The Promise of Presence
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you: And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
This is the word of the Lord. You can be seated.
Let me pray. Father, we’re so thankful for this time that we can come and worship together in this season of gratitude. Father, grateful that we can sing to you and to one another as we gather today, that we can spend time in your Word. And Father, that we will be able to share testimonies, things that you’ve done, testifying to the work that you’ve done, your presence in our lives and the things that you’ve been doing. And we just pray that it will be a time where we can just give you glory during those testimonies. God we also pray for our Israel team. Continue to keep them safe. Lord, we pray that you will teach them the things that you would have them learn as they walk through the places that you walked. And then God, let them come back and infect our church with those things, just to tell us and show us and testify to the things that you show them there as they’re looking to see you and the places that you walked. God, we just pray you would do a mighty work in them. Keep them safe. We thank you for the health that you’ve given Karen. We pray that you’d also continue to keep her healthy and safe on the trip.
And then, Father, I just pray for many of the families in our church right now. God here in the last couple of weeks, we have probably had half a dozen families that have lost loved ones. Father, we praise God that they all knew you and were your followers. And so, God, we can rejoice and the families can rejoice knowing that they are present with you, worshiping with you face to face this morning. But God, we pray for these families. God, we know that you are present with them. We know that you are right in the middle of their pain, of their longing, of their grief. And so, God, we just pray that you would comfort them this morning.
And then God give us eyes this morning as we look at this passage and your promise of presence. Give us maybe one thing that’s fresh or new that we can look at and actually apply in our lives. And we thank you for all of the things that you do for us in Jesus’ name, amen.
Ryan Lister is Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of a book entitled The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives. He begins his book by identifying an issue with how we view God’s presence.
“It’s everywhere. We hear about it all the time. It’s alluded to in the sermon. We call for it in our prayers. We sing about it in our hymns and choruses. For Christians, it’s hard to escape. As I write this paragraph, I have just returned from a Christian college’s chapel service, where I counted seventeen references to it in a 50-minute service. What is this refrain we hear over and over again in our churches, small groups and devotionals? It’s the presence of God. Take a minute to listen to the Christian-speak, even at times yourself. How many of us have heard or spoken a prayer that starts like this: ‘Lord, we come into your presence now to lay our needs before you, asking you to be here with us as we cry out to you.’? Sound familiar? And this is only the beginning.”
He continues by giving several examples of what he calls the vocabulary of divine presence and how it saturates our songs, our sermons, our books, articles, prayers and more. Then he continues by saying,
“But there is a problem as we constantly hear these vague references to God’s presence. The concept remains just that: vague. So as our churches sing the chorus of divine presence, many of us simply do not have ears to hear what it all means. So how do we tune our ears to hear the beautiful melody of God’s presence?”
Ryan goes on to list some reasons why we can hear about God’s presence so often yet miss genuinely connecting to the biblical reality of God’s presence in our lives. One reason he gave really stood out.
“Finally, and possibly the most significant concern, we have simply grown too accustomed to the jargon. Talk of God’s presence is part of the white noise of evangelicalism, a catch phrase that means as little to the one saying as to the one hearing it. This is typical for many of us. The more we hear something, the less we tend to contemplate its meaning and its significance. Unfortunately, this is quite dangerous — especially for the church.”
So, the author is not suggesting that discussing God’s presence in all these places and spaces is wrong. Instead, He’s pointing out that doing it without hearing, without letting it actually penetrate our hearts to guide and direct our lives, that’s actually the problem. This point really hit me because I realize sometimes, I can read or talk about God’s presence without actually slowing down long enough to consider how the reality of that and his presence in my life impacts my daily life. It can be head knowledge real quickly and talking about his presence, but not a heart knowledge that moves me to respond and to change. Maybe you’re right there with me. Maybe you’ve heard yourself say it a lot and not think about it.
So, this morning, we just want to take a few minutes to slow down and contemplate this promise of presence that we see in the last verse of the passage that we looked at. So, the events up to this point occur after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but before he ascends to heaven and sends the gift of the Holy Spirit, as he promised. Up to this point, Jesus had been appearing to his followers at various times and places, making them witnesses to his resurrection and giving them instructions before he departs. In the text, Jesus had directed his disciples to a mountain to meet with them. The disciples obey and go to the mountain. Then when Jesus appears, they worship him, although some have some doubts.
Now, Jesus gives them their lifelong mission to make disciples in all the world. And as He sends them out, he gives them this promise of his presence.
“I am always with you.”
And I believe that there are three observations that we can make about this particular promise.
First, this promise of presence is powerful. If you look up in verse 18,
“All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
This particular statement, this affirmation of Jesus’ authority seems to inform this promise of presence. All authority over everything created has been given to Jesus by the Father. In John 3:35 the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.
