A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 22, 2011.
Psalm 31:1-5; John 14:1-14
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We hear these words just about every time we attend a funeral, do we not? And we take comfort from them. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
When I read these words at funerals, which I do just about every time, I see heads nodding. I know that people are thinking, “Ah, there it is, there it is. Yes, that’s the scripture we’ve been waiting for.” They’ve listened to the readings that precede it, especially the psalms. And even though the 23rd Psalm has the same kind of affect, there’s nothing like hearing the words of John 14. The familiarity of the reading, the very cadence of it, has a soothing effect, because at that particular moment we want to be assured by Jesus’ promise that indeed there is an abiding place where our loved one or friend has gone, a place that inevitably awaits us as well. Jesus’ words give us comfort, and when death comes to our household, or our house of friendship, comfort is what we need most.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” is how Jesus begins. But we usually run right over these words to get to the next part, don’t we? “Believe in God, believe also in me.” But have you ever wondered why the disciples’ hearts might be troubled, and what it might have been that caused Jesus to caution them about this? After all, these words apparently did not comfort Jesus’ disciples. They confused his followers even more…
“Lord, we do not know where you are going.”
“How can we know the way?”
Their hearts are indeed troubled, if not really, really confused.
The only thing we can do is back it up a bit and see what precedes this conversation between Jesus and his disciples. So, we’ll have to take a look at chapter thirteen.
The division of the Bible into chapters and verses is not original to the scriptures. We all know that, or at least I would hope we know that. When John wrote his gospel, there were no chapters numbered thirteen and fourteen. In fact, of the oldest manuscripts of the gospel we have available to us, there are not even any spaces between words, and there are no punctuation marks. There’s no reason to think that John originally wrote his gospel any other way. His narrative flowed together into one seamless story… literally. So let’s take a look at what precedes this caution given by Jesus to his disciples that their hearts should not be troubled.
Jesus has been preparing his disciples, telling them that he would be leaving them. He talks of betrayal and gives instructions to his disciples in regard to what he wants them to do in Jerusalem during the Feast of the Passover. And then he tells them that where he is going they cannot come. And while I wonder if, at this point, they really understand all he is saying to them, it is enough to cause their hearts to be troubled by it.
That is reason enough, of course, for Jesus to say these familiar words to his followers. They have since been spoken countless numbers of time to grieving people standing on the edge of a freshly-dug grave. Let it not be lost on us that Jesus says them at the edge of his own grave.1 So imagine the impact they must have made the very first time they were spoken; the impact not only on his disciples, but on Jesus as well.
As many of you know, my two brothers were with us last weekend, on the occasion of Mom’s 88th birthday. I always enjoy being with my siblings, though most of the time, being the youngest of the three Hyde boys, I serve as the butt of their jokes. That’s okay. I’ve become rather accustomed to being the baby in the family. There are certain advantages to being the youngest.
Our reunions the last few years have taken on an edge of sadness because Dad isn’t here anymore to be a part of them. But there’s a sense in which Mom isn’t with us anymore, at least not the way she used to be. Her dementia has robbed her of her memory, and we have to explain again and again who we are and why we are with her. In her mind, it seems, we all ought to be ten years old still. Every time I visit her, the absence of her former self just permeates the room.
There’s not one of us who enjoys the absence of loved ones, even though we tell ourselves they are in a better place.
According to all the sources available to us, Jesus and his disciples have been together only about three years. It hasn’t all been fun and games, to be sure. There were the inevitable conflicts as Jesus tries to mold his band of followers into the kind of disciples that truly understand his mission and are willing to follow him at any cost. Yet, there is something about him that brings this rag-tag bunch together in such a way that the affection among them runs deep and their devotion to him proves to be eternal.
And that makes the idea of his leaving them that much harder to take. It is no wonder that their hearts are troubled.
Simon Peter – who else? – asks him the question that is on every disciple’s mind and heart. “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus tells him again that where he is going Simon cannot come. But if you have any concept of Peter at all, then you are aware that he is not so easily dis-swayed. “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” And Jesus says to him, “Will you lay down your life for me?” May I paraphrase that? In essence, Jesus says to him, “Oh yeah? Fat chance, Simon. Fat chance.” And then he says, “Amen, amen, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
And that is why the disciples are troubled. If Simon Peter – big, strong, chief-spokesman-for-the-group Simon Peter – denies Jesus, then what in the world are the others going to do? When push comes to shove, when it really comes down to crunch time, they all know they have it in their hearts to betray their Master. I would think, wouldn’t you, that the idea of that would trouble just about any heart?
