By Paul Koch –
I don’t know if this happens to you, but every year around my birthday I become somewhat melancholy. It’s not that I’m depressed or upset about being another year older, rather it’s that I find my birthday becomes a time to reflect upon my life. I take stock of things, weight out what I’ve accomplished, what I want to accomplish, where I failed and what regrets I have. Certainly, birthdays are fun and something worth celebrating; but I’ve found that they are definitely times of introspection. And this year, perhaps, I feel this melancholy more than most for today is my 40th birthday.
40 years ago today I took my first breath of air. 40 years of life: of growing, learning, failing and getting back up again. The journey of my life took me from being a surf bum here in Ventura, to college down south in Irvine, and then off to the seminary in St. Louis. Along the way, I married and Cindy and we began our family that has continued to grow throughout the years. Yet it was the challenges of learning what it is to be a pastor that changed the trajectory of my life forever. Though I loved theology, I was terrified of the idea of preaching the Word. However, through the course of my schooling I was given to see that this was my calling. So, off I went to Georgia where I was honored to preach and teach the Word to God’s saints at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church.
For 8 years I learned and studied my craft. I tried to improve my skills as a preacher of the Word and a leader in the church. And then I was called back here: back to the church of my youth, back to Ventura, California. I will never forget walking into my study for the first time. The reality set in that I would be standing in the place that my own pastor had stood for so many years. So, here I am 40 years later. I’m pretty much right back where I started. Such a journey is good cause for reflection. Though I am a bit wiser, I still find that such reflection has the ability to project problems and worries about the future. An honest reflection of our life often comes with a good amount of fear and trepidation.
Our text today from John 17 finds our Lord in the midst of a prayer with the Father. We are privileged to overhear his words as he speaks to God about his own: about his followers. As we listen in, we find Jesus earnestly petitioning and reflecting on the truth that he will be leaving. In many ways he is going through his own melancholy moment as he fears about what is to come. “I am no longer in the world,” he says, “but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” We sense, from the beginning, that he is concerned. While he is with his disciples, he has been able to keep them in the name of the Father. Not a single one was lost except for Judas, though that too was to fulfill the Word of God. But now he is leaving. As we hear his words, an honest reflection of our life of faith comes with some fear and trepidation about the future.
Just think of all that Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. He changed water into wine. He healed the sick and gave the blind their sight. He fed 5000 people with just five barley loaves and two fish. He walked on water and calmed storms with his words. He raised Lazarus from the dead and was welcomed into Jerusalem like a conquering king. He did all these things and more while he taught the truth of God and gave hope to his followers. It’s sort of like he pulls the rug out from under them when he says that he will now be leaving. All those things that he accomplished, all that he did from the little town of Bethlehem to the cross and the empty tomb, how will it not all be lost once he departs? How are we to keep the faith going if he returns to the right hand of the Father?
Ah, but see, he hasn’t left us without a gift. He didn’t return to the Father without providing what is needed to maintain our faith. No, our Lord knows that we can’t do this alone. He will need to carry us to our eternal destination. We hear him say to his Father, “I have given them your Word.” The gift and the ever-present hope and strength for all God’s children in the absence of the physical presence of Christ is the Word. Now this gift is bigger than just words of encouragement for the hard times. It’s more than just a nice devotional or meditative guide for our living. John’s Gospel begins with the words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” A few verses later we hear him say, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The eternal Word of God is Chris himself. The Word of God is the means of our salvation. So what he leaves, what he gives to his own, is not just a word to keep us going. It is the life-changing Word of Truth. It is the very presence of God.
Christ is leaving. He is to return to the right hand of the Father. Yet in a way, he is not really leaving us altogether for he gives the Word. In this reflective moment of our Lord, as he prays for his followers, we are given a word of comfort. The powerful, creative, life-giving Word of God is going to remain with us. However, that is only half of what he says. Surely he says, “I have given them your Word,” but then he adds, “And the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
The Word of God is no small thing. The Word of God drastically changes your reality. To receive the Word is to actually remove you from the world.
Now clearly, you are still living in the world, you are still part of God’s creation. But you are no longer ruled by the powers of the world. The sin and hatred of God that marks our world no longer has a hold on you. This means, then, that you have an enemy in the world. The world outside of Christ and his Word is not your friend. And so the attacks will come. The attacks will never cease until the return of Christ. I believe you already know this all too well. You are plagued with sins that you can’t seem to get over. You do things you know that you shouldn’t do. In fact, you find yourself thinking and doing things you don’t want to do. And the things that you want to do, the faithful and God pleasing acts you know you ought to do, these you don’t seem to get done. Our disjunction from the world is felt every day. How do we endure? How do we make it?
Well, we return again and again the one thing that we have been given. We turn again to the very thing that separated us out of the world. We return to the Word. In his prayer Jesus says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” We return to the truth, to the Word, to our hope and promise of life everlasting. It is there, in the Word of truth, that we are given what is needed to endure.
Today we find our Lord at prayer. He is given a moment of reflection about what he has accomplished and what is to come. He knows the difficulties that lay ahead for those who follow him, for you and for me. But he who was with God in the beginning, he who spoke all things into being, he who is the living Word of God himself, he has given that very Word to his people. This Word separates you from the world. It has called each of you by name. It has washed you and declared you to be the heirs of righteousness. In doing so, it set you up for hatred and opposition that you feel and struggle with each and every day. But to overcome it all, the Word has not abandoned you or forsaken you. For the Word is here for you today. It is here to give you hope and promise. It is here to give you strength and courage. The Word of God declares you are forgiven, you are loved, and you are the children of God.
You know, that is about the best gift you can get whether you are 4, or 40, or more. You have been sanctified by Christ.