I want you to turn with me to Luke's gospel chapter 2, and around the Table we have already been in this chapter, although we haven't read verses I want us to concentrate on this morning. I want to preach to you under the heading 'The Missing Presence Of Christ'.
Luke chapter 2, verses 40 to 46 - of course, preceding these verses are the familiar verses that comprise the Nativity story, but here we take up our reading in verse 40: "And the child", that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, "grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions".
All children are precious, whosever they are, but our own children are especially precious to us - there's none like our own. Apart from them being flesh and blood, we can recognize so many special and unique lovable characteristic traits in them. If that's so for us who have been blessed with children, what must it have been for Mary and Joseph, for Mary to have been the mother, Joseph the guardian of the Lord Jesus Christ? What would it have been for them as parents to have looked at that child? What special, indeed, sacred traits would they have seen in Him? It's worth pondering, isn't it? Verse 40, I think, gives us a bit of a glimpse into it, although it is very general: 'The child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him'. What special memories Mary and Joseph must have had of the birth of the Lord Jesus, and of the infancy and childhood of the Christ. They were not only special memories, they were sacred memories.
Now let me remind you of them - not that you need to be reminded at this Christmas time. I'm sure there at the very top of Mary's sacred memories would have been what we find in Luke chapter 1 verse 26 and following: the angel's salutation to her. Look at these verses and read them with me, chapter 1 verse 26: 'And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God'.
Not only would those parents have remembered such a special angelic encounter, but you remember that Joseph also had a dream. We read of that in Matthew chapter 1, and he feared to take Mary unto him as his wife: 'But while he thought on these things', the word of God says, 'behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins'. Mary had an angelic encounter, Joseph in a dream had an angelic encounter. What memories they would have had of reaching that inn in Bethlehem , only to find it full, and having to give birth to her Son in a stable. Memories of wrapping Him in swaddling bands, and laying Him in a trough - think of it: the Bread of Life come down from heaven, laid in a food container in the house of bread, that's what Bethlehem means, 'House of bread'. Truly it was a sign from God, the Bread of God to feed men and women in this world, in the house of bread, Bethlehem.
They would have thought of the shepherds, wouldn't they? Looking after their sheep, sheep that probably would have been needed for temple sacrifice six miles from Jerusalem. Their job was to ensure lambs would be delivered safely into the world, eventually to be offered up to God in sacrifice. Yet these shepherds are called upon by God to go and welcome the Lamb of God into the world, who would take away its sin. Is it any wonder in chapter 2 and verse 19 of Luke's gospel that we read these words, look at them: 'But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart'.
Now we pass a bit of time, and still the special memories are as sacred. When they came to present the baby Jesus in the temple, they meet an old man of God ready to die. Mary and Joseph are astonished when they hear his words, recorded also in Luke chapter 2 if you look at it, in verse 29: 'Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph', watch these words, 'Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him'. Now add to Simeon's testimony the testimony of Anna the prophetess that comes straight after it, and then also the words that we read in Matthew chapter 2 concerning the wise men from the East. Verse 2 of Matthew 2: 'They said, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. And when they were come into the house', Mary and Joseph's house, 'they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh'.
Now we all, many of us at least, have special memories of birth, of infancy and childhood - but none that are comparative to these. What sacred memories! Follow me with this nativity story, you know it as well as I do: hearts filled with such memories must have been gripped with horror when the angel told Joseph in another dream in Matthew 2 to take the young child and His mother and flee into Egypt, and stay there until God brought them word - because Herod the King was seeking to kill the young child, to destroy Him. Now, having experienced all that they had, cherishing these sacred memories in their heart, what must the prospect have been for them of losing this child now to the cruel hand of Herod? Their special child, the thought of losing Him would have terrified them! Herod would rob them of His young presence.
Now time passes again, and they are able to return to the land - and although that is the case, they cannot return to Jerusalem because Archelaus, Herod's son, is reigning. So God guides them to go into Nazareth, but again the enemies of God are seeking to rob Mary and Joseph of the presence of the Christ child. How they cherished not only the memories, but the presence of this child in their lives. Evil would seek to rob them of Him. Now come with me further to our text this morning in verses 40 to 46, think then of this ironic tragedy: they cherished this child, they kept those wonderful sacred memories in their heart, they fled for His life to Egypt, they went into Nazareth rather than returning to Jerusalem - think of the irony that one day Mary and Joseph themselves lost that child. It's incredible, isn't it?
