Presented on The Lutheran Hour on June 2, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 14-15-21
Salva had never seen anything like that desert. His uncle, who is leading the group of refugees, said that it would take three days to walk across it. After only about an hour of walking, Salva realized that the soles of his secondhand shoes stood no chance against the barren, unforgiving ground. He kicked them off and continued barefoot. The sun was eternal. Unrelenting. Each breath of hot arid air drained rather than restored his strength. Every minute felt like an hour of walking. The worst part happened at the end of that first day. Salva stubbed his toe on a rock and his whole toenail came off, along with his resolve. Tears flooded his eyes. He fell back, and the group continued on.
He was all alone.
That's a scene from the book A Long Walk to Water by Linda Park. It tells the story of an 11-year-old boy named Salva. Salva Dut. Salva had been separated from his father and his mother and his family as they fled the village because of a civil war in South Sudan. Later he met up with his uncle, the one who was leading that group through the desert toward the other side, toward a refugee camp. Salva was in that desert, and he couldn't go any further.
"Salva Maween Dut Arik." He heard a voice. It was his uncle, who'd come back, to advocate for him. "Do you see those bushes?" He said, pointing to a small patch of acacia bushes on the horizon. "You need only to walk as far as those bushes. Can you do that? Salva Maween Dut Arik."
Salva looked up and nodded, and he walked with his uncle to the bushes. And they got there and rested. And then his uncle pointed and said, "Salva Maween Dut Arik, do you see those rocks?"
Salva saw a group of rocks on the horizon, and his uncle said, "You need only to walk to those rocks." And they did. And they did that for the whole rest of the day, each time Salva's uncle calling out to him using his full family name, and each time he heard it he could picture his mother and his father and his brothers and his village, and somehow he was able to keep his wounded feet moving forward one step at a time.
When they got to the other side of the desert, they saw a group of men. They were men from the Neware tribe. There was a long history of hostility between the people of the Neware tribe and Salva's people, and the civil war had only made the hatred greater. The men had weapons, guns. They pulled Salva's uncle aside. Two shots rang out. Salva's uncle was dead. And he was all alone.
Do you ever feel like you are alone, walking through a wilderness? Studies show that North American culture has become increasingly disconnected and fragmented. A report put out in the American Sociological Review stated that between 1997 and 2007 the number of people saying that they have no one with whom they can discuss important matters tripled—no one with whom they can discuss important matters.
More and more people feel like they are alone, like they have no advocate. Sensing this void, people seek out advocacy by proxy. They ask Google. A digital marketing specialist reported that the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is asked of Google 110,000 times every month. And related questions like, "How to be happy," or "How to love yourself," are asked 100,000 times every month; 74,000 times a month people ask Google, "How do I kill myself?"
Do you feel like you're alone walking through a wilderness with no advocate? The first followers of this Jewish Rabbi Jesus did. They had watched their Rabbi betrayed, tortured, crucified, buried, and then three days later they see Him alive again; God raised Him from the dead. But now He says He's leaving. Jesus had explained this the night before He was arrested.
One of His followers, John, wrote it down in a biography about Jesus. In chapters 15 and 16 of this biography that we call the Gospel of John, John remembers how Jesus told them that they had a long and difficult walk ahead ... without Him. Without Him, not in the sense that He would be totally absent from their lives, but that they would not be able to see Him anymore.
John remembers how Jesus told them, "Look, the world is going to hate you because it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world it would not hate you but because you belong to Me, the world will hate you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own, but as it is you belong to Me and so the world hates you. Remember that I told you this. A servant is not above his master. If they hated Me, they will hate you. I am telling you this so that you will not stumble and fall. I am telling you this so that when the time comes, you will remember. I did not tell you this at the beginning, because I was with you, but now, I am going away to the One who sent Me."
If you are a follower of Jesus, or you are considering becoming a follower of Jesus, has anyone ever told you this part of the story? That is, if you entrust yourself to Jesus, if you follow Him and you try to live by His teaching, you will not fit in with this world. You will be like an exile, a refugee wandering through the wilderness—all for Someone that you cannot see?
So what are your options? You could turn back toward friendship with the world, to seek to belong to the world, to be one of the world's own. There was an old king in the ancestry of Jesus who tried this. He tried out friendship with the world. He wrote about it in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. You know what he learned? He learned that the world loves its own, sort of like a corporation loves its employees, until it's time to cut expenses. The world loves its own, sort of like tabloids love celebrities. Oh, the world loves its own, like the witch loved Hansel and Gretel.
The book of Ecclesiastes reveals that even if you seek out friendship with the world, the world's pleasures, the world's thrills, the world's praise, one day, you're going to wake up and you're going to feel empty, like those people who ask dark and lonely questions of Google 74,000 times every month.
