SORROW TURNED TO JOY
John 16:16-22 (4/17/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. John 16:22 [Jesus said] “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.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Today we heard a portion of Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples on the night of Maundy Thursday, the night in which He was betrayed, the night before He was crucified. And though it is Eastertide, the time of Christ’s resurrection, we will hear again from this conversation for the next two Sundays, for our Lord is informing us not just about what would happen in the following few days, but also what would take place after Pentecost; He teaches us about the life of the Church and the Christians who would be part of it.
The words Jesus spoke to His disciples in today’s text were confusing to them. Jesus was not speaking about His crucifixion and death, nor was He speaking about His resurrection. It is true that there was a little while when the disciples did not see Him and then they saw Him again after the resurrection. But He was speaking to them about another departure; He was talking about His ascension into heaven after His resurrection from the dead. The “little while” that they would not see Him is the entire period of history between then and His return.
And during this “little while” Jesus will be removed from His disciples and Church in such a way that they no longer see Him face-to-face as they did before His death. This does not mean that Christ is not really and physically present with the Church, but the access to Him is not the same as it was when the disciples could walk and talk with Him directly.
The issue our Lord is addressing, then, is what the life of the Church will be like once He has gone into heaven. He speaks about the condition of life for the apostles, and what He has to say doesn’t sound all that great: “Most assuredly I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice…” But then He adds a promise: “and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy.”
Jesus compares this “little while” of suffering to that of a woman in childbirth, a suffering that eventually turns to joy. And the joy we see is found in the promise of abiding in Christ’s presence and seeing Him again, as Jesus said: “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.”
The “little while” of suffering Jesus was speaking about is the whole life of the Christian Church after Pentecost. It has included the entire lives of generations of saints who have been born, lived and died, without having seen the second coming of Christ. This doesn’t mean that the promise has not been fulfilled for them, for they now see Christ directly and abide with Him. But for the Church on earth, the promise is still to be fulfilled. So what kind of suffering is the Church under during this little while? What suffering defines the church’s life?
This passage is often used to show how the Church endures persecution for the faith; and that is a good application of this text. But that is not the only suffering our Lord was speaking about. Yes, the Church suffers persecution for standing up against the world, but persecution is also a blessing in many ways. And many Christians who have been persecuted speak of it with rejoicing, like St. Paul, who almost seems to brag about how greatly he has suffered for Christ. Persecution is not the most painful kind of suffering or cross that a Christian must bear.
So what is the suffering that is endured during this “little while”? In one sense the suffering comes from the difficulties of straddling two worlds. Christians have one foot, so to speak, in the kingdom of heaven, and one on the earth. We live by faith, not by sight. We have a promise of going to heaven, it is declared to us now as a reality for us already; we are citizens of heaven now by virtue of baptism and faith. But we live on earth with earthly things which occupy the majority of our thoughts and consume most of our energies…and in those things we find sorrow.
Why is that so? Why, when Christ has done such great things for us, when we have such rich promises from God the Father and from Jesus, why do we have such sorrow? Because while God has called us saints, what we see most is that we are sinners. Perhaps you don’t think of it exactly that way. Perhaps you deal with it this way, saying to yourself, “Why can’t I get anything right…” or, “I feel so awful about myself. I am not a very good person…” or, “Why am I so unhappy, even when I should be happy because things are going OK?…” or, “Why am I not content with what God has given? Why does everyone else’s life seem better than mine?…” or, “Why do I worry about everything!…” or, “why do I continue to say or do things that hurt people, even when I know it’s wrong?…” You get the idea.
We all struggle with sin. And if you don’t struggle with sin, or see it in yourself, then you aren’t listening very well to what God requires. Go read the 10 Commandments again with Luther’s explanations in the Small Catechism or look at the Table of Duties and see how well you really measure up. This sin that you find in yourself leaves you with sorrow, for no matter how much you go to church or how hard you try, you don’t see it going away or necessarily getting better. In fact, as you grow in faith, you become even more aware of your own failings to live up to God’s requirements.
And when you find this sin in yourself, your conscience accuses you. You might feel a lack of self worth; you may feel shame over your weakness. And the devil tries to reinforce those feelings to drive you into despair. And all the while the world laughs and calls out to you to “give up your silly, despair-making faith, and join us in our way of life. Quit feeling guilty, join the party! We may be dying, but at least we’re having fun,” or so the lie goes.
Jesus knew that this would be our struggle. This is why He plainly tells the disciples that they will suffer and they will have sorrow; but He also plainly tells them that after this “little while” the struggle will be ended. For eventually this old Adam that clings to us and draws us into sin will be put into the ground for good. And the New Man will rise in the flesh as Christ has risen, and will ascend into His presence where there is no sin or sorrow or sadness or sickness or death ever again.
But what about now? Our Lord clearly had a regard not just for the final heavenly state of His people, but also for their well-being along the way. In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah this morning you heard this: “He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength… those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Is. 40:29, 31)
You remember the classic song from Sunday School where you sang, “I am weak, but He is strong.” That is our Lord’s promise to you. He does give power to those who confess that they are weak and helpless – it is called confession and absolution – confessing your own sins, your weaknesses and failings, and then receiving the strength you need to keep going through His forgiveness. God is compassionate toward you and faithful even when you are not faithful. He is your strength.
We have grief because of sin, and that grief leads us through repentance to Christ. Without knowledge of our sin, there is no need to seek out God’s grace. The Law and guilt are used by God to drive us to Christ. Yes, the devil and the world use the same tools against us and seek to drive us to despair, but the knowledge of our sin is necessary to destroy the illusion of safety, and to bring us to repentance… and to Jesus.
And even now our Lord gives a foretaste of that joy and strengthening for your faith. For our Lord who ascended did not leave His Church without consolation. He has given us His Word, that as we daily sin much, we might also daily find His compassion and grace.
He has given us the Office of the Keys – Confession and Absolution – that when we struggle with sin, when we feel shame or unworthiness, we may hear directly and individually that Christ forgives all your sins and loves you beyond measure.
He has given us the meal which He instituted the same night He spoke of these things, feeding us with His own body and blood, abiding with us through the sacrament, and abiding in us when we eat and drink with faith.
And all of this is just a foretaste. For one day He will come again. This “little while” of suffering will give way to an eternity of joy. And then everything we have endured in this life will be remembered no more. For we will have the eternal joy that comes from having a part in Christ and His Kingdom, joy that comes from the fact that we will see Him again and dwell with Him in the fellowship of the Father.
Jesus gives you strength for the struggle. He gives you the faith to believe on His grace and seek His presence, and hope in His promises until that day comes when we will no longer straddle two worlds, but will live only in the heavenly one, the kingdom of our Risen Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.