Of course, He was 12 years of age, but now it was not Herod, or Archelaus, or indeed the operation of satanic forces behind them or any others that would rob them of the presence of Christ - but as His guardians, as the protectors of His presence, they lost Him! Imagine letting such a child out of your sight, especially in a busy place like Jerusalem at Passover season. Further, think that as you read these verses it took them a day, a whole 24 hours, to realise that He was gone. Now just wait a moment: we might well rush in where fools fear to tread, and accuse Mary and Joseph of negligence, we might accuse them of dereliction of duty - but immediately that thought crosses my mind, I am convicted in the depths of my soul, because there are many times in my Christian experience that similarly I have neglected Christ's presence. I have neglected His fellowship in my life, I have lost His company as well. It might well be, and often is, in fact always is through my own neglect and dereliction of duty. We cannot condemn them for gross negligence, we do the same. Perhaps even some of you, or I myself, would have to say, like William Cowper:
'Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still;
But they have left an aching void
This world can never fill'.
What sacred memories they had. What terrors gripped their heart at the thought of losing their Christ child. Yet here they are, and a day has passed and they haven't even noticed that He is gone! A few things I want to share with you: one, how easy it is to lose His presence. Now please don't misunderstand what I'm saying: you cannot lose your salvation. If you are truly born again, and have faith in Christ by grace alone, you cannot be lost - ever. We must distinguish between two things here: one, relationship; two, fellowship - there is a difference. You see, your relationship with God, if you are saved, cannot change. John 1 verse 12 tells us: 'As many as received him', that is, Christ, 'to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name'. That speaks of the new birth, when you are born again no one can undo that supernatural birth. In a natural sphere it's similar: once a child is born to parents, it will always be their child. In the same sense God's word says: 'I give unto my sheep eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand'. The hymn writer was right when he said:
'What from Christ that soul shall sever,
Bound by everlasting bands?
Once in Him, in Him forever,
Thus the eternal covenant stands;
None shall pluck thee,
From the Strength of Israel's hands'.
'Once in Christ, in Christ forever,
This the Gospel scheme declares:
Death, nor hell, nor sin can sever
Jesus from His chosen heirs'.
That is our relationship with God in Christ if we are saved. We cannot lose that, but we can lose our fellowship with God. The Greek word for 'fellowship' is 'koinonia', it means 'sharing things in common'. Now if relationship speaks of our union with God in Christ that cannot be severed, fellowship speaks of communion with God through Jesus Christ which can be spoiled. Let me explain: if you think of your relationship in salvation with Christ as a chain that cannot be broken, well then fellowship is a very tender thread that is easily snapped. There is one thing that breaks our fellowship with God: sin. We are told in Amos 3 and verse 3: 'Can two walk together except they be agreed?', that is fellowship. When we start to walk with God in communion and we sin, that fellowship is broken, we have disagreed with God - 1 John 1:5 puts it: 'God is light, and in him is no darkness at all'. So you cannot enjoy fellowship with God if you are sinning, or if you are covering over your sin - it's an impossibility. You might be saved, you might have that relationship as a son or daughter of God, but you've lost your fellowship.
Now it's not just sins of commission that break our fellowship with God - that is, sins that you actively commit, things that you do - but sins of omission also break our fellowship with God. Sins of omission are things that we ought to do, but do not do, the things that we have left undone. That's an eye opener, isn't it? You don't need to break the ten commandments to have fellowship broken with God, but you just need not to do the things that you should do as a Christian, whatever those may be.
Now Mary and Joseph guarded the presence of Christ from His infancy, they guarded Him from the worldly Herod, they guarded Him from the evil Archelaus, they guarded Him from all satanic attack that they recognized. I'm sure His presence guarded them from much sin, and yet here they have lost Him. Only one moment of neglect - think of it! - and they have lost His fellowship, they have lost His actual presence with them. Now you might say: 'You're being a bit harsh here today, it was only a moment' - there is the lesson! It only took a moment! It only takes any of us - and I speak from experience, much experience sadly - it only takes a moment off guard or in a lethargic state, to allow yourself to be overtaken in a fault and fellowship broken with God.
