A couple weeks ago I was playing a quick round of Where’s Waldo with the catechism students as others were finishing up their tests. After searching for several minutes, they began asking if Waldo was even in the picture. There was visible frustration as they carefully searched with no sight of Waldo. I’ll admit, I wasn’t able to find Waldo either. But when we were about to give up, one of the students spotted him! And even though they wouldn’t give up his location, just knowing that he was somewhere in the picture spurned on the other students and gave them renewed zeal to find Waldo for themselves.
Does your life ever feel like a game of Where’s Waldo? Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we no longer have the comfort and assurance of his visible presence with us, and yet he promised, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Despite that promise, sometimes it just feels like Jesus isn’t in the picture. Sometimes we search and search for him, and only become even more frustrated and hopeless when we can’t seem to find him. So where is he? Where’s Jesus?
As Jesus and his disciples stood upon the Mount of Olives, he reminded them, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Lk 24:44). A lot has been written about Jesus and his work as the Messiah. A lot has happened to Jesus too. In fact, a lot of his work as the Messiah took place within sight of where he now stood with his disciples! The disciples could clearly see Jerusalem from where they stood, the city that scorned and rejected Jesus. In fact, it was from this very hill that Jesus mourned, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). At the base of this hill was the Garden of Gethsemane, where one of his friends betrayed him and the rest abandoned him in his time of need. From this hill you could also see Golgotha where stubborn sinners crucified the one who came to save them. But from that hill, you could also see the empty tomb of the victorious Messiah. And from this very hill where the disciples stood, from a hill which still stands tall next to Jerusalem, our risen Savior also ascended to heaven as a triumphant and victorious king. Despite all that happened to him, despite all the terrible things that the Word said would happen to him, he ascended as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Sometimes, the problem is not that Jesus is nowhere to be found in the picture of our lives, but rather, that we look at the picture in the wrong way. One place where we can find Jesus is in his Word, in promises like, “Surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20), and “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rm 8:28). But then we look for these promises in our lives and there seems to be such a disconnect. Where was God when my car was stolen, money was already tight, and now I have no way to get to school or work? Where was God when I’m working all the hours I can just to keep my head above water and then he lands me flat on my back in the hospital for an unplanned, extended stay? What about the recurring struggles in this marriage? What about the severe illness or death of my loved one? How are these things working for my good?! Or am I just not included among the ones who love God?
Did you know that Jesus foretold his torment and his death a number of times to his disciples before it happened? Not only did the Scriptures say that the Messiah would suffer and die, but Jesus directly told his disciples that it was all going to happen. And yet, he didn’t leave them hanging. Each time he also told them that “On the third day he will be raised to life!” (Mt 20:19). The disciples, however, were still surprised at the fact that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. And the saddest part is that they didn’t even remember the words of hope he gave to see them through. “On the third day he will be raised to life!”
It’s like they were suffering from the Mandela Effect. The Mandela Effect is the unexplained phenomenon where a whole group of people share a memory that is actually incorrect. This phenomenon got its name from an example where people were certain that Nelson Mandela died in prison back in the 80s, when really he died in 2013 after being released from prison. Other examples would be whether or not the Monopoly man has a monocle; whether Oscar Mayer is spelled “M-A-Y…” or “M-E-Y…”; and even whether the Mona Lisa is smiling or emotionless. It seems that the disciples all forgot completely that Jesus said he would rise again.
This same Mandela Effect takes a toll on us as well when we forget the context in which Jesus spoke some of these uplifting promises. “Surely I am with you always” (Mt 28:20) is spoken just before Jesus ascended into heaven, so we know that his presence with us is going to be very different than it was for the disciples. And he speaks those words when giving his disciples the Great Commission – when he commissions them to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So what he’s saying is primarily that he goes with you as you proclaim the Gospel. He goes with you to bring hearts to faith. He goes with you despite the rejections that you will face. And that passage that says, “in all things God works for good” (Rm 8:28), that promise from God’s word is spoken in the midst of a section regarding present suffering and future glory. The author is writing about our weaknesses, and the challenges that we will face in life, but then gives that anchor of hope: God is working through even these difficult things. God will bring about his plan and ultimately, your future hope rests securely and certainly in heaven.
How eye-opening that must have been for the disciples who stood on that Mount of Olives, perhaps looking at and remembering all the things that happened to Jesus just a stone’s throw away. And yet, now they stand here with their risen and victorious Savior. God certainly does work out all things for good. And Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24:45). Literally, he opened their minds so they could “piece together” or “bring together” the Scriptures. God’s Word is always to be taken as a whole. And so are our lives. Because there will be times when you are crying out “Where’s Jesus?” It may seem at times like he’s nowhere on the page of your life, but he is! He’s right there in his Word. Remember that his Word says you will face challenges from time to time. But it also gives you anchors of hope to keep you rooted in those challenging times. Bring it all together, in his Word and in your life, so that you can find traces of Jesus on every page.
