everything in, and with a lid to pull down to hide everything when it is a mess, life just won't fit into neat little boxes.

Our lives, our places, our spaces, our experiences are all interconnected. A mess in one box confuses, distorts and disrupts all the others. What's more, disaster can strike in one cubbyhole and brings all our other boxes crashing down so that no one can put a lid on our real life messes and cover them up. So we need a real God who is bigger than our cubbyholes. We need a true Savior, a living Jesus, who refuses to stay in our boxes. We need to see God's glory in the strangest places, because that is where we most often need him.

When one of life's "Big 4" confronts us, we don't want God confined to a religious cubbyhole or a predetermined box on our Google Calendar. Facing the raging storms of life, we don't want God locked in a box we call church. Dealing with raging addictive powers that rule us, we don't need a God who is neat and tidy and tucked away in pristine religious environments. When facing the death of someone we love, having God locked down to a certain day, week, or place does us no good on our long lonely nights. In dealing with the isolation and pain of illness, we don't need a Savior who resides only with religious crowds. We need Jesus to be real, to be present, and to show us a glimpse of God's glory.

So let's not get locked in our own boxes of God-limiting expectations. Let's not only expect God, but let's also ask God, to show us his glory in the most unexpected places. When we face one of the "Big 4" we need to already know that God is there and that he will keep his promise: "Never will I leave you or forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5).

Like Jesus' first followers, let's expect to meet God outside the box!

* The "Big Four" primal fears:

  • Deep: uncontrollable nature (Luke 8:22-25).
  • Demonic: unmanageable evil (Luke 8:26-39).
  • Disease: incurable illness (Luke 8:43-48).
  • Death: undeniable mortality (Luke 8:40-56).

See the other articles in this series: