The Text Says:
The Sixth Chapter of John elaborates on a theme running through the entire gospel: the words and deeds of Jesus are an offense of grace. John describes it as “a hard saying,” that offended the Jews and the disciples. That’s why Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. Rather it’s been found difficult and not tried. The gospel truth is not hard to miss: faith can be costly. Once Jesus challenged a rich young ruler to “sell all he had and give it to the poor. But he went away sad because he had great possessions.” When following Jesus becomes demanding, people walk away from him. Our New Year’s text makes up perhaps the saddest words in the New Testament. “Will you also go away?” Too often today, people still disagree with someone and want them to go away. For those who stay with him, there is still the question: “Lord, where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The Preacher Says:
In the central area of the art deco sanctuary of the First Baptist church of Silver Spring MD, where I spent a decade, is a huge stained glass rendition of Jesus with arms open wide, captioned by the text below: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Isn’t that the basic invitation of the Christian faith? “Will you come?” To extend this gracious overture to all who don’t know the Lord is still the mission of the Church. We can’t say it enough: “Won’t ya’ll come to Jesus?” But there’s another question, like unto it. This query is asked of those who’ve already been to Jesus. And it goes in the opposite direction: “Will you also go away?” Will you come? Will you go?
It was a busy day for Jesus, loaded down with teaching and healing those who brought their burdens. At closing time, they didn’t want to leave. So they followed him to Capernaum. Everybody’s coming to Jesus. So now his strategy changes. This time he’s pressing a claim, not rendering service. And what he said was downright strange. But remember we’re in John. John says weird things: “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, dwells in me and I in him” (6:56). Today we know what he meant, but I can see why the secularists initially thought Christians were cannibals!
The record goes on to say this: “From that time on many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him” (66). And Jesus, tears filling his eyes, turned to the twelve and said, “Will you go away too?” (67). And Peter steps up; the big fisherman at his best. He improves on his confession at Caesarea-Philippi where he said “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God!” Now he stood shoulder to shoulder with Jesus and said, “Lord, to whom can we go, you have the words of eternal life” (68). The buck stops here. All or nothing. Peter was learning how hard it is to follow Jesus. But it’s harder not to. The devil’s alternatives to faith in God are much more difficult than genuine faith in God. Check out those who keep delving into the alternatives.
The difference between us and Jesus is one of degree. You see, he always assumed absolute belief in God. Period. No matter what happened, he was never moved from that powerful anchor in his soul. But it’s not easy for us to believe so strongly in the Almighty all the time. There are seasons when God is so near we have no doubts: when health is good; income is adequate; our fortunes are on the upswing; society is stable and life seems secure with all things holding together.
But when life throws us a curve, somebody betrays us, or we disappoint ourselves doing something dumb, doubts come flooding in. But when events seem more random than ordered; the center no longer holds, values we were taught are being washed away, when the forces of darkness crowd out the sunshine. When we wonder if we can keep on going. Where is God? A theological question. Nobody is argued out of faith in God. But we can be shaken out of it! “Will you also go away?” Maybe unbelief is the better way for you. It seems to me that our ability to ever fully grasp the mind of the infinite is never going to be without struggle. ‘Cause you’ve got to feel for those who flirt with the alternatives to faith. Think of what it must be like to wake up with no sense of God. We’re on our own. Just the abject loneliness of that.
One of my best church signs is “For those who don’t believe in God…but miss him.” That sign brought more folks to knock on the church door than any other. It raises a question in the face of all the awful things out there, insane shootings, avarice, mean-spirited outrage, victim hood, how do we account for the love, goodness, sacrifice, service we see? I bet Thanksgiving is tough on unbelievers. All their blessings, and nobody to thank for them! How bleak our days, if all our goings and comings and doings were destined for the cosmic garbage dump, where everything good, all we have loved and enjoyed is destined to be burned into a crispy nothingness. Yeah it’s hard to believe in God sometimes. But it’s harder not to.
For others the problem with God is ethical. Following Jesus can be a bear because it narrows your options. You can’t be a Christian and get away with “well this is just the way I am.” Jesus won’t let us stay like we are. He will expand our outlook and increase our compassion and stretch us to the limit and then some. It’s easier to just not bother with being ethical. Which is why a lotta folks aren’t. Don’t you get tired of being rankled at all the injustice and evil in the world? Where does that come from? Jesus won’t let you enjoy your money in total freedom. Tell this selfie-generation to sacrifice for somebody?
Christians are not to look upon our colleagues as competitors, or see our job as a way to get to the top. Hobbled by a sense of calling; what you are is connected to what you do and all of it is related to God? Let’s just be honest about it, following Jesus handicaps us. And it’s true that without God, the road will be wider. But not necessarily better.
