John 16:16-22; 1 Peter 2:11-20; Isaiah 40:25-31
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It is a common sentiment that, in life, you have to experience the bitter in order to enjoy the sweet. This euphemism expresses the reality that life is not without its trials and tribulations, its pain and suffering, its sorrows and griefs, but that, nevertheless, life is also not without its joys and pleasures, which are augmented and made considerably sweeter by our experience of the bitter. Throughout the ages, poets and writers, philosophers, artists, and musicians have pondered the sublime, tempered, joy and peace that comes from embracing these opposing realities of life, the bitter and the sweet. Yet, embracing the pain and the joy of life alone does not gain for you a moment more in life, but the bitterest reality still remains – death. Again, the poets and the philosophers, even a good number