I want to ask you, all of you: are you estranged from Christ today? Now you might not be saved, and you don't know what I'm talking about, well then you need to be saved. But if you are converted: are you estranged from the presence of Christ? Let me spell it out: have you lost the joy that you once had? Is your song gone? Have you a depleted power, or perhaps no power for serving the Lord any more? Has your testimony been marred? Have you lost that once effective prayer life? Can you not get any guidance from God any more? You feel that you've lost the presence and power of Christ in your life - now let me say that you are in a very, very dangerous position if that is you. Many Christians make perilous decisions out of fellowship with Christ, not least unequal yolks. Many a young man and a young woman has lost fellowship with their Lord, and then started another relationship that rivals His relationship with them. Before you know it, there's a ring on the finger, and they're at the church and they're married - and an unequal yolk with an unbeliever has been cemented that causes many struggles and many battles that would not be there if there was not such disobedience, but ultimately if they had not fallen out of fellowship with the Lord Jesus.
It may not be an unequal yolk, you know what that particular offence may be committed, or something not done that you should have done. You could be here this morning, and - oh yes, you're a soul saved - but your life is lost! Your testimony is marred, it's been destroyed by sin - let's call it what it is now! You might know the sin, you mightn't, you might even be in denial about that sin - or maybe you've even been so long without the presence of Christ, and without the power of Christ, and without the joy of Christ, and without the song of Christ, and without the guidance of Christ, that you don't even miss Christ any more! That's possible: they went a whole day and didn't realise He was gone. Are you in denial? You've been so long without His presence that you've got used to being without it. A day or two is long enough for this to happen - how long has it happened for you? How far have you travelled as a Christian without knowing the fellowship and companionship of the Lord Jesus Christ? How easy it is to lose His presence!
Secondly note with me: often the most unexpected people lose His presence. Isn't that the case? It wasn't Simeon, who only had a momentary acquaintance with the Christ child, that lost Him - but it was the arms and the bosom in which the Christ child was nurtured and nursed. It was those who cherish His presence, who perhaps loved Him the most, and who - in an earthly sense at least - those who He loved the most, it was they who lost Him. I love reading church history and Christian biographies, and one thing I find is that many of the greatest saints of God have experienced dark nights of the soul when they feel they can no longer see the gracious, gentle face of the Lord Jesus. They have got to a place where they no longer hear His voice, they can't feel His touch in their life. You see, even the greatest saints sin - I sin, and I'm not the greatest, I can assure you! We all sin, and our fellowship is broken, our iniquities separate between us and our God, and our sins hide His face from us that He does not hear.
Adam was made in the very image of God, perfect, he walked with God, he talked with God in the cool of the day, and he lost that presence through sin. It doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what position you hold: sins of commission, sins of omission will break your fellowship with God; and you can go on as long as you like, and look as holy as you like - but all of us, however experienced Christians we might be, all of us need to keep short accounts with God. I think many of us have lost this. Do you keep short accounts with God? That means: every day, do you confess your sins to God? Do you repent of them every day? Do you put things right that are wrong? Do you do that every day, every day of your life? That's what we are called to do as Christians. Now we'll not be lost if we don't do it, but one thing we will lose is the fellowship of Christ.
Listen to 1 John 1: 'If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness'. Do you keep short accounts with God or are you in denial? You think you're saved, you're secure, and you just live your life like that - and you sin all around you, in word, in thought, in deed, and you think there are no consequences. You have never known the presence of Christ in fullness in your life - or maybe you once knew, and you've lost it? Maybe you were one of the greatest Christians going...not now.
But you know, I'm not sure sin is always the reason for at least a break in the sense of the presence of Christ. What do I mean? Well, it could be as a direct result of sin the Lord is chastening you - but the Lord doesn't always chasten us just for sin, He chastens us for our good. What am I talking about? Well, as a loving parent doesn't spare the rod and spoil the child, the Bible says: 'Whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives'. There are times, even when there is no known sin and actual sin of the will in our experience, where we are experiencing a lack of the sense of the presence of God. We feel as if His presence has been withdrawn from us, we feel forsaken, it might be through circumstances or through illness even. Now, in the natural realm we don't always know our parent's smile, do we? Sometimes they're cross or angry with us, sometimes they have to chasten us for our own good, but we always know - even through the chastening - their love...that never fades or fails.
