April 21, 2013
“A Little While and Forever”
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
Sorrow lasts a little while. Joy lasts forever. A little while seems like an eternity when you are suffering. But your perspective keeps you from seeing the truth. We are not the source of truth. God is. In our pain we turn inward. This generally increases our pain. Jesus would have us look outside of ourselves, our problems, our pain, and our sin and look at him. In him is the only true and lasting joy we have.
Looking to Jesus is not seeing Jesus. He has gone to the Father. He is hidden from our sight. If you want to see; if you want evidence; if you want to set a test before God and make him meet it before you will trust in him; in short, if you want to be in charge of the relationship you enjoy with God, you don’t want Jesus. Jesus won’t ever put you in charge.
Jesus speaks the words, “a little while,” seven times. Seven is the biblical number designating God’s blessing of the world. But the world doesn’t want to be blessed by God the way God wants to bless the world. Johnny Cash used to sing a song about folks who wanted the kingdom of God but didn’t want God in it. It was an apt description of the religious impulses of people. People want a god who will answer prayer. They want a god who will resolve their problems, whatever they might be – not on his terms, mind you, but on their terms. People want to fashion a god who will do their bidding as they choose.
Years ago a Protestant minister by the name of Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book entitled, The Power of Positive Thinking. It sold millions of copies. And no wonder! Peale perfected a method of getting God to do what you wanted him to do to deal with whatever problems you were facing. He had a formula for prayer that was guaranteed to get results. One critic described Peale’s theology in the memorable phrase: “God as the heavenly aspirin tablet.”
Peale’s influence is felt today. In an increasingly godless culture where the very existence of God is denied, his commandments are ridiculed, and Christ’s claims are rejected, an increasing number of Christians fall prey to the notion that God exists to empower them. To be weak is regarded as a sign of God’s displeasure, perhaps even his rejection of us.
Listen to Jesus. “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” The Bible does not teach us that the Christian life is a life of constant joy. Christians must bear the cross God sends. They have no choice in the matter. Christians suffer. They are persecuted. They are misunderstood and misrepresented by the world around them. They are falsely accused. The world does not like what we teach.
We teach God’s law. But we don’t tailor it so that it conforms to sinful human desires. St. Peter teaches us in today’s Epistle to abstain from fleshly lusts that war against the soul. The world tells us to indulge them, arguing that it is our unalienable right to do. The inspired words of St. Peter say: “submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake.” The world tells us that we may disobey unjust laws. The world does not like what we teach about God’s law.
We teach God’s gospel. It is foolishness to those who are perishing. The idea that we need the sacrifice of God’s Son to take away our sin is an offense to the world’s pride. Yet what is Jesus saying in our text when he says, “I go to the Father”? He didn’t ascend to the Father until he ascended to the cross. His route back to heaven took him through hell. For that is what he suffered on the cross. The only truly holy human being who has ever lived was condemned for the sin of the world. He was lifted up to suffer. And in his ascension up in the air, suspended on the cross, there where he bore the wrath of God against sinners and was forsaken in his suffering, there is where God defeated the devil, where life swallowed up death, where righteousness destroyed sin, and where joy drowned all our sorrow.
Call it a mystery. Call it a paradox. Call it foolishness. Where the deepest sorrow was experienced is where we find our greatest joy in life. Where our God and brother Jesus drank the cup of sorrow down to its dregs is where our eternal joy was born.
Sorrow lasts a little while. Joy lasts forever. The Sundays in the old ecclesiastical calendar of the western Church have Latin names since Latin was the language of the Church. Today is the Third Sunday after Easter. The Latin name for today is Jubilate, which gets its name from the words at the beginning of this morning’s Introit, from Psalm 66:
Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth!
Sing out the honor of his name;
Make his praise glorious.
