05/18/14 Sermon (May 18, 2014) “Tough Crowd”

posted Jun 4, 2014, 12:40 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: John 14:1-14   

[Jesus said to them:] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  

And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Sermon: “Tough Crowd”

In the gospel of John, Jesus spends a very, very long time saying goodbye to his disciples. In fact, we find that the five chapters between 13-17 all deal with the last few hours of Jesus’ life. Chapters 14-17 are called by Bible scholars the”Farewell Discourse”, and they are the words that Jesus shares with his disciples as he tries to get them ready for what is to come. It is in these chapters that we encounter some of the most beautiful and uplifting words of our faith.

The disciples need to hear these words, just like we do. They do not, they cannot understand what is about to happen. They simply can’t accept the fact that their friend is going to be handed over to the authorities and be tortured to death. It is beyond their capacity to understand how he can just sit there and talk about his own impending death.

Why doesn’t Jesus run away? Why doesn’t he hide, or defend himself? Why doesn’t he bring in the cavalry, call forth all the hosts of heaven, or at least get some of the revolutionaries in Jerusalem to stand by him?

He has friends in the city. He has influence. There is no need for him to go, willingly, to be paraded before a puppet king, to be brought to trial in a kangaroo court put on by the the Roman occupation. There are options open to him. It simply doesn’t have to be this way.

Peter, especially can’t understand Jesus’ attitude. “What do you think you are doing?” he wants to know. “Where do you think you are going? At least let us go with you, let us be with you as long as we can.”

But Jesus doesn’t want to hear it. “Peter, my friend. You can’t go where I’m going, at least not right now. Later, you will come. But right now, you’re not ready. In fact, there’s going to come a time, soon, when you will deny that you ever knew me. Before morning comes, you will have three chances to declare your loyalty to me, and you will fail completely.”

Well, you can imagine how hard it must have been to hear these words. After everything they’ve been through, to hear that they are not ready to take that final step with Jesus, that he doesn’t think that they’ve got it in them to keep going when the going gets tough. It’s insulting really, isn’t it? They’ve got everyone reason to protest. “Jesus, we would never desert you. We would never leave you. We will stand with you to the end.”

But it’s not to be. Jesus is on a path that they can’t take. Despite their best intentions, their most fervent desire, they are not able to go with Jesus. Jesus is going to have to walk this particular road by himself.

But this is a tough crowd to convince. They’re certain that they’ve got what it takes to go with Jesus. There certain that they’re ready to face whatever it is that he’s going to face. If only he would tell them what the plan is. If only he could explain to them how all this is going to work out. Then they might understand it a little better.

But all Jesus says is that he going to his father. He’s going ahead of them, to clear a path, to mark the trail, to prepare a place for them. They will join him soon enough, he promises. They just need to trust him for a little longer.

And then he asks the impossible: he tells them to not let their hearts be troubled. Well, that’s a pretty big request. They‘ve got every reason to upset, terrified, angry, confused, frustrated, and hurt. Everything they’ve gone through up to this point, and now Jesus is just throwing them under the bus? He’s leaving them behind, going it alone?

And he just expects them to swallow their pain, their confusions, their anger, their fear, and deal with it? That seems a bit rich, doesn’t it? As though they’re not supposed to have any feelings about this whole thing at all? As though they're supposed to wave bye-bye as their Rabbi walks cheerfully into the hands of his executioners?

How can Jesus expect them to simply clamp down their feelings, to shut down all the conflicting emotions that are racing around in their hearts? They love this man. He means everything to them. And now, he’s walking to his certain death, and he tells them to just put their big boy pants on and deal with it? That’s not going to happen.

It’s almost as though Jesus himself has never felt their pain, their torment, their anger. As though Jesus himself has no idea what it feels like to be afraid of something, to grieve, to be disturbed to the very core of his soul. In other words, it’s as though Jesus himself has no idea what it means to feel human.

But I wonder if that’s what’s really going on here. I wonder if maybe Jesus knows more about these things than we give him credit for.

This scripture is often quoted a funerals. I’m sure you’ve heard it before. And when it is said carefully, when it is said sensitively, it can be a great comfort. The problem is, it’s not always said carefully. Sometimes we say it when we don’t know what else to say, but we feel like we need to say something, anything, to get someone to stop crying, to stop feeling sad. Because crying and sorrow makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like to see people we love in pain.

It is a beautiful scripture, but it is a dangerous scripture in clumsy hands. When it is used thoughtlessly, it somehow gives the impression that we shouldn’t grieve our beloved, that when someone whom we love dies, we should be cheerful, rather than sad, we should be filled with joy, rather than sorrow. It’s usually meant kindly, of course. It’s meant to convey a certain truth about Jesus that we probably all need to hear and remember. But the problem is, in the wrong hands at the wrong time, it can do more harm than good.