I'm not saying that the world is a bad place. It is not a bad place. It is a good place. God made it good. Not only that, God so loved the world that He would give His one and only Son, not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. The world is a good place temporarily corrupted by toxic leadership. Led by the devil who has so twisted humanity that we would come to trust in our own schemes, we have turned the world into a wasteland, a soul-devouring desert, and it was the betrayal, the torture, the crucifixion of the Son of God that exposed the world for what it is—stripped the mask off the witch, disclosed the devil in the details, and simultaneously it was the death of Jesus that showed the world who God really is: a loving Father who willingly sacrificed His own Son to save the world, who raised His Son from the dead to overcome the world, to restore our broken trust with the Father, to put the world under life-giving leadership.
So where is our Leader? Where is Jesus? Why did He go away? Why can't we see Him anymore? When I read John 16:7, always throws me for a loop. Jesus says to His disciples, "I am telling you the truth, it is for your good that I go away. It is to your advantage that I go away." What does that mean? How would this be good that Jesus goes away?
He explains in the next sentence, "Unless I go away, the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Counselor, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go away, I will send Him to you." Now to clarify, this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of the living God was absent in the world up until this point. Just as Jesus is not absent in the world now. It only means that people will come to see the work of the Holy Spirit in a new way just as they can no longer see Jesus in the old way.
Now someone always asks, "Well, why does it have to be like this? Why does Jesus have to go away?" Jesus indicates that there are at least two reasons for His departure. First, the nature of the problem and second, the nature of the solution.
So first, the nature of the problem. The problem of the world is that there is not a lack of external evidence for the reality of God and His will for our lives. There is no lack of external evidence. The creation that we see continuously testifies to God and His will for us. We have the testimony, the record of God's dealings in history with the people of Israel, and the fulfillment of those dealings in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, the Messiah Jesus. There is no lack of external evidence. The problem with the world is in your heart and mine. The human heart is turned in on itself. And this is a huge problem because God, from the beginning, wanted to work alongside human beings, to apprentice them, to care for His creation, to lead life in the world. And so if God is going to fix the world, He's got to fix the human heart, and this is an inside job. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. So that's the nature of the problem, it's an internal problem, an inside problem, and it relates to the nature of the solution, which relates to the reason why Jesus has departed.
The solution is not merely a jail break. It's not a get you out of trouble and put you off on your own solution. God's solution is to put humanity right again. God's solution is to put the world under new collaborative leadership. To populate the world with people who are becoming more like Jesus. And so, God the Father has had Jesus His Son step behind the scenes for a time while He sends the Holy Spirit to raise up adopted children of God to be more like the only Son of God. It's kind of like a dad asking his first-born son, "Son, why don't you hang back a bit and let your little brothers and sisters figure it out on their own." Now the only difference is that God has not left us on our own. He has sent the Spirit of His Son, the Advocate.
Recently, I was visiting New York City, and we took the train into Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan, the famous train station there. I'd been to Grand Central Terminal before, but I hadn't spent time there to really appreciate it. We went on an audio tour of the building. We checked out the little audio devices and the classic 1990's headphones and listened to the voice guide us around the terminal and point out all the details-things that I had seen but not actually paid attention to: the Vanderbilt oak leaves and acorns sculpted into the brass fixtures, and the hidden stairwell underneath the information booth by the clock. And the people walking through the giant bay windows in the main concourse.
I had seen Grand Central Terminal, but I hadn't ever seen it like that, with this voice, this advocate showing me, telling me what I was seeing. And it changed the way I felt about being there. I felt like I belonged there. Like it was in some sense my building and that I shared some responsibility for it. So also Jesus says to His disciples, "The Advocate will bring to your memory all that I have said to you."
He's not going to be telling you new things per se. He's going to be telling you what I said to you, Jesus says. He goes on to say, "The Holy Spirit will glorify Me by taking what is Mine and declaring it to you." Jesus says, "All that the Father has belongs to Me. The whole creation, the whole universe, belongs to Me and the Holy Spirit will take from what is Mine and declare it to you." The Holy Spirit is preparing us, alongside Jesus, to lead life in the world to come, starting now. And like a wise big brother, Jesus is hanging back a bit, no longer visible in the world for a time, that we might grow up.
Without his family, without his uncle to be his advocate Salva Dut had to grow up. The civil war in Sudan raged for 20 years. The boys especially were targeted because each side knew that they might grow up and become fighters for the other side and so to avoid being conscripted as boy soldiers they fled into the wilderness, and they just kept walking. And Salva, when he was a teenager, found himself walking with 1,500 other boys and they elected him to be their leader. They walked hundreds of miles. They walked through three different countries. They walked for years.
What got Salva through it? In some sense it was the memory of his family, his village, the voice of his uncle, but in a deeper sense he said in a video interview it was his faith in the God who created him. Salva had an Advocate. You and I have an Advocate. When Salva grew up, he became a man. He went to the United States; he learned English; he was educated, and he got a vision for how he could help back in his homeland. He raised money and started digging water wells, formed a non-profit organization, and this organization has gone on to dig more than 260 water wells, providing fresh and clean water to more than a quarter of a million people, including people of the Neware tribe, the tribe of the men who murdered his uncle.
