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The Strange Way of Joy Through Sorrow

Fourth Sunday of Easter


Commemoration of C. F. W. Walther, Theologian

May 7, 2017

John 16:16–22

In the Gospel reading today Jesus tells His disciples that in a little while they won’t see Him any longer. But then in a little while they will. He says that when they no longer see Him they will have sorrow. The world will rejoice but they will endure suffering.

They don’t understand what He’s talking about and so He explains further. What is should never have been, but it is. We weren’t supposed to die, but our sin ensures that we will die. We weren’t supposed to toil the ground in order to keep ourselves alive, but our sin brought this toil on us. And in the example Jesus uses, giving birth wasn’t supposed to be an agonizing process, but our sin brought this agony on us.

Jesus says that when a woman gives birth she is overcome by her sorrow. With all of our medical technology and sterile hospital rooms and nurses handling all the details we may forget that giving birth is a traumatic experience and throughout history has often met with the death of the baby, the mother, or both. Giving birth is very much labor.

But when the baby is born Jesus says that her sorrow turns to joy. The sorrow that overcame her is overcome by the joy of human life having come from her womb. This is the fruition of what she has been waiting for and it’s worth it.

In this way then Jesus teaches us the strange way in which we receive joy through sorrow. It’s the opposite of the way we think. We think of joy as the absence of sorrow. Jesus wants us to know that true joy comes only through sorrow.

Jesus was no philosopher. He didn’t sit in an ivory tower and pontificate from on high. He got down into the trenches where we labor in this world and experience suffering. Jesus did not speak these words in a vacuum. He spoke them hours before He would sit with His disciples and have one last meal together. In this meal He would give them something that embodies ultimate sorrow and suffering, His body and His blood.

The disciples were confused as Jesus spoke. Jesus on the other hand knew exactly the import of His words. He would give His body and blood to them in bread and wine hours before He would give His body over to death on the cross and shed His blood on that very cross. He knew what sorrow awaited Him and He didn’t shirk from it.

You know why? Because joy comes through sorrow. It’s the strangest thing, the way God works. Strange, how when the people He created have sinned against Him that He would save them by giving His own Son over to sorrow and suffering. Strange, how to give us true joy that He would bear the sorrow and suffering Himself. Strange, how when payment for our sin and guilt is required, He required it of His Son so that we may rejoice in eternal life instead.

And that is why Jesus gave His body and blood in His meal before giving over His life on the cross, so that as often as we eat and drink it we may be forgiven and strengthened in the midst of our sorrow and suffering.

We’re a lot like those disciples. We don’t get it, the way God works. We don’t understand, do we, why we go through suffering. We’re impatient when sorrow seems to be the normal course of our life in Christ as opposed to being free from sorrow and pain as we think it should be for life in Christ.

That’s why these words have been written down. So that we may go back to them and see that we’re in that little while ourselves. Jesus had indeed gone from the disciples for a little while but then He came back, rising from the dead. However, soon after He ascended into heaven and so has gone away from us for a little while. True to form, we’re thinking that going on two thousand years doesn’t seem like a little while but a very long time.

When is He coming back? Why is the lot of the Christian life marked by sorrow and suffering? Why does Jesus make it so easy for the world to rejoice? They can’t see Jesus anymore than we can, and so they scorn our belief in Him. Trying to hold fast in faith to Him, it can be hard when we are hurt by others, or diagnosed with life-threatening illness, or lose someone we love, or are beaten down by the attacks of the world and Satan on our faith.

When Jesus met two of His followers on the road to Emmaus they were distraught because Jesus had died and they had given up hope in Him. He responded to them in this way: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?” In the same way, those disciples who listened to Jesus speak the words of our Gospel reading ended up called as His apostles and suffered persecution as they held steadfast to His Word and proclaimed salvation in Him alone.

There is nothing you have endured or might endure that is new to human beings. You may experience something that is new to you, but your Lord will never let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. Hear the same words Jesus spoke to His disciples as He speaks them now to you: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” This is His promise to you in your sorrow. He knows that you suffer. He knows that it’s not easy, that it’s plain hard. His coming back in a little while seems very long to you.

That is why He hasn’t left you alone. He said it clearly, I will see you again. You cannot see Him, but He comes to you. What He first gave to His disciples on the night when He was betrayed He has continued to give His disciples often as the little while of His departure has spanned across the centuries. But you don’t count your struggles by centuries of waiting but day after day. His promise to you is certain, more certain than any suffering you endure: This is My body, this is My blood. There is no greater strength than what He gives you here in His Holy Supper.

In Baptism you were brought into Christ. In Romans 6 Paul says, “We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” He first brought you in this life into His life by incorporating you into His death and resurrection. That means life for you forever. You are Baptized, you have been brought into Christ.

In the Sacrament of the Altar, then, Christ is brought into you. As you were united in His life in Baptism, His life is given into you in His Holy Supper. He gives you His body to eat and His blood to drink. There is no greater strength as you bear sorrow and suffering than to have in you Christ Himself. You cannot bear it alone, He comes to you in your very life to bear it with you.

And thus, as Jesus says, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” How can they, when you have been brought into the life of Christ in your Baptism and He has been brought into you in His sacred meal? Your sorrow and suffering you endure will always seem strange. Why does God work things this way? But strange is good, as we see that it is only through suffering and death that Jesus gained the joy of resurrection. It was only in being united with Christ in His death in your Baptism that you were united with Him in Baptism in His resurrection. And it is only in the giving you of His body given on the cross and His blood shed on the cross that you have Christ in you and thus have joy in your sorrow. Amen.