Sunday, May 13, 2018
A booth in a MacDonald’s, 10:00 in the evening; what are you doing there?
Your friend is there with you, a pretty good friend. You’ve been there a while, talking in easy, natural conversation. Someone familiar, walks by and you smile and she smiles and your friend smiles. This passerby sits to join you. You’re certain you’ve seen this person before, but you think your friend knows her really well. Your friend thinks you know the woman, this third person. She, Gretchen, never clears it up, never indicates how she knows either of you. She just enters the conversation you’ve been having as if she’d always been in it; as if she started it.
It is a good, deep conversation. It is not a conversation about God, but somehow, God comes up in the conversation, at first in just a passing way. But, as the conversation flows like a peaceful river, seamlessly from one topic to the next, God sticks around. Which person at the table is the one with deep faith, you, your friend, or Gretchen?
Here, the last two weeks, in different ways, in this space, preaching the Sunday morning sermon, I made a specific point. God is Lord in our daily, normal lives. In what appears to be the most mundane, least spiritual of places, God is there, active, participating. God is Lord and Master there. I’ve tried to strongly assert that and now I fear such efforts have become nothing more than white noise. Oh yeah, the preacher says God is everywhere. Preachers say that sort of thing. We leave here and go to our normal places and we don’t expect to see God and we think and speak and act in ways oblivious to God’s presence.
So, the booth at MacDonald’s, the cold fries, the melting milkshake, you, your friend, and Gretchen. Could any place be more normal, everyday, more mundane, and less spiritual?
Don’t miss the point! If you loathe MacDonald, imagine it is Breadman’s or Suton’s or Bruegger’s Bagels, or Café Carolina, or Wendy’s. If the only place you find yourself at 10:00PM is home in bed, then imagine it is 10 in the morning. This is real. You and your friend and Gretchen are together talking. God is lingering around the edges of the conversation. Everyone at this table is there because they want to be there.
You want to be there with this friend. You’re wondering where you know Gretchen from and how long she will stay. But she’s not really a bother. God is wondering if anyone else at the table will open space for Him to have a bigger role in the conversation. He won’t force his way in. And he won’t leave.
About that time, without warning, Gretchen gets up and heads for the door. You can’t decide if you’re happy she’s leaving or if you’ll miss when she’s gone. At the last second, she breaks left, and stops at the drink machine to refill her diet Dr. Pepper. You look back to your friend. Gretchen seems to materialize, sitting back down to rejoin you. At this point you’re so lost, you’re not sure if she wasn’t the first one to sit down.
Was she the one who went on that profanity laced tirade at the little game, going off on the ump? Was that her? In the lull, a serious look falls over your friend’s face. He wasn’t going to tell you, but now he can’t hold it in. Wait, was Gretchen at that wedding? Was she the one who fell in the bushes outside the club after one too many cocktails? Maybe.
A tear rolls out of the corner of your friend’s eye. With shaky voice, he says his wife has cancer and it doesn’t look good. Before you can react, Gretchen, as if on cue, reaches a tender hand across the table, rests it on your friend’s hand, and says, “I’ll pray for you.” Are Gretchen’s eyes misty?
I’ll pray for you. Prayer is one way, maybe the way, God is openly invited into everyday conversations in everyday places where people are otherwise uncomfortable with God’s participation. I have never seen someone scornfully reject an offer of prayer. Even people who have no thoughts about God whatsoever somberly accept prayers. When someone says words like “cancer” or “death” or “hospital” or “devastating life loss,” and we Christians respond with an offer to pray, most of the time, people accept the offer.
Your friend’s report of his wife’s cancer has made a place at the table for God, and Gretchen pulled out the chair to help God sit down. This is a normal every day place in the comings and goings of your life and mine.
Does John 17 help us piece this all together – the scene, God, faith? It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to see that chapter is a record of Jesus praying out loud for his disciples. He’s with them at the last supper. Judas has already gone to fetch the temple police who will arrest Jesus. He looks to heaven and says, “Father, the hour has come.”
Spoiler alert: he gets caught and crucified.
Additional spoiler alert: after he dies on the cross, as he said he would, he rises from death.
I believe Jesus actually did pray this prayer with his disciples, for his disciples, as John says he did. John’s entire gospel is stylized, arranged to get the reader to the point that he or she would believe that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God, and in believing, the reader would come to faith and have life in Jesus’ name. John is trying to get you, his reader, to that point. This chapter, 17, is set right before they head out to the garden where he will be arrested.
