It must have been a frightful helicopter ride from Afghanistan into Pakistani air space on the night back in May of 2011. But that was where the members of Seal Team 6 found themselves. They were on a daring mission to target Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the World’s most deadly terrorist organization and the master mind of the 9-11 attacks. The group performed heroically, they did their duty without question and in spite of the great risk to themselves they set their minds on the task at hand, completed their mission and secured a great victory for the United States.
Seal team 6 has been much acclaimed for their bravery and valor as they willingly put themselves at risk to perform the duty that was asked of them. Seal Team 6 is not any different, in that respect, from any of our military personnel. Our nation is served by willing and brave warriors. We send them into battle with great apprehension, because we do it with the knowledge that our service men and women are surrounded by enemies hostile toward them, who will hate them and try even to kill them. We honor them for their willingness to serve and to protect and to do so gladly.
It is with a similar seriousness and somber realization that Jesus prays the words from our text today. Just as the command was given for Seal Team 6 to climb aboard the attack helicopters and travel into hostile territory our Lord Jesus is contemplating the sending of his apostles in among his enemies. Jesus prays for his disciples knowing that he will send them into the world and that the world will hate them and want to destroy them. He knows that there will be no safety for them as they embark on their mission. He knows that they will daily engage the enemy – Satan himself who will use every trick in the book to destroy them. So Jesus prays for them. Jesus prays to His father to keep them and to preserve them so that when the time comes for them to be called out of service they return home whole and well healed. But the way is hard, the way is treacherous. It is a wonder that we survive.
I say “we” because even though our Lord prays for his disciples, his prayer is also for us. We are not sent with the same power and authority that accompanied them. We do not heal and cast out demons the way Peter and Paul the apostles did, but still we are sent. Still you are sent. And you are sent with work to do. Just as every soldier in the army has a duty to perform, there is not one who sits idly by and does nothing, you have an assigned duty. You are commissioned for service in the army of the Lord, you have been assigned a duty, a station, a weapon (your bible) has been commissioned to you, you are given rations (the lord’s supper), you are to report for training, you are to keep yourself in good fighting condition. You are to be ready and equipped, prepared for battle. Because no matter where you live, you will engage the enemy – you will see battle as the devil brings the fight to you and as you are pressed in upon by the world and your sinful flesh.
Jesus knows this. Jesus knows the battles and the fights that affect and engage his people. He knows the dangers that they face, that you face. And so, as he sends you he prays for you.
Our text for today is from John 17. It is commonly called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer; Jesus as divine priest interceding for those he has been called to care for. Jesus does this for us and we see him doing it here. We hear his words and we see his heart as he prays. Jesus prays with love, and with deep concern for those he is sending.
While this is definitely a priestly prayer, we might also consider this prayer as that of a general, a great military commander who has planned an assault into his enemy’s territory – he is going to march in and take it back from an enemy who has stolen away what rightfully belongs to him. But, for there to be any redemption, for there to be any setting free, there must be battle, conflict, fights to the death, and in this battle there will be danger and war and his soldiers will be injured. Some will even die. Jesus, our heavenly commanding officer is prepping for war, considering the cost of the conflict, counting up the causalities, knowing the freedom will not come free. His soldiers will fight and he will call upon them to make sacrifice even of themselves and so as he sends his troops in to battle, as he considers the cost top them, he prays for them. Listen and hear the heart of Jesus in the words that he prays to his Father. Jesus prays saying,
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours…”
“While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves...”
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one”.
Our heavenly and spiritual general, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God prays. He prays for the disciples, he prays for the Church, he prays for Christians, he prays for you. Jesus knows the fights the battles that engage you, he knows the attacks of the devil against you, and he mentions you, your name in prayer before His father in heaven.
I was watching a documentary on the Seal Team 6 mission into Pakistan to take out Osama Bin Laden. There were photographs and interviews from those who were commanding the operation from the Whitehouse in the Whitehouse situation room. They were talking about how they could see the mission as it unfolded over live video feed from cameras the team took with them into the compound. They saw what the Navy Seals saw. They heard what the Seals heard. They talked about the tension of being in that room hoping and praying that the team would complete their mission and make it out alive.
But the commanding officers, the high ranking officials, the president, the secretary of state, in spite of the fact that they experienced fear and apprehension; while the fighting happened, they were safe. They were in a secured room with lots of guards and soldiers standing around them to protect them. They were at home in friendly territory. They were in the comfort of the white house. They were nervous for the success of the mission and they were hopeful for the safety of the team, but they were half a world away the danger. That’s usually how it is, isn’t it? The commanding officers stay back from the front lines and are safe from the fighting? You see, this is the surprise in our text, because Jesus the General who commands God’s army of soldiers is the one who not only does the fighting, he is the one who does the dying. Yes Jesus prays for his soldiers, his disciples who will be sent out to tangle with the enemy and who will be beset and besieged by the world, but he will do the fighting, he will do the dying, he will win the war.
