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John 16:12 "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.


While I was spending time with this passage this week I found myself stopped on the very first verse – actually the first half of the first verse.  Jesus tells the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you.”  I just wonder, what did the disciples think when they heard this?  For three years they’ve walked with Jesus, listened to his teachings, left everything behind to follow him. Surely they had heard it all, right?  How could it be that here at the end of their time together Jesus is referring to all these other things that he couldn’t share with them?  To me it almost seems coy, like someone saying, “Oooh, I have a great story – but I can’t tell you what it is.”

But the second piece of that verse explains why Jesus can’t share these truths.  It’s not to be coy or because he wants to keep them to himself, but simply that they can’t bear it.  Suddenly the statement becomes tender and a bit mournful. Jesus would like to reveal everything to his friends, he would like for them to be fully enlightened, but at this point it wouldn’t be the blessing for them he wants it to be. 

But that doesn’t make sense, does it?  How could the disciples not be ready for blessing? How could being blessed by God be too much to bear?  This is something I’ve been struggling with very recently in my life – the question about whether I am really ready to receive the good things God has to offer me.  I believe that God wants to bless me and yet my experience of blessing so broken and incomplete.  I think this points to the deeper truth behind Jesus’ words.  Maybe it seems like we should be completely willing to receive blessing, totally open to the gifts God wants to give us, just like we probably expect for the disciples.  But that that just isn’t our lived experience.   Perhaps the biggest reason we are cut off from God’s blessing is this, before we can be filled with the new we have to be emptied of the old, and that’s a process that takes time and faithfulness. 

 

Perhaps we’re not able to forgive that old grudge which weighs down our relationship with a family member, we’re not able to let go of that old habit which causes us physical and emotional pain, maybe we’re attached to old identities which tell us we’re the logical one, the foolish one, the failure,  the clown.  Any identities like these and any old stories of pain or guilt, when we hold to them tightly, hold tightly to us and restrict our freedom.  But we want to keep them anyway, don’t we?  They’re comfortable in a way, like an old sweater that doesn’t fit us anymore.  We still want it, not ready to let it go.   And because we cannot bear the loss of these old things we cannot bear to receive the new.

As I prayed over these issues in my own life recently I was reminded of the story of the Israelites, as they were called out of Egypt to move to the Promised Land.   For a long time I’ve felt that the story of the Israelite people is really the paradigm for all spiritual journeys.  God chooses them, loves them, plans for their abundance, cultivates them to be a blessing to the world – and yet the relationship between God and Israel is a rocky one.   God is always advocating for their good, but they often struggle to receive what God is giving them.  For example, God calls them out of slavery into the promise of new life, but they can hardly bear it.  All they can see as they leave Egypt is what they are losing – the certainty of their old lives. Even though the life of a slave is hard and un-free, at least they were fed, at least they knew how to do their work, at least they knew who they were in the world.   As we mentioned before, their attachment to their old identity kept them from living into the promise of their freedom.  We all have such limiting beliefs – we aren’t supposed to be happy, our gift isn’t worthy offering, we are destined to live in deprivation and pain.  It’s as though these beliefs make us into a shallow cup.  God may be pouring gallons of blessing on us but we can only receive a couple ounces at a time.

This was certainly true of the Israelites.   They were so trapped in their identity of being slaves they couldn’t receive the full abundance of freedom.  So when they left Egypt they didn’t head straight to the Promised Land, but journeyed in the desert for forty years.  For forty years they lived with very little, no land, no security, no ability to care for themselves, being fully dependent on God – almost like children.  They were no longer slaves, but they were also not truly free.  They lived in the in-between place - can’t go back but can’t yet move forward.

I remember hearing this story as a kid, thinking that this was a real waste of time.  Why couldn’t they just get their act together and move on?  Now that I’ve grown a little in humility, I realize that this delay in the life of the Israelites isn’t really a waste of time; it’s another necessary part of the journey.  The desert is a place of purification, of getting cleaned out.  It’s where we are emptied of our limiting beliefs and ideas, and in our state of increasing emptiness God has more and more room to bless and heal us.  This is the ongoing work of the Spirit who indwells us, and this the good news for us this morning.   Even when it seems like nothing’s moving, we’re making no progress, the Promised Land is nowhere in sight, even then the Spirit is drawing us closer.  The longer we live in relationship to that Spirit the stronger we become.  Our souls become braver and more sure-footed, our hearts become more forgiving and compassionate and –slowly but surely - we become more and more ready for the true freedom of the Promised Land.

There is another interesting piece to the Israelite story which confounded me as a child.   When it was time for Israel to move into the Promised Land, God instructed Moses to send scouts on ahead of them, to see what the land was like.  When the spies returned, they reported that this was indeed a beautiful and abundant place where they could easily establish their home, but the people in this land were too big and numerous to overcome.  One of the spies Caleb tried to argue that Israel should proceed with God’s plan to occupy the land – they were ready!  But the people turned back.  Again in my child-like indignity I asked, what’s wrong with Israel?  Why don’t they just trust God?  To be honest, I still had a bit of this child-like impatience with me in my first pastoral ministry.  I asked, why are these people so anxious about money, so overwhelmed by the slightest challenge in their path?  Why don’t they just move forward in faith, keeping their eyes on the promise of God’s Word?  Jesus explains it himself: because they weren’t yet able to bear it. 

So now when I look at the story, and at people’s hesitation in general, I treat them with more grace.  They’re not just being obstinate, they’re doing the best they can.  And apparently God understands that too.  God doesn’t grow impatient with them, berate them or even abandon them to their own devices.  No, God returns with them to the desert, to continue the work of purification and healing.  God continues to be faithful in providing them their daily bread, the people continue to heal from their past, grow stronger in their faith.  The Spirit simply continues the work in them, and in us.

 

So what is the Promised Land? It likely takes on a different shape for all of us. For the Israelites it was a vision of a homeland.  Having been slaves for so long, that was the shape of their greatest dream and desire.  Each of us may envision the Promised Land differently – as a career, a home, a relationship, financial security – but down deep all the visions have certain things in common: a place where we feel loved and feel free to love, a place where we are blessed and are a blessing, a place where we’re free and make others free.  This is the fullness of God’s blessing, the answer to our deepest soul longing.  And it is the place where God is leading us right now.  When you think about your Promised Land, your heart’s desire, how do you respond inside?  Do you feel wistful, full of longing and sadness, like a homesickness?  Do you feel doubtful or skeptical about that vision, allowing your logic to pull you away from the dream?  Perhaps you feel anger or pain because you can’t fully believe that God really means for you to enter into this Promised Land.   Or maybe you experience a thrill of hope and expectation – the Promised Land is shining to you from the near distance.   Whatever your response, carry it to God in prayer.  The act of prayer is an emptying, a pouring out.  This is how we partner with the Spirit in its work of preparing us for our truest destiny.


Song Written to Accompany Sermon

A Meditation on Lady Wisdom, from Proverbs

Entitled "Her"