“Before Jesus commissioned Peter to be a shepherd, he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” He asked him again, “Do you love me?” And a third time he asked: “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17). He have to hear that question as being central to all of our Christian ministry because it is the question that can allow us to be, at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident.”
“Look at Jesus. The world did not pay any attention to him. He was crucified and put away. His message of love was rejected by a world in search of power, efficiency, and control. But there he was, appearing with wounds in his glorified body to a few friends who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand. This rejected, unknown, wounded Jesus simply asked, “Do you love me, do you really love me?” He whose only concern had been to announce the unconditional love of God has only one question to ask, “Do you love me?“
— Henri J. M. Nouwen In The Name of Jesus
How often we seem to be intoxicated with leadership, with control, with influence. But Jesus isn’t asking us to show our results. He’s asking us to show him love. We can work hard and get people to church. We get people to sign a petition. We can even get people to share nice scripture verses on Instagram. But do we love Jesus? Not the idea of Jesus, not the American Jesus, not the Republican or Democratic Jesus… But Jesus. Do we love Him?
Don’t be so quick to answer. Reflect. Do we love Him? Are we truly devoted to Christ Jesus above all else? Or is He just a side dish on the buffet line of life?
This morning as I was reading God’s Word and praying, I asked that God would be present in my day. How foolish a prayer to be taken literally, for God is omnipresent. He is everywhere.
No, he’s not everything, that’s pantheism, but He is always present.
No, my prayer that God would be present is really a request that I would recognize His being there in my day, not just in the quiet time. With love and respect to some of my more charismatic and more “excitable” brothers and sisters (and even a few United Brethren), God’s presence isn’t limited to dramatic services and hands raised during singing.
God is not limited to being “there” when it’s a “great time in the presence of the Lord”. If this pandemic teaches us anything, oh may it clarify and refocus our theology. Our heavenly Father is at all times present. We simply need to recognize it.
God is in the quiet moments of the morning with your Bible and your cup.
God is in the moments by the fireplace listening to the crackle and pop.
But God is also in the Emergency Room.
He walks the halls of the ICU.
God is there with you in your commute to work and home.
God is with you as you rush to meet another deadline.
God is there when the sirens go off and the volunteers rush to their engines.
God is there with the hospice patient.
God is there at the sewing machine.
God is there as the COVID patient struggles for breath.
God is there as you wash the dishes and take out the trash.
God is there as you disobey him, thinking you’re hiding your sin from Him face.
God is there when you repent for losing your temper or walking away from Him.
God is there as you try for the 1,000th time to tighten that stubborn bolt.
God is there when you are frustrated with your kids, spouse, dog, and/or garbage disposal.
God is there.
See, that is what I love most about the title “Immanuel” given to Jesus. Because Jesus, God the Son, came near, I don’t ever have to doubt the presence of God again. And even though He is already everywhere, for the believer and follower of Christ, there is the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit.
And yes, while we must not forsake meeting together, as is the habit of some, I am so thankful that I don’t have to go to a building or a service or a location or even a room in your home. You don’t even have to ask… Because God is there.
Now, do you see Him? No. Do you always feel Him? No. It wouldn’t be faith if you could always feel God. But if we seek Him with our whole heart, we will find Him today. And we’ll discover that He’s been there the whole time. Just as sometimes our eyes don’t focus quick enough to recognize someone passing by, so often we fail to recognize that Immanuel has never left us.
The above is the first verse of the Hymn “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” written in 1744. It is one of the greatest hymns of the 18th century, let not nearly as familiar a Christmas song as say “Joy to the World”. Wesley wrote this hymn while considering the longings of the Minor Prophets for the Messiah who would deliver the people of God.
While Wesley wrote this song some 1,700 years after the birth of Christ Jesus, he echoes a heart cry that Jesus would come and make all things new and all things right. Historical and orthodox Christianity affirms that Jesus accomplished the redemption of mankind who would believe when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. We believe that we have a hope of heaven, of dwelling for eternity in the presence of God himself. Not just a restoration of Eden, paradise lost, but of something even more glorious.
This heart cry isn’t that Wesley would just die and go to heaven, like so many gospel songs written in the last 150 years. No, this is a prayer, an earnest petition, that the King of the World would be recognized, and that there would be no delay in his rule. For while we affirm that redemption has occurred and that Christ is King, we await the final effects of his rule and reign.
I’m pretty upfront about having never taught or preached much about the Second Coming of Christ. I know, some people base their entire ministry on that. I’d avoid such ministries. Jesus made it pretty clear in Acts 1:6-8 that it’s not our place to worry or focus on the particular aspects of his return.
In verse 6 the disciples, who had every doubt banished from their mind by seeing Jesus not only die but seeing him physically resurrected, asked in effect “Ok, is it time for you to rule and restore Israel?”
Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t give them a direct answer. Instead, he rebukes them, “It’s not for you to know the times of the seasons that the Father has fixed in his own authority.” Get that? It’s not our job to try and figure out God’s time-table. Not only do we not know, but it’s also frankly none of our business! I say this with respect to some incredible men and women of God, but they’ve been wasting decades trying to decipher clues and writing books and delivering lectures.
But in verse 8, Jesus tells us what we should be doing with our time: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” So, we are to stop focusing on “signs” and “prophecy in the news” and start preparing the way for the coming of the King. Our ministry is in effect that of John the Baptizer (Sorry Fundamentalists, he wasn’t a “Baptist”), to make straight in the wilderness a highway for our King! To preach and live out the Gospel.
And this brings me back to Charles Wesley. What got him thinking about the cry of the prophets for the coming of the Messiah was when he considered the plight of so many orphans, he and his brother John were encountering in their ministry. He wrote a prayer in his journal one day “Oh Come, thou long-expected Jesus!” His cry was that Jesus would come, either in person or in the form of others who could meet the needs of the lowly and the broken.
I don’t read books about the Second Coming. I turn off messages by other pastors about the Second Coming. Because so many of those folks aren’t nearly as right as they think they are, and many who focus on that event aren’t living out the call to make disciples here and now.
But, I DO pray that Christ would come. Come and restore. Come and rule over the nations. Come and release us from our fears and sins. And if anything, this year has taught me, it’s that we need Jesus more than ever. He is the hope of the earth. He is the desire of the nations. He is the source of joy for our longing hearts.
“The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb—the majority of people scarcely reach its base. If one were a Moses, he would ascend higher and hear the sound of trumpets which, as the text of the history says, becomes louder as one advances. For the preaching of the divine nature is truly a trumpet blast, which strikes the hearing, being already loud at the beginning but becoming yet louder at the end.”
~Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)
Just for some context on what Gregory is referring to: the Israelites were at Sinai and Moses was up the mountain hearing from God. And the people also wanted to hear from God, but they weren’t ready. And so, we see this unfold in Exodus 20:18-19—
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (ESV)
They didn’t want to prepare their hearts. They were comfortable on the plain of Sinai. Moses, you tell us what God says. We’ll just be here doing our thing.
Oh, Church, how so little has changed over the millennia!
What Gregory was talking about is how so many people seem to want to know just the basics about the Lord. He’s not talking about special revelation given only to certain people or the gnostic idea of secret knowledge. No, he’s saying that all of us who would follow Christ have access to a deep relationship with the Lord but many, dare I say most, are not willing to make the climb even to the base of the metaphorical mountain.
This Christmas let us not be satisfied with simply the familiar story of the Savior born in Bethlehem, but let us, like the Magi, travel and seek for our King. Let us plumb the depths of His Word and let us examine our hearts in the silent twinkle of the tree.