This is not a law command. It is a gospel invitation. In other words, when you think you have every reason to be sad, God gives you a reason to rejoice. The joy of a Christian is not dependant upon the circumstances of his life in this world. It depends on Jesus going to the Father. The sorrow and joy that Jesus is talking about are not primarily related to a lack or an abundance of material goods. We all have food and clothes and shelter. We may not be rich, but we are not doing without the necessities of life. Jesus is not talking primarily about bodily sickness and pain that bring us sorrow. He is talking about our spiritual lives.
We see Christ and then we don’t. The disciples would miss seeing their Lord Jesus after he ascended into heaven. They would turn their faces away from his suffering. Then Jesus would restore them after his resurrection from the dead. Then he would ascend into heaven where they could see him no more. They could see him and then they couldn’t see him.
But what about us? We’ve never seen him with our eyes. We’ve seen him only by faith. But there are times when our faith becomes clouded and dull and confused. The sorrow of guilt, regret, bitterness, disappointment, self-recrimination, and doubt floods our souls. Where is Jesus? He appears to have hidden himself from us. He appears to be so far, far away that he cannot hear us and we cannot hear him. Jesus says:
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.
Jesus is not talking only to the original disciples here. He is talking to us. We don’t have that joy down in our hearts. We are not experiencing spiritual victory over sin, death, and devil. In fact, we caved into the same sin again, after we promised God again that we would not do so. In fact, death makes us afraid, though we know we shouldn’t fear it. In fact, the devil has his way with us, and then mocked us for our acts of faithless denial and unchristian wavering. And this makes us so very sad.
But your sorrow will be turned into joy. He who has ascended to the Father not only took away our sins by his suffering on his way, but intercedes for us and is pleading for us even as we struggle with our sins and our faith and our troubles here below. He constantly visits our failures with his victory and this is what brings us joy.
Christ’s cross is how he gained the joy for us, for there is no true joy without the forgiveness of sins. There is no true joy without the knowledge that we have eternal life in Jesus’ name. True and lasting joy is impossible without Christ’s cross. He goes to heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand only after he goes to the cross to gain his kingdom. And that required of him the deepest suffering and sorrow that any man ever faced.
Christ’s cross is how he gained the joy for us and our cross is where he brings this joy to us. It is precisely in our pain – our real spiritual pain where we suffer for our sins in sorrow and regret – that God brings us pure joy. He doesn’t require us to meet some sort of condition, to pass a test, to prove our faithfulness before he visits us with his joy. It is in our helplessness that he comes. He forgives us. He forgives us our sins, our doubts, our failures, and by forgiving us takes away the sorrow that held us captive. By declaring us to be righteous with his own righteousness, he lifts our souls up to heaven. He seats us in bliss. Faith’s anticipation is a foretaste of heaven. What is hidden below under Christ’s cross and ours is ours by faith. What we now believe we will someday see.
Jesus compares this to a mother who gives birth to a child. He says:
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.
Giving birth to a child is a wonderful honor as God makes a woman his participant in bringing a human being into this world. But the actual bearing of a baby is no fun. The mother cannot fully appreciate the joy of the birth while she is going through the pain of delivery. Yet it is by means of the delivery that the joy will come. She will see her little one. She will hold him in her arms. She will experience joy. As surely as she suffers the anguish, so surely she experiences the joy. And then the sorrow is forgotten. The birth of a child brings greater joy than the suffering that comes before.
Here on earth we see Jesus hidden under his suffering and ours. We see him, not with our eyes, but through faith. His words, his washing, his body and blood come to us in the midst of sorrow. The sorrow does not completely disappear as long as we live in these bodies in this world. But is it only for a little while. St. Paul expresses our faith so beautifully with the words:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)
Jesus will return to bring us joy we have never known. This is what makes us bold to pray to God, asking him, in Jesus’ name, for whatever we need. This promise makes prayer a joy. Thank God we’re not in charge and he is. The joy we would make for ourselves would be just for a little while. The joy awaiting us in heaven will last forever. Amen