Monday, June 13, 2016

Not Forsaken

Not Forsaken
John 14:7-14[1]
If you listen to some of the voices in our world, it would seem that if God exists at all, he abandoned this world long ago. There is a significant strain of skepticism in our culture that sees all that’s wrong with this world and concludes that we’re left out here in the middle of the galaxy on our own. The message of doubt and despair seems to overwhelm any hope or faith altogether. The only realities are buying and selling, winning and losing, living and dying. And from this perspective, since death has the final word on all of our lives, then all that we do is ultimately meaningless. It is an approach to life that fundamentally mistrusts everything and everyone, because we are ultimately God-forsaken.
This outlook on life flies in the face of the biblical message. In fact, it would seem that some of those who have contributed most significantly to this kind of pessimism have taken the biblical message and turned it on its head. But the fact remains that the Bible insists that we live in a world that is filled with the presence of the loving God.[2] It may be difficult for us to sense God’s presence, and it may be even more difficult for us to grasp that God is with us. But that is one of the most important reasons why Jesus lived and served, to make it clear to us that God is with us.[3]
One of the problems with this is that, obviously, Jesus is no longer physically present with us. This seems to be a problem that has troubled faithful believers from the very beginning. If we read between the lines as we’re reading some of what the NT has to say about this, it would seem that Jesus’ physical absence was difficult for the first Christians to bear. They looked for him to return in their lifetimes. And when some of the faithful started passing away, those who remained were confused. It would seem that some of them wondered if Jesus had abandoned them.[4]
In our lesson from the Gospel of John for today, that is the question that Jesus addresses with his disciples. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus is preparing them for his departure. If we pay attention to the questions they ask him, we can tell that they themselves—Jesus’ very own followers—were puzzled and even dismayed by what Jesus was trying to tell them.[5] How could Jesus leave them? They had come to believe that he was the Messiah. How was it that he was going away? In their minds, the Messiah wouldn’t go away, he would stay and ascend the throne of David and usher in an age of peace and justice.
Our lesson for today is preceded by Jesus’ announcement that he was going to go to prepare a place for them in his father’s house, assuring them that they knew the way to the place he was going (John 14:1-4). In response, Thomas very likely voiced what many of the others were thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). I think he was only voicing the questions they were all asking. They had been with him, they had followed him, they had learned from him, and it now seemed barely believable that he would leave them. In fact, it would seem that this problem serves as the backdrop for much of what Jesus had to say to them in this chapter of John’s Gospel.
In response to Jesus’ answer that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father” (John 14:8). Jesus answers him by re-emphasizing what he has already asserted time and again: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). One more time, Jesus goes over the basic lesson of his life and ministry: that he had come to make it clear that God’s grace and God’s truth are always with us.
But beyond that, Jesus addressed their concerns by telling them “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). The translation “Advocate” is probably not one that communicates with most of us. It has also been translated “Comforter,” “Counselor,” “Helper,” and “Friend.” The truth is that the concept that Jesus was trying to convey probably includes all of those ideas.[6] I think the main point is that the one Jesus was sending to them would be with them in the same way that he had been with them.
This comforter, counselor, helper, and friend that Jesus promised to send is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). He is nothing less than the Holy Spirit of God, the one who makes God’s presence in our lives a reality. But the interesting thing about the way Jesus speaks of the Spirit here is that it seems that the Spirit also makes Jesus’ presence in our lives a reality. In fact, just after our lesson, Jesus assures them that he would not abandon them. The implication is that the Spirit continues Jesus’ presence with those who have trusted in him.[7]
This is a message that starkly contrasts the counsel of despair that says we live in a God-forsaken world.[8] It flies in the face of those who would say we’ve been abandoned and left to our own devices. This message is one that resonates throughout the Bible: God rejoices in his creation. And that means that God will never, ever forsake us. One of the most important reasons why Jesus lived and served and taught as he did was to make it clear to us all that through him, God is with us. And even though Jesus is no longer present physically, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit because he makes Jesus’ presence with us just as real as he did for the first disciples. The Spirit has been poured out on “all flesh” as a declaration that we never have been and never will be forsaken.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/15/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, we live in a “God-bathed world.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 9: “Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.”
[3] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:744: “the incarnation changes everything for the Fourth Evangelist, because through it humanity’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to humanity are decisively altered. The incarnation has redefined God for the Fourth Evangelist and those for whom he writes, because it brings the tangible presence of God’s love to the world.”  Cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 114-118, says that the incarnation is part of the “eternally self-communicating love of God.” Cf. also Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 240, where he reminds us that the idea of the incarnation is not just a matter of God “pretending” to be a human being, but rather of God fully entering our reality and fully sharing our humanity in order to redeem every aspect of human experience.  
[4] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:749, where she says that the question that occupies this portion of John’s Gospel is, “Can the disciples still love him, when he has gone?” She continues by saying that this passage “answers yes to this question, but it may be a yes that surprised even Jesus’ first disciples. The disciples can still love Jesus, but neither by clinging to a cherished memory of him nor by retreating into their private experience of him. Rather, they can continue to love Jesus by doing his works (vv. 12-14) and by keeping his commandments (vv. 15-24). That is, when they move outside of their own private experience of Jesus, when they live what Jesus has taught them and demonstrated in his own life, then they will find themselves once again in his love.”
[5] On the Disciples’ lack of understanding, cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 252; and O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:741-42.
[6] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:747, where she points out that the Greek word transliterated “Paraclete” is based on a verb that “has a wide range of meanings that include ‘to exhort and encourage,’ ‘to comfort and console,’ ‘to call upon for help,’ and ‘to appeal.’ The noun form can mean ‘the one who exhorts,’ ‘the one who comforts,’ ‘the one who helps,’ and ‘the one who makes appeals on one’s behalf.’ The Fourth Evangelist seems to draw on the whole range of meanings in the variety of functions attributed to the Paraclete.”
[7] Cf. Raymond Brown The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 644: “the Spirit of Truth is a Paraclete precisely because he carries on the earthly work of Jesus.”
[8] Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 178, where he paraphrases Jesus’ assurances in the beginning of John 14, “The pain of life, separation, and cross cannot last forever. Live in hope. The present will yield to the future because I will see to it.”

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