Reflections on Faith, God & Isolation

A Lockdown Devotional for the start of a New Year:

Tuesday 19th January 2021: #17 Jesus: deserted

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John 6:66 “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

It wasn’t the threat of arrest; there were no soldiers coming to take him away – yet. It wasn’t the fear of the crowds or religious leaders; there were no murderous threats – yet. Just grumbling. So what caused this mass defection? Why, at this stage, did many give up and desert him?

One of the hardest things to see as a pastor or as a mentor, is the defection or ‘walking away’ of someone who once believed, or was even a Christian leader themselves. I have often seen people face terrible circumstances of bereavement, tragedy or illness, and yet come through those experiences stronger and in the assurance of the Christian hope that is at the heart of the Gospel.

It is much harder to helplessly watch those who exchange that hope and all the promises of the Scriptures, for something fleeting and temporary: a relationship, money, career; or who grow cold in their love of God, or even walk away from eternal life itself.   Seldom is it tragedy or intellectual doubts which cause the defection. More often the causes are bad choices: putting othemelves, or someone or something else before God.

it wasn’t fear that made them turn away, it was what he said. It was the message.

In John 6 we read that many disciples deserted him: and it wasn’t fear that made them turn away, it was what he said. It was the message. They were happy for him to be a healer, a miracle-worker – they loved the miracles! – but they struggled with the message. And Jesus, who had just fed 4,000 of them, was wise to this. In fact he says at one point: ‘you are only here because you ate your fill’. He then begins an extended period of teaching. After it is over, many desert him.

Essentially, he said two things during this teaching: “I am God;” and “I am all you need.” It doesn’t sound controversial, in fact it sounds like a good offer. However, this larger group of disciples had been watching Jesus for a while and had come to realize the implications of what he said.

If Jesus is God, then everything they had learned, everything about Moses and David and the prophets, all their religious devotion, had to be seen through the lens of his life and ministry. They had no option but to obey him.   They couldn’t hide behind religion or ethnicity. The very things that gave them identity and security were radically subverted by this simple assertion: I am God, sent by the Father, the bread from heaven itself.

The very things that gave them identity and security were radically subverted by this simple assertion: I am God,

And if he was all they needed, then they must be prepared to sacrifice everything they had; their political ideals, their ambitions, their reputations, their family; even life itself, for him. No wonder they were offended (v.61), no wonder they said: “this is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (v.60).

It is a hard teaching. When I think of those who once followed but do so no longer, it is usually, in some way, because of those two statements of Jesus and the modern gods that they confront: autonomy and hedonism.

He says: “I am God,” but we would like to remain autonomous, god of our own life; we would like to make the rules and dictate the direction our life takes. We don’t like his claims to exclusivity, because we want to think that we can still find our way to God on our terms. We don’t like the concept of judgement, because we don’t want to admit that we ourselves deserve his judgement.

He says: “I am God,” but we would like to remain god of our own life…  He says: “I am all you need?” but we don’t trust him enough to put that to the test.

He says: “I am all you need?” but we don’t trust him enough to put that to the test, and so we continue to seek pleasure in other things, we make idols of our families, our sexual partner(s), our career, our wealth. But sooner or later we do have to make a choice; and sadly many join the caravan of John 6:66, and turn away.

Jesus did not only go through periods of self-imposed isolation (see previous post), he also suffered isolation when those who claimed to be followers upped and left him.   With great poignancy, and a little pain, Jesus turns to the twelve and asks of they too are going to leave. Although Peter’s words are initially encouraging: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v..68), we know that, before long, Peter and the others also would run and desert him.

Perhaps we have felt betrayed…he understands; perhaps we have been used… he has been there

Perhaps we have felt betrayed and deserted; by friend, or a child, or a spouse. He understands. Perhaps we have been used by people who were only our friends as long as we could give them something. He has been there. When we go through such times it is important to contrast v 66 (many deserted him) with the words of Hebrews 13:5 reminding us that he will never desert us. Notice the context, and the connection with Jesus’s challenge “I am all you need”. “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”

Lord Jesus, forgive me for the times I have wandered, and thank you that you have always received me back again. I pray for those I know who once followed you but now no longer do; restore them and bring them home, I pray. I thank you that though I can be faithless, you remain faithful. Thank you that you understand betrayal and desertion, and can walk alongside me when I go through similar experiences. Soften our hearts, Lord, so that I may walk humbly and obediently after you, even when others turn away. Thank you that you are all that I need, Amen.

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