That's what I'm talking about: it may be that you don't have any sin that you can point to and say, 'Well, that's the reason why I feel cut off from God', yet you still can feel cut off from God even if your fellowship hasn't been. Don't ask me to go into all that and explain it, because I think it's a bit of a mystery - but I have experienced it, others have experienced it: God feels so far away! Well, I'm saying to you this morning: don't despair.
'His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower'.
Hang in there, that's all I can say to you: hang in there and seek God. How easy it is to lose His presence, often the most unexpected people lose His presence - whether through sin, or just losing a sense of His presence through chastening - but thirdly, this can happen in the most unlikely places. Where did it happen for Mary and Joseph? It happened at a feast, the feast of the Passover in Jerusalem. Listen to what Ecclesiastes 7 and verse 2 says: 'It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart'. It's hard to lose a sense of Christ at a funeral, but it's easy to lose a sense of Christ at a feast. Think of a wedding, often people are occupied with what, it has to be said, are just superficialities - skin deep beauty, material frill and frivolity - but there at a funeral there is the lone figure of a coffin, there is an open grave at the cemetery, and all those things sober us to the reality of eternal truths.
Let me make this comparison: I think the 20th and the 21st century has been a feast in every sense. It has been a feast for mankind and even the Christian church, things have never been so good - yet the pleasures and the luxuries that we enjoy of the modern age can rob us of a sense of Christ's presence and Christ's power! The problem is, at this feast that we are in, we can get so intoxicated, so anaesthetised to life's realities and eternal certainties that we don't even miss His presence any more - a presence that a bygone age who had less and knew little, a presence they experienced more than we do. Can I speak to some of you young people this morning, this Christmas time as you look at a New Year and you look at the rest of your lives. You might be successful, you might be very intelligent, everything is going your way - the view of your horizon couldn't look more promising, but there's a problem perhaps for you: Christ isn't on it. The Lord Jesus Christ doesn't figure in your plans. Maybe like Mary and Joseph you have lost Him in the crowd - have you? You're going the way of the crowd and not the way of Christ. Maybe this is the most happy and successful moment in your experience, can I say to you: it may well be your most dangerous! In your feast, be warned that you do not lose the presence of Christ: 'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them'.
They lost His presence in the most unlikely places, at a feast - but secondly, they lost Him also in the Holy City, Jerusalem at Passover season. This was holy ground if ever there was. There was a great congregation of pilgrims milling around the city, travelling in and out. They were among relatives who loved Christ and who loved the Lord God Jehovah. They were in the midst of a holy heritage among the Jews and the chosen people of God, Israel. Yet none of those things, holy things that they were, none of them prevented them losing His presence. Perhaps it is possible that even these religious sights and sounds of Jerusalem at Passover distracted them from the presence of Christ that had left? That can happen. We mistake familiarity with holy things, meetings, the Bible, phrases, doctrines, practices - we mistake familiarity with holy things as intimacy with the Holy One, it's not the same!
Finally - it was easy to lose His presence, often the most unexpected people lose His presence, this can happen in the most unlikely places, but praise God: His company can be recovered! His company can be recovered for any of you. Praise God, they sought Him - and let me encourage you, whatever predicament you find yourself, whether it is sin, or whether it is a sense of chastening for sin or for another reason - seek Him! Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of those that diligently seek Him. Seek the Lord while He may be found!
Now please note where they sought Him: one, they sought Him where they lost Him - did you get that? They went back to Jerusalem, they backtracked to the place they last had Him. You do that, don't you? Whenever you lose your car keys, or a watch, or something else, you recross your memory to think 'When and where was the last time and place I had them?', and you go back to that place. They recovered Him where they lost Him.
