Preaching from our Lord’s high priestly prayer is difficult.
As we listen to Jesus in prayer with his Father, key words are repeated. In fact, these words are so closely interwoven by repetition that they begin to strain under the weight of meaning. They fold into one another and break apart into abstractions.
Take, for example, the word glory. Jesus prays the Father would glorify His Son in order that the Son may glorify His Father (v. 1). This glory occurs in the presence of the Father and is the glory Jesus had with the Father before the world existed (v. 5). Such glory is also found among the disciples as Jesus is glorified in them (v. 10). By the end of this section, the word “glory” has been spoken so many times in so many ways it breaks apart under the expansion of meaning.
In addition to being repeated in this prayer, these words pick up on themes running throughout John’s gospel. As you trace their use throughout, terms like “glory,” “word,” or “eternal life” deepen in complexity. This density of meaning only adds to the difficulty of comprehending and preaching on this prayer.
One approach to the preaching task would be to choose one of these words and use it thematically, unfolding how the theme flows throughout John’s gospel and is ultimately known in the cross. So, for example, “glory” is found at the very beginning of John, giving voice to what God reveals when the Word becomes flesh (1:14). The miracles of Jesus are seen as revelations of such glory (2:11 and 11:4, 40) and John highlights the difference between the glory which comes from God and that which comes from humans (5:44 and 8:54). This glory of God, revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, is different from the glory of the world and, ultimately, made known to the world as God enters His suffering. In fact, in this prayer Jesus anticipates how the shame of the cross will be the manifestation of the glory of God’s saving work.
In fact, in this prayer Jesus anticipates how the shame of the cross will be the manifestation of the glory of God’s saving work.
Another approach, the one adopted here, is to think a bit more generally about this moment of prayer. As we overhear these words of Jesus, we see the radical intimacy Jesus has with his Father. In fact, that intimacy may be one reason the prayer is so difficult to understand.
Consider what it is like to listen in on the conversation of a couple who have been married for fifty years. Their lives are so intertwined that their conversation is mysterious. “Jerri,” the wife says as she sighs and sits down at the table. Her husband says, “I know,” and picks up the phone. Such simple statements are mysterious because they reflect a shared life. Jerri, their oldest daughter, struggles to make it on her own. She currently works for the City, processing the payment of traffic tickets. April 12th is hard for her. It is the anniversary of her son’s death. So, her mother sighs as she sits down and her father knows he should give her a call. This whole life story is captured in three words: “Jerri” … “I know.” Intimacy makes explanation unnecessary. A lifetime of love can be found in the simplest of words.
Something similar is happening in our Lord’s prayer. We listen in and overhear brief phrases. We feel lost as we listen. It is hard to understand. But what we are hearing is the intimacy of the Son and His Father.
There is a glory the Son knows as He shared it with His Father before the creation of the world. There is a glory that both the Father and the Son anticipate as He offers His life for the world. In this prayerful conversation, the glory of God from eternity is joined to the glory of the Father’s saving love in the Son’s death on the cross.
In this prayerful conversation, the glory of God from eternity is joined to the glory of the Father’s saving love in the Son’s death on the cross.
A wonderful intimacy, eternal and beyond our understanding, lies beneath the surface of these words. What is even more wonderful is how this intimacy is also ours. Through the saving work of Jesus, this intimacy is extended unto us.
This Jesus, who prays to His Father before His crucifixion, is the same Jesus who continues to pray to His Father after His crucifixion. After His death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father where He rules over all things. He now intercedes for us. Jesus knows the temptations, the struggles, the burdens we bear. His incarnation offered Him a deep resonance with our life experience. His crucifixion carried the weight of all sin. His resurrection from the dead and bodily ascension into Heaven means He continues to know what it is like to live in the flesh. This risen, ascended, incarnate Jesus has sent His Spirit to dwell in our hearts. The Spirit takes our sufferings, our groanings we cannot put into words, and brings them to Jesus. Jesus brings them to His Father. And His Father hears and responds, doing what is best for us, His beloved children, who live in the Kingdom of His Son.
There are times in life when it is hard to know what to pray. God feels distant. His ways are hard to understand. This prayer of Jesus reminds us of His powerful intimacy not only with His Father but also with us. He has interceded to bring us salvation and He continues to intercede to bring all our lives before God. Perhaps today it is good for us to take a moment and be overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the intimacy of Jesus with His Father. This intimacy is beyond our understanding but certainly for our good.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 17:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 17:1-11.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 17:1-11.