Vacation Bible School is just around the corner. We’ll have in the neighborhood of one hundred children here for five nights. I don’t know if VBS will have the same impact on them that it had on me. There’s a pretty big generational gap, after all. And today’s kids are so inundated with outside stimuli that the affect of VBS may be quite small compared to how it impacted those of my age for whom the annual Vacation Bible School was a seminal event. After all these years I still remember songs we sang, stories we were told, and things we did during the VBS experiences of my childhood. My theology was largely forged during these summer events.
Is that true of you? Do you think it will be true of our children today?
One thing I recall were the stories of the martyrs. I remember being told of those who were forced to their knees and required to denounce their faith in Jesus or suffer the consequences of death. We were told of those brave souls who refused to betray their Master and who died because of their beliefs. It made quite an impact on me, and caused me to wonder – even at that tender age – what I might do if I were in the same position. Do I have it in my heart to be a betrayer or would I be a brave martyr?
It is a troubling thought even half a century later. Try to imagine how the disciples must have felt as they enter the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel with Jesus’ words still ringing in their ears. “Where I am going, you cannot come… Where I am going, you cannot come… Amen, amen, I tell you, before the crock crows…” And then seeing the downward cast of their heads, the heavy plodding of their feet, the questioning in their minds, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”
Is that enough? To believe?
Every time I conduct a funeral, I look out at those I do not know. Inevitably, there will be friends of the family, as well as the deceased. As I read these words from the fourteenth chapter of the fourth gospel, I can’t help but wonder if they are present for the service because they truly believe or if it is simply out of respect for the dead and grieving.
One writer has said, “Most of us would be hard pressed on Sunday morning to say whether we are in church because we believe or because we want to believe.”2 The truth of it is, I would think, that it is both. Truth be told, our faith is a hybrid, of both belief and unbelief. We are like that frustrated father standing over the prone body of his son as he writhes in a seizure-like fit. Jesus, who at that point seems to have little patience or compassion for what the poor man is going through, chides him and the disciples for their lack of faith. “I believe,” says the man out of desperation. “Help my unbelief.”
Does it help – I think maybe it does – that Jesus obviously believed enough for all of us? But it still doesn’t keep even Jesus from grieving, does it? We can’t help but recall that scene in Bethany when he is met by the sisters, Martha and Mary. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He knew what would happen, yet it did not keep him from shedding tears of his own at the thought of what death can do to tear people apart.
Absence makes the heart heavy. Belief is what keeps us going even when that is so. At least, that is what Jesus said… to his disciples… to you and me. Is he right? Does it work?
Just as scripture was written in context, so is our worship. I think of our graduates, especially Benjamin who is finishing up high school and who has his thoughts on college. I know this because he has told me it is so. And while I would admonish him not to wish his life away, and to enjoy this memorable summer between his high school and college experience, I do indeed understand his excitement. I don’t necessarily intend to single him out, but he’s our only high school graduate this year… so, Benjamin, here’s to you.
He’s got college and freedom and a new chapter of life going around and swirling in his brain, and he is naturally excited about the prospects. Do you know what Debbie and Rhys are thinking about? Absence. Their little boy is going to be leaving home. If I say to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” do you think it will help? Not much. And do you know why? It never works at the time.3 It is only later, as we look back on it, that any kind of absence reveals to us the presence of God.
You may feel that God is absent to you. You’ve experienced what you think is life at its worst. Oh, you know that all you have to do is look around and see someone who’s got it worse than you do. But that doesn’t help either. We’re not talking about someone else, we’re talking about you. Your heart is heavy, and God has proven to be no help at all. Or so it seems.
Prayer doesn’t help. Calming words from your friends, or even your pastor, don’t help. Nothing, it seems, helps. And then Jesus tells us to believe… believe that he has not really left us, that he is present to us in a way that we cannot, at the present time, understand. But one day, one day, we will.
Fred Craddock suggests that belief comes in the form of memory4… that when life gets rough the best we have available to us are the memories of those times when faith was sustained and God came to us in the simplest of things.
It may be memories of your Vacation Bible Schools of the past. It could be the time that friend was with you when you needed her most. Maybe the backroads of your memory take you to the waters of baptism, or to that time when the words of a hymn said to you more than scripture ever could.
Who knows? It could be that what happens today – right here and now – is what will sustain you somewhere down the road of your future. Only God holds the answer. And if you will believe that, perhaps your heart will be troubled no longer. And that, I think, would be a very good thing. Don’t you agree?
Lord, sustain us with your presence and your promise. When our hearts are indeed troubled, lift us up through your mercy and grace. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 467.
2Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993) p. 79.
3Fred B. Craddock, Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 58.