I love Pilgrim's Progress, and I would encourage any of you to read it - if you haven't got a Christmas box for someone, get them Pilgrim's Progress, or buy it for yourself! Christian on his pilgrimage reached a hill that was called 'The Hill of Difficulty'. John Bunyan writes like this: 'Climbing the hill', he observed that, 'Christian went from running to going just, and then from going to clambering on his hands and knees because of the steepness of that place' - we've all experienced that in our Christian life. The sprint goes eventually to the crawl, we're on our hands and knees and can hardly move in our faith. Well, the story goes that he found a pleasant arbour on a hill - now an 'arbour' is an old word for a shady alcove, the shade created by trees, and it was there to refresh the weary travellers going by. There in that arbour of ease and tranquillity, Bunyan says Christian took the scroll from out of his pocket that he was given at his conversion at the cross, and that scroll was the guarantee and assurance of all the promises of God that he received in his salvation. He took it out of his pocket to read it, to comfort his soul, and the story goes that there at that beautiful arbour he fell asleep. While he was asleep, the scroll fell out of his hand. 'He awaked and was startled, for it was near to night, and he got up and went on his journey again'. Later over the hill he met two men, one called Mistrust and the other Timorous, and they started causing him to doubt that his path was the right one. When he started doubting he reached again for his scroll to further encourage himself and inspire him to go on, and when he looked for it, it was gone.
Here's what Bunyan writes: 'Here therefore he began to be much perplexed, and knew not what to do; at last he bethought himself that he had slept in the Arbour that is on the other side of the Hill: and falling down upon his knees, he asked God's forgiveness for that his foolish act', mark this, 'and then went back to look for his scroll. But all the way he went back', all the way he went back, 'who can sufficiently set forth the sorrow of Christian's heart? Sometimes he sighed, sometimes he wept, and often times he chided himself for being so foolish to fall asleep in that place which was erected only for a little refreshment from his weariness. Thus therefore he went back, carefully looking on this side and on that, all the way he went, if happily he might find his scroll, that had been his comfort to many times in his journey'. This is what Christian said: 'How many steps have I took in vein! And I am made to tread those steps with sorrow which I might have trod with delight, had it not been for this sinful sleep. How far might I have been on my way by this time! I am made to tread those steps thrice over which I needed not to have trod but once: yea, now also I am like to be benighted, for the day is almost spent. Oh that I had not slept!'.
Have you fallen asleep like Mary and Joseph? As a Christian you have lost the presence of the fellowship of Christ. How easy it is, even at a time like Christmas, to let the guard down and let the disciplines go - I know all about it - and before you know it, sin has entered. Are you involved in sin, and you think it's just all right to cover it over casually and superficially? Do you know what we are to do? If we have lost the fellowship of Christ, we are to go all the way back to where we lost it, and remember the last place we had it. It might be hard to remember, but we need to go back to that place, and we need to confess, and we need to repent of it.
Mary and Joseph had lost fellowship for three days, three days - that's not long in Christian terms, it's long in parental terms, it took them three days to find Him. Listen, however long you have lost it, you are able to recover it. You can have it restored if you come sorrowfully, godly sorrow works repentance; if you come persistently, they didn't look for a day for the Lord Jesus and then give up, they looked for three days until they found Him. We live in an instant age, we want everything here and now - that is not conducive to waiting upon God, and you might need to wait upon God. But more precisely: where did they find Him? They found Him in the temple answering the questions of the doctors. The temple was the place where man can learn about God, but it is not the place now where man can learn about God - the place now where man meets God is Calvary. Daily, every one of us needs to get to Calvary. Can I ask you: how long has it been since you have been to the foot of the cross? How long has it been since you confessed your sins and repented of them? How long has it been since you as a Christian have known the true fellowship of the presence of Christ?
Can I encourage you this morning not to go to the manger, but to go to Calvary and have restored to you the missing presence of Christ this Christmas.
You may have precious memories, precious memories of a Christian life, a Christian testimony, and even Christian fellowship with the Lord Jesus. All of us, including myself, we lose that sense of God's presence, sometimes often - but praise God, all of us, if we confess our sins and put things right before God and before men, we will know again the presence of the once missing Christ. What a Christmas if this was to be a revival Christmas for you and for me! It can be, it should be, indeed every day should be a revival.
Lord, help us we pray, all of us, all of us have need. All of us long for a greater sense of Your presence in our lives, all of us long for a greater power over sin, all of us long for a greater sense of fellowship as we read and pray, but every moment as we walk through the day we long to know the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ. But Lord, so often sin, things that we do, and things that we don't do that leave us sinners, they break off our fellowship. Sometimes we don't even realise it. Lord, do a work of grace in all our hearts this day. The greatest gift any Christian could have this morning surely is a renewed fellowship with Thyself through the Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, in whose name we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at the Iron Hall Evangelical Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the recording, titled "The Missing Presence Of Christ" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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