We gathered around the bed of this sweet and frail sister in Christ whose body was failing. She had raised a family by herself. She had been abandoned by her alcoholic husband and left to raise four kids on her own. She had taken her children to Sunday school, introduced them to gritty faith, worked hard at multiple jobs to provide for them, and helped encourage them through college. Her four children had done well for themselves and never forgot to honor their mother and respect her faith.
But when I went to see her in the hospital, she was in a battle that she alone could face — hanging on to faith under severe pain and a failing body. It was a cold and bitter day outside in December. Lights were twinkling and Christmas was in the air, but her health defied the season. Through lips pulled taunt by her pain, she could muster only a few words:
Preacher, you tell those folks at church to pray that I can die and go home to Jesus before my faith fails enduring such pain!
I assured her that I would do just that. I then reminded her of the words to this old and beautiful hymn "O Sacred Head Now Wounded":
What language shall I borrow
to thank Thee, dearest Friend,
for this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for Thee.
I told her that we would sing that hymn and pray for her that night at church. Then I prayed something very similar to this:
O Father, please be near. And Lord Jesus, you are our Friend, a friend like no other, and we ask you to make your presence real, tangibly experienceable, and undeniable as this dear sweet sister passes from this life to the next and from the pain of this world into the glorious grace of your everlasting presence. Amen.
For the early years of my ministry, I had prayed this kind of prayer with the families with a beloved family member close to death. Many times those families would come back to me with stories of how Jesus' presence was undeniable to their loved one and to them. They thanked me for my prayer and they remembered the specific request for Jesus' presence to be "real, tangibly experienceable, and undeniable." They wanted me to know that Jesus' presence had been all of these things.
As time went by, the Holy Spirit seemed to challenge me with this thought: "Why wait till death to pray this prayer with people? Why not pray this with them during trying times, times of decision, times of opportunity, and times of change?" So I began to do just that.
Some people felt uncomfortable that I would pray this — "It seems selfish to pray this for me," some said. Others weren't sure it was something that we should or could expect. Some were just skeptical. Others suggested this was all part of the new self-centered and experiential wave of evangelicalism that was infecting the church, like all the public prayers using I and me in them.
I was startled... perplexed... and even a bit shocked. Yet it drove me back to Scripture with some questions that I needed to ask. Guess what I found?
Jesus wants us to pray this type of prayer. Look at some of our favorite passages in Scripture and listen how personal they are and how they praise and promise the personal presence of the Lord:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:1-6 ESV).
[Jesus said:] "If you love me, obey my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [Helper, Comforter, Counselor], who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn't looking for him and doesn't recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. No, I will not abandon you as orphans — I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Since I live, you also will live. When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them. ... All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them" (John 14:15-23 NLT).
[Jesus said to the people of the church at Laodicea:] "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20 ESV).
Bold text added for emphasis.
This yearning for God to be real to us in tangible ways is not new.
"If you don't personally go with us, don't make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me — on me and on your people — if you don't go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth... show me your glorious presence" (Exodus 33:15-18).God honored Moses request by letting him see the backside of his glorious presence.
As Jesus' last hours before his crucifixion were coming to a close, he promised his disciples that he was going away and preparing a place for them with the Father (John 14:1-11). One day, Jesus told them, he would return for them and take them home to be with him. Thomas, wanting the details made clear, told Jesus they didn't know the way. Jesus responded by telling his disciples that he was the way to the Father. Then Philip begged Jesus to show them Father:
"Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us" (John 14:8 ESV).
While both requests seem outrageous, they both speak to the yearning in our hearts to know God's presence is with us — that Immanuel is real and available to us. Both requests were received as honest desires of the human heart in search of the truth about God's availability and presence with humans. Both occurred thousands of years ago. So clearly, this yearning for God (or Jesus) to be tangibly real to us is not new and certainly not rebuked by God!
In addition, the abiding presence of Immanuel is something that Scripture, God himself, and Jesus that promised to his faithful followers (See scriptures like Psalm 139:1-13; Hebrews 13:5-6; Romans 8:32-39 for examples of these promises in addition to the scriptures quoted above!). Few things we can ever pray can rival the personal and intimate words of Psalm 23 — words used to comfort God's people for thousands of years!
Jesus' promise to live in us, make his home with us and reveal himself to us assures us that we can receive what long to experience — Immanuel, God with us! Jesus wants his presence to be real to us, to be present with us, and to dwell within us!
Unfortunately because the "Behold I stand at the door and knock..." passage has been so often used to call people to conversion, we sometimes forget that this passage was a promise Jesus made to disciples. The Lord was saying to his disciples in Laodicea — and to us — that he longs to come to them and join with them and be real to them just as he had been present with the disciples on the road to Emmaus as they invited Jesus into their table (Luke 24:13-35).
I remember as a young boy visiting my Mama-Faye in Baytown, Texas. On Sunday morning, we all had a good breakfast and in the background as we ate, got dressed, and prepared our hearts for church, we heard a stack of Christian hymns on the high-fidelity stereo. The records were always timed so that right before we left for the assembly, we heard the sonorous tones of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing the "I Come to the Garden Alone" — this was before Elvis' version of the hymn had become popular with my parent's generation. This song speaks to the longing for Jesus to be "real, tangibly experienceable, and undeniable." Hear the joy in the repeated refrain this much beloved hymn:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
The personal connection with Jesus in this song stirs up the memory of another favorite hymn, "Break Thou the Bread of Life" — sometimes confused as a song for the Lord's Supper, but really about Jesus coming to us as the "living Word":
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;The passionate plea of this hymn is our yearning, a yearning Jesus promises to meet!
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!
So where are we in all of this?
What is this all about?
What's the point?
Last week our first article in this series called "Finding Jesus" talked about Jesus being real to us — being born in us — during this Christmas season.
We all have a hunger, an ache, a God-shaped hole that cries out for the presence of God to come to us... to be Immanuel, God with us, in Jesus. Jesus promised us that he longs to fill this hole, assuage the ache, and fill the hunger with his personal presence for us, with us, and in us. What better time than Christmas than to invite Jesus to come to you... to be tangibly real to you... to be experienced in your life? What better time to invite the Lord in to share a meal and reveal his presence to you as you gather with family and remember his coming to earth.
Take this special time and let it be more than Santa Claus and tinsel, reindeer and presents, Frosty and Santa's elves. Ask Jesus to Christmas... to be "real, tangibly experienceable, and undeniable." Maybe then our kids won't sing, "I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus..." but join us in singing, "Beyond the sacred page, I seek Thee, Lord. My spirit pants for Thee O living Word."