April 24, 2016
“From Sorrow to Joy”
Because of sin, life is short and full of misery. The relative innocence of your childhood is quickly shattered, and the world keeps on hitting you with disappointments and troubles. It never really lets up. Every stage of life has its unique sorrows to offer. Stress and depression, loneliness and conflict, anxiety, physical aches and pains, emotional gunk of all kinds. And death is always bearing down on us, it's just that sometimes we feel its hot breath on our neck a little more closely. In many ways the movie quote has it right, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something."
In the first few verses Jesus is preparing his disciples for the sorrow of his departure. But he doesn't mean to just leave them high and dry.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Jesus would like to spend more time with his disciples, it seems, and share even more of his words with them. He had much more to say, things they needed to hear. But he also realized his time was short and they couldn't bear it all right now anyway. They weren't ready. So he promises them The Spirit of Truth.
And this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, will declare the things to come. He will also glorify Christ by taking what is Christ's and declaring it to us. He is the one who brings us to Christ, teaches us about Christ, shows us Christ. Like the operator of a giant high wattage spotlight, the Holy Spirit directs our attention not to himself, but to Christ, our Savior, and his words.
These words of Christ were fulfilled, in part, as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to write the New Testament. Through the epistles, especially, the meaning of Christ's work on earth is expounded, and we are also given all we need to know about what the future holds for us. For instance, Paul expounds on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. John's Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of the church in glory – the New Jerusalem, adorned as the Bride of Christ. And in so many other words the Spirit of Truth unfolds the truth of Christ for us, his people.
And he does so to comfort us. Because life is full of sorrow.
If Jesus hadn't warned us, repeatedly, about the sorrows of this life, we might conclude that our sufferings mean he is displeased with us, or has forsaken us, or that he is powerless to overcome evil. But he helps us make sense of sorrow but warning us that it will come. There will be persecutions, natural disasters, wars and rumors of wars. There will be false prophets who lead many astray. All of this is to be expected. None of it means things are out of his control.
Instead, he comforts us in our sorrows. He works good from all things, even out of evil, for those who belong to him. His rod and staff comfort us as he walks along side us in the valley of the shadow of death. He even tells us “blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and those who suffer for righteousness sake.”
Jesus can comfort us in our sorrow because he knows sorrow so well. He is the Man of Sorrows as Isaiah prophesied, and “well acquainted with grief”. It's why he had to go away from them for “a little while”. It began with his arrest in Gethsemane. It was the hour of the power of darkness. The shepherd was struck, and the sheep scattered. Then the kangaroo court trial, the bloodthirsty crowd, and the cowardly Pilate who handed him over to death. Nails, thorns, mocking, humiliation. All manner of sorrow and then some. Finally, forsaken by God, he gave even his very life. And the wicked world rejoiced at all of it.
But the God who turns grief into joy would not abandon his own Son to the grave. After a little while, they would see them again. And they would see him alive! The tears of the women at the tomb, the bewildered fears of the disciples locked in their room – all would be turned to joy. Even Peter who wept bitterly when he denied the Lord, would be restored.
This is the joy that Easter brings even to us, who live “a little while” after all of that. The God who turns sorrow to joy will neither abandon you to the grave, dear Christian. He will never leave you or forsake you. Even if you don't see him. But in “a little while”, you too will see him again.
Jesus did appear to his disciples and even as many as 500 followers on one occasion, and gave “many convincing proofs” of his resurrection. The scriptural and apostolic witness of this historical fact far exceeds any other ancient event in the quantity and quality of its evidence. And the Spirit of Truth confirms, even in us who have not seen but yet believe, that Christ is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.
But there is another “little while”. Not just the 40 days after his resurrection, for then he was taken from them into heaven. But now, the age of the church, is another “little while” in which we do not see him. Sure, we have his presence in the word, and in the sacraments. And what a comfort that is! But still, there are promises yet to be fulfilled, a greater hope and glory yet to come.
