A Little While (2.0)
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|Another adorable grandchild.|
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 16:16-22, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Before I begin, I must issue the following warning: This sermon contains an illustration featuring the exploits of one of my adorable grandchildren. But then, since I plan on being here for awhile you might as well get used to it.
A few years ago we were in the van headed to Gillette, Wyoming for a wedding. My grandson Abbott started fussing, so I just said: “Ten more minutes and then we’ll stop.” Much to my surprise, he quieted down. And in ten minutes, I kept my promise. After a quick diaper change and a bottle of formula he was good to go for another 200 miles. Then he started fussing again. Since it worked the first time, I decided to try the same line again: “Ten more minutes.” It seemed to work so well that I used it over and over again the whole trip.
Now as biased as I may be about my grandchildren’s advanced abilities, I realize Abbott didn’t actually understand what I was saying. He was only four months old at the time. But still that voice seemed to reassure him. And the running joke seemed to pass the time more quickly for us adults than a crying baby. At the same time, it was a reminder to me that the day will come when Abbott will ask that age-old question: “How much longer until we get there?” And now that he’s almost four, I suspect that time is now at hand.
One of the keys to good communication is to speak to someone’s level. Not too far below as to be condescending. Not too far above, as to be unintelligible. What do you say to a young child who has no real concept of time or distance? You tell them: “We’ll be there in a little while.” They don’t really understand “10 minutes” or “15 miles,” but they do learn to understand “a little while.”
And that’s what Jesus is doing in our text. He’s talking to His disciples, who are like young children theologically speaking. They don’t understand His plan of salvation. They don’t realize that God, who is not bound by time and space, looks at time and space in a much different way than we mortal, finite men and women. Besides that, Jesus really doesn’t have too much time left with them and He’s still got so much to say—more than they can understand and process right now, more than they can bear at this time.
But no worries about their recalling and understanding in the near future. Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit who will lead and guide them into all truth, thereby putting Jesus’ stamp of approval on the New Testament. What Jesus has from the Father, He gives by the way of the Spirit. And the Holy Spirit leads the apostles to pass on that Word to the Church. From Father to Son through Holy Spirit by way of the apostles and the Church passed along through the centuries to you today. And by God’s grace, to His people throughout all eternity.
Jesus prepares His disciples for His soon-to-come death and resurrection. But the death of a loved one is never easily understood, much less accepted; and though eternity is written in our hearts, it’s impossible for us to wrap our minds around it. So to explain to them what is going to be happening in the next few terrible days and in the glorious age to come, Jesus simply says to His childlike apostles: “A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me… because I am going to the Father.”
“A little while.” We’ll come back to that phrase. But before we do, we need to understand the context in which Jesus speaks these words. “A little while” could be a few days if you’re waiting for Christmas, but not much more than a minute or two if you really have to use the restroom. And so it’s helpful for us to have a better understanding of the situation Jesus and His disciples face as these words are spoken.
As Jesus speaks with His disciples in the Upper Room on the night in which He is betrayed, the disciples are still laboring under misconceptions as to what the Messiah will do for Israel. They are also bewildered by Jesus’ change in mood since Sunday, when He had purposely fulfilled messianic prophecy and entered the city to acclaim as the Son of David. It seemed He was ready to establish His kingdom, but now He is talking about going and suffering and dying. He’s telling them that they will be denying Him and be put out of the synagogues and killed.
And if that isn’t enough, Jesus is trying to explain the work of the Holy Spirit and the interaction of the Trinity, and indicates that He has many other things on His mind He wants to share with them, but they are more than the disciples can bear at this time. No wonder they are confused and bewildered.
Indeed, their hearts are breaking. They’ve left their homes behind. They’ve given up everything just to be with Jesus. Wherever He goes, they follow. And being with Him is enough. Hearing that voice, sometimes so gentle and sometimes so stern. Looking into those eyes, sometimes filled with laughter and sometimes sparking in anger. He is their Jesus. He is everything. But now He says that He is going away and that they cannot come with Him. Their hearts are breaking.
Jesus tries to help them understand. “I am not leaving forever. I am going away. Going to the Father. You will not see Me. But then you will see Me. Truly you will have sorrow. You will cry and weep and the world will go on oblivious to your pain. But look… though you will be sorrowful, your sorrow will be turned into joy.” In a little while, by the close of that day, Jesus would be dead and buried. And then, in a little while—three short days—He would rise, and they would see Him again, and their sorrow would turn to joy.
Would that all our sorrows lasted but three days! Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t be great if all the pain and suffering and loss of this life could be packed into a Friday and over with by Sunday?
In a very real and profound sense, it has! It is all there in the death and resurrection of Jesus. His death is your death, your loved one’s death, the death of the world. His life is your life, your loved one’s life, the life of the world. “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus says. And He does it by His suffering, death, and resurrection.
But all that’s a lot to take in at once. And the look on the disciples’ faces must tell Jesus that they still don’t get it. So He uses an analogy of a woman about to give birth (normally a hazardous thing for a man to say, because the usual response from women is “You have no idea what it’s like”). But Jesus is the all-knowing Lord, so we’ll have to take Him at His Word and run with it.
“Look, it’s like this. A woman, when she is in labor has sorrow because her hour has come. She’s in pain. It hurts. It hurts badly. But it doesn’t hurt forever. No. There comes the moment when the little baby is laid beside her and she looks into his face. She embraces him in her bosom and her joy is total and complete. The sorrow and pain are forgotten. The anguish is gone. Her heart swells with joy that a human being has been born… her little baby.”