So “to whom will you go?” That’s why so many today live in a state of moral neutrality. There is no right or wrong, just what’s best for me at the moment. To sink to an animalistic level, where all is relative and there is no ultimate point of reference to keep us on track?
There’s a story about a guy who stopped in front of a jewelry store to set his watch every day by the correct time. The owner noticed his habit and asked him, “How come you always stop here? He said “My job is to blow the whistle at the factory, so I set my watch by your clock.” And the jeweler smiled, “That’s interesting, cause I set my clock by your whistle!” And around and around we go, where she stops, nobody knows! Living in a moral relativity loop, with no standards. Jesus wasn’t called “the light of the world” for nothing. It’s hard to live in the gospel spotlight. But the end is good. God set the standard for us to live more like Jesus; not the technology of clocks or whistles! The writer of Hebrews got it: “For the moment all discipline seems harsh not pleasant; later it yields the fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb 12:11).
Of course Jesus disturbs us! He presents new options and opens closed doors and pulls us into a future, pulsating with all sorts of challenges and neat adventure. Isn’t that better than the dull nothingness of purposelessness? It’s hard to follow Jesus. But it’s harder not to.
And then for many others, they keep getting God confused with the church. It’s hard to belong to the church. ‘Cause the church, like its Lord, will make demands on us and has high expectations of us. There’s gotta be a better option than the archaic institution of religion, right? If only Jesus hadn’t said, “On this rock I will build my church!” If only God would let us free-lance our experiences with him and others. And keep the church out of it. It only gets in the way anyway. Belonging to the church has its drawbacks. That’s why so many don’t.
Nobody understands the frustration like the preacher. Churches can be short-sighted; both pulpit and pew will always fall short of their ideals. You wanta fight? There’s no fight like a church fight! Yet there’s nothing quite like the church. For all its weakness, nothing embraces opposites like the church? Labor/management. Republicans, Democrats, Whigs, hot chocolate drinking onesies alongside the Duck Dynasty. Male/female, straight or gay, black/white, brown, rich or poor, lettered or slow, veterans and beginners, old and young. It’s remarkable, because they’re all held together on a voluntary basis! Nobody has to stay. The only rejection is self-rejection. But the church is capable of the love of neighbor that is unmatched anywhere else in society. I’ve seen real people in every church I’ve served across this great land who, when one member cries, another tastes salt! Out there, all we hear is “me, me, me.” In here there’s a herd mentality.
“Will you also go away?” “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus had made believers out of ‘em! And once you pledge your loyalty to him, life is never the same. ‘Cause Peter goes on to say, “We believe and continue to believe thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” Yeah it’s hard to believe. It’s harder not to. It’s hard to be moral. It’s harder not to. It’s hard to belong to the church. But it’s harder not to.
Prayer: Lord, in this age that’s become so accustomed to short-term commitments rather than long-range loyalties, help us to hold fast to Thee. When the pieces don’t fit, when doing Thy will seems more than we can manage, when others let us down, give us the stamina to persevere and the good sense to know that troubled faith is easier to bear than troubled unbelief. Through Christ our Lord.`
Providence Prayers: (1/5/14)
Eternal God, upon whose benevolence we depend and under whose grace we stand, we gather at the turn of another year of service, with expectations of the opportunity before us, to make this one better than before. May our church play a part in that, here on “this hill that cannot be hid.” May this hour raise all that is dead in us to new life. Drive us by a hunger for what is genuine in a world full of fakes. As the years mount up, we pause to thank Thee for the things we take for granted, the constraints in our lives: the good earth on which we stand; daytime that follows night; the seasons on their march in predictable succession; and the gates of mercy, ever open to us in our need.
We reflect in this worship on all that is new and changing in our world; for breakthroughs in the field of medicine; the visibility of wrongs too long concealed; for new people to come among us and the prospect of contributing to one another’s growth. Help us in these moments of common prayer to forget what we have on, our plans for the day or tomorrow, and momentary afflictions that make us more conscious of self than Thee.
Shape Thy grace around our inmost needs. Lead by Thy providence, those who are down on themselves into experiences where their worth is affirmed, call back those who remember a day when they loved Thee more, and for those who weep the tears of grief, renew their vision of Easter, so they may realize that death is one of those “all things…that work together for our good.”
At t he dawning of a brand new year, we thank Thee for all that keeps us believing that our years have meaning; that the fury of the nations is not the final sound; that “love endures, when tongues have ceased and prophecies have failed.” We offer these prayers in the name of the One whose ways are from old and yet whose works are ever new, who alone can make us appreciative for the past and hopeful of the future. Through Christ our Lord.