Salva has suffered more than I can comprehend. And yet, he is standing tall. He is walking tall through the wilderness like the Son of the living God. And by the Spirit of Jesus I see him among a great company, among other children of God, walking with wounded feet, one step at a time into the life of the world to come, and I want to walk with them. Won't you join us? In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for June 2, 2019
Mark Eischer: Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Once again, I have joining me in the studio Dr., professor, Dr. Leo Sanchez, a teacher of mine, a friend of mine. He is the director for the Center for Hispanic Studies at Concordia Seminary, and also a professor there. Thanks again for joining us, Leo.
Leo Sanchez: Thank you.
Mike Zeigler: The Bible calls the Holy Spirit the "Advocate." What does that mean? Why is that good news?
Leo Sanchez: Well, when I think of an advocate, I think of someone who steps in to defend the vulnerable. I think more of a defender, like in a court of law. The world, in the Gospel of John, is sort of accusing the band of disciples for their faith, and so the Holy Spirit enters in. He's kind of the Defender. And so, when the world acts as a judge against Christians for what they believe, the Holy Spirit steps in as an Advocate ... as a Defender. He doesn't do it externally, but kind of in them, assures them that their faith is actually not misplaced. Their faith in Jesus is the real thing.
And so, we need someone to defend us. Anyone who's gone through the court system as a guilty party will tell you the importance of having a defender come by your side. So I think that's good news, that when the world puts into question our faith, that the Spirit is there to strengthen us in it. The reason why we show up to church to hear the Word of God is because the Spirit is doing His defending work, even without us knowing about it. So to me, that's good news.
Mike Zeigler: And Jesus says that the Father will send another Advocate, implying that He also is a Defender. That goes right along with Him as the Good Shepherd. He's the One who protects the sheep, lays down His life for the sheep, and now He's given us not one, but two Protectors, another Protector, the Spirit.
Leo Sanchez: Yeah, yeah. And I love also the fact that there's a familial image there, too, thrown in, that you will not be left alone as orphans. In other words, the Spirit will kind of bring you into the family, you know, maintain you, preserve you in that faith, along with the family of God, and will not leave you alone. To me, I think that's good news, too.
Mike Zeigler: Jesus says, "We will come and make Our home with you. "The Father and I, by the Spirit, will make Our home with you."
Leo Sanchez: Yeah. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the believer, bringing him or her into that father/son relationship, so that through the Spirit, we become sons of God; therefore, we're part of the family. We're kind of in. We're not orphans. I think that brings a lot of comfort. It's not just that the Spirit is advocating for us when we're attacked for our faith, but that He does so in the context of a community. The community is kind of upholding us, as we live as followers of Christ in the world.
Mike Zeigler: And that community is the family of God. We become what Jesus is naturally, the Son, we become by adoption.
Leo Sanchez: Yeah. It's like at the end of John. You have Jesus on the cross. "Son, here is your mother. Mother, here is your son." I mean, in a sense, it's a sort of fulfillment of the promise that you will not be left alone as orphans, because the Holy Spirit has now put you into the church. And so, "Son, here is your mother. Mother, here is your son," that's like a picture of the church. That is often the place, isn't it, where we are sustained by the Spirit to remain faithful, and to remain witnesses in the world, even when everything around us says, "Oh, what you believe is kind of crazy. It doesn't make any sense." But the Spirit, you know, He defends us against those kinds of thoughts, and He keeps us and nurtures us to be a faithful people.
Mike Zeigler: You've written a book recently titled, Sculptor Spirit, and in the book you reference studies that would suggest that the common narrative that America is becoming more and more secular, and will continue to do so, is probably not the case. In fact, that America will remain Christian predominantly, but it will look more like the Christianity of the global south. What does your work have to say to that challenge, and that opportunity?
Leo Sanchez: I think number one is that even in North America there are many studies that say that people are interested in spirituality. But again, spirituality defined how? Right? So in some ways, that requires us to think more deeply about where we anchor our spiritual talk. And so, the Holy Spirit, in the book, I argue, and what the Spirit does in and through Christ, is what should anchor our spirituality talk. Now, people from the global south, they talk about spiritual realities a lot. So, we still need to anchor that in some story. Right? And so, we need to be prepared for that. Not everyone who claims to have a spiritual experience is necessarily someone who speaks for the Holy Spirit. Right? And so, I think we need to be prepared to help people discern what the Holy Spirit is actually doing in their lives. For that, we need to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in Jesus' life, and then what the Spirit is doing in our lives to shape Jesus in us. The presence of the global south in the United States, I think, invites us to think more deeply about what the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of people.
Mike Zeigler: So, be discerning and be thankful.
Leo Sanchez: That's right. That's right.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Leo.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Christ is the World's Redeemer" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)