As I have thought about our annual meeting, I wondered what Jesus would be praying for us. So let me read part of the prayer he prayed the evening before his crucifixion (John 17:13-18). Notice how he used the word "world" eight times in the seven verses of our text. You can see that the world will often hate the disciples of Jesus (John 17:14), so the world cannot be the physical world of mountains, seas, and trees. The world is the people among whom we live as Christians.
(A) How then are we to relate to the world? In the Middle Ages there was a long battle called the Church and State controversy. Sometimes the church triumphed, as in Spain where there was a long period when the Roman Catholic church had almost total control of the lives of people. That was also the situation till very recently in Quebec. Mostly it was the other way round with the state trying to control the church. To this day the Queen is head of the Church of England, she is called the Defender of the Faith, and she has the right to appoint the Anglican Bishops. In practice she takes the advice of church leaders, but things could be very difficult if she began to exercise her right. In Germany to this day people are taxed to pay for the Roman Catholic priests, Lutheran ministers, or other organizations of their choice, and the money is then paid out by the government. This continued throughout the time when Hitler and the Nazis were in power, but the possibilities for interference are obvious. In China under Chairman Mao the main denominations were controlled by the government, and those who insisted on being independent were persecuted ruthlessly.
(B) Jesus made it clear that our duties to the government and to God were to be kept distinct. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). There are some sects that require their followers to have nothing to do with the world and with the government in particular. But in his prayer Jesus said "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one" (John 17:15). And he made clear that we are to be sent into the world. "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" (John 17:18). We are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), and salt is not made to be kept clean in a packet, but mixed in with food.
And what are we sent into the world to do? Our task as a church is to free people to enjoy God's kind of joy. As Jesus prayed, "I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy to the full" (NRSV "made complete in themselves," John 17:13). Too often Christians have been perceived as killjoys. But our God has no desire to make people's lives a misery. He does not lean over the balcony of heaven and say "cut it out."
May I suggest that throughout the agenda of our annual meeting we test every decision we make by asking does this result in joy? Nothing should be done which will take away the joy of any of our members. Being a joyful people is a very important gift for us to take into the world. "Joy to the world" is not just for Christmas but for every day of our lives.
(C) How do we do this? Jesus is very specific. "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth" (John 17:17). We sanctify a communion vessel by setting it aside for a specific purpose. And we are set aside as a church congregation to learn and teach God's truth. People are deprived of joy because they have been persuaded by Satan's lies. Earlier in the Gospel Jesus had explained that "he is a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). So our task is by truth to correct the lies that destroy people's joy. That is why our message is such very good news. Wherever we see people who are deprived of joy, we are to pray and bring the truth that frees them to be joyful again.
Look at the lies that Satan has brainwashed into people's minds. They think the physical world has evolved by some fluke. It is erratic, and it has no meaning or destiny. We are to explain that there is evolution, but it is like the evolution of an artist's beautiful masterpiece. Everything is ordered and under control for a purpose.
Satan has persuaded people who believe in God that he is an ogre, an angry despot. If you do decide to pray, be careful to use the proper honorific language. The Bible teaches that God is love, and welcomes us just as we are. Like little children we have immediate access to our loving parent, and we can pour out our hearts without worrying about the language we use. We will bring great joy to the world if we can teach that truth.
Most of our neighbors imagine that if they start coming to church they will immediately be put in a straight jacket. They will lose their freedom to enjoy life. There will be all sorts of rules to learn and obey. The truth is that Jesus said "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free . . . So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:32, 36). Let us make sure we don't make Pharisaic rules that will take away our freedom and our joy.
Satan has persuaded the world that making it with God is going to be a long very difficult process. Only spiritual athletes should apply. But Jesus said "Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will relieve you (NRSV "give you rest"). Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle" (Matthew 11:28-29). We have the privilege of explaining that wonderful truth in the world. Jesus' longing is to teach the frailest, most sinful person, how to find joy instead of carrying the burdens others have laid upon us.
The second worst lie is that death is the end. When our body is cremated or rots away, that's it. But for those who insist on believing in God, Satan has an even more horrifying lie. If you don't measure up to what God requires, or fail to make the right decision of faith, you will be tormented for ever in the fires of hell. Every one of us needs to be able to correct that lie, and describe the joy, and love, and wonder of God's heaven. Everyone is welcome, and Jesus the Messiah has done all that it needed to take us through death, and perfect us in love for the eternal city of God. It is possible to reject heaven, and prefer the darkness away from the love of God (as explained in John 3:19), but anyone who delights in loving and being loved can have all the joys of heaven for free and forever.
As Christians have proved again and again, it is possible to have joy, even when one is being persecuted and physically handicapped. But if we find someone who is chronically joyless, we can be sure that they are gripped by one or more of these lies. So the heart of our agenda is to make sure that we teach joy to our members. We begin with our children, and young people. We care about our church families who are struggling, those in tough business situations, and our seniors who so often feel neglected. And as soon as they have found the joy of God, we help them get involved in bringing joy to the world around us.
"I speak these things in the world, so that they may have fulness of
joy . . . Sanctify them in the truth. As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world." That is a great agenda for our annual