Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Why so joyless?

Michael Otts preached a sermon on this passage last Sunday and my essay here is highly derivative of his sermon (which you can hear here.) I have also been reading Planet Narnia by Michael Ward which is also a source of what I have to say.

The first five verses of John chapter 17 gives us a close contact with the Lord Jesus Christ, for they tell us what he prays for himself. They also illuminate the meanings of “Christian” words or phrases that may astonish us.

The first word is “authority” (v2). This is a word much devalued by recent events. We complain about an authoritarian government. We look at British MPs and jeer at their assumed authority. Our leaders in almost every profession have become figures of fun. George Bush became a laughing stock, military leaders were undone by the scandals in Iraqi prisons, scientists are derided as they will say anything in order to get research grants, bankers have misled us and trousered huge bonuses in payment for failure, industrial giants have collapsed, the Roman Catholic church is mired by allegations of child abuse, doctors have been besmirched by the activities of Harold Shipman and others. Islamic leaders are seen as terrorists and murderers. Teachers are unable to control classrooms, the police are corrupt or racists and the list goes on.

A recent poll in Britain concluded that the majority of respondents thought that politicians were in it to feather their own nests rather than serve their constituents. For some reason they would rather be governed by celebrities, actors or pop-singers. Authority is seen to be something to be avoided, though the reputation of those who seek “freedom” for authority was hardly enhanced by the arrest of the man alleged to be the murderer of the abortion doctor last week.

Jesus gives a new meaning to authority. Authority was given to Jesus so that he might give eternal life to those that were given him.

Authority is about giving not taking. Even the best governments take from us in the form of taxes. Here is an authority that is about giving.

The second phrase is “eternal life”. “Pie in the sky when you die” say the sceptics. And we have to admit that we think of eternal life as something that begins when we die, but Jesus defines it differently. “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (v3) Eternal life is about relationships. The word “know” implies the most intimate relationship possible. Jesus came that we might know God intensively. Forever. Beginning now. God the Holy Spirit indwells every believer. How many of us make ourselves aware of his presence. I don’t mean in a theatrical way, waving our arms about, speaking in a language that no-one understands, but being conscious that ever word you say and every action you take is observed by him, that every thought you have is available to him, and that if you learn to listen to him he will prompt your thoughts and actions according to God’s will. Take time to be silent and listen to him and get your mind right by reading his word regularly. You can be sure that it is his words you are listening to by checking against what he has already said.

The third word is “glory”. Again glory is something that means less today than once it did. Newspaper headlines ascribe glory to football teams, dancers on TV, and Oscar winners. Once it attended empires, now a pub cricket team has it for winning a 20-over knockabout. How glory has been devalued. Yet it was once an attribute of magnificence, demanding awe and worship. Fanfares and parades, processions with elephants strung with jewels and gold, soldiers and slaves, dancing girls and jugglers, drums and trumpets; Hollywood had it down to a ‘T’.

Yet Jesus had it differently: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (vv 4-5).

What was the work that Jesus had come to do? Why, to redeem sinners. But this task had not been completed when the prayer was prayed. Nevertheless, Jesus was resolute that it would be so. He had set his face towards the cross and would not be diverted even when passionately considering all the options in Gethsemane. The task given was to bring all those who were given to him to eternal life (v2); this would be done and this was the key to glory. We talk about the glory of the cross, but if the cross was all their was, it would not be glory. The Resurrection is the affirmation that the cross was effective and Pentecost is the demonstration of its effectiveness.

Glorious though the cross was, I sometimes think we get stuck there. Surely we should preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, but that is the key to an eternal life of knowing God, not an end in itself. We should never forget the debt we owe, but we should not forget to ‘pick up our winnings’. Some Christians seem to want to leave them on the table and play the game over and over again. Our sins have been wiped away. Not only forgiven but forgotten. If we brought them up at the Judgement Seat they would be answered with, “When was that then, we have no record of that here?” Of course we have to keep short records with God and be ready to confess the sins of the day in the sure knowledge that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The chief end of Man is to love God and enjoy Him forever. It’s the ‘enjoy him forever’ that we are missing out on. Miserable Christians everywhere, start smiling. Laugh! Enjoy yourself!

CS Lewis was a student of medieval and renaissance literature. Their model of the Universe was one guided by the planets, with seven spheres of influence. A recent book by Michael Ward “Planet Narnia” describes how each of the Narnia books is concerned with the atmosphere engendered by each of the seven planets (not our planets, but theirs – the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.) The first in the series “The lion, the witch and the wardrobe” is assigned to Jupiter (or Jove) and Aslan is a Jovial character, kingly yet full of joy and mirth.

I have always enjoyed the poetry of John Donne and the War Poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Lewis calls them writers about death under Saturnine influence. To quote Narnia, “It’s always winter and never Christmas.” Lewis was also a subaltern at the Western Front. He saw equally terrible things, but after a period of grief he saw it as time to move on. Poets have seldom been good at glory in the way that musicians or architects and painters have. Francis Schaeffer was convinced that we should enjoy these glorifications of Christ as their makers intended. He was no iconoclast. Puritans and Hypercalvinists have despised such attempts as idolatry, and of course they can be used as such, but as aids to worship I see no sin. Certainly, I could stand never singing “Shine Jesus Shine” again for the chance of standing in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral or forfeit another chorus of Celebration for the chance of taking part in Handel’s Messiah at Huddersfield Town Hall. The are joys to be had in the Christian life and we must not despise them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love this commentary! You make my day with it! And the liturgical musician in me concurs so heartily with the possibility of not having to sing "Shine, Jesus, Shine", one more time, in favor of that moment in quiet contemplation in the house of God. Bless you for sharing with us your joyful attitude. We are praying for your return to many years of health and strength.
...from a CLL listmember in California!