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TRA WordTalks

The Always Present Presence

John 21:15-25
16th October 2005

We finish our yearlong study of John’s Gospel, with the last appearances of Jesus following the resurrection. John writes, “Afterwards, Jesus appeared again to His disciples.” First, to Mary Magdalene, then the women by the tomb. Then Peter and John. Then to two on the Emmaus Road, then to the ten in the Upper Room; then to the ten plus Thomas, then to ten by the lakeside, then to over 500 people, then to James, then to the eleven disciples again, then to the group on the Mount of the Ascension, then to Stephen as he lay broken at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem, then to Paul as he led a band of persecuting soldiers up the Damascus Road, then to John as he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. It dawned upon them. Christ was risen and was always present.

The always present Jesus said to Peter: John 21:15-19 “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

One of the highlights of my life was being invited to present two lectures at Edinburgh University in April 2002. This was at an international conference on preaching and both lectures were telecast live to a dozen countries in Europe and America. It was an emotional moment as I stood on the platform in the great McEwen Hall. Some of Scotland’s greatest men and women had graduated there, people like Sir Walter Scott, Lord Joseph Lister, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Eric Liddell and the doctor who played such an important role in my life from presiding at my birth until laying hands on my head in ordination, Dr W.A.Kemp. Behind me at centre stage was the magnificent pipe organ, and ahead of me was the sea of seating on the ground level, and people in the two galleries above my head. My mind went back to another lecture given here to a packed audience of students.

In 1856, Dr David Livingstone returned home to be acclaimed as a national hero and one of Scotland’s greatest sons, for his deeds of exploration in Africa. David Livingstone had graduated as a medical student in this hall, determined to work in that part of the world where he was most needed. He opened new roads into the Dark Continent, as Africa was known. “I am willing to go anywhere,” Livingstone said as he left for Africa, “provided it be forward.” David Livingstone early said about himself: “I will place no value on anything I have or may possess except in its relation to the Kingdom of God. Anything I have will be given or kept according as giving or keeping it I shall most promote the Kingdom of my Saviour.”

He began his work that ultimately extended to 32 years entirely dedicated to Africa, firstly for about 12 years in missionary travels, and the remainder in unveiling the unknown interior where his geographical discoveries placed him at the pinnacle of exploration achievement. When Dr Livingstone arrived in Africa the daunting hazards of hostile inhabitants, deadly diseases, and dangerous wild animals made travel very difficult. Missionary lives, for decades afterwards, were to be counted in months rather than years. Very early in his career a lion so badly mauled him that for the rest of his life he never regained full use of his left arm. He found the horrifying slave trade terrorized most of the African continent. He soon made several long journeys into Bechuanaland (now Botswana) where he started new mission stations, settling down on one with his wife, Mary.

His work was greatly affected by the Boers who were raiding African villages to acquire slaves for work on their farms. Due to this constant Boer threat Dr Livingstone was compelled to abandon all mission work and send his wife and young family to England for safety. He then transferred his activities northward far into the interior. He began to open up the unknown heart of Africa as no other man had dared. The few Portuguese who had tried, either perished or turned back. But Dr Livingstone never turned back. With incredible perseverance he was the first explorer to cross Africa from coast to coast, while in the process he discovered the magnificent Victoria Falls. He followed almost the entire course of the Zambezi River to the sea.

He later went north to discover Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi) in the first exploration of that region. Commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to seek and map sources of the Nile, he traversed large regions of central Africa and was the first explorer to reach the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. He made the first exploration of the Congo interior where he met great danger and suffered illness for nearly two years. On return there occurred his famous meeting with Henry Stanley. In 1871 all the civilized world clamoured for news about the famous missionary explorer. Dr. Livingstone was long overdue and presumed lost on his third trip into the heart of Africa. The New York “Herald” wanted desperately to beat their English competition so they commissioned an English-American adventurer for the search. Henry Stanley was a worldly soldier of fortune who had fought in the American Civil War at different times on both sides!

He also had a nose for news and considerable journalistic skills. Every one of us remembers Stanley’s immortal quote when he finally found the explorer in darkest Africa: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” Not so well remembered today is the remarkable influence of the older missionary upon the younger, confirmed atheist. Stanley spent four months with Livingstone in Central Africa and was forever changed. His journalistic career was assured. All the world read his despatches and recognized his name. But somehow Stanley felt the zeal and purpose of his mission overshadowed by the strange, quiet Warmth of Livingstone. Here was a saint who possessed what Stanley had always denied was real.

Stanley became a Christian saying “I was converted by him, although he had not tried to do it.” Stanley left his past behind and changed his life’s direction for the future. When Livingstone died in Africa, it was Stanley who continued his quest to explore all of Africa and lay the foundation for Christian missions. History remembers Livingstone as a hero. On the other hand, Stanley, the dashing adventurer in search of fame and fortune, is forgotten except for his dramatic encounter described in a memorable phrase. No matter. Stanley was so completely changed that he surrendered his total self in a greater cause. Having come to Africa to search of Livingstone, he had found God. During all Dr Livingstone’s enormous journeys in Africa, he travelled almost 50,000 kilometres. Dr Livingstone meticulously wrote up his journals with all the natural and scientific phenomena of his observations, which together with the mapping of his geographical discoveries, made him the greatest explorer of his time and probably all time.

Frequently witnessing the terrible effects of slave trading, he vowed to do everything in his power to have it suppressed. As no other person could have done, Dr Livingstone exposed this shocking iniquity to Britain and the world. On this last trip back to Scotland, his university conferred an honorary degree upon David Livingstone. There is a custom in the Scottish universities that the recipient of an honorary degree is fair sport for the students and must run the gantlet of their raucous remarks. The students sit in the balconies calling out what they please. They ridicule every recipient, sometimes with lurid taunts and criticisms.

Many wondered what the students would do when David Livingstone rose to receive his degree. Dr. Livingstone stood, one arm hanging at his side; his shoulder had been torn by a lion in the forests of Africa. His skin was like leather. What did the students do? They rose and stood in absolute, respectful silence. Speaking to them on the very spot where I lectured, Dr Livingstone said: “Shall I tell you what supported me through all these years of exile among a people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude toward me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this, ‘Lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the world.’” People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay? Is that a sacrifice which brings its own best reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It was emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to saver and the soul to sink, but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall hereafter be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice. Of this we ought not to talk when we remember the great sacrifice which He made who left his Father’s throne on high to give Himself for us.” The silence hung in the air of McEwan Hall.

His name is still revered amongst a great many inhabitants across vast reaches of the African interior, where succeeding generations acknowledge him as the legendary figure who dedicated his life to Africa and her people. No other man has promoted such racial goodwill as Dr Livingstone did during his supreme career in Africa. And the secret of it all, was his conviction that God was always with Him, an always present Presence.

“I am with you.” This is God’s great promise. God gave that promise to Abraham when he was collapsing. When Moses was about to undertake a big job, God said, “I am with you.” When Joshua was afraid to lead the people into the Promised Land, the word came, “I am with you.”

When Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel, He said, “I am with you always.”

You will grow in faith and strength when you realise His always present presence. In times of loneliness, His always presence will give you company. In times of weakness, His always presence will give you strength. In times of suffering, His always presence will give you courage. In times of guilt and sin, His always presence will give you forgiveness. In times of death, His always presence will give you peace and the gift of Eternity. All you must do is believe in Him, ask Him to forgive you of your sin, offer to serve Him in whatever way you can, and ask for His Spirit to enter your life, and to never leave you. You will discover His always present presence!

Gordon Moyes

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