“You have given him authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”
“and being found in human form. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”
And Hebrews 1:2-3,
“… whom he appointed the heir of all things through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
God the Father has given Jesus all power and authority over everything that’s been created. Jesus also demonstrated his authority to his disciples while they were following him. They had a front row seat to his authority and to his power. Jesus created wine from water. He rebuked a storm and calmed the wind and the waves. Jesus walked on water. He cast out demons. He healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed and lepers. He called Lazarus forth from the dead. And now, as he’s there meeting with his disciples, he stands before them as the resurrected Lord, victorious over sin and death. He’s demonstrated that he has all authority. He has authority over everything. And the scope of this authority means that he has the power to make and fulfill this promise of presence to be with us always. Only God could make this promise to us.
This promise is also powerful because it doesn’t depend on us or our ability to understand it fully. It isn’t dependent on our ability to always see his presence or our ability to feel his presence. We can’t do anything to manufacture it or have more of it. This promise is powerful because it entirely depends on him, the One with all authority and all the power. This promise of presence is powerful.
Second point, the promise of presence is personal. He says,
“I am with you.”
This promise is personal because Jesus gave it to a specific group of people, his disciples. These were not people that were sitting on the fence about Jesus. They were not people that were merely curious or had a casual interest in Jesus and his teachings. These guys were all in. They had left family, hometowns, careers. They left everything behind to follow Jesus. Even in this passage, we see them go directly where Jesus had directed them. They obeyed. Upon his appearing to them, they worshiped him. They were his disciples. Jesus loved them. They were more than just followers. In John 15:15, Jesus said that they were no longer servants but were his friends. This promise is personal.
This promise is personal because it’s for us, because we’re his disciples. Jesus considered us all one and prayed for us to all be one. All of his followers, the disciples he was speaking to all the way up to us. In his high priestly prayer for his disciples in John 17, Jesus prayed the following.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word. That they may all be one, just as you, Father are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Jesus considered us all his disciples and actually prayed for us as his disciples in this verse. The logical progression of disciples making disciples also demonstrates that this promise is for us. As disciples go out and make disciples that make disciples, Jesus instructed them to teach them to observe everything that he has commanded. This would include the promises, including the promise that he will always be with us. This promise is personal. This promise is for us. This promise is also personal because Jesus gave it to speak directly to their doubts and fears. He affirmed he had all the authority and promised never to leave. These followers needed to know this.
The text says that some disciples doubted. But as we look at the text, we know that this doubt was not about disbelief. These guys were clearly following Jesus. They were obeying and worshiping him. I think this doubt is about all that they had walked through and didn’t fully understand. Sometimes I think we can look at a passage like this and go, “Wow, what a bunch of dumb disciples. How could they have any doubts? They’re walking with Jesus.” But I think that’s sometimes clouded in the fact that sometimes when we look at the Bible, we can look at it almost like when we were kids sitting in Sunday school and had the flannel graph pictures of the Bible story. Right? It’s two dimensional. We missed the realism of the three dimensional. If we put ourselves in their shoes, I think we can understand it wouldn’t be too hard for us to doubt. Their world had been completely flipped. I imagine they were still processing all the events that had transpired around Jesus’ death and his resurrection. That would be a lot to wrap your head around, wouldn’t it? Everything that had just happened. They’d also felt the sting of rejection and betrayal from Judas who betrayed Jesus. But he also betrayed the disciples. He was one of them. They had walked with him, talked with him, spent years with him, worked together, ministered together. And he betrayed them. And they were feeling that sting.
In addition, they were probably wrestling with doubts and fears about what might lie ahead as Jesus was preparing them to leave, for his departure. In addition, they had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus and were probably anticipating that they were going to face the same fate. The follower will have the same fate as the master. So. I’m sure they thought their futures were pretty bleak. They faced great uncertainty and realized that a lot of what was happening was out of their control. But Jesus, in this moment, talking with these disciples before he sends them out, he’s not chastising them. He’s not telling them that they’re foolish disciples for having doubts. Jesus actually speaks to this doubt by affirming that he is the King and has authority to rule over all creation. Nothing that they can come up against is bigger than him or outside of his authority, and he will be with them through everything they walk through and will never leave them alone. This promise of presence is personal.
And finally, this promise of presence is permanent. It says,
“Always to the end of the age.”
This statement can be translated “the whole of every day until the end of all things.” Think about that every minute of every day until the end of all things. That’s the permanence of this presence that God promises us. Jesus, the one with all authority, declared it to be so. And I don’t say that to be trite. I think as parents with kids, that’s probably the worst thing that we can say. “Why should I do that?” “Because I said so.” Right? But here Jesus is voicing this out of authority. He’s giving this promise of presence. And they can trust it because Jesus said so. If he said it, we can believe it. We can trust that he has all the power to make his presence permanent, a permanent reality.
