Holding On When You Want To Let Go
I don’t know who counted them up, but whoever did gave us something to think about. In a total of 3530 years of recorded civilization, only 286 of those years have been spent without wars taking place on this globe. During that same period of time more than 8000 peace treaties were broken. Just a few months ago it seemed that peace was breaking out all over the world, but all of that bright promise has been shattered by the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad,” this madman of the Middle East, with his insatiable lust for riches and power and his demonic disdain for human life. As a result the tension level in our world is now approaching the point of overload.
I don’t know who counted them up, but whoever did gave us something to think about. Everyday in the United States over 70 people take their lives—that is more than three each hour, twenty-four hours a day. What’s worse is that the rate is increasing dramatically, especially among people under 30 years of age. Clearly, we are living in such tension-filled times that even the will to live is being badly broken.
To put it bluntly, in our kind of world, it’s getting tougher and tougher to hold on. The tensions and the trials and the hurts and the hazards are so threatening that sometimes we are tempted to let go, to give up and give in, to surrender to despair and discouragement. I suppose that’s what drove me back to this incredible sequence of verses in John 15.
Jesus was in the Upper Room. It was a very tense time for Him. He had been put through several days of intense pressure and verbal attacks from those who were out to get Him. Even His own disciples fell to arguing and bickering among themselves over selfish concerns. Just ahead were the most dreadful hours of His life—His betrayal, His arrest, His torture, His crucifixion. Tension before. Tension afterwards. Yet there in the Upper Room, how did Jesus deal with the tension? His word to His disciples and to us (for remember that the Bible says that “heaven and earth might pass away but His word will not pass away”)—His word to them and to us is this: “These things have I spoken to you that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full.”
Unbelievable! In the midst of that horrifying circumstance, He was talking about joy and offering joy to His followers. He remained serene, secure, and filled with joy at the very moment when most of us would have cratered. Let me try to express it by referring to a famous old baseball player. His name was Honus Wagner. He was, arguably, the greatest shortstop our national game has ever seen. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now I grew up in New Orleans. The Pirates had a minor league team in New Orleans—the New Orleans Pelicans. I was a member of “The Knothole Club”—a group of kids who got to sit for free in the bleachers behind the bullpen. One of the great thrills of my life was one night after an Old Timer’s Game at Pelican Stadium, I got to meet Honus Wagner. Years later, I read what one of his coaches said about him. The coach said: “Honus Wagner covers the infield like a tent, and he does it because he loves life and he loves the game, and win or lose, he always moves in complete harmony with the flow of the game.”
I want to suggest that that is a good definition of Jesus’ kind of joy: to love God and to love life and, win or lose, to always move in complete harmony with the flow of life. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the Upper Room.
For there we see that Jesus’ joy flowed out of the fact that He rested in the Father.
He always held fast to God. He drew His inner resources from His heavenly Father. Here in the passage, He suggests that we are the branches and He is the vine. Carry that figure another step and you recognize that He is saying that His heavenly Father is the root—and as the branches depend upon the vine so the vine depends upon the root. In other words, our source of life and power and courage and contentment—that which brings joy into us—is the Father. We must acknowledge always our dependence upon Him and lean upon Him just as Jesus did.
A minister-friend of mine tells of attending a meeting of the Board of the magazine Christianity Today. At lunch one day he was sitting at the table with four other members of the Board. The first man was Dr. L. Nelson Bell, the great Presbyterian medical missionary, and, at the time, Moderator of our denomination. At that point in his life, Dr. Bell was blind in one eye, had survived four coronary attacks, and had a circulation problem which was causing great pain in his legs. The second man at the table was Dr. Harold Lindsell, the editor of the magazine and a noted Christian author. Dr. Linsell was suffering from a chronic lung disease which necessitated a painful pounding on his chest each morning in order to allow him to clear his lungs and breathe. Seated next to him was Dr. Harold John Ockanga, a great preacher and the Chairman of the Board of Christianity Today. He was at that point in his life carrying a heavy burden. He had two daughters, both of whom were going through tragic divorces at the time. The other man at the table was Mr. Maxie Jarman, the man who built the billion-dollar Geneseo Corporation and who was the financial angel for Christianity Today. But that very day, it had been reported in the Wall Street Journal that Mr. Jarman had been ousted from the chairmanship of his company by his own son, a young man who possessed none of the spirit and the faith of his father.
Now anyone walking into that room that day and seeing those four men and knowing who they were, would have said: “My, how blessed they are. They have everything going their way. They have brains, ability, money, faith—they have all the things which make for success.” Yet, you see, at that moment, every one of those men were experiencing circumstances which could have reduced them to a debilitating tension. But why were they not destroyed by their difficulties? Why could they hold on in the midst of such trouble? Because they rested in God. Finding their comfort and strength in Him, they could live on significantly and joyfully in spite of the tensions and troubles in their lives. So that’s the first thing Jesus tells us: rest in the Father.
Next we see that Jesus’ joy flowed out of the fact that He rehearsed the positive promises of God.
