Sunday Worship, May 10, 2020 “Preparing the Way”
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Preparing the Way
Pastor Erik Goehner
“I am going to prepare a place for you.” These are words from Jesus that have often been used at funerals or memorial services. They are words that I have read to people at their bedsides as they are dying. They are comforting words, as we think of Jesus going ahead of us through death and getting a place ready for us in God’s heavenly realms as Jesus assures us there will be room for us. He says, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
It makes sense that these verses would be associated with a transition from earthly life into the next life. But I don’t think that is the only thing that Jesus is getting his disciples prepared for. I think he is also getting them prepared for his being gone from them in a physical presence as well as getting them prepared for the next mission he has in store for them.
These verses lie within the context of a much larger passage which forms a kind of farewell address and instruction from Jesus to his disciples. The setting is the last supper and Jesus has just washed the feet of his followers. He then launches into a speech which lasts for four chapters of the Book of John. The speech is full of predictions about betrayal, declarations about who Jesus is, wise advice on how the disciples should treat each other and reassuring promises about how Jesus will still be with his followers even after he is gone through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is clear that Jesus is preparing his followers for his death on the cross, but there are also clear notes that he is getting them ready for his leaving again after his resurrection so that they might be able to carry on in his name. He is not only given them hope for the future after they die, he wants them to carry on the mission of spreading the good news of God’s love wherever they might go in the present as well
Jesus tells his followers that “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.” The followers of Jesus are going to do great things because he is getting things ready for them. This is also why they need not let their hearts be troubled, because Jesus is preparing them for what is to come. They do not need to be afraid, because they will be prepared to face the challenges ahead.
When it comes to facing difficult things in our lives we are much more likely to get through them if we have been prepared to handle those situations. We are much more likely to try something new, even if we think it might be dangerous if we have been trained or prepared for the new activity we are going to try. This was true for me when it came to whitewater rafting. At first, I was nervous and a little afraid to go whitewater rafting and to bring a group of high school students from our youth group with me, but after realizing how the counselors and river guides prepared people for their trips and especially for getting through the rapids, I learned that whitewater rafting was an adventure activity that we do could do safely, despite the inherent risks and dangers that were involved with it.
Over the many years I led youth trips, we added a rafting element to probably half a dozen of them because I had become confident in the way the camps and companies who led the trips would prepare us to face the challenges involved. One Christian camp in particular did a nice job getting the group ready to get out on the river. They would lay out life preservers and make sure everyone had on the right size. They did an orientation on how to hold the oars correctly and about issues to be aware of such as what to do if you fall out and go under the boat. All of this preparation was before we even got onto the water.
Our guides would then have us learn instructions on how to follow rowing directions and we would practice them before we got to the rapids. While the waters were still calm, the guides would also have us take turns jumping out of the boat and pulling each other back in. This got us used to how cold the water was, it gave us confidence in how our lifejackets would keep us afloat, and it built up our trust in each other that we could pull someone back in if one of us fell out.
All of this preparation did not completely take away our nervousness about the churning rapids that were up ahead, but it did give us an assurance that despite our fears, we could get through this together. It helped to build up our belief that our guides could navigate us through the dangers of whitewater, rocks, and deadfall trees that lay up ahead. It helped build up our trust that our guides really did know the way through the rough water. They could show us places of calm and peace on the other side of the rapids.
Jesus knew as he sent his followers out, there was going to be rough water up ahead. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy for them as he went to the cross. He knew it would be hard for them to understand his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was also aware that once his followers did become inspired by the resurrection, there would be lots of people who didn’t believe them. There would be people who would persecute them. He knew that what was meant to be good news and provide hope, could also cause division, even among those they loved and it could be dangerous for his followers. Jesus knew that the troubles and conflicts of the world could tumble and toss about his followers as if they were in the midst of treacherous whitewater rapids, so he knew they needed to be prepared.
That’s why he tells them that he is preparing a place for them. Like a river guide who goes through the rapids the day before leading a trip, so that they know where the rocks and deadfalls are, Jesus is going ahead of his followers getting things ready so that they can make it through. This is why when Thomas asks Jesus, “How can we know the way?” Jesus responds and says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus wants to show his followers the way to a truly abundant life by revealing the truth of who God is and the purpose God has in store for them.
I think it is unfortunate that so often this statement of Jesus is taken solely as a religiously exclusive statement. But what if it is more than that? What if it is more of a philosophical statement about Jesus as a blueprint for what it means to be truly human? What if Jesus is saying something about how no one gets to God other than by living in the Spirit and loving in a self-sacrificial way? What if he is saying something about how the way to God is being completely honest about our human nature and the necessity for forgiveness? What if it is about having a reverence for human life and no matter who you are, or no matter what your religious background, if you follow this “Jesus way” then you will find God?
Let’s take a moment then to apply this statement of Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life to the current pandemic crisis facing our world. How might Jesus be preparing us to come out of this situation? How might Jesus be getting us ready to reach the other side of the rough water we seem to be in? Perhaps it has to do with getting at the truth of where we are, know what it will take for us to be able to do life together again and then we can know the way forward.
It begins with getting at the truth of where we are at. Right now, it seems to me that much of the way the virus dilemma is being presented by the news and the national conversation is creating a false dichotomy. It makes it sound like our decision making has to be based on public health verses the economy, or it is based on a conflict between those who want to open things up and those who want to keep things closed. The truth is that we can’t have one without the other. They are both intertwined. If people are not healthy, we cannot have a functioning economy. If we don’t have a functioning economy, people’s physical and mental health will be affected.
The next step is to then examine what we need to do to be able to have a healthy life where we can also do business together and interact socially again, even though it might look differently than it used to. We can learn a lot from other countries in this regard who have already been through this before us. We can also be listening to many experts in our own country who are drafting proposals and making recommendations on how best we can make a way forward.
Like Jesus prepared his disciples, we need to be preparing our communities. We need to be talking about how we can support essential workers, how to ramp up testing, how to increase capacity for contact tracing, and how to support people through periods of quarantine. We know about many of these key things that need to get done. We just need more focus on making these kinds of preparations. We need the societal will to put these practices into place. This week I heard a professor who helped write a report with recommendations for re-opening America on a radio interview. She was saying that this kind of societal will has to ultimately come from the people. At one point she made a plea for folks to contact their representatives and ask them for more testing, testing, testing, because it is such a key part of re-opening safely. Perhaps what we need then, is less talk and arguing about what is the right date for when to open things up, and more conversation about what is the right data for how to open things up.
The good news is, as we travel this path we do not do so alone. Jesus has promised to walk it with us. When I would take youth groups river rafting, the thing that would ultimately reassure us that we were going to make it through even the dangerous rapids was that we trusted that our guide was going to be with us in our boat, steering and giving direction, and pulling us back in if we fell out. As Jesus prepares his followers for their mission in the Gospel of John he tells them things like, “Where I am, you may be also”, “If you know me, you know the Father”, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” John is telling us that mutual indwelling is the new work of God. This is Jesus’ proclamation, that as God is in him, he can be in us, and we can be in him. This means that no matter how rough the waters may get along this river of life, we can trust that Jesus will still be in our boat. Amen.
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever.
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