Sunday, June 01, 2003

Easter After Tremors
The Truth That Can Change Your Life
John 17:6-19

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 1, 2003]

One of the most inspiring things about being a pastor is the opportunity God gives to me to be with people in times of crisis or difficulty. It’s in these times that a person can most clearly see God at work in people’s lives—helping them, encouraging them. Often when I visit with folks going through hard experiences, I can tell them, “There are a lot of people praying for you.” And usually, they will tell me, “I know that. I can feel their prayers. There is no way I could have gotten this far without people praying for me.”

Our Bible lesson for today indicates that it isn’t just other people who pray for us. Someone has said that maybe the one thing that makes the Church unique is that it’s the only gathering of people for whom Jesus has prayed. As believers in Jesus, you and I are beneficiaries of His prayers for us. That includes all believers in Jesus, whether we feel that we are worthy of His love for us or not.

Some of you have heard me tell of my visit one day with an elderly woman in a nursing home. She was almost eighty, had a strong mind and while somewhat frail, still functioned well. When she knew that I was coming and would be offering Holy Communion, she got into her Sunday best and awaited my arrival. But after I had shared a passage from the Bible and spent a little time visiting with her, she refused to take Holy Communion. I asked her why. She told me that she was unworthy of receiving Jesus’ body and blood. She insisted that she was too horrible a sinner. I tried to explain that whatever her sins might be, if she truly repented—in other words, if she truly wanted to walk away from her sins—she could be sure that she could walk into the welcoming, forgiving arms of Christ.

Though we talked for a long time, she remained convinced that the God could never love or forgive her. But she was wrong. And if this morning, you think that God can’t forgive you, you are wrong.

In today’s Bible lesson, Jesus prays on behalf of all believers. At one point, He says, “I have made Your Name known to those whom You gave Me from the world.” The late, great Lutheran Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski says that in this part of His prayer, Jesus is saying that, in His very Person—in Who He is and what He does—Jesus has revealed the heart of God. Jesus said as much at another time: “I and the Father are one,” He said. And near the beginning of the book of the Bible from which today’s lesson is drawn—the Gospel of John—we’re told:

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.”

Martin Luther said that if we truly want to understand Who God is and what God is like, we should look at Jesus on the cross.

In a dog-eat-dog world where we feel that we must always prove ourselves, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we must prove ourselves to God. What’s worse, we might, like the woman in the nursing home, think that our violations are too horrible for God to forgive. It may even be a so-called Christian who gave us this idea. But the Savior Who prays for us makes it’s possible for you and me to be forgiven. It’s possible for us to have a healthy, whole relationship with God. It’s possible for us to be freed from our pasts.

We could spend a lifetime talking about the wonderful things Jesus reveals about the heart of God to us. But I want to focus on just three of them this morning.

First of all: Jesus reveals that God is for us. In His famous encounter with a man named Nicodemus, Jesus said that He had come into the world not to condemn the world, but so the world could be saved from sin and death by Him. This will come as a disappointment to some judgmental people.

A man was bitter about the wife who had left him for another man. He cornered me one night at a party and wanted me to tell him that his ex-wife and her new husband were both headed for hell. “I can’t say that for certain,” I told him. “But they sinned,” he said. “You’ve never sinned?” I asked him. The man allowed as how he had sinned. But he seemed to feel that their sins were worse than his. “Besides,” he said, “they’re still together. So, they’re just committing adultery every day.” I countered by saying that I had known couples who had begun their lives together in just that way. They regretted what they had done. But they were committed to not repeating their sin. They had turned to Christ and received forgiveness and the power to go on living with God in their lives. That man was disappointed because Christ shows us that God is for us. I tell you what: I’m not disappointed by that! I’m grateful for it because I’m a sinner grateful for the forgiveness I receive through Jesus Christ.

Second: Jesus reveals that God understands who we are and how difficult our lives can sometimes be. Once, you remember, Jesus came into the little town of Bethany, where three of his friends—the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus—lived. Lazarus, he was told, had died. Jesus’ response? He wept. He wept for those who mourned without hope for the resurrection. He wept too for the dying his friend had experienced.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that Jesus has experienced everything that you and I go through in our lives. The cross where He died confirms that. Yet, Jesus promises to be with us always. The Bible also tells us that nothing can separate us from the love God offers us through Jesus. Can Jesus forgive you and me? Of course He can; He understands who we are and how difficult our lives can be.

Third: Jesus reveals that God has compassion for us. Jesus was often surrounded by people hungry for His love and His touch. Once, the Bible says, He looked on the crowds and felt compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Life can sometimes leave all of us feeling that way: harassed and helpless.

Once, a man came to me to talk. He’d been sent by a counselor at a local agency. “Mark,” he told me, “this guy is at the end of his rope. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life. Our sessions have gone pretty well. But I’ve realized that there’s a spiritual dimension to his problems.” When the man arrived, he looked haggard, disheveled. After awhile, we came to the nub of things. “I can’t believe that God will help me. I’ve screwed up too many times.” We talked for a long while. Eventually, as some of you who know me well will understand, I turned this man’s attention to Romans 8, where the preacher Paul writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that as we read those words together, that man’s face lit up. “Would you write that down for me?” he asked. I wrote the passage down on a 3-by-5 card and handed it to him. I urged him to look at the card periodically each day. I don’t know what happened in that man’s life from that point. But I do know that it came as really good news to him to know that God has compassion on us and that while we may walk away from God, the God we know through Jesus Christ will never walk away from us.

Early in my ministry, a woman approached me with a big concern. It was about my preaching; she didn’t like it one bit! Why, she asked, was I always talking about how wonderful God is? Shouldn’t I be bawling people out more for their sin? Sin is serious business. God hates sin. But God hates sin because of what it does to us. It separates us from Him. It brings death. It destroys our relationships with others. It distorts our humanity. God is the loving Father Who wants to welcome us home today and forever. Every time we’re tempted to see God as a cold, distant deity, we need to remember that when God came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, He was loving, compassionate, and involved.

There are many mysteries in life—suffering that doesn’t go away, prayers that seem unheard, temptations that dog us, and others. But Jesus demonstrates beyond all doubt that each of us matters to God. Jesus’ resurrection says that in the end, God will act lovingly and decisively on behalf of those who believe in Jesus. The Savior Who prays for us will never walk away from us. We can count on that!