Let me present Exhibit A for the reality that God never intended your life or mine to be lived for our own advantage. (A reality that can all too easily escape our awareness when facing hostility or frustration in our public ministries!) The evidence appears in the middle of Sunday’s gospel (John 17:11b-19).
In the middle of Jesus’ great high priestly prayer, he speaks these words to his Father: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (15). If life was all about our personal advantage, it would have been obvious what Jesus should have prayed. “Father, get them out of this world as quickly as you can! You know it’s not safe here for those who confess my name and refuse to smile when your truth is ignored or compromised.” Or at least he could have asked: “Father, if you don’t take them out of here, make sure that you wrap them in plenty of layers of bubble wrap in some tranquil parish along the Sea of Galilee (or Lake Michigan) in which never is heard a discouraging word (about their sermons) and the sky is not cloudy all Sunday (or Monday through Saturday either).”
But instead of asking his Father to whisk us out of here, Jesus prays to leave us right in the midst of a world in which we will often be a target. He openly acknowledges to his Father – almost in an offhand way! – that this world will hate us just as they hated him (14). Just cling to Jesus’ words no matter what, and hatred will find its way to you in short order (typically first from your own sinful nature!).
But it has always been Jesus’ plan, for his first public ministers, for his present day public ministers, and indeed for any of his people, that our lives would be lived under the shadow of his cross…and our own.
But how does such life under the cross fit with what Jesus says elsewhere in this section of his prayer? “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.” (13). Somehow, it seems, leaving us in a dangerous world that hates us has something to do with possessing “the full measure of [his] joy.” Joy? Really?
What was Jesus’ joy? “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus’ joy was to love his Father’s saving will. Jesus’ joy was to love those whom he had come to save so much that he would not even allow cross and hell and shame and death to turn him from that path! Jesus’ joy was not to get away from what the Father had called him to do but to pray for strength to drink the cup the Father had placed before him.
In the midst of a sinful world Jesus was the first (and only!) one to live out what Adam and Eve had once known before the fall: God’s will for our lives is no burden. To live out what God has called us to be – even though now in a sinful world that can only be done in the face of great opposition – is the greatest joy God could give anyone in this life! It is Satan who tries to teach us that living out who God created us to be is a grievous burden.
That’s why Jesus’ joy was to save us even though outwardly it brought him everything but joy! That’s why Jesus’ joy was so full only hours after praying this prayer when he cried out “It is finished!” (John 19:30). That’s why Jesus’ joy was so full when in the days after his resurrection he would announce repeatedly: “Peace be with you!” (John 20:21, 26).
Now, Jesus longs for first disciples, for you and me, and for those we serve, to find with him the “full measure of [his] joy.” That “full measure of [his] joy” is found for us precisely where Jesus found it. It is found in bearing our cross in service to God and those he puts around us!
But that is a huge challenge because it means we must die to our own “pursuit of happiness” sinful nature that believes joy can only be found when we seek our own advantage.
But right there is the vital connection between what was Jesus’ joy and what he prays might be the joy of those who follow him! Jesus had just spent three years teaching those who first overheard this prayer to grow in their confidence that they didn’t have to worry about themselves! Jesus had sought to teach them that in his saving and protecting name they had everything they could need! And even though Jesus was removing his visible presence, Jesus prayed for his Father to continue to provide that saving and protecting love and care just as Jesus had done during his earthly ministry.
It is precisely that gospel confidence of the forgiveness, peace, and hope that alone could enable those first disciples to die to finding their joy in self-centered service. Confident of God’s care and protection, they could take their eyes off themselves and find their joy in living the Father’s will and in being a blessing to those they were called to serve – yes, even those who would hate them for it. That was the path to finding the “full measure of [his] joy.”
So also is it true for us! Not only was Jesus’ joy freeing us from our sins, his joy is to free us from ourselves! As we grow in our confidence that we live under the perfectly protecting care of our Father into whose care Jesus’ prayer places us, Jesus is leading us to find more and more the same fullness of joy he found. It is the joy in living out our Father’s will in service to those he puts around us in our homes, our communities, our churches. It is the joy of not even being afraid that some whom we love and serve will hate us for doing that!
That was the joy Jesus lived for them and for us. For them and for us Jesus “sanctified himself” (v 19) – set himself apart. So Jesus prays that in the Father’s saving Word of truth we also might be “truly sanctified” (v 19)– set apart – to find our joy precisely where he found his!
Yes, joy in the strangest places! Joy in a dangerous world. Joy in challenging callings. Joy, even when others hate us. Jesus prayed for us the night before he died that you and I might know his joy. Our risen and ascended Lord still continues to intercede for us that you and I might know his joy.
May our dear Lord Jesus open our ears to hear the beauty of this prayer once prayed and still prayed for us! May he open our eyes ever wider to see his joy lived for us! May he grant that there we find his strength day by day to imitate him. For right there, we will find more and more the “full measure of [his] joy.”