“Behold, I am coming soon!” Jesus says in the last few words of the last book of our Bible. A little while, and you will see him, when he comes again in glory. When he comes with his holy angels and with the trumpet call of God. When all sorrows are washed away. When all corruption is burned in fire. And when he ushers in the New Heaven and New Earth. There we will live in resurrected, glorified bodies, in perfect communion with Father, Son and Spirit, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Grief to gladness. Sorrow turned to joy. It is the way of God. It was the path of Christ. And it is the road we too, are on. Taking up our crosses and following him who bore the cross for all. Considering the sufferings of this world not worth comparing to the glory yet to be revealed. Pressing on, never despairing, always in hope, resting secure in Christ.
And this universal picture of a woman in labor. Perhaps there is no greater earthly pain (you moms would have to fill us in). But when the new life arrives, when that precious babe is born, the labor pains are forgotten and the celebration begins. And how many would say that the birth of a child is the greatest day of their life? How much more will it be for us, who labor in this world of sorrows, who shuffle through this vale of tears, who fumble through a life wracked with one trouble and the next.... but who have a hope on the horizon.
So cling to this promise, Christian. Live in that security, that though this life is pain, and troubles are sure to come. Jesus Christ is alive. His sorrow and pain, his suffering and death bring you the promise of joy eternal. Death only had him for a little while. But no more. And in a little while, you too will see him. And no one will be able to take away your joy in him, forever and ever. Amen.
Sunday, April 03, 2016
Peace, Forgiveness, Blessings, Belief, Life
John's Gospel recounts for us the events of that first Easter Sunday evening, and also a week later. And as we stand, a week out from our own Easter celebration, it only makes sense to pay attention. John uses five key words in our reading today – five Easter words – which draw our attention and interest. They are: Peace, Forgiveness, Blessings, Belief, and Life.
The first words Jesus speaks to the disciples in that upper room are words of peace. “Peace be with you”. And to a cowardly and cowering band of brothers who had deserted him in his darkest hour, the greeting is striking. They were anything but at peace. They were in fear of the Jews. They didn't want to die like Jesus. And they certainly weren't expecting to see him alive. Even so, they had deserted him! You might expect he'd be angry. Like a ghost come back to haunt them (remember they mistook him for a ghost once before). But Jesus says, “peace.” Jesus brings peace.
We know from Jesus' own words that the peace he brings and gives is a peace far different from what we're used to. “Not as the world gives, give I unto you”. The last time he gave them peace, well, how did that work out? It was 6 chapters before this, and before all the suffering and dying. Before the disciples scattered like roaches when the hammer came down on Jesus. Peace? Probably the furthest thing from their mind, now, but also what they needed the most.
Peace be with you, he says. Not, “How could you leave me in my darkest hour?” Not, “here I come to punish you for your unfaithfulness.” Nothing like that. No judgment, no throwing their sins in their faces, no come-uppin's. Just peace. Jesus left all that other stuff at the cross, and in the grave. Where our sins lay buried to rot for all eternity. The warfare is over. The time of peace has come.
The same Jesus would bring you a peace that passes understanding. The same Jesus would break in to whatever room of doubt and despair and fear you've got yourself locked into. He comes, not in terror as the king of kings, but kind and good, with healing in his wings. He comes with peace, a peace unlike the world's fleeting, temporary, outward, surface-thin peace. His peace is deeper and broader and more profound than even eye can see or ear can hear or mind can comprehend. It is peace with God.
And that peace is connected, always, to the next key word here: forgiveness. In fact the peace flows from forgiveness. The reason they could be at peace is that their sins were forgiven. The sins of the world were forgiven in Jesus' death, and the deal is sealed when his tomb is un-sealed, and he leaves death behind. That forgiveness of the cross is where our peace is always rooted and where it was forged.
But notice, he's not content simply to forgive his wayward disciples. He has a mission for them. He is sending them, even as he was sent on a mission. And that mission is: forgive. If you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven. The forgiveness they enjoy is also a forgiveness they are to extend on his behalf.