Jesus prayed this prayer the night before he died. Jesus was coming to the Father because he was going to die on the cross. Jesus had taught his disciples and given to them the Word of God. They had everything they needed. But they would not have him. Not in the same way. He had been with them all along the way so far. He had been teaching them and his constant presence was an encouragement and a source of strength and security and support for them. But he was going away. And so he prayed. They are in the world. The world will hate them. I do not pray that you take them out of the world but that you preserve them from the evil one.
There is an ironic juxtaposition of ideas here that does not quite seem to fit. Jesus prays for disciples who will be attacked by the evil one and who will be hated by the world. Christians understand this tension and can relate to this battle. The Christian understands the weight of trying to do the right thing in a world where everyone else is so enamored with doing the wrong thing. The world is ripe with temptations and so many of the people we know are perfectly content to give themselves over to these temptations without thinking a thing about it. But the Christians carries the weight of God’s will; knowing what God desires and then desiring to do it, yet still weak with our own flesh that wants to be like the world. And so we struggle, we fight with temptation, we fight with the devil, we fight against our own flesh and this battle is taxing. It takes its toll.
Now if this sounds at all familiar to you, if you can relate to this battle and if you feel wearied from fighting this fight, then you will know; you will have prayed “Lord make it stop!” “Lord, take this suffering away.” “Lord, give me some relief.” Sometimes the battles that Christians fight test their limit and push them to the point that they feel they will break or be destroyed.
And so, if you can relate to this at all, then what will probably seem strange is the prayer that Jesus prays, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17:13 ESV) Jesus prays for us as we engage in battle and he prays for our joy. This is a departure from our comparison to Seal Team 6; because while the president and the commanders in the situation room were praying for the safety of the Seals, while they understood the hardship they might endure, they were likely not praying for joy. They were likely not praying that this battle, this conflict, this war would fill them with joy. This is strange and unexpected, no?
Martin Luther explains this irony well. He talks about three things, prayer, meditation and suffering. And Luther says that these three things work maturity of faith into the heart of a Christian, these three things cause a Christian to know the heart of their Heavenly Father. These three things move a Christian along the way, from a basic understanding of the Gospel message where Jesus is dead on the cross for the salvation of sinners, to a greater understanding of the truth of God’s Word and insight into the nature of the God who is behind that Word. This does not happen on its own, and in order that it might happen our Lord allows us to suffer. He even sends us in to suffer. He puts us in harm’s way and subjects us to the attacks of the Devil so that through this suffering and attack we might come to greater faith and understanding and joy.
This seems so strange to us. So foreign. Why would the Lord do this. Doesn’t he know how great we are suffering? Doesn’t he care how close to our breaking point we have come? Yes, and this is precisely why he allows such things.
The Old Adam in each of us is so enamored with this world of sin and destruction that we hear about God’s grace and God’s salvation and God’s kingdom, we want that salvation and that kingdom now. We want God’s salvation to be from our earthly problems; bills and doctor appointments and grade cards and relationships. We want God to fix all these things and make them right. But God has greater plans. God wants you to have greater joy. God isn’t interested to satisfy your Old Adam because he knows you Old Adam won’t ever be satisfied. So instead he satisfies your New Man, the new creation that you are in Christ. He gives you the Gospel, the sacraments, grace, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit to move in your heart and to draw you to him.
True joy can’t ever be found in the things of this world. True joy is found in Jesus. And so Jesus works in you and in your heart to show you how and where your joy can be complete. In Him. With him. The Christian’s life in this world is shaped like a cross. We carry the marks of Jesus in our body as we live each day in the shadow of His salvation. We are redeemed and we are saved and our salvation is won. But it is salvation from this world, salvation from sin, salvation from death, salvation from the Devil. Our hope is for the resurrection. Our hope if for heaven. Our hope is for the life of salvation that is set aside and secured for us in heaven with God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus knows that this will test us. He knows that this will break us, he knows that this even will be the death of us. But that is exactly what we need. The Old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance and an new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
This is our joy. This is how our joy will be full.
Jesus knows the battle we will face. He know how it will tax us and so he prays for us. But this battle is for our good. Better than for our good it is for our joy, for through this battle our Lord teaches us to let go of those things that are of small value and hold fast to those things that are of eternal value.
May you have joy in Jesus.