The Joy of Being Delivered
Jubilate Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| April 29, 2007| St. John 16:16-23
“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.” St. John 16:22
A little while is just a little while though it may seem like an eternity. Meanwhile, what we see colors what we think, feel, and believe. This is why Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) The disciples would see Jesus arrested, beaten, mocked, spat upon, humiliated, and finally crucified. They would be overcome by sorrow. But their sorrow would last just a little while. Jesus would rise from the dead, they would see Him again and they would be filled with joy. When they saw Him again, they didn’t remember the sorrow and the pain they had felt when watching, helplessly, as He was led away like sheep to the slaughter.
And so it is with all Christians. Jesus is hidden from our eyes and none of the promises He so graciously gives to us have any visual evidence to which we can point and on which we can rely. Faith requires us to shut our eyes to what we see, feel, and experience. We are to ignore what appears commonsensical and we are to hold on to what is demonstrably impossible. Faith is contrary to sight and sight is contrary to faith.
“A little while and you will not see Me.” That made them sad. Their sorrow was deepened when they succumbed to the weakness of their flesh, denied Christ, and cowered in fear after His death. But it was while they were enduring this awful sorrow that Jesus was bringing forth joy to the whole world. They were feeling something. Their feelings lied to them. This is why we cannot base our faith on how we feel.
The words “a little while” appear seven times in our text. The number seven is used symbolically in the Bible to speak of God’s gracious authority in this world. The number for God is three, as in the three persons of the godhead. The number for the world is four, as in the four points of the compass. The number seven is the number of God’s gracious rule in this world through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Seven times “a little while” occurs in this portion of St. John’s Gospel in order to drive home to us the fact that the “little whiles” of suffering we endure are under the control of our gracious heavenly Father.
Are suffering and sorrow good for you? That depends. It depends on who you are. In our text, Jesus is talking to His Christians. He promises them a joy that no one can take away. He promises that their sorrow will only last a little while, but their joy will last forever. He promises that they will be able to ask the Father for anything in His name and He will surely give it. To such people, suffering and sorrow serve to draw them closer to God by purifying their faith. They learn to base their faith, not on the fleeting feelings of the moment or on their temporary successes, but on the clear words of the gospel. They learn not to judge God by what they feel God has done, but rather to trust in God because of what God says. They learn to find God in the crucifixion of Jesus where Jesus suffered for them. They look to that suffering and that sorrow and they know that if God can bring good out of that He can surely bring good out of the Christian’s suffering as well.
But suffering and sorrow is not good for folks who are not Christians. It embitters them. It makes them cynical and angry. It drives them to despair. It confirms them in their unbelief. They become hardened in their ungrateful denial of God’s goodness as they point to their own troubles as proof that God doesn’t really care about them. They hear of benefits in patiently enduring pain and loss and they find such claims to be utterly absurd.
How to explain this? How do we reaffirm Christian’s in their Christian faith, teaching them to look for God and His gracious help beyond the temporary suffering? How do we invite those who are not Christians to consider that the God who appears to be so hard and callused toward their pain is in actual fact full of mercy and compassion? What kind of illustration can we use to show how it is that the short term suffering can give way to permanent joy? We can do no better than to turn to our Lord’s own illustration of a mother who is in labor.
Women who have given birth to children say that men can’t possibly understand what it’s like and a man would be a fool to argue with them. But we cannot question what Jesus says, who suffered all of human suffering on the cross. Surely He suffered as well the pains of childbirth when He suffered for all mothers. Jesus knows what He’s talking about! Jesus 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.
Despite the sorrow she feels because she knows she is facing unwelcome pain there will be a joy far greater than the sorrow. In fact, the joy of a man coming into this world is so great that she forgets how much pain she experienced beforehand.
Why? Because a man is precious! It is interesting how Jesus speaks here. He doesn’t speak of a baby or a little child. He speaks of a man. When we think of childbirth we usually envision a little baby nestling comfortably in his mother’s arm. But that little baby has a future! The original Adam or man was made in the image of God and fell from innocence. God welcomes every child born into this world to the waters of Holy Baptism where he or she will put on the new man and receive in Christ Jesus the image of God.
We are precious in the sight of God. This is why Jesus endured the cross. We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:2), “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus saw beyond the pain He would endure to the joy that was set before Him. He did not let the shame of the cross deter Him because it was only to be for a little while. It is only possible for us to endure suffering as we look to Jesus who suffered for us.
Jeremiah says in today’s Old Testament Lesson, “The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” The waiting seems to be for so long because we are stuck here on earth where we have no greater perspective than what is visible up to the horizon. How far away is that? Not very far. We cannot see the end of whatever the trouble may be. This is why we cannot afford to depend on what we see. This is why faith must demand, not sight, but God’s promise. We go by what we hear, not by what we see.
We have more than the promise of God’s word that He knows what we need. We have the promise from Jesus Himself that whatever we ask the Father in His name He will give us. Whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, we will receive. Whatever we do in Jesus’ name God will bless. Whatever worship we offer in Jesus’ name God will graciously hear and accept. When we die in Jesus’ name our Father in heaven will receive us into our eternal home.
The name of Jesus isn’t a mantra with magical powers. It is rather the authority that flows from His wounds. It is the power to forgive us sinners. This power comes upon us when we are weakened by our own flesh. We are afraid. We lose heart. Our faith is so pathetically weak. We question even the most fundamental truths of Holy Scriptures. We wonder if God cares, just because He has seen fit to permit us to suffer pain. Our confession of the faith becomes tentative. We act as if God’s promises aren’t even trustworthy. We doubt what God has so vividly proven to us in the crucifixion of His only begotten Son! We’ve seen Jesus crucified for us and have seen the eternal love of the Father emanating from that holy suffering. But we have doubted that it was true.
But God won’t leave us alone to our doubts. We doubt because our eyes are fixed on our own suffering. God invites us to look beyond the little while of our own suffering to the suffering of Jesus. We not only look, but we hear God’s word telling us what that suffering means. Even as we kneel at God’s altar and eat and drink the sacramental bread and wine, God tells us that these earthly elements are nothing less than the body that suffered for our sins and the blood that was shed for us for the remission of sins. Whatever we ask in Jesus’ name, our Father in heaven will give to us. How can He deny us anything of true worth when He gives us to eat and to drink the priceless body and blood by which our souls were purchased out of sin, death, and hell? How can He deny us anything we really need, when He hasn’t withheld from us His Son, His only Son, whom He loves?
What is your loss that you mourn today? What is the pain that you suffer? How badly have you been burned by life and how deep is the sorrow you feel? No matter how harsh your pain may feel to you, be sure of one thing. Jesus has borne that pain and more: He has borne the source of it. He has washed away the sin that causes it. By His holy sacrifice He has forever sanctified the suffering of His Christians, and He has promised not to leave us comfortless, but gives us His Holy Spirit who testifies to our spirits that we are the children of God. So then, let’s act like it, asking our heavenly Father for every good thing and resting assured that, for Christ’s sake, He will surely give it to us.