Text: John 16:16-22
Date: Easter IV + 4/29/07
During our midweek, Wednesday Lenten services this year we sat (and stood) with the first disciples in the Upper Room of Maundy Thursday and heard all the words of Jesus He spoke that night in which He was betrayed, recorded for us in five chapters of Saint John’s Gospel, chapters 13-17. If you were not with us during those weeks of Holy Lent you should know that now, like the first disciples, we can say, we’ve heard these words before, this text from John 16. Now in the joy and glow of Easter we, with those first disciples, recall those words and begin, only now, to understand what we formerly didn’t understand, to comprehend the depth of what He said to us then before it all happened—before His betrayal, suffering, cruel death and burial. Then, we didn’t understand what He meant when He said, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me." Now, after His resurrection from only three days in a tomb, we see how little that “little while” was and, more than that, how it is that He said our sorrow has been turned into joy. What’s at issue here, however, is more than that initial experience of the first disciples. For the resurrection and ascension of Christ and this promise before us today is to give us patience and lift us out of all our “little whiles” of suffering or mourning, of fear and frustration, to an inner and real joy, as our Lord says, that no one will be able to take away. These words of our risen Lord mean to give us hope today in the face of any and all trials we may be enduring because the promise is, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” [Romans 8:18].
The first and most important point of our text is that the Word of God is spiritually discerned and understood. That is to say that flesh and blood and human reason is not able to understand much less believe the Word of God. It is as the Apostle Paul said,
“As it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” [1 Cor. 2:9-10, 14-15].
As our text demonstrates, the first disciples were truly confused and in the dark. They questioned among themselves what Jesus meant by His words. They even say it straight out, “We do not know what he is talking about.” I won’t ask “if” we have ever said something like that, but “how many times?” For, even after all the post-resurrection appearances and our Lord’s opening of their minds to understand the scriptures, they, like us, still had a sizeable chunk of the “old Adam” in them that confused them, as when He was about to ascend into heaven they still held on to the old idea of an earthly kingdom when they asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). So it is with us. No matter how many years or how much instruction or education in the Holy Scriptures one may have there’s always still a part of us that doesn’t get it or, even if we do, prefers our petty fears, our doubts and complainings when things seem against us and we think God has cut us off and grown deaf to our prayers.
This is exactly how the Word of God strikes people in general today. Biblical illiteracy is rampant in the public square. Surely they’ve heard of the Bible. Thanks to the Gideons many have at least seen the Book in hotel drawers. But when you talk about what’s in the Bible—Moses, Abraham or Isaiah, or about Jesus and his disciples, and then you talk about some of those disciples as apostles, and even when you talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection—none of these things mean anything. As Luther said, understanding requires two things: understanding the words and understanding the subject matter. The words are one thing. When a person understands the words but not the subject matter or meaning of those words they cannot take comfort, be strengthened or believe.
For example, people naturally think that when we talk about “faith” we mean nothing more than “personal opinion;” the Bible they see as just a book of rules. I’ve even heard a lay-leader in a church express the misunderstanding that, for all our talk about the words “Law” and “Gospel,” “the Law,” he said, “tells us what we shouldn’t do, and the Gospel tells us what we should do.” To think of the Gospel as telling us what we should do is, of course, to turn the Gospel back into Law! The Gospel tells us not about us but about what God has done and is doing for us. The public thinks that a church is only as good as the social services it provides and worship is only entertainment with some sort of moral message that is meant either to improve your life or simply to justify your own desires. Unless we realize how unenlightened people think when they hear us talk we will not be adequately communicating spiritual truth. It is only the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ and of His resurrection that can break through spiritual darkness and enlighten the heart and mind to the glorious truth of God’s love and salvation.
The “little while” Jesus was talking about in our text was his approaching death by crucifixion and rising again from the dead. As their weeping and mourning over his departure would be intense on that Good Friday and Saturday, much more would be their joy over their seeing Him again after the resurrection on Easter Sunday. But even then faith does not follow unless and until a person understands why Christ had to die and rise again. Unless and until a person believes that His death and resurrection was for us, on our behalf, that His death means the payment for all our sin and His resurrection means reconciliation with God and the hope of eternal life for us, the best the fallen mind darkened by sin can come up with is that Jesus was just some sort of strange example and not the Source of forgiveness, life and salvation.
Now, while this text is referring specifically to the disciples’ experience through those dark days of their Lord’s Passion, death and resurrection, these words also have a blessed application to the sufferings and troubles, times of affliction and temptation that are a part of every Christian’s experience as we travel this way of faith while still in this fallen world. Look at how many times the New Testament in particular contains words of encouragement for those times! For instance, St. Peter’s words, using the same little phrase he had heard himself from Jesus, “a little while:”
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” [1 Peter 5:6-10].
Again, Martin Luther’s words, “When you experience this kind of tribulation—the world cursing and persecuting, deriding and laughing, and the devil also plaguing you—what will you do? Become impatient…even cursing? Not at all! Instead, have patience, wait it out, take courage and say, So what? Didn’t my Lord Christ predict, ‘You shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice.’ But, he added, your sorrow will turn into joy after ‘a little while.’ Because he’s always trustworthy, never having lied to me about the ‘little (while)’ namely, that I do not now see him and therefore weep and lament, so he will also not deceive me in regard to the other ‘little (while),’ namely, that I will see him again and my heart will rejoice! And that’s why we need seriously to ponder his words when he describes this alternating between not seeing and then seeing Christ, being sorrowful and then rejoicing, weeping and then being cheerful!”
Jesus uses the illustration of a woman giving birth to a baby. For the moment pain or grief seems intense because you don’t know if or when it will ever end. Therefore we have this promise that we are to remember and to repeat in such times, “a little while.” As the pains of childbirth are changed into great joy when the child is born, so certain should we be that joy follows upon our weeping and mourning. Flesh and blood and our natural reason only judges according to the senses and feelings of the moment. The believer clings to the Word, comforting himself with the promise that sadness lasts only “a little while” and then changes into gladness, ultimately the eternal gladness of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Whoever has this kind of confidence, the confidence of a God-given faith, can patiently endure misfortune, comforting yourself with this thought that it’s only “a little while.” In this faith and hope, Christ will let us see him again, as He said to those first disciples, so also to us: “I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one can take from you.” That precious promise is the heart of this Gospel lesson, truly good news for Christians, so that we may keep on growing in faith. It is finally faith alone (faith: this God-given trust in God’s promises and salvation) that can bring us the comfort, the patience, and the hope we need for all of life’s great trials and tribulations.