Easter 4

"Grief and Joy"

St. John 16:16-22

Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor

+ In the Name of Jesus +

We are guests, strangers, and pilgrims in this world, and citizens in heaven above. You have been grafted into Christ your Savior through faith. This makes you strangers and pilgrims, some translate the Apostle’s words as sojourners and exiles. You do not belong here, being disciples of Jesus.

There’s a great and happy Easter-tide message, and hopefully an attention-getting message for you young people to be confirmed today! You must eventually come down off the high of Easter, all the flowers, trumpets blaring, and the like, to reality. We crash with a thud, and we really have been hit in our church family this particular Easter-tide with the reality that we Christians don’t have a place here, really, it’s not our intended home.

Even without recent events, all of us should know this just through experiencing life: people hurt and harm each other, people become sick and death wins the day, relationships grow cold and families strain and sometimes break apart. These things are not what God intends for His created children, not what He intends for you.

In that light, hear our Lord’s promise to His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed:

A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.

and

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.

The “little while” Jesus refers to is His death on the cross, to be followed by His resurrection on the third day. Indeed, the disciples’ grief over the Lord’s horrific crucifixion under Pontius Pilate was indeed turned into joy. The Lord appeared alive unto those men, bringing them peace and forgiveness. “You will see me,” said Jesus, and they did, to their great joy.

Now we find ourselves in the “little while” between the Ascension of Jesus, and the Last Day. We wait for the Lord’s return in His full and visible glory upon the Last Day, when He comes to judge this world. While we wait, this world and this “little while” brings grief and sorrow, as we’ve already described. It is a time and place corrupted by sin, beleaguered by death, attacked by the devil. Here we are sojourners and exiles, strangers and pilgrims. This means suffering the crosses of life, weeping and lamenting, sorrow to the plenty. This means the time is now for you as baptized children of God to fight with that devil, death, and sin.

And what Jesus said to His twelve is also true now of us: “The world will rejoice at your sorrow.” If we too would be His disciples, we must deny ourselves daily, take up our crosses, and follow Him. The baptized in Christ are conformed to His image— humbled, bloody, beaten, and crucified—through many sorrows and sufferings, in the travails that come upon unwelcome sojourners and exiles in this world.

Christians alone bear suffering with hope and purpose, since we are fully confident that we do not suffer for our sins, but as freed and forgiven children of our gracious Father. Christ has suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us back to God.

Instead, we confess that God allows and uses our suffering and cross-bearing for our good. God has a purpose to it all. He uses it to chasten us, keep us on track, to teach us to be dependent upon Him alone, to draw us ever closer to Himself and away from the false gods and idols of this temporal life, to keep us from going off the rails and into eternal punishment by losing faith in Christ.

The Bible has this surprising perspective on life throughout. It is good to suffer, Lamentations says. It is good to be afflicted, insulted, and even have your mouth in the dust. Because it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. The affliction of the Lord is not from His heart, Lamentations says. It is not a sign of His hatred toward His Christians. It is a grief that will cause the hopeless soul to call to mind the only hope that truly comforts: The Lord's steadfast, undeserved mercy in Christ. He remains faithful. He is our portion alone. Every false comfort must be crucified, that our hope be in the One who raises from the dust the dead, and breathes life into the slain of this world, those sojourners and exiles who longed for that better country to come.

In your gardens, if and when we ever do get to plant them this spring, good things come after the seed is planted. But it is necessary to bury that seed. In your families, good things come after a child is conceived. But it is necessary for the child to be in the womb unseen for a long time, and then to undergo labor pains. Both mother and child experience a lot of pain and discomfort before and during birth.

In our children’s catechesis every Saturday morning, it was necessary for our catechumens Elizabeth, Austin, and Connor to undergo two years of intensive training in the Scriptures and the Small Catechism. At times they may have thought it painful. They were buried in the blessings of memorizing the Catechism, and working to remember all the doctrine their minds could hold.

But great good comes of it all. Not just for today and this little ceremony – but that you are started out on the Way as a disciple of Christ, a lifetime, to-the-death commitment and battle that must be waged in Christ and with His help and power. By giving you the Scriptures and the Catechism, your Lord has prepared you to know why things happen as they do, and has prepared you for those times when you will have grief and suffering and hard times in life, when the world will rejoice at your cross-bearing even. God has given you the truth, that not every day is Easter and Christmas joy on this side of heaven. Some days will be immensely difficult and painful. You know why that is so, and who the true enemy is behind it.

In God’s plan of salvation, good things come after and because Jesus died, for He came for us to be our fellow sojourner and exile, to share totally in our sorrows and grief. It was necessary for Him to suffer, die and be buried in the tomb. After a little while, the good and wonderful came forth, resurrected and glorious and free of all that shackles and harms us, and by grace, through faith in Christ, His freedom is ours, His victory is ours.

Just as there is joy in seeing the fruit borne by the seeds we plant, just as there is joy in seeing the newborn baby emerge from the womb, and just as there is joy that three more young people are admitted to the Lord’s table to commune at this altar today after this part of their catechesis, so there is great joy in the promise that in this “little while,” in the midst of all that hurts and grieves us, Jesus comes to us and sees us – not to judge or condemn us – but to give us what He has earned, to make us the first fruits of His resurrection, to give us forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Him. This He does in His Holy Christian Church, proclaimed from pulpit and absolution, washed over you in Baptism’s saving waters, fed you in His life-giving Body and Blood.

Our sorrow and suffering will turn to joy, says Jesus. Paul Gerhardt's hymn, Awake, My Heart, With Gladness imagines a sign hung on the gates of heaven: “Who there my cross has shared, finds here a crown prepared; who there with Me has died, shall here be glorified.” We follow Christ in bearing the cross, suffering, scorn, and even the daily frustration and temptation of sin, from which we long to be fully free. But the Lord's comfort here is that it will not last. Sorrow will be turned into joy that no one can take away. The Resurrection has guaranteed it. The last Day will reveal it.

Until then, despite the suffering and sorrow brought on by sin, live with confidence and faith in the forgiveness and life Jesus has won for you and has given you in your Baptism. He lives and He reigns, and He brings good out of all things for those who love Him, and the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the joy that is to be revealed. Pray for the strength to remain faithful at the place where God has need of you, even unto death. Pray that you will go thankfully through the gates of life when the portals open to the joy of the Lord. Then, your joy will be complete, it will never be taken away, and at last you will be set free from misery and death, from all sorrow and grief. For to live, is to live in Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1.21) (adapted from Bo Giertz, Preaching From The Whole Bible, p. 59)

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +