May 3, 2020
“A Little While”
St. John 16:16-23
"A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father." Then some of His disciples said among themselves, "What is this that He says to us, 'A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'; and, 'because I go to the Father'?" They said therefore, "What is this that He says, 'A little while'? We do not know what He is saying." Now Jesus knew that they desired to ask Him, and He said to them, "Are you inquiring among yourselves about what I said, 'A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'? "Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a man has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you." St. John 16:16-23
Repetition is the mother of learning. The words “a little while” are repeated seven times in five sentences. You’d think that we would learn it. But we don’t. That’s because we, like Christ’s first disciples, insist on experiencing God with our five senses instead of through faith in his word. He says “a little while” and we act like it’s an eternity. Answer my prayer God! Do it now! How can we possibly rejoice in our suffering? It makes no sense!
God permits his children to suffer and he sanctifies them through their suffering. Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) All true Christians must bear the cross that God gives them to bear. You don’t need to understand why. Anyone who reads the Bible and believes it knows that those whom God loves, rescues from sin and death, and brings to heaven must suffer in this life. Jesus says, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The Bible says, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Our suffering is no accident. It is God’s good and gracious will. When St. Paul unveils the great mystery of God’s eternal election of his children to glory in Romans 8, he says that they are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Christ suffered before he entered into his glory. Those who are born from above by the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism to become children of God will suffer before they enter into glory.
If you’re a Christian, then suffering is good for you. If you believe that God forgives you all your sins on account of Christ whose obedience and suffering are your true righteousness before God, then suffering is good for you. After teaching that we are justified by God through faith alone and enjoy peace with God, St. Paul writes in Romans 5:3-4, “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.” God uses our suffering to strengthen our character and to confirm us in our Christian hope.
Jesus was speaking the plain truth, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying. He said, “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.” When Jesus went on to explain, he didn’t specifically mention his crucifixion, resurrection, or eternal life in heaven. Nor did he mention repentance and faith. He was talking about all of these things. These are the subtext of his words. He didn’t mention them specifically. Instead, he talked about how his death and resurrection would make them feel. First, they would weep, lament, and be full of sorrow. Then they would be filled with a joy that no one could take away from them.
They were filled with sorrow because they could not see Jesus. He was dead. They saw it. They felt it. It was the most painful thing they had ever experienced. But that sorrow didn’t last long. It was just a little while. Then they saw him alive. At his death the world rejoiced and they wept and mourned. Their mourning was, in a little while, replaced by joy. When a mother is in labor and the baby is about to come she feels the pain and is helpless to prevent it as she lies helpless on her back with her feet in stirrups. Her baby is coming and with the baby comes pain. She is not having a good time. She is not enjoying herself. Well, then, maybe women should swear off having babies, join the “my body, my choice” crowd, and choose to prevent the conception, and failing that, the birth of any more babies! They hurt! But her anguish is forgotten when she looks in wonder at her newborn child. A man – that is, a human being – has been born into this world! What a joy!
The disciples suffered pain when they saw Jesus die. It wasn’t just that they wouldn’t be seeing him. It was the manner of his departure. There was no dignity to it. It was violent. It was terrible. Then he was dead. And they grieved bitterly. They thought of their weakness, their denial, their cowardice, and fear. The world rejoiced. They were overcome with sorrow. Then Jesus appeared to them. They were overjoyed when they saw him.
The experience of the first disciples is the experience of all Christians. We lose sight of Jesus and are filled with sorrow. Then he shows himself to us and we are filled with joy. We lose sight of Jesus in our suffering. Christians are disciples, or students of Christ. These students learn to bear up under the burden of sorrow placed upon them: painful sickness, the death of loved ones, personal betrayal, loss of income, damaged reputation, sin that rises up in the conscience so that there is nowhere to run without being chased. If we were good students we would be able to bear up under these things. We would know that our suffering is the result of sin but that God has forgiven us our sin so we don’t need to let suffering get us down. We would know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. If we were good students!
But it is not so easy to learn anything at all when we are buried under the weight of a burden that is too heavy to bear. We can’t figure it out. We can’t understand how it will benefit us. It is when we are the weakest – burdened by the guilt of our own sins, afraid of threats to our life and wellbeing, and incapable of making any sense out of what’s going on – that the words, “a little while,” become so very comforting for us.
Jesus says we will have sorrow for a little while. He promises that we will have joy forever. He says, “Your joy no one will take from you.” No one can. The joy of seeing Christ is unlike the sorrow that precedes it. The sorrow is joined to the pain and suffering that sin brings. The joy is joined to the forgiveness and peace that Christ’s suffering brings. Pain and suffering last a little while. Joy lasts forever.
Jesus was on the cross for about three hours. His suffering for our sins did not begin on the cross. Already at his baptism John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God who takes away – or bears – the sin of the world. His suffering did not begin on the cross. But it ended there. Now he is risen from the dead never to suffer again, never to bear reproach, but to enjoy forever the glory he shared with the Father from eternity. Jesus knew what he was facing when he drank the cup of God’s wrath against sinners. Jesus knew what would come later. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews 12:2:
The road to glory was through suffering. That’s the way it was for our Lord Jesus. That’s the way it is for us. But his suffering and our suffering are not the same. When Jesus suffered, he was innocent. He suffered on account of our sin; not his own sin because he had no sin of his own. We, on the other hand, are never innocent in and of ourselves. When we suffer we deserve it. We confess in the Catechism that we daily sin much and don’t deserve anything but punishment. This hurts. This is sorrow. But this is just for a little while.
The sorrowing sinner sorrows only for a little while. He may not understand his own suffering, but he understands the suffering of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the suffering Jesus would endure.
Since the LORD has laid on Jesus our sins, he has forgiven us. God turns our sorrow into joy by forgiving us our sins. This forgiveness isn’t just an idea we ponder in our hearts as we wonder if it is true, if it applies to us, if we are sufficiently sorry for our sins for our faith to be authentic, if, if, if, . . . This forgiveness is located in the gospel. We hear it. It enters our ears. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” We sing, “O Christ, thou Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” Jesus replies to our pleas, “Drink of it all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” Our sorrow is turned into joy.
If we understand the forgiveness of sins, we understand all of Christian theology. If we don’t know that our sins are forgiven and why, we are blind to everything else God has to say. Forgiveness is justification. To be justified by God is when God tells you that you are righteous for Jesus’ sake. To be justified is to be forgiven. God freely forgives us. We cannot earn his absolution. But forgiveness is not free.
Forgiveness is not free. It was very costly. It cost Jesus. We were too poor to pay the cost. Jesus paid it. Our sorrow over our sins does not gain forgiveness for us. Christ’s sorrow as he drank the cup of our suffering did that. But it is in the little while of our sorrow that God prepares us to receive the forgiveness of sins. This gives us a joy that lasts forever. And it begins now. When we know that God, for Christ’s sake, forgives us all our sins, we can ask our Father in heaven for anything in Jesus’ name. We have Jesus’ own Amen that he will give us what we ask. We may have to wait a little while, but that little while will be forgotten in the eternal joys of heaven that God has prepared for his children.
Rolf D. Preus