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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Objective of the Evil One-REMIX - 05/16/2021

     It is traditional that we read from John 17 on this 7th Week of Easter, just before the Festival of Pentecost. It is the somewhat confounding and yet somehow comforting few moments in John’s story of Jesus’ last hours … it’s the calm before the storm of betrayal and execution. In it we have these beautiful and loving sentiments spoken by Jesus. His words and demeanor in the prayer reveal the great depth to which he loves his disciples.

     Like many people, I treasure what this text reveals to us about Jesus because we can know with confidence that the love he speaks for those first twelve, even the one who betrayed him, is meant for us too.

It is a curious prayer when you think about it. Jesus is praying to God for the disciples …  Jesus is God … God is praying to God. That’s notable. Why would God pray to God? It certainly isn’t necessary, right. If God knows our inmost thoughts and prayers, God surely knows God’s thoughts and prayers too.

     There are probably a lot of reasons God would do this … all those we can imagine, and all those only God can imagine. What comes to mind very plainly for many people is that this is modeling behavior. Just like Psalm 1 instructs us to “walk,” “stand” and “sit” in the Lord’s Word, Jesus’ actions here teach us to specifically stay in conversation with God in whatever form that takes … the prayers we share here as the Body of Christ together, the prayers we share in our private moments, those we lift up in song or speak as blessings and encouragement to others.

     We are a praying people, as we are taught to be. And it is good for us.

     Another curious thing is the way in which John tells this story. He tells it a little differently than the other gospel writers. In those versions, Jesus goes off on his own and the disciples cannot even stay awake to keep watch for Jesus while he prays. In John this prayer comes when Jesus finishes teaching the disciples. “I came from the Father and have come into the world again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.’ Jesus said to them, “…I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!’ And then he begins to pray.

     “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, (John 16:28, 33, 17:1)

     Jesus is praying right in front of the disciples in John’s version. He gets done with his final lesson about what he has come to do as the Messiah and then he raises his eyes and maybe even his arms to the heavens and prays for them in their presence. It is God praying to God so that we can clearly understand that what God explicitly intends for us is that we are protected, that God desires for us to be one in our love of God and one another, and that God’s joy in making all this happen for us through Jesus is made known through us.  God’s joy through us.  That all by itself is a life-altering, a world-altering idea to be part of.

     And that brings me to another curious thing about this prayer Jesus speaks for the benefit of the disciples’ ears. He very clearly wants us to notice a certain word. It is the Greek word kosmos. We hear it this morning as “world,” and it is used 18 times in this prayer; 13 times in just the portion of the prayer we read today. You may also notice that there seems to be some contradiction in what God or Jesus feels about or wants for “the world.” Specifically, in this prayer Jesus says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (17:14)

     On the surface, this statement rubs up uncomfortably against other times we hear about the “world.” Like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or the loving worldview Jesus shows us when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (10:16)

     Overwhelmingly Jesus speaks of the world as God’s beloved kosmos. So when Jesus says the world hates his followers and they do not belong to it, I do not think he means that we are to despise this world or see our Jesus-following selves as apart from or even above the world.

     We are fearfully and wonderfully made as part of this creation and we are made to be in it. So I would argue Jesus means something else here and actually Jesus even says that himself … “I am not asking you to take them out of the world,” he clarifies.

When we look at the bigger picture of what Jesus says about the world, what we see is that Jesus is quite real about how this broken world so often refuses to see and live in the light he has brought for us. It seems Jesus is asking us to hold that reality together with another … the reality tht this is also the world, the kosmos he is, in fact…in love, willing to die for.

     And that brings us me to the remaining “curiosity.” The second part of what Jesus says here is: “but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (17:15)

     I personally don’t subscribe to the idea of a personified devil with horns and a tail and a will to overcook everything in creation. I do recognize that evil things happen. Just like we cannot fully comprehend all the ways God is at work in the world, we cannot fully understand the why and how of evil either.

      And so I found myself curious, what is the objective of this “evil one?” Jesus prays about? Even though I really don’t think it’s possible for us to completely understand evil in this world, I do think we can see that it works its way through the brokenness we know certainly exists in this world. Evil finds its entry, its voice in this world through sin often … those times when we idolize someone or something above God … times when we fail in our covenantal promise to love all neighbors, not just the easy ones … those times even when we are sinned against and in our pain and hurt we seek to retaliate or we begin to believe we are less than what God envisioned when each of us was created in our mothers’ wombs.

     And sometimes evil finds a place to sow doubt and malice in this world through things that are even more out of our control then the actions of those who might sin against us. I’m thinking here of things like disease and death, war and even those big political and ideological issues that divide our nation and sometimes even our assemblies and families.

     So in thinking about this “evil one” Jesus names, one way to understand its objective is to recognize that as it works through the brokenness that affects us all, it is trying to convince us that it still retains power over us. Or it attempts to cause us to forget that the last word has already been uttered. It happened, you may remember, at the beginning of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness (the doubt-full darkness of the evil one) did not overcome it.” (1:1, 4b-5) It’s done, despite what so much of this beloved world of God’s and ours sometimes shows us. Jesus’ prayer proclaims that we continue to be protected from the way evil tries to get between us and God’s love and eternal, abundant life for us.

     So now, after throwing all these curiosities and ideas out there, I feel a need to try and wrap this up a little bit. And here’s what I would say to that end  … As we go from here, looking toward the Festival of Pentecost with our new Easter eyes and ears on the kosmos, with growing good news about the state of the pandemic and vaccination effort, we go knowing that although we hear God’s promise and salvation for us directly from Jesus’ mouth and even in our presence, God knows this is a struggle for us. God knows that evil will try its best to shout over or muddy that truth. And so, we have this protection in Jesus’ prayer – a prayer that has already been answered: Evil is defeated, we are freed to go forth boldly and confidently as God’s joyful antidote for those who have not yet heard … Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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