And we do so, even today. When the called and ordained servant of Christ stands here, and says, “I forgive you your sins,” some might find it shocking. Some might even ask, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” Fair enough, but Jesus, the victorious-over-sin-and-death Son of God, who clearly has such authority – has commanded humble men to carry it on. He appointed his apostles, who then appointed pastors all over the world, and down through history, to carry this forgiveness forward in Jesus' stead and by his command. So when you hear it today, or any day, in Jesus' name, you are forgiven. It's just as sure as if he was standing in this room, in the flesh, nail-scarred hands and all. Peace. Forgiveness.
Thomas, ah poor Thomas. Absent from the first appearance to the 11. Various theories suggest exactly why Thomas wasn't there. Was he purposely gone, for fear he'd be caught with the others? Was it just happenstance, or even divine purpose? Daylight Savings Time? What's clear, though is that Thomas will always be remembered as “Doubting”. Even though, upon seeing, he believed. Maybe we should even call him, “confessing Thomas”, for his declaration, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus accepts this statement, and implying that Thomas is blessed for seeing and believing, but that they are even more blessed who do not see and yet believe. Clearly Jesus has others in mind – those who would come to believe in the future – people like you and me.
Blessings and believing, our next two key ideas, go hand in hand. Belief itself, faith, is a blessing. It is a gift we can't work up or choose, it's not something we can figure out on our own. It is a working on the Holy Spirit in our hearts, through the Gospel. What greater blessing can there be? For it is through faith in Christ that we are saved. Not of ourselves, otherwise we'd boast about it, but only as a pure and free gift of God's grace. Faith is a blessing, not an earned reward, not a side effect of our great goodness but something God bestows in spite of our worst wickedness. Even though we are, like they were, cowardly, fearful, slow-to-believe and full of doubts. Still he blesses. Still he bestows faith, that we might believe, and have peace, and forgiveness. And... life.
John makes this final comment, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples”. And the mind races to imagine what these might have been. Did he show them the future? Did he give them a peek into heaven? Did he transfigure before them again, or some other wild spectacle? But of all the things that John could have written, of all the words that the Holy Spirit could have inspired, he chose these. Because his purpose is clear: That you may believe, and that believing, you may have life in his name. No distractions. No fascinating sidebars that miss the point. These things are written for you to believe and have life.
Faith and life, also go together. In fact, all 5 of these things do. Peace with God flows from the forgiveness Jesus won. Blessings abound when we believe. And peace and forgiveness and faith – are all blessings of the life that he brings.
And Jesus knows life. He's the author of it. He is the very word of God that was spoken in creation... “let us make man...” In him was life, and the life was the light of all men (John 1). He is the one sent that whoever believes would not perish, but have eternal life (also from John's Gospel, chapter 3). He is the way, the truth and the life (John 14).
His death and resurrection are a life and death matter for you. By his death he destroys death – for you. Your death has no sting, no victory, because of the Lord of life... and by his rising from the dead he brought life and immortality to light. We were blind and dead. But now, in Christ, we can see and we live.
And just like the peace that he gives, the life he gives is far greater than anything the world has to offer. Life in this world is short, sometimes shockingly so. Life in this world is full of tears and misery, thorns and thistles, heartbreak and bloodshed. But the life he gives is far above any life we've ever known. It's your best life now, and your best life for eternity. It's life that swallows up death. It's life even though you die. For he who lives and believes in Christ will never die.
And that life, and that peace, and forgiveness, faith, and all blessings... they come to us through his word. Just as John wrote these words, “so that you may believe and have life”, so does the Holy Spirit work through the Gospel in all of its proclamation. The same Spirit working the same wonders and same spiritual blessings for all of us who are in Christ. So even here, all that is said and done according to that word is for your peace, forgiveness, faith, blessing, and life.
May you find them now and always in Christ alone.