There in the Upper Room, Jesus focused on the things which would promote peace and joy in His own heart, not the things which would heighten tension and despair. Remember, for example, that the first thing He did was to deal with Judas, whom He already knew was going to betray Him. He told Judas to go and what he was going to do, do quickly. Jesus got the negative factor in the room out of the room. He focused instead upon the great, powerful promises of God. You can hear it in what He said to the disciples. He said: “The Son of man is now glorified.. .Do not let your hearts be troubled…Love one another…Believe me and you will do what I do and you will do even greater works than I do…In the world you have tribulations, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world…I will not leave you desolate…Abide in Me and I will abide in you…No one can take my joy away from you.” Again and again, like the recurring theme in a symphony, He sounds the positive note of the promises of God. And by so focusing Himself on the positive and holding to it, He could not be knocked flat by the negative.
You know, there are some negative people who seem to take a perverted joy in robbing us of our joy. I heard about a woman who went down to the police station frantic because her husband was missing. A sensitive sergeant began to take down the facts in the case. He asked: “When did your husband disappear?” She replied: “It must have been about five years ago.” The sergeant was shocked. “Why are you just now reporting it?” She said: “Because I just now missed him!” Well, there are some joyless, negative people who make us feel that way, and when we are around them they rob us of the sense of joy so essential for our living.
The point I am trying to make is this: when you love life and you love the Lord, then you find yourself focusing on the things and the people that bring joy. I got on a plane in Minneapolis the other day. I was exhausted from preaching twice a day at a conference and I was ready to get home. The stewardess checked my ticket and she said: “Congratulations! You get to sit by the prettiest girl on the plane.” Sure enough, there she was, Amanda, six years old, freckles on her face, toys in her lap, one of those airline identification tags pinned to her dress. She was taking her first plane trip by herself. She was obviously a little nervous, so I started talking to her about her toys. The stewardess came by and said: “How are you getting along?” I said: “Well, I’m doing better now that I’ve met Amanda.” They brought us the meal. I said: “Amanda, let’s have a blessing.” She quickly folded her hands and bowed her head. I knew some Mom and Dad had been giving her good training. We talked and she asked questions. I showed her pictures of my kids. I helped her cut up her meat—they called it “steak” but I’m not so sure. She wanted my dessert. It was coconut cake. If it had been chocolate I would have fought her for it, but I hate coconut so I “graciously” let her have it! Finally, the stewardess came by and said to me: “I really appreciate your helping us take care of this little girl. I’d like to give you a complimentary drink. I said: “Thanks, but I don’t need a drink. This little girl is all the joy anyone could want.”
Now if you had told me years ago that sitting beside a freckle-faced little girl on an airplane for three hours could be a joy, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I’ve learned through the years that joys pop up everywhere when you are looking for them. More and more, as Christians, we find joy—and why shouldn’t we? As God’s people, joy is our legacy. Jesus said: “My joy is in you.”
Then we see that Jesus’ joy flowed out of the fact that He relied upon prayer.
If you read carefully the chapters of John which talk of Jesus in the Upper Room and count the verses, you will discover that more of those verses are given over to Jesus’ prayer to His Father than His words to His disciples. That’s how important Jesus understood prayer to be.
Do you know how birds open nuts which they cannot crack with their beaks? The bird carries that nut up into the air and drops it on a hard surface. That breaks it open. The answer to the tough problems in life is altitude. So when you get into tough, tension-producing situations in life, do what Jesus did—get more altitude—look up to the Father in prayer.
Back in 1970, when Apollo XIII was on its way to the moon, the blastoff was smooth. Everything was going well! Then when the spacecraft, commanded by James Lovell, was 205,000 miles out in space, across the ether came the sentence: “We’ve got a problem out here.” Just like that, millions of Americans were transfixed by impending tragedy. There had been an explosion and there was the possibility that they would not be able to return to earth. The President called the nation to a time of prayer—and millions of Americans responded. The ground control folks at Houston had to plot an alternate plan for the re-entry. They didn’t rely on the sophisticated equipment they had in their hands. Instead, they said to the astronauts: “Look out the window and spot a star.” That’s where they started. The astronauts were 200,000 miles up and they said: “Look higher.” It worked. They re-entered and landed safely. When the astronauts were finally lifted to the deck of the aircraft carrier, they joined a chaplain and prayed together. Time magazine put that picture on its cover. Later the astronauts themselves said: “We believe that it was the prayers of those around the world that brought us back.” The answer, you see, was in altitude. At a time when panic could have gripped them, they held firm because they looked above. They found the answer in prayer. Jesus counsels us to do the same.
Let me bring the point home. There is an old legend about a little pagan god who appeared before our Father God and sought to impress Him. He performed several rather remarkable tricks. God never changed His expression and never said a word. So this little god decided to do his best trick. He jumped straight up in the air and disappeared. Five minutes later, he was back again. He said to God: “Do you want to know where I’ve been?” God never changed His expression and never said a word. The little god said: “I’ve been to the very edge of the universe, and when I got there I saw five huge pillars that went up and up and up until they disappeared in the clouds. Now what do you think of that?” God never changed His expression and never said a word. He just raised His hand. The little god looked at that hand and the fingers appeared to be five huge pillars that went up and up and up until they disappeared into the clouds. He had the whole universe in His hands.
My friends, when we encounter the tough, tense times in life, we can hold on if we remember that Jesus tells us to rest in the Father, to rehearse the positive promises of God, and to rely upon the daily practice of prayer. I know that’s true, because Jesus said: “These things have I spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”