After praying for glory, in verse 6, Jesus says, “I have made your name [the Father’s name] known to those whom you gave me from the world.” That phrase, the world, is intentionally oppositional in John. The world, the spaces that exist outside of the sphere of Jesus, is evil precisely because it is outside of the circle of Jesus. This is because Jesus is the revealer of God. To be separated from him is to be cut off from the revelation of God. There are no neutral spaces. Either one is with Christ and in Christ, or, one is cut off and is in the world, and the world is evil.
The booth at MacDonald’s is in the world.
From verse 6 on in this chapter, Jesus talks to God about his disciples. By the time John was read in the church, most of those disciples had died and Jesus had ascended. John understands this prayer to be for the original 12 disciples as well as the succeeding generations of Jesus-followers who become disciples. In other words, in John 17, we can understand this to be Jesus praying for us.
“I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I am asking you to protect them from the evil one,” Jesus prays (v.15). Jesus wants us sitting in that MacDonald’s booth. He wants us to be there. But it is dangerous place. God is there, but is only heard when He’s invited to the table. The enemy, the evil one and his dark minions, barge in uninvited. For some reason, it is much easier for us to listen to their malevolent siren song than to the truth and love and grace God has for us. Part of it is just what Jesus said: the world is evil. Temptations abound. We tend toward sin. So we have to focus. We can’t just come up from the baptismal waters and come from church and think, I’m in with God; it’s all good.
It is all good, except evil has not exited stage right. Even though you might be born again, a new creation in Jesus Christ, in that MacDonald’s you’re another fast food consumer; just like the addict two booths behind you, eating three super-sized fries purchased with money he stole; just like the guy in the rumpled dress shirt a few booths over, on his way from a 14-hour day, eating the same meal he has every night since he left his wife and kids last year. You’re in the same boat as the rowdy group of teens in the back who can’t stop cussing, lying, or telling dirty jokes. The MacDonald’s is a den of iniquity, just as the country club is, just as the boardroom is, just as the cocktail lounge is. And the classroom. And the grocery story. It is all the world.
The Gospel of John sets the world against God.
“And now I am no longer in the world, but they [my disciples] are in the world. … Holy Father, protect them” (17:11).
Jesus does not say, “Holy Father, get them out of the world.” He doesn’t say that. Throughout this gospel, the world is seen as evil, in opposition to Jesus. He acknowledges that we – his family – live in this place of opposition. He does not ask God to get us out of here; just the opposite.
“As you have sent me into the world,” he prays, for us, “As you have sent me … so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). No, he doesn’t ask God to rescue us; he sends us to this evil place. Why would Jesus do that? John 20:21 – “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Why? The world is evil. John 20:31 – “[This gospel] is written so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and through believing we may have life in his name.”
The prayer for us is to prepare us for the rescue mission ahead of us. The world is perishing and Jesus sends us to it to help people reach the lifeline – Himself. We are sent to so many places, including the booth at the McDonald’s.
It’s you and your good friend. After hours of talking, he told you he’s devastated because his wife has cancer. There you are, the four of you: you, your friend, Gretchen, and God huddled around the table. In this moment, Jesus’ words, “I have sent them into the world,” leap off the page, out of John 17, and into real life – your very real life.
Is this a burden? Are we overwhelmed with a sense of evangelistic responsibility? Is this a task to be feared, or even avoided? Do we just chalk all this up to some preacher talk to be forgotten before the last notes in the final song are sung?
The booth at the MacDonald’s; who would ever imagine a raucous, Heavenly celebration might break out because of this subdued, normal conversation? “I speak these things in the world,” Jesus said, “so that [my own, my people,] may have my joy made complete in them” (17:13). That’s what Jesus hopes will come out of this conversation in the MacDonald’s, in everyday encounters.
How does the joy of Jesus become complete in our lives? We already have that joy if we have Him. His joy is complete as we share him. How does it happen at MacDonalds? Gretchen prayed for your friend. You and your friend welcomed Gretchen to the table. Or she welcomed you? Everyone stay engaged and even made a place for God.
We surrender ourselves to Jesus that he would define us, and once defined, we go into the world; we are sent into the world. Once there, we are ourselves when we’re with people. Because He is in us, the see Him when we are ourselves. Seeing him, truly seeing Jesus, they see how messed up the world is and how much they need that lifeline. We hand it to them. We help them know Him. We help them see how to surrender their lives to Jesus. And joy is made complete, right there are MacDonald’s.
Finish up that milkshake. It’s time to go home.