If we’re being honest, we’d admit that life is filled with tension. It’s something we experience all the time. We believe that God is in control, but life often feels out of control. We know God loves the world, but sometimes that love feels entirely absent from our lives. We pour ourselves into a difficult situation, but our best efforts go nowhere, leaving us wondering if it was worth it. Life is filled with tension, but faith shows up in how we choose to trust God even when the night is darkest.
The psalms are often called “The Prayerbook of the Bible” for good reason. These poems are filled with the heights and depths of human existence as it relates to God. Sometimes everything is wrong, and the poem lets God get an earful about the tension. The psalm we heard today, however, is the opposite. It’s a psalm that is strikingly confident in who God is and in how God is guiding things. Verse 4 particularly stuck in my craw this week. “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,” the psalm extols. “For you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” There are times when God’s justice feels far away and that the nations just do whatever they feel like without any guidance from God or—even worse—claiming God’s blessing and guidance for their wickedness. I find myself sitting in the tension of this psalm. God guides the nations upon the earth. That’s the claim.
But today it’s a claim that is stuck in my throat. For almost three months Russia has been violently and indiscriminately pummeling Ukraine. They claim they’re liberating Ukrainians, de-Nazifying them is the justification, but that’s simply untrue. This is not a righteous cause. This is not just. Thousands of civilians are dead. More are injured. Families are broken up. Many children will grow up without fathers who died defending their country. Cities obliterated. Years of education lost. God guides the nations of the earth. I believe it, but today it takes more faith than usual.
Last week a white supremacist, nurtured in our very nation, drove hundreds of miles to murder people shopping at a grocery store in a predominantly black neighborhood in Buffalo. He streamed his violence online. He released a manifesto, justifying his evil actions by the Great Replacement Theory, a pernicious theory that holds that minorities are trying to replace white people.
Just this past Sunday another gunman entered Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, where the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church nests, and opened fire during a lunch reception, killing one and wounding five. God guides the nations of the earth. I believe it, and I believe that we need that guidance now more than ever because we can’t seem to come close to doing anything about the evil that can grow right here in our country.
The familiar words of John 3:16 are bouncing around my head. “For God so loved the word that he sent his one and only Son.” What is the world? Right now it feels like a place of danger and violence. Sometimes it feels like the arena of stress and illness and brokenness. But the world is so much more than that. The world is what God loves. The world is what God loves so much to send God’s very self in Jesus. The world is the place where the Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood. The world is the place where the light shines in the darkness. It’s the place where the darkness will not overcome the light. The world is that place of tension between the already/not yet of God’s work of salvation. It’s the place where you and I live, daily choosing to have faith in God’s work, even when things seem darkest.
We could get stuck in the question of where is God in all this brokenness but I urge us today not to get stuck there. Yes, be honest about the hurt, but there’s so much more to this story than the hurt. There is always hope. It’s a hope we must hold onto because we see that the God we know in Jesus Christ entered into the pain of the world and did not run away from it when things grew darkest in his own life. By Jesus’ own faithful example we believe that God both knows the injustice of the world and that God is doing something about it.
Our gospel texts drops us right into the middle of Jesus’ long talk with his disciples. This is Jesus’ dark night of the soul. It’s a time where it is so clear that God is not giving up on the world because Jesus stays present with his disciples and stays faithful to his work in the coming days.
I read somewhere this week that the gospels don’t use a lot of adverbs. It doesn’t tell us how Jesus talked to his disciples. We read what he said to them but not how he said it. This long talk could feel just like reading a sermon with a comfortable distance between the reader and the speaker. We could treat it like some cold theology that helps us see the Trinity. But I think it’s worthwhile to imagine how Jesus spoke these parting words to those who gave their lives to him. In my imagining, he’s sad. The emotions are right at the surface. It’s all come to this. He knows what is coming. He knows how hard it will be for him. He knows how hard it will be for them. With tears in his eyes, he shares with them what they need to know to carry on this mission in the years after Jesus will no longer be with with them physically. These words are not just for those in that room. They’re for us.
Imagine this is like a scene in a movie where the patriarch of the family has passed and all the family gathers to hear what they are going to inherit. These are Jesus’ bequests to us, but unlike the movie scene, Jesus is giving the same things to all of us. So, what does Jesus leave us with? Judas (the other Judas, not the one who left to betray Jesus) asks, “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?” That’s a great question, isn’t it? I think it starts to clarify the tension that we feel living in this broken and lovely world. With tears still running down his cheeks, Jesus gives his disciples three essential things. He begins with love.
We have to remember that John put these words down so that all who would come after this generation of disciples who were physically with Jesus would have the opportunity to hear and know Jesus’ words. Jesus’ first bequest is this, “Those who love me will keep my word.” He also says the opposite is true, for love is most clearly revealed in action. Those who do not listen to Jesus have not fully experienced what it means to love Jesus. So, Jesus, the Word, has left us his words. These words are not dead history. They are meant to be heard and obeyed. Listening to Jesus means learning to love Jesus, and loving Jesus means hearing his words and living them out. Love means listening, and that’s a word for those disciples gathered with Jesus and for us gathered today.
The second bequest is one that takes the first and makes it possible. Jesus is going away, but his absence makes room for the Holy Spirit to come. I picture it this way. Jesus has wiped his tears aside, and he manages a smile because he knows that this gift will make his departure worthwhile. He actually says that this will take what he has done and empower disciples to do greater things. In verse 26 Jesus says, “The Advocate (that is Helper or literally Paraclete), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.” The word “Paraclete” literally means “the one called alongside.” Even now the Holy Spirit is present. It’s present as you hear these words. It’s present when you engage with Scripture. It’s present when you feel lost or troubled. It’s present everywhere, all the time. We are never alone when we follow Jesus. Lamar Williamson encourages us, “Unlike the wind…we cannot check on the Spirit by holding up a moist finger. Instead, we can know the Spirit by watching for signs of Christ’s action in the lives of others and in our own heart.” The Spirit helps us recall what Jesus taught us. We are never alone.
Which brings us to the final bequest—peace. The peace Jesus gives isn’t merely a moment of calm. It’s a sense of wholeness in your body, mind, and soul. It’s a practice we take into the world, bringing wholeness into spaces that are not whole. While the John Lennon’s sentiment is good when he sings, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” we know that apart from the peace Jesus bestows, we’ll never find it. “This world is, after all, anything-but peaceful most of the time. And so what little peace it has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious. The world cannot finally give what it does not firmly possess itself. A poor man can promise you all the money in the world but he has none to give you in the end. A world in love with war can promise you peace but in the end there’s seldom enough real and lasting peace to go around.”
“Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” Jesus tells us, the tears once again falling over the sorrow of the world. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” When we look at the world, we can be honest that so much is wrong about the world. There is so much pain, violence, and disappointment, yet Jesus has left us his word, the Holy Spirit, and a peace that passes our understanding. We live in that tension for sure. It is possible to believe Jesus’ words and weep in sorrow at the same time. But in his parting, Jesus leaves all who would come after him a lifetime’s worth of work. We are partnering with God in redeeming every square inch of this world—sometimes with tears in our eyes—but always with the Holy Spirit with us.