Where is Jesus?
A sermon preached on Matthew 28:20 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on May 24, 2020.
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It was Sunday, April 7, 2013, and a certain millennial, we’ll call him Joe, was sitting in a WELS church and he was bored. The pastor was preaching about something, but Joe was distracted. As Joe drove home after worship, he felt….what, empty? No, that wasn’t it; lonely? kind of, but not exactly; alone? Yes, that was it; he felt alone. Utterly alone. He suddenly felt like crying. He thought, I am so alone. But then another thought came to him, Jesus is here. He seemed to recall a passage that said something like,“Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” But then he looked around his empty car and said right aloud, “Yah, right.”
That’s the moment Joe decided to stop going to church. Church wasn’t working for him. Too formal, too much going through the motions, too boring. He decided it was high time to find a way to connect with Jesus for real.
So when he got home, he took out his camping gear, a backpack, canteens. The next morning, he took off for a three-day hike into the Hills. He would, he decided, find a real connection to Jesus through nature. That evening, lying next to a campfire, a million stars in the sky, he felt closer to God than he ever had before. And there was a reason for that. For our Lord said, “’Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’” (Jer. 23:24)
But at dawn the next morning, the stars were gone. It was clouds and blizzard and freezing rain, it would turn out to be one of the worst weather-related disasters our state has ever seen, the ice storm of 2013. It killed trees, killed baby birds and cattle herds, and was about to kill Joe. His sleeping bag was soaked, it was too wet to start a fire, it was too icy to make it back to his car. He was going to die. He called out, “God help me!” But you see, people who look for God in nature discover two things: 1) nature does not care if you live or die, and 2) God in nature is there with his power but not with his grace, not his forgiveness, just his power, as both sunny days and terrible storms demonstrate. This God of power kills baby birds and cattle herds through storms. And they have never committed even one sin. What do you suppose this powerful Lord is going to one day do to you, to me, to people whose every sin has been an act of rebellion against him?
But as Joe crawled along, he shouted, “Lord, you promised to be with me always, to the very end of the age, where are you?” And amazingly, Joe eventually made it back to his car, his fingers and toes suffering frostbite, but he made it.
Joe ended up having a fair amount of time to reflect on all of this, because his hands and feet were wrapped up for a full week to heal. As he lay in his apartment, alone, recovering, he realized that looking for Jesus in nature had been a dangerous mistake. And, in fact, it was even more dangerous than Joe realized—for those who insist on finding their connection to God through nature end up being claimed by Satan as idolaters. Especially hot parts of hell are reserved for idolaters.
As Joe lay there, he suddenly felt something he had never, ever felt before. It wasn’t something physical exactly, but kind of, kind of like a tingling. Not something emotional exactly, but kind of, kind of like an excitement that made him feel short of breath. It felt like someone had laid something on his heart. And then he sat bolt upright–that that was how so many of his non-Lutheran friends talked about Jesus! They would say, “Jesus has laid it on my heart to enroll at the School of Mines,” they would say, “God has laid a burden on my heart for children’s ministry.”
Joe’s heart began to pound. Was this what they were talking about? Was this where he would find a real connection to Jesus–in his own heart?
It would take exactly 60 seconds for Joe to find out he was dead wrong. Because our own heart is the last place that Jesus, the pure Son of God, would want to be. After all, the human heart is a cesspool of the sewage of sin. As Jesus himself pointed out, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexuality immorality, stealing, lying, bad-mouthing others.” (Matt. 15:18-19) See, sin is not just things we do that are wrong, sin is what is wrong with us by nature. So if we would not like to live in a cesspool of sewage, why should we expect Jesus to?
But that’s one of the amazing things about Jesus—in spite of the cesspool nature of our hearts, he actually does want to live there! That’s why he has to regularly break our hearts and drain them. Regularly break our hearts by showing us our sin, so he can regularly drain the cesspool, drain the swamp, and wash our hearts clean with his forgiveness, making our hearts sparkly clean with his forgiveness, every day with the forgiveness he won by his death and resurrection and gave you already at your baptism, gave you again today in the Absolution, has given to you these past weeks in private communion with the pastors.
And then Jesus, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, actually does take up residence in our hearts, as Jesus once said, “We will come to him (the sinner who loves Jesus’ teachings) and make our home with him.” (John 14:23) Theologians call this the “Mystical Union.” But while Jesus lives there, he does not speak to you there. He does not lay things on your heart there. He does not guide you through your feelings there.
So, how do you know he is actually living in your heart by faith if you cannot feel him, he doesn’t speak to you, and he doesn’t lay things on your heart, how do you know he is living there? Because he said so, because he said, “We will come to him (who loves Jesus’ teaching) and make our home with him.” And Jesus cannot lie and his Word cannot deceive.
It took 60 seconds for Joe to realize that Jesus was not laying anything on his heart; because 60 seconds after he began to feel these new sensations, he suddenly realized what was happening–he was having a heart attack. He was able to call 911 but by the time they got to him, he was dying. How could that be? He was a millennial, not a boomer! But nevertheless, his life was slipping away. And that is the most alone thing that can happen to a human being. There is nothing lonelier than dying. When you die, you die alone. He started to thrash about, making the paramedics work more difficult.
And that’s when he remembered. Passages, Bible passages. “Yea, 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.” (Ps. 23) He thought, but where are you?
And then another Bible passage came to mind, “Be content….because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) And then another Bible passage, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) Or, thought Joe, until the end of my life.
And that’s when Joe understood. The words that came to his mind were real. They were not just “words.” They were real. And so Jesus was with him, for real, even if he could not see him or feel him. Real words from the Bible, and so Jesus was really there with him. Because wherever you find the Word and Sacraments, you find Jesus. Not just the power of Jesus, but also the love of Jesus and the forgiveness of Jesus and the salvation of Jesus. Because the words of the Bible do not just tell you about Jesus’ forgiveness, love, and salvation, these Words actually give you his forgiveness, love, and salvation. And with that, the faith to believe it, and believe it more. For real. And Joe finally understood that he was not alone. And he became calm. And this passage kept on scrolling through his mind, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” or the end of your life, whichever comes first.
Joe had to be on his deathbed to understand that. I hope you and I both understand it before then, like right now. Where is Jesus? Is he in nature? Yes, but with his power not his forgiveness. Is he in a believer’s heart by faith? Yes, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, the Mystical Union—but he has never promised to lay things on your heart or communicate to you there. If you want Jesus to communicate to you for real, to be with you for real with his love, his forgiveness, his promises, his salvation, listen to what he says in his Word and Sacraments. And he will stick with you 24 / 7, for real. Let this reality give you: 1) a sense of security as you pay your bills with Jesus by you, watch the news with Jesus by you, as we begin to get out more into our community, that Jesus is going out there with you, which is not an excuse for being foolish or risky, but rather to make decisions from security, not fear. And 2) let this reality give you courage for the facing of every hour, every appetite that wants to control you and you must control it, every temptation, since Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” And that’s real. Amen.