Todd A. Peperkorn, STM Messiah Lutheran Church Kenosha, Wisconsin Easter 3 – Jubilate (May 15, 2011, revised from 2004) John 16:16-22
TITLE: “A Little While”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our text is from the Gospel lesson. We focus on Jesus’ words, A Little While.
In Exodus fifteen we read that as the children of Israel were led by the Lord, they wandered for three days and found no water. But when they finally came to Mara, the water they found was so bitter they couldn’t drink it.
That is still how things are with you and I, the spiritual Israel. Sometimes we have to drink bitter water in the wilderness of this world. Sometimes the cup that the Lord gives us is the cup of cross and tribulation (Ps. 75:9), just as our Lord drank gall and vinegar from the cross (Matthew 27:48). This is, to be sure, one of the most difficult things to understand about the Christian faith. It is sometimes called the theology of the cross; at other times the theology of suffering; but we might simply sum it up and call it life. How is it that in this life we suffer and undergo trials of various sorts? Didn’t Jesus die on the cross and rise again from the dead so that we would not have to suffer?
We all face crosses and trials of various kinds here in this life. They may be physical trials, they may be emotional or personal, they may have to do with family or work. Or the trials you face may be of another sort entirely, that no one else even knows about! The trials of this life can be very painful and grueling, just as that bitter water was so hard to swallow for the children of Israel so many years ago.
But God showed Moses a tree which he was to set down into that bitter water in order to make it sweet. God does the same for you. He sets before you the Tree of Life, that is, Jesus Christ in His Word (Rev. 22:2). As one pastor put it many years ago, “When we sink the Tree into the bitter waters of cross and tribulation, when we ponder Christ’s cross and suffering, also when we seize and take to heart the comfort of His Word, even through that our cross becomes light and sweet” (Johann Gerhard). This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, Come to me, all you who are worn out and overburdened; I will refresh and renew you. Take my yoke upon yourselves-for My yoke is gentle and My burden is light (Mat. 11:28-30).
Our text this morning about the little while of Jesus going and coming teaches us four things about the doctrine of the theology of the cross. First, it teaches us that all true Christians will be subjected to the cross in this life; second, that our reason cannot understand the mystery of the cross; third, it shows why our Lord places us under the cross; and finally, what kind of comfort the Christian may receive by the power of His Word.
First of all, the Scriptures repeatedly teach that the Christian will be under the cross their entire life. Jesus says in Matthew 16:24: If anyone wants to follow Me, let him deny himself and take his cross upon himself and follow me. And Saint Paul says that We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). And St. Paul says again in 2 Timothy 3:6, For those who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus have to suffer persecutions. And we hear in Hebrews 12:6, For whomever the Lord loves He chastises. And Jesus repeatedly says in reference to His own suffering that this must happen or it is necessary that the Son of Man suffer and the like.
Perhaps the way to think of it is like this. Our Lord wants to make you into living stones that build up the body of Christ. You are His workmanship, His work of art. Now stones, in order to be used in building, must be chiseled and polished and worked until they are just right. God is, in effect, chiseling you out and polishing you for the kingdom of God. He is working away at your unbelief and sin, removing the impediments to faith and building you up into His own image, the image of His only begotten Son.
But this is truly a mystery if there ever was one. This is the second point of our text. The disciples didn’t understand, and neither do we. When we are faced with trials and tribulations in this life, our response is more likely to be one of complaining and murmuring against God, than it is rejoicing that He has made us worthy to be fashioned into His likeness. It is a mystery that only God can reveal to us by His Word.
So why is it that God must lay crosses and tribulations upon us? It works this way: Our rebirth comes through faith, and faith comes from the Word of God, but the Word of God is seldom planted apart from the cross and tribulation. When things are going perfectly in your life, when you are happy and making money, when everything goes right in your life, who needs God? So in order to cultivate the ground of your heart, God sends tribulations and trials, so that you will hear His Word and trust in Him all of your life.
Now perhaps at first glance this seems mean. I suppose that to a young child, when a parent disciplines them, it does appear just mean. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Our heavenly Father chastens us and allows trials and tribulations precisely because He loves us. When cross and trial grieve you, rejoice and be glad! For this is a sign that God has not abandoned you, but rather that He loves you so much that He wishes to fashion you into something even greater.
Jesus’ cross and empty tomb give you a lens for seeing the world and your own life. The devil, the world and your own sinful nature all want you to look at the trials and sufferings of your life, and believe that by them God is proving He has abandoned you. But Jesus in our Gospel today gives you hope. A little while, he says. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? A little while. That’s how long the suffering and trials of this life will last.
Now while you and I are stuck in the middle of things here on this earth, a little while may seem like a terribly long time. We may cry out with the Psalmist, How long, O Lord, how long? Our little while may seem more like the Israelites four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, or their seventy years exiled in Babylon. But just like the Israelites as they prayed in Psalm one hundred twenty six:
1 When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion, We were like those who dream. 2Then our mouth was filled with laughter, And our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3The LORD has done great things for us, And we are glad. (Psalm 126:1-3)
Christ our Lord may leave for a little while, as He says in this text, but He returns again and again by Word and Sacrament to give you the strength you need to go on with life. Trust that Christ will take care of you. He who died on the cross and rose again for your salvation will see you through. Believe it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in true faith, unto life everlasting. Amen.
Some of the ideas behind this sermon are received with thanks from Johann Gerhard’s Church Postils.