Cleansing truth - John 17:13-18
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If you were to be asked: what sort of attributes do you associate with God, what might you say? Perhaps you would describe God as ‘holy’ emphasising his purity or ‘almighty’ with a focus on his power. Maybe you would say, ‘God is love’, after all, that is how the apostle John describes him. But what about God being ‘joy’? If people think of God at all, probably the last thing they would consider him to be would be a fountain of pure, unrestrained, carefree joy- a ‘killjoy’ perhaps, but not Joy itself. And yet this is a description which fits God perfectly like hand in glove. And so we find C.S. Lewis entitling his spiritual biography in which describes his journey from atheism to the Christian faith as ‘Surprised by Joy’- and he was. He speaks of the climax of discovering this joy like this: ‘No slightest hint vouchsafed me that there ever had been or ever would be any connection between God and Joy. If anything, it was the reverse. I had hoped that the heart of reality might be such a kind that we can symbolise it as a place; instead I found it to be a Person.’ There you have it- Joy is a Person. When you think about it, every human being in one way or another is looking for joy or happiness. That is the way we are wired. And at various points along the way we have glimpses of joy- the joy found in the company of a friend, the joy at the birth of a baby, the joy of savouring a beautiful sunset, and yet these are not Joy itself- the product, but simply the by- product. They are not the flower, they are the scent. The reality is to be found elsewhere in a Person and the person’s name is Jesus.
It is quite striking, and really rather moving, that on the night before his greatest trial-the cross, the Lord Jesus gave himself over to pray for his followers- in the first place his disciples, and then every Christian, in every place, in every age. And one of the things that was right near the top of his wish list was that we might experience joy. And so as we eavesdrop on this section of our Lord’s prayer, as Jesus pours out his innermost thoughts and desires to his heavenly Father on our behalf, we discover four wonderful things about true joy.
First, the source of joy-v 13, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.’ You know, Jesus need not have prayed this prayer at all really. On returning to his Father in heaven, he could have simply asked God then to do all these things- to make the disciples one, sanctifying them, giving them joy and so on. But he prays this prayer in the hearing of his followers. Why? Well, we know how encouraging it is to know that someone is praying for us when we are feeling down don’t we? So it is that at this point in their lives the disciples have hit rock bottom- as we read earlier of the dark mood which was enveloping the Upper Room, their ‘hearts were troubled’. And so Jesus wants to reassure them to know that he is for them and so he lets them hear just what it is he is asking the Father to do for them- and it is enough to lift the most despondent heart. And so the desire is that the joy Jesus has will be had by his followers in full. Now Jesus has already spoken to his followers about this joy back in chapter 15: 11, ‘These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.’ And one way that joy starts to permeate the hearts and souls of his disciples is by hearing this prayer. And the joy of which Jesus speaks which his disciples are to have in full measure is his joy. Isn’t that something? Has it ever struck you that Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived? Despite all the injustices thrown at him, all the disappointments surrounding him- not once do you detect in Jesus even a hint of self-pity. More than that, when he sent out his disciples on mission, which by any human reckoning was not massively successful with rejection being experienced from whole villages, we find this amazing description of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, ‘ At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said I praise you Father, the Lord of heaven and earth.’ Here we are given a tantalizing glimpse into the life of the Trinity, and what do we see but scintillating joy. The Holy Spirit is the mediator of joy to the Son from the Father and the Son expresses delight to the Father in praise. So that means before there was a universe to enjoy, there was joy from all eternity, the shear, enraptured delight of the Father for the Son, the Son’s joy in the Father, shared between them by the mediating Person of the Holy Spirit who is joy. And that is precisely what Jesus wants people like you and me to have. The moment I see my grandchildren I experience joy- I can’t help it. The moment God looks upon me through the filter of his Son, he experiences joy and when I contemplate my heavenly Father and the kind beauty of his Son, the Holy Spirit gives me something which I can’t work up- joy. God in Jesus is the source of Joy.
