"There and Back Again" Sermon on John 14:18-20 by Joe Ellis - June 27, 2021
“I will not leave you as orphans,” says Jesus. In a little while the disciples won’t see him, but then they will see Him again. Jesus is poetically telling his disciples about His death when they won’t physically see Him anymore. But then Jesus explains that He will come to the disciples again when He rises from the dead. After He’s risen from the dead, He will come to them and give the disciples the Holy Spirit. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “The world will no longer see me but you will see me.” Jesus is telling the disciples that He will rise from the dead and when He does, He will give them the Holy Spirit. That’s why Jesus promises that He will not leave the disciples as orphans, He will not abandon them. Instead, Jesus will come back and give them His Spirit.
Jesus promises that when we receive the Holy Spirit, we will know that He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him, and He in us.” And that’s just not true of the disciples, its true of us. Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit, so when He says, “I will not leave you as orphans,” He is saying that we will not be left as orphans, because He has given us the Spirit. Jesus is alive in us, because we have the Spirit. I say that as a bit of an explanation; because this passage is so poetic, sometimes it’s a little hard to know what Jesus is actually talking about. Jesus is telling the disciples about His death, His resurrection, and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
But how should we expect to experience this? Throughout all of John chapter 14, Jesus uses quite intimate and personal language to describe our relationship with God. We won’t be left as orphans. How would we experience Jesus not leaving us as orphans? Since we are adopted by Jesus, we can’t be orphans. What is it like to be adopted by Jesus? We may have some wishful ideas about adoption. Perhaps adoption means that Jesus will save us from ever feeling abandoned? Perhaps saving us from being orphans means that Jesus will always be there to protect and shelter us. Those are things that you’d expect from someone who adopts you, right?
But I’ve read this passage during times when I have felt abandoned and didn’t know where to turn. I’ve read this passage when I’ve felt alone, and my experience wasn’t that Jesus came running to my rescue every time I experienced negative emotions.
Have you ever had a season where you’ve gone a long, long while without feeling the nearness of Jesus? Have you ever had a moment when life felt quite difficult but God felt quite far away? Perhaps that is how King David felt when he wrote Psalm 13. David cried out, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Do you think King David felt as though God had left Him as an orphan? Maybe King David felt that God had totally abandoned Him.
When Jesus says that He will not leave us as orphans, is He promising that no follower of Jesus will ever feel that way again? But Christians do still resonate with the words of Psalm 13, we might as well cry out, “Jesus, you promised us that you would never leave us as orphans, but right now you feel an awful lot like an absent Father.”
I was puzzling over this as I was praying one morning, when my mind was brought back to the book The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. When I wrote this Michelle and I were reading The Hobbit out loud to each other in the evenings. Davey has been reading the graphic novel of the The Hobbit. Now we are reading Lord of the Rings Again, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to preaching this sermon again. The Hobbit is the novel that comes before the Lord of the Rings series. I’d recommend not watching any of the Hobbit movies, and just reading the book. The book is amazing! Now, Tolkein was a devout Roman Catholic who loved Jesus. I believe that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings as a reflection on the Christian life, a struggle between good and evil, and the important role that small people play in that struggle.
For those of you who haven’t read the story or seen the movie, The Hobbit is about a little creature named Bilbo who takes much pleasure in peace and quiet, when all of a sudden he gets a visit from a Wizard named Gandalf, who convinces Bilbo to take part in an important and dangerous adventure helping a crew of dwarfs retrieve their treasure from an evil dragon. And in the book the Hobbit, as well as in The Lord of the Rings, I’ve often wondered if Tolkien invites his readers to think of the wizard Gandalf as a Christ figure. There are multiple Christ figures throughout Tolkein’s books, as I don’t think Tolkien thought you could embody all of who Christ is in just one character. Taking Gandalf as a Christ figure, maybe we can think Bilbo the Hobbit is just like you and me, a normal little person who is content to live life in his own comfortable way until the great Wizard comes in and turns his life upside down. When I was reading, I thought that the way the wizard, Gandalf, relates to Bilbo, the Hobbit, is the way that Jesus often can relate to us. This may sound a little strange, but I’m going to ask for your patience to see this through with me.
You see, Gandalf the Wizard loved Bilbo and believed in Him. Gandalf told the dwarfs, “There is a lot more in (Bilbo) than you would guess, and a great deal more than he has any idea of himself." Gandalf believed that Bilbo might do great and wonderful things, indeed, that Bilbo would be essential in helping the dwarfs recover their kingdom under the mountain. Gandalf believed Bilbo had great character, even when Bilbo had no reason to believe that he was anything other than a small person who lived in a nice hole and liked to eat two breakfasts. Gandalf believed Bilbo would be of great service to his friends. And Gandalf believed all these things when Bilbo so far had given no evidence that he was capable of these things, and without Bilbo thinking himself that he could do them. And Gandalf was not disappointed. Time and time again Bilbo somehow saved his dwarf friends from certain doom.
