David A. Davis
March 14, 2021
It’s not just preachers who are searching for the right word or words this week. Journalists, writers, influencers, sports figures, business leaders, teachers, students, neighbors, family members, young, old, every one of us; looking for the right words to describe the last year. The last Sunday we were together in the sanctuary was March 8th, 2020. Professor Eric Barreto led adult education in the Assembly Room. I preached on Luke 4, Jesus standing up to read from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. The Lenten series was called “The Shape of Salvation”. It feels like that Lord’s Day was forever ago. Or does it feel like that day was just yesterday? I can’t really decide. Calling it a long year doesn’t really work when so many of the days, so many of the days just run together into one long day in your mind. So many words can be used that picking just a few seems kind of fruitless. On the other hand, a longwinded sermon retrospective on the last year of suffering, death, isolation, distance, division, election, racial tensions, insurrection. Well, I will spare you, and spare me.
The church staff meets together on Tuesday mornings. We study scripture together, we pray together, and we share joys and concerns in your lives and in our lives. We laugh,. We cry. We sigh. We listen. We bounce ideas around, we look at the church calendar, we share information from committee work, and of course, we plan ahead. Sometimes, way ahead. I imagine the staff would agree with me that we do our best work when we do it together, even if in a zoom meeting. Have you noticed in virtual meetings that folks have a harder time keeping a poker face? Also, in wanting to communicate while staying muted, people try to show their affirmation, their laughter, their concern with broader expressions. It makes for some interesting screen shots, all those facial expressions. I wish I had a screen shot of the church staff to share from a few Tuesday mornings in the last year. Like when everyone feels like their plate is overflowing and someone brings up that one more thing to new, that one more new idea. Or when folks were just trying to get through a long week in January and someone asked something something about Easter. Or the first time we tried to wrap our heads around planning and carrying out a virtual Advent and Christmas Eve. Or when for the umpteenth time in the last year, one of us realized that all of us were going to have to learn to do a routine church thing in a new way. The collective expression of one of those screen shots, it wouldn’t have been stunned silence, or frustration, or even discouragement. It would have been more akin to a collective look of bewilderment.
Bewildering. That word seems apt for the last year. Bewildering seems to fit. Perplexing. Confusing. Trying to make some sense. Looking down the road when there so much fogginess, lack of clarity. So much to wonder about but not a wonder filled with awe. More like a wonder that comes with being unmoored, unsettled, uncertain when it comes to just about everything. Bewildered.
It also sounds like a good word to describe the disciples here in John’s gospel. The disciples saying to one another “What does he mean….’a little while and you will no longer see and …a little while you will see me’…a little while…what does he mean?” Jesus has been talking to them for quite a while around that Last Supper Table. Maybe Jesus finally stopped to take a breath, or a sip. Maybe this was the first time they could get in word in edgewise. Maybe its more of literary device in John intended to reveal what the disciples had been thinking and feeling the whole time. Regardless, they sound bewildered. Like Nicodemus who was trying to wrap his head around Jesus telling him someone had to be born from above. Like the Samaritan woman at the well wondering how on earth Jesus was going to offer living water when he had no bucket and the well was so deep. Like Philip whose head must have been spinning when he told Jesus it would take six months of wages to feed a large crowd like that.
The disciples wonder here isn’t quite the same as Peter rebuking Jesus and refusing to accept that Jesus would suffer and die on a cross. The bewilderment isn’t a “no, no, no”. It’s more like a “what?”, maybe a “why”. Probably best it’s a “huh?” The phrase “in a little while” is the presenting puzzle in Jesus’ exchange with the disciples. In a little while he’s gone. In a little while he’s back. But there’s a whole lot more here for them to try to understand, to even see through a mirror dimly than Jesus and his shake and bake of here, not here. The Son of Man and his glorification. The hour that has now come. Jesus being lifted up. Jesus not calling them servants but calling them friends. The Advocate being sent. Jesus in the Father and the Father in Jesus. Jesus telling them they would be killed. The disciples may not know that Jesus’ suffering, his death are hours away. That that is days away. But they must have felt the game changing tension and emotion at the Table. And the Jesus is trying to warn them and reassure them all at the same time. To tell them of his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, his coming again, and how he will welcome to the many dwelling places in the eternal realm of God. And as we have come to learn and expect from Jesus in John, perplexing, confusing, and bewildering doesn’t begin to describe it. “What does he mean?!”
As with every other time in the gospels that the disciples were talking amongst themselves, Jesus knew what they were saying and knew what they wanted to ask him. “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.” I am unconvinced that Jesus’ use of the childbirth metaphor at this point would have been all that revelatory to table full of men. Maybe Jesus’ reference to childbirth supports the notion that there were women in the room. Women at the table. And those who bore a child were nodding. “No one will take your joy from you”, he told them.
Not just joy, but complete joy. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” Your joy may be full. Your joy may overflow. Just a bit earlier Jesus said to them “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (15:11) It is as if Jesus’ response to the expressions of bewilderment on the disciples’ faces and in response to “what does he mean”, Jesus’ response is the promise of complete peace. And here in the context of this table discourse from Jesus about his glorification, his hour, his being lifted up, it is quite clear that the intent of his promise is that complete peace is coming sooner than later. In fact, complete peace is coming in just a few more days. And with the promise of complete peace, Jesus is telling the disciples that when I depart from you, my work is done here. Your joy is complete. Amid their bewilderment and ours, Jesus is telling them that in his death, his resurrection, his ascension, the work of salvation is complete. Our relationship with God is forever made whole.
Complete joy comes in God with us. Complete joy is in the promise of Jesus: “where I am, there you may be also”. A promise not just for then, but for now. Moses told the people of Israel, “God goes with you, God will not fail you or forsake you.” The psalmist asks “Where can I go from your spirit or where can I flee from your presence?” And then goes on to sing of God’s hand, God’s presence from heaven to hell and to the farthest limits of the sea. You know how the Apostle Paul puts it. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”. As the Risen Jesus told the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel. . “I will be with you always, to the end of the age”. And for the disciples, for the followers of Jesus, for you and for me, that is complete joy.
Jesus response to the bewildered disciples trying to grasp not only what Jesus was saying to them but to grasp something of the mystery of the will of God and the wonder (as in awe) of God’s plan of salvation, Jesus response is the promise of a peace made complete by his presence. It’s not a promise that peace made complete takes bewilderment away, or provides all the answers. Peace made complete is hardly a promise of life free of suffering, struggle and pain; not not for the disciples, not for us. Complete peace isn’t the opposite of bewilderment. Christ’s promise amid their bewilderment and ours, his promise of peace in him made complete, what it is, is a balm. It’s a soothing, comforting, calming, assuring, balm.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And deep I feel the pain
In prayers the holy spirit
Revives my soul again
There is a balm in Gilead
Clinging to God with us, Christ with us, Spirit with us, it’s such a balm when life feels so unmoored, unsettled, uncertain..for entire year for heaven’s sake! Anne Kuhn put it this way in the prayer she offered in Nassau’s daily devotional on Thursday. “Hear our prayers and grant us peace in knowing that no matter what happens in our world, you are faithful and loving and will never abandon us. Amen.”
That’s prayer for complete peace.