In fact, it can feel, sometimes, that this scripture, and others like it are being used as tests of faith -- the feeling in the back of our minds that maybe if we were truly faithful, we wouldn’t feel fear, or anger, or sorrow. When we speak these words carelessly, we can create the impression that being a true disciple of Christ means that we never have to be sad, that we never doubt, that we’re always ready to face whatever comes our way. After all, Jesus commands it, doesn’t he? Right in today’s scripture, he tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

But I can’t tell you how damaging the misuse of this scripture has been for folks who are in the midst of experiencing grief. Grief doesn’t go away just because you want it to. Grief doesn’t go away because someone tells you it should. Grief doesn’t go away just because you love Jesus, or because you have faith in God. Grief is real, and it will last as long as it needs to.

But we are uncomfortable with grief, aren’t we? Grief doesn’t really fit into our understanding of faith. There isn’t much room in our theology for grief, or pain, or sorrow, or confusion, or anger. We don’t know what to do with people who shake their fist at God. We don’t know how to answer questions that begin with the words, “Why did God…?”

And so, to make it easier on ourselves, we simply tell people to not let their hearts be troubled. As though it were that easy. As though it were possible. Because faith means never having to say, “I’m afraid,” or, “I’m confused,” or, “I’m sad.” The words from today’s scripture become an indictment, rather than a blessing. They become a litmus test of faith, rather than a expression of concern.

And when these words become a test of faith, whether on purpose or on accident, they cause pain rather than relieve it. Because they were never meant to be test. They were meant to be a comfort, not a commandment. To suggest, even indirectly, even accidentally, that a faithful Christian shouldn’t feel pain,  shouldn’t feel sorrow,  shouldn’t feel anger,  shouldn’t feel tormented to their very soul on occasion is not love. It is abuse. And worse, it’s unscriptural. It denies the reality that Jesus himself felt these very same emotions.

The Bible tells us that Jesus felt these emotions when his friend Lazarus died in John 11:33. We read that Jesus wept for his friend. Jesus grieved for Lazarus. If there was one person in the world convinced of the truth that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, it was Jesus himself, and yet, Jesus wept for Lazarus. It’s hard for us to understand, but it happened. Jesus knows all about grief.

The Bible tells us that Jesus felt these emotions when he pondered his own death in John 12:27. Jesus did not go to his death cheerfully. He did not go, in fact, willingly. He asks more than once for God to take this cup, this trial, this horrible, inevitable destiny from him. He pleads with God to let it pass to another. The Bible says he sweated blood. He is literally afraid to death of what is going to happen to him.

Jesus is under no illusion as to what he will feel from the scourge, from the nails, from the thorns, from the cross. He dreads it in his very bones. It’s hard for us to imagine that Jesus is terrified of death, but that’s what happened. Jesus knows all about fear.

The Bible tells us that Jesus felt these emotions when he considered the fact that one of his own disciples was getting ready to betray him in John 13:21. Judas was his friend. Jesus and Judas had eaten thousands of meals together. They had tramped for miles and miles around Galilee. Jesus knew him as he knew his own brother, and now, Judas sells him out for 30 pieces of silver. You can only be betrayed by those you love. And Jesus loved Judas. And now Judas has handed him over to his enemies. It’s hard for us to think about Jesus being cut to his heart by a friend, but that’s what happened. Jesus knows all about betrayal.

When we remember that Jesus was human, and felt human emotions, we can be sure that Jesus isn’t telling his disciples that their faith is suspect if they feel sorrow, fear, or anger. Because Jesus knows all about these things.

It is not a sign of a weak faith to be afraid, or to feel sorrow, or to be shaken to the core of your being. Faith is not about presenting a happy shiny face to the world when your world is falling apart. At least, it wasn’t for Jesus. Jesus felt pain. Jesus felt fear. Jesus felt sorrow. Jesus was troubled beyond our imagination by what he knew was coming.

And so when he tells his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled, he’s not telling them to put on brave face, to keep a stiff upper lip, to pretend that all is well. He is not trying to get them to fake it until they make it. He is trying to remind them that he knows, and feels exactly what they are going through, because he is going through it with them. They are not going to face the future alone. He is walking with them every step of the way. That as bad as it’s going to get, and it’s going to get very bad, it’s still going to be OK in the end.

This is the good news of this scripture. We are not alone in our walk. There will be times in our life that we will face death, or pain, or illness, or betrayal. We will ask, “Why?” We will be sick to our souls in fear or confusion. This is part of life.

The Christian faith does not magically remove us from the reality or the effects of evil. It didn’t for Jesus, it didn’t for the Disciples, it didn’t for Paul, or any of the rest of our ancestors in faith. It never has, it never will. Those who suggest otherwise are preaching a gospel that has nothing to do with Bible.

The promise of the Gospel is that we will not be going through these things alone. Jesus has walked this road before. He knows the steps, the markers along the trail. It’s not an easy trail, and he never said it would be. The good news is that we walk it with him.

Faith does not mean that we have to walk this path with a false sense of keeping appearances, or that we are not allowed to feel the emotions that roil our souls. Faith simply means that we keep walking.

Faith is not pretending that we have conquered fear, or pain, or sorrow. It is remembering that we are walking hand in hand, arm in arm, step by step, with the one who has.

Thanks be to God. Amen.