There’s something else that Jesus gives you as well to keep you going even when it seems like Jesus is not in the picture. He gives you his witnesses. It’s like when you are playing Where’s Waldo, and when you are about to give up someone finds Waldo! Suddenly everyone else playing is encouraged. Their vigor is renewed. And often, the anticipation of finding him is also heightened.
Jesus has given you his witnesses in a number of different ways. First, there’s everything that has been written in the Scriptures; all the narratives of individuals struggling through the difficult times (just like you!) and ending up victorious with Christ. The biggest example, and our primary source of comfort, of course, comes through Jesus. He’s the one who dealt with the only struggle we should really be worrying about, and that is the struggle against sin and Satan. Sadly, I think this struggle often takes a back seat to many of the other, more tangible struggles we face in life. In an attempt to make your struggle with sin more tangible, I’m going to flip the narrative a little bit. And by doing this, I’m not trying to allegorize; that is, I’m not turning the account of Jesus into a mere story that we are to learn from. But I think we can perhaps better our grasp on sin when we see it in this sense.
So, picture Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, as your heart. Jesus himself said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt 23:37). That’s true of you and I as well. Jesus longs to bring you to him, but in your sinfulness, you were not willing. And yet, he went in anyway. He went into your sinful heart just like he went into sinful Jerusalem. And just as Jerusalem wasn’t too happy about that – persecuting, rebelling against, and even attempting to silence Jesus – so also your sinful heart and my sinful heart was not too happy about Jesus entering in. My sin fought against him. My sin tried to silence him. My sin even crucified him. But Jesus would not give up. As he shattered the grave and rose victorious so also he has shattered my hard heart and rose victorious over my sin. Paying for it completely and earning a spot for me with him in heaven. Jesus does not give up on you in the struggle against sin – not when he paid so dearly just to share his life with you. Jesus is there with you. Jesus will win.
And he’s there with you in the other struggles as well. Take a look at how he has always been with his people. Sometimes it’s hard to picture, because we know the narratives of the people in the Bible. We already know that they triumphed through their earthly struggles because God saw them through it. But place yourself right in the middle of the narrative for a moment. How would it feel to be Noah, building an ark for years without any sign of God’s declared judgment? How would it feel as literally the whole rest of the world was against you and against God at this time? How would it feel to be Daniel, living in a God-less land, threatened with death if you continued your regular routine of prayer? How does it feel to be Mary or Martha the day that their brother died? Yes, they had hope in the resurrection on the last day, but that loss was still tearing them up inside.
Do you ever feel like some of these people you read about in the Bible? If so, good! Keep reading, because that isn’t the end of their story. Read on to hear how God did indeed bring judgment upon the world, but spared the lives of every believer – Noah, and his family. Read on to hear how Daniel continued to pray, met the punishment that was threatened, and yet God brought him through. In fact, hear the words of Daniel’s friends who faced very similar circumstances in the fiery furnace. They said, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it… but even if he does not… we will not serve your gods” (Dan 3:16-18). They didn’t know the outcome of their story yet! And yet they remained firm because God anchored them in his Word and in his witnesses. And although the story ended very well for these people, including Mary and Martha whose brother, Lazarus, was raised from the dead, they also had their fair share of struggles that God did not immediately rescue them from. Even Lazarus died again, the same fate that every one of us will eventually face. Yet because of Jesus’ victory in his life, it’s not the end of your story. Today, as you face the difficulties you are currently enduring, it’s not the end of your story. And down the road, even as you face death, it’s not the end of your story. Because of Jesus’ victory in his life, you already know the end of your story. It’s eternal life with Jesus in heaven. All the details in between will bring you on a series of ups and downs, twists and turns, but your ending will never change. His Word and his witnesses attest to that!
Then there’s also the witnesses he’s placed in your life, to write their story right alongside you. And even though you may be asking “Where’s Jesus” on your page, they may be able to point him out on their own page. This isn’t to make you sad or jealous. It’s to encourage you and remind you that Jesus is still here in this world. He’s still working and bringing about his plan. So share your experiences with others. Share the times when Jesus has shown up on your page to remind others that Jesus is still very much present in this world, and very much at work for every one of his children. His presence, though, is just different. Since he visibly ascended into heaven we are reminded that we won’t always see him in the ways we might want to see him. Yet, at the same time, since he sits in a place of power in heaven, we are also reminded that he rules over everything in this world so that it all goes according to his plan. Yes, even the challenging things.
Where’s Jesus? He’s there. Keep looking. Find him in his Word where he shows you how all things are coming together for your good. Find him in his witnesses who’s stories you have already seen the ending to. And find him in his world by pointing him out to others for their encouragement.