Jesus looks around at them. “Do you understand now?” There is the dawning of understanding on their faces, but they are still not sure of its application to them. So He goes on: “That’s how it is with you and Me. Now you will have sorrow. Your gut will feel as though it’s being ripped in two. Your heart will feel like it’s being pulled out. You will cry out in your pain. Because of what’s about to happen to Me. You are going to be alone for a little while.
“‘A little while.’ Do you hear that? ‘A little while.’ Cling to that. Through the hours and days to come, keep saying to yourself: ‘a little while, a little while.’ Because I will see you again. Though death bars the way, though the grave closes its gates upon Me, I will see you again. Me. The One speaking to you now. Not a ghost. But Me, the flesh and blood Me that you have come to know.
“You will see Me again when the time of sorrow is through and when you do… and when you do… such joy will fill your heart…. such happiness will flood your very being that you will be forever changed. You will have planted in you a joy that no one and nothing has the power to take away. Because you will see Me again. And then you will understand. Joy overflowing. Joy abounding.”
Their heads are nodding now. Pain is ahead. Bad pain. The pain of their own weakness, their own betrayals of Him, their own denials and running away. The pain of watching their Beloved hanging on the tree in agony. Knowing that it is their sin and the world’s sin that puts Him there. Knowing that there is nothing they can do to help the One they love. Having to stand by and watch Him die, utterly helpless and alone. Pain indeed. But it isn’t forever. Not for Him, and not for them, and not for you. It is only for a little while. And when it is over, there is the promise of joy that never ends, the joy of Jesus alive, seeing them again.
That joy is theirs when He comes and stands among them and says to them: “Peace be with you!” And their hearts burst with joy as they see it is indeed the Lord, risen and alive with life that never ends. And the promise He brings them is that He is only the firstfruits. There are many to follow. He will raise them from the dead as He has been raised. He, who conquered death, will set all His children free from its power. What joy! Abounding and overflowing. It is indeed a joy that no one can take away from them… no circumstances can rob of them.
They go out into the world a laughing, joy-filled, celebrating people. They march out into the world where death and the sadness of sin hold sway, and by the news they bring they set free people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Everywhere they go they announce: “Your sins have been answered for completely. Your guilt has been taken away. Your death has been destroyed. You are loved by God in His Son. Repent and believe! Taste and see! Your Lord is good to you!”
And they do not forget to tell the rest of the message: how to walk through all the sorrows of this world. Life under the cross is real life. There is genuine suffering, heartache, brokenness, and death. There are tears and disappointments and grief. Luther called it the “theology of the cross,” and he pointed to such times of testing, tentatio, along with prayer and meditation, as the chief components for learning to truly understand God and His Word. God hides Himself in suffering, and promises to use all things—even our suffering!—for our good.
Still, any attempt at a Pollyannaish attitude toward life in this world is foolhardy, even destructive. Can you imagine telling a woman about childbirth and leaving out the birth pains? Of course not! It would be downright dishonest. With pregnancy, as with life itself, it’s the whole thing or nothing at all. You have to embrace all of it. If you are going to embrace life, you must also embrace death. If you are to know the joy of the resurrection, you must endure the cross.
The Christian has one foot in Good Friday and the other on Easter Sunday—now and not yet. That’s the clear message of our text from the Revelation: Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. And that glory is already present in a hidden, sublime way, in, with, and under our present sufferings.
The apostles tell us flat out: “In this world you will have trouble.” All kinds of troubles. In this world your heart will break. You will grow old and begin to fall apart. You will have disappointment and heartache and trial upon trial. You will watch your closest friend turn his back on you just when you need him the most. You will fail so miserably that you’ll want to crawl into a hole and die because of the shame and guilt. You will suffer the consequences of your own sinful actions and the decisions of others. You will watch helplessly as a loved one struggles with a terrible disease… perhaps, even dies. You will face the day of your own death. But do not despair. Learn to say to yourself: “A little while.”
And a little while and it will be over. For it is true that Jesus will see you again. He will see you again in His kingdom, on that day when He wipes the tears from all eyes and comforts and heals all hurts and gives eternal joy to His people. In the meantime, remember that we are God’s children now, and what we will be hasn’t been revealed yet. And when our hearts are overwhelmed and the joy of Jesus Christ seems far away, we learn to say inside: “a little while, it’s just for a little while.” We lift our eyes of faith to the heavenly City and see the joy and feasting that awaits us up ahead and so we go on. We journey towards the goal.
And for the moments when we are so weary that we do not know if we can go on, when we are bone tired and the thought of our own failures to win the battles against the flesh and our betrayals of the new life in Christ and our sins weigh heavy and we feel discouraged and down, Jesus provides us with a heavenly meal. He says to us: “Eat and drink. My body and My blood for you… to get you through. I will strengthen you as you walk the road until the day arrives when you need this food no more, when you will sit down with Me at the Table of the Father’s household. Your place is waiting, child. Think of it, and rejoice. It’s only for a little while that the sorrow lasts; the joy goes on forever.”
That’s the motto, then, people loved by God. The motto of us pilgrims. Carry it in your hearts. It is the word Jesus gives His friends to get them through the hour of sorrow. Words from the lips of Jesus to carry in your hearts always. Say: “A little while.” A little while of sorrows… then an eternity of joy.
How do you know this is true? Jesus died on the cross for your sins. “A little while” later—three days, in fact—He rose from the dead. Before ascending to the right hand of the Father He promised He will return… in a little while. As I mentioned earlier, God’s perspective of time is much different than ours. In this case “a little while” is nearing 2,000 years. But then as St. Peter remind us, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Christ will return. He has promised, and He always keeps His promises. Even now, as you await that day, He comes to you in His Word and Sacraments with His grace and love. Though there will be sorrow for “a little while,” no one can take this joy from you: For Jesus’ sake, His suffering, death and resurrection, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.