I was thinking about this in my time of prayer, when it struck me that all the times Bilbo rose to a challenging situation, Gandalf wasn’t there. Gandalf wasn’t there when Bilbo outsmarted Gollum who wanted to eat him. Gandalf wasn’t there when Bilbo saved the dwarfs from giant spiders. Gandalf wasn’t there when Bilbo freed the dwarfs from the prisons of the wood elf. Gandalf wasn’t there when Bilbo discovered the only way to secretly get into the dragon’s lair. Gandalf wasn’t there when Bilbo discovered the only way to defeat the evil dragon Smaug. Here is the main point of all of this, Gandalf gave Bilbo space so that he could grow through really difficult and dangerous situations. If Gandalf fixed everything for Bilbo, Bilbo would have stayed the same sort of person throughout the entire book. Bilbo would have just sat back and relaxed while Gandalf saved the day time after time. Instead, Bilbo discovered what Gandalf saw in him. Bilbo discovered that he was clever, and resourceful, and courageous and peaceful. Bilbo never would have learned any of that about himself if Gandalf stepped in every time there was a difficult situation.
Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” What does that mean? Does that mean that Jesus will treat us like helpless orphans and do everything for us? Does it mean that Jesus is always going to be at our right hand side protecting us from all danger, rescuing us out of every difficult and terrible situation?
Now there are probably times in your life when you can point to when Jesus did intervene in an amazing way, such that you knew that he rescued you from something dangerous or painful. There are probably other times in your life that you can point to where the only way was not around, but through something very difficult — and your experience was going it alone.
As I was reflecting on this, I wondered if it might be because Jesus wants to see us grow, and in order for us to grow, that means that sometimes Jesus will let us work things out as best we can. Bilbo would not have been able to grow into such an amazing Hobbit if Gandalf didn’t let him become stretched by difficult situations.
Hebrews 12 from the Message puts it nicely. It says that “When you go through difficult times, God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.” God will sometimes leave us in difficult situations partly because He wants to train us, He wants us to grow, He wants us to continue on the journey. God respects and believes in you far more than you might believe, far more than you might think is due. That’s why even though Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans,” we still might find ourselves crying out “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”
Often, our growth as children of God happens more in the difficult, troubling valleys than on the mountain tops. Often, deep growth is happening in times when it seems that God is hiding his face. I think that is also why the body of Christ is so important. God intends that the church family gather around someone who is going through a difficult situation, supporting and praying for that person.
Jesus words today remind us, too, that even when God’s face seems to be hidden, He is never absent. Just because the presence of God seems far away, it does not mean that God is gone. Jesus says that when we receive the Spirit we will know that he is in the Father, and we are in Him, and He is in us. Jesus says that He and the Father will come and make their home with us. That’s permanent! Once God makes his home in us, he won’t decide to move out. Once the Spirit of God is in us, the Spirit of God never leaves.
So, when we do feel like we are in hard, challenging, and difficult situations, we can still ask God for wisdom. God has given us the Spirit, and one of the roles the Holy Spirit plays in our lives is to guide us into truth. That means that we can and should ask for wisdom when we find ourselves in difficult situations, or in happy situations, or in confusing situations. In the book of James, the author encourages us to ask God for wisdom, ask God for help, ask God for direction, and we can trust how He will lead us. Sometimes that looks like hearing a divine word from God, other times it looks like reflecting on what Scripture says about a particular situation, other times it looks like paying attention and listening to our feelings, or turning to trusted friends for advice. But in all of this, we can trust that our Father will be leading and guiding us as we grow in wisdom and understanding so that we might be mature children of God.
Trust is really the key to what we’ve been talking about this morning. Jesus brings up trust again and again in John 14. Again and again Jesus invites us to trust him. And my guess is that’s because he knows that trust will be absolutely necessary. He knows that it will take deep trust to believe that Jesus has not left you when it feels as through he has. He knows that trust will be necessary when in the midst of our journey towards his Kingdom, sometimes all feels lost. Jesus invites us to trust Him, because we are on a journey into the New Creation Kingdom. Sometimes this adventure is hard and difficult, and sometimes it is thrilling. Whatever the circumstances, however close God may or may not seem, throughout it all, Jesus is asking us, “Will you trust me? I will not abandon you, although sometimes I will seem far away. Will you trust me? I will see you through to the end.”
As we learn to trust, we might just find out that Jesus can be trusted in His opinion about us: that there is a lot more in you than you might have guessed. That you, just like little old Bilbo, are capable of rising to great heights and journeying through deep dark valleys — through the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit! For we are also on a journey much like Bilbo went on, we are on a journey to restore a Kingdom. The journey we are on is a long one, we are journeying together into the coming Kingdom of God. Will you trust God enough to venture on this journey? Will You trust Him to get you there in whatever way He sees fit?
If we will risk trusting God, if we will pray to him and ask him for help and guidance, we will take leaps of faith we never thought possible, we will journey through droughts and storms, we will be pushed beyond our limit and we will experience deep comfort; and at the end of our life’s journey we will be able to say, “I trusted in Jesus with my life, and I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living. I have participated in the coming Kingdom of God.”