Secondly, we learn how to secure joy, take a look at verses 14, ‘I have given them your word’, and then verse 17, ‘Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.’ This joy which Jesus wants us to have in full is somehow linked to receiving his word, being set apart (which is what sanctified means) by the word of truth. How is that? As I have already mentioned, there are so many echoes of joy which appear throughout creation, what someone has called ‘signals of transcendence’, that we are meant to see them as signposts to something or someone greater who is the source of joy- God himself. So yes, the ‘heavens declare the glory of God’ according to Psalm 19, acting as a signpost, but how do you know when you have reached the destination-the Person? Well, that is when you need to move from what is called general revelation- knowing that there is a God from what he has made, to special revelation- knowing the God who has made everything. And that means we need God himself to speak to us, to give us his word, the word of truth about himself- what he is really like and how we can be properly connected to him. Jesus is the human face of God, his teaching introduces us to God as Father- a joyful thing if ever there was one- he died to remove the barrier to joy- our sin- and is alive to give us the Spirit of joy. And all these things we know about because we have them in the Bible- the word of truth. So you secure this joy by reading and believing this book. This is the way one writer, James Boice puts it: ‘The first remedy for a lack of joy is obvious, for it is on the surface of the text. Jesus says clearly, “These things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy.” This means that in one sense the basis for joy is sound doctrine. Moreover, this is found throughout the Bible…. Many times joy is associated with a mature knowledge of God’s Word. David, said, “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8)…. Earlier in these final discourses Jesus declared, “If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love, even as I abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy might remain in you and that your joy might be full” (John 15:10, 11). These passages and others teach that joy is to be found in a knowledge of God’s character and commandments, and that these are learned through his Word.’ You see, until you get to know a person, you cannot enjoy that person. And you cannot enjoy God until you get to know him and go deeper into him and the only way that is going to happen is by meeting him again and again in this book.
What is more, since this is a personal relationship we are talking about, that relationship is both strengthened and sweetened only if you are going in the same direction together. In this case, God’s direction, which means living the good life as he has revealed it. Obedience to his principles and commands is not an alternative to joy, it is the means of keeping it. And of course this will mark the Christian out from the non-Christian and be a source of friction, which is why Jesus goes on to say in verse 14, ‘I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.’ The non- Christian world which is in rebellion against its Maker will of course want to enjoy of the Makers gifts- good food, good health and good friends, without the Maker himself. And so for people to find delight in the Maker, the source of joy, is going to prove irksome. And in some cases the Christian will be tempted to have a foot in both camps, to pay lip service to Jesus, without obedience to Jesus. Don Carson pinpoints the impossibility of keeping this up perfectly when he writes, ‘No one is more miserable than the Christian who for a time hedges in his disobedience. He does not love sin enough to enjoy its pleasures and he does not love Christ enough to relish holiness. He perceives that is rebellion is iniquitous, but obedience seems distasteful. He does not feel at home any longer in the world, but the memory of his past associations and the tantalising lyrics of his old music prevent him from singing with the saints. He is a man most to be pitied.’ Now could it be that the reason you know nothing of this joy which Jesus wants to give you, is not because of your difficult circumstances which can rob us of delight, but because to be brutally honest, you are playing with sin? If so, then you know what you have to do. It is not that you have to resolve to do better and turn over a new leaf- (you have probably done that umpteen times already), you have to come to the place where Jesus is about to go in a few hours time, to Calvary’s hill, and to that cross so that you can be forgiven and receive the tender touch of the God who is joy.
Now Jesus is quite aware that there can be the subversion of joy, that is, there is one who wishes to undermine the Christian’s joy, v15, ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.’ If joy, that delighting in the well-being of another in love, lies at the heart of the God who is Trinity- Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Christian is most God-like when he or she is joyfully obedient, rejoicing in God and his word, then the devil will be desperate to sever the Christian’s joy, for then we will be less like God and a rubbish witness to others. Satan himself is a miserable creature; he doesn’t have the slightest inkling of what joy is for he is a destroyer of joy because he is the enemy of truth.