Jesus had also promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would come. In John 14:16-17,
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
So, even though Jesus was about to physically depart from his disciples as he ascended back to heaven, they would never be without his presence. He fulfilled this promise by sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in everyone, including us, who is a follower. He’s with us through the Spirit, living in and working through us.
“And to the end of all things [the age].”
So, think of this as a believer, as a follower of Jesus. This means whether through death — where the Apostle Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord — or at the physical return of Jesus — when he comes back and returns on a white horse to make all things new — the reality of God’s presence remains seamless and without end. For all of us, this promise of presence is permanent.
So, as we kind of do what we talked about at the beginning, we actually take a minute and slow down, contemplate. Not just talk about it and move on but contemplate this promise of presence. It’s powerful, personal, and permanent. How should we respond? What should be a possible response? As followers of Jesus, I think we also find ourselves in similar circumstances like these disciples. Just think about the last two years. Talk about uncertainty. Right in the same place where these guys were. We’ve been called to live the mission to go and make disciples just like they were because we are disciples. But just like them, we face doubts, uncertainties, difficulty. As we’ve learned through 1 Peter, suffering and things that are outside of our control.
So, how do we respond? I think first, one of the ways that we can respond is be encouraged. And it’s not a misspelling. It’s a little cheesy attempt to help us remember it. But be encouraged. Like let this powerful promise of presence fill us with courage and confidence to get going or keep going in the mission of making disciples and fueled by the reality that God is with us.
Let’s look at a couple examples. One of examples that I thought of was the Apostle Peter. I think it was last week when we were wrapping up the series, Peter actually used the verse from Matthew where Jesus tells Peter to “Get behind me, Satan.” In knowing Peter, we know he tends to be kind of a guy that says or does things that can be a little reckless, maybe even foolish at times. And Jesus had to correct him an awful lot. He fell asleep at the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asked him to just sit up with him and pray. He denied Jesus three times and abandoned the Savior when he could have used his friendship and support the most. Peter was running scared in that moment. But something seems to happen. Something seems to have changed or clicked in Peter.
After Jesus gives this great commission work along with this promise of presence that he will always be with him. And then the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost and indwells all of these believers. Something changed. When we fast forward to Acts 2 after the Holy Spirit has come, we actually see Peter boldly preaching. He’s declaring the gospel in front of a crowd of people and through the power of the Spirit. And in that message, where he’s using pretty bold language, he literally looks at his audience and says, “This same Jesus who you killed…” That’s not a great way to warm up to your audience. He declares that to these folks. And the Spirit cuts them to the heart. And they say, “Peter, what do we do?” He says, repent and be baptized. And 3000 souls come to know Jesus. A megachurch gets started after one message.
We see the same man under the guidance of the Holy Spirit write the book of 1 Peter and 2 Peter. And we’ve just spent time in that. And to imagine that we go from this brash, sometimes foolish, say-whatever-comes-out-of-the-top-of-his-head guy, lay out this discipleship plan for us, calling us to live as elect exiles, mindful of God in spite of the suffering that we face. Peter was affected and fueled by this promise. He was encouraged and given confidence by it.
I also want to point out some faithful disciple-makers here at our church that I think are fueled by this promise as well. The Lord is with them and empowers them on this disciple-making mission. Jim and Ginger Evans, Dale and Barbi Haase, John and Margaret Day, Steve and Diane Bartel, and Joel and Peggy Taylor. You might recognize these photos. Allan used them in his message just a couple of weeks ago as we were honoring some folks. These folks that I just mentioned, they’ve been life group leaders for more than 20 years here at North Hills. Who does that? Open up your life, your living room, week after week after week, coming and having people share their problems and things that are going on for more than 20 years. These folks have done that. I think they’ve done it because they’re fueled by this mission and this promise of presence. They can make disciples in the living room of their homes, knowing that they have their own issues, their own problems, their own areas of suffering, their own disappointments, their own questions, because they know that Jesus is with them and empowering the work that he’s called them to do.
We also have Jon Mulkey. He has served in Kidstuff since the beginning, sixteen years. Can you imagine somebody serving with children for sixteen years? When a couple of my kids turned 16, I was ready for them to move out. I’m done. And they’re mine. And Jon comes week after week to minister to kids that aren’t even his, faithfully. And I think it’s because he believes the promise. He’s making disciples. And he knows that despite any of his own shortcomings, that Jesus is present with him in that work.
Bruce and Laura Harris, and Jim and Kathy Tanner, they’re coming in off the field. The Tanners are already here. But each of them has served as missionaries in countries across the world for more than 40 years each. I think Allan said it was a combined 200 years of service. Nobody does that. You don’t get rich quick being a missionary. There’s not a lot of money in taking the gospel to a foreign land. They’re there serving across the globe because they believe in this promise of presence that Jesus is with them, and he fuels the work of disciple-making.
I think the second way that we can respond — we can be encouraged, and I think some of us need to be carried by this promise. I want to point out, just to remember, the disciples doubted. Think about some of the things that they had walked through potentially that they were dealing with that I listed earlier. They believed in Jesus. They were committed to following him. But they had big, unanswered questions. And I think some of us are in this place too. We’re following Jesus. But we’ve got a lot of questions and we’ve got some doubts. We don’t quite understand what he might be doing. We’re facing some difficulty. We’re walking through a lot of suffering. Many of our church family are in the middle of walking through difficult things right now. And just as I prayed earlier, we’ve had half a dozen of our families lose loved ones in the last couple of weeks alone. They’re dealing with the sting of pain, of loss, longing, and maybe even unanswered questions. Why him? Why her? Why now? As they sit at a Thanksgiving table with an empty chair this week, they need to be carried by this promise.
To everyone that’s in that space that’s here today watching online, will you let this powerful, personal, permanent promise of presence carry you? Will you step into that space? One example, I think, of somebody that’s being carried by this promise, walking through terrible circumstances and suffering is Aileen Challies. She’s the wife of Tim Challies. You’ve heard Peter maybe mention him a couple of times through messages over the last couple of years. And they’ve talked. Tim and Aileen lost their 20-year-old son, Nick, very suddenly and unexpectedly while he was away at college. Tim’s a pastor and a blogger and has, over the last couple of years written quite a lot about his grief and walking through that over the loss of his son. I think he’s also published a book here recently or is going to be publishing a book very soon. Earlier this month, Aileen actually stepped up to the plate on his blog site and wrote a little bit about her experience and what she’s been walking through on her journey of pain and grief and loss and the things that she’s thankful for along this journey.
This picture was included in the post, and it’s a special picture to their family. It’s the first moment that Nick began to respond to Aileen and talk back to her. So, this is a precious moment. If you’ve experienced that, you know exactly. You can’t see your face, but I’m sure she’s beaming from ear to ear. But Aileen says the following.
“I’m thankful for God preparing me. God has been kind. He gave us one of the hardest things. And yet he also gave so much to help us survive. Looking back, I now see how he prepared me years ago to weather such a storm. He blessed me by giving me a bedrock of theology that in my weakest moment, I had to simply deploy.”
So, she was hanging on to truths.
“I can see how he gave us what we needed moment by moment to continue to walk in faith through such suffering. When nothing felt true, when God didn’t feel kind, when he didn’t feel good, when he didn’t feel just, I had a choice: I could choose to believe what my heart and my emotions were telling me — that God was cruel, unkind, and unjust — or I could choose to believe what my mind knew to be true about God’s character and trust that eventually my emotions would catch up to my brain. There are days when this is still a struggle, but I’ve learned not to trust my feelings. Emotions cannot inform truth. Rather, truth must inform emotions. God didn’t abandon us. He walked with us and prepared us. I had to choose to see his presence, but he was there. I’m so thankful that in his mercy, he prepared me.”
I think Aileen is a great example of what being carried by this promise of presence looks like, not relying on feelings when she can’t sense the nearness of God, she can’t feel the nearness of his presence. But because he said it, that he is with her always, she can rely on that truth to inform her life. I think some of us are in that space. I just want to encourage you to lean in and be carried by this promise.
Jesus has given us a powerful, personal, permanent promise that he’s with us, so let’s live. Let’s live trusting in that reality daily and be encouraged and carried by his presence.
Let’s pray. Father, we do thank you for your Word. We thank you for the truth that you give us. But, Father, you tell us that as your followers we have your presence with us always. God, that should impact everything that we do. Lord, even right now, it should impact our gathering. You are here with us. The Holy Spirit indwells each believer that’s here. Now Father, that should have a remarkable effect on our gathering. God, as we walk on the mission of making disciples, we pray that your presence will continue to fuel us forward where we have doubts or concerns, where we’re worried that we aren’t good enough. It’s okay because we’re not, but you are. And we know that you’re fueling the work of making disciples by using us. Father, some of us need to be carried by this, this promise that you are with us even through very difficult things. So, God, we thank you for this promise that you gave those disciples and, God, to us because we are your disciples as well. Lord, I pray that you will bless the remainder of our time together as we continue to sing and share testimonies with one another. In Jesus’ name, amen.