One person who was wise to this was the 16th century Reformer Martin Luther and he soon came to realise that one of the greatest weapons against Satan when he tries to depress us, is music. After all, one of the great gifts God has given to stir joy within the heart is music- witness King David’s psalms- so what better way to counter the attacks of Satan which seek to rob us of joy than by resorting to music. This is what he says: “The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God....Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices.” Elsewhere he writes, ‘Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; it induces one to forget all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and other vices.’ Likewise, ‘The Devil hates music because he cannot stand gaiety and Satan can smirk but he cannot laugh; he can sneer but he cannot sing.’ This is one reason why music and singing are crucial to what we do when we meet together like this, for it helps drive away Satan and stirs up our souls to know joy which is the gift of the Gospel and lies at the heart of God. I know that we don’t always come here feeling like singing songs of praise, perhaps singing a lament, a funeral song, might be more in line with the way we are feeling when we walk through those doors. But that is not the point of Christian music- except if we are at a funeral. The songs are given as aids to express the worship we might not naturally feel like expressing- and so we praise. Of course we have different songs to express different moods according to where we are in a service- maybe a quieter more reflective song before the sermon or Holy Communion perhaps, a more upbeat rousing song at the end to send us on our way. But the songs themselves are not chosen according to our mood, but according to how they will enable us to engage with God. And so as God’s people meet to sing and experience in some measure joy, the devil will hate that- he will be sitting over in the corner somewhere with his hands over his ears. He is only happy when we are miserable- so let’s sing and make him miserable and ourselves joyful!
Finally, we are sent for joy, v18, ‘As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’ How was Jesus sent into the world by his Father? Well, he was not sent begrudgingly but with joy. You see something of this in the baptism of Jesus. As Jesus comes out of the waters of baptism and the Spirit comes upon him in the form of a dove, the voice of the Father is heard from heaven, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ In fact the original saying from Isaiah 42 which lies behind this, is even more emphatic, ‘This is my Servant in whom my soul delights.’ Jesus is sent from God with joy- and you know what? So are we- ‘as you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’ But not only was Jesus sent with joy, but in a deep sense he was sent for joy, that is, with the express purpose of enabling rebels to lay down their arms and surrender to the joy which can be theirs in Christ. You have the classic text as to the mission of Jesus in the world- John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’. It is not simply ‘endless life’ but ‘eternal life’ quality life which begins now and is consummated in glory and as we have seen integral to the life of God-his eternal life- is joy. Now this puts a different slant on our view of evangelism doesn’t it? God doesn’t save us from pleasure, but for pleasure. God doesn’t want to rob us of joy- we are pretty good at doing that ourselves with the devil’s help- he wants to give us fullness of joy- his joy which comes from being rightly related to him through his Son filled with the Spirit. Have you ever thought of evangelism like that- that we are wanting to enable people to be happy, to have joy? That is what we are meant to be doing. Of course it is not the superficial joy which varies with circumstances and is focused on self- it is the delight we have in knowing and serving God and others- but it is joy nonetheless. We so easily slip into the trap of thinking that we have to apologise to people as we share the Gospel because somehow we are going to put a crimp in their lives. Sure, there will be a major crimp being put in the self-centred, God-ignoring life, but that is in order to replace it with the other-person centred, God-loving joyful life- what kind of exchange is that? But that is what is being offered in the Gospel. If you are here this morning and not yet a Christian you have no idea what you are missing out on- and here it is all yours for the asking.
I began by referring to C.S. Lewis, well let me end by referring to him once more. One of the greatest characters of all children’s literature must be Aslan- the great Lion King of Narnia, who is the Christ-like figure in the stories. True to form, in the book, Prince Caspian, Lewis depicts the joy that can be had with Christ even in the midst of a mighty battle by having Aslan organise a grand parade and party: ‘Everyone was awake, everyone was laughing, flutes were playing, cymbals clashing…”What is it, Aslan?” said Lucy, for her eyes were dancing and her feet wanting to dance. “Come children,” said he. “Ride on my back again today.” “Oh lovely!”, cried Lucy and both girls climbed onto the warm golden back. Then the whole party moved off- Aslan leading, Bacchus and his Maenads leaping, rushing and turning somersaults and the beasts frisking around them.” I don’t think that it was simply to appeal to children that Lewis cast the main characters in his stories as children. May it not be in part that it is especially children that are most god-like in this respect, they know what it is to have uninhibited joy. Aslan elicits joy, a song, a dance. After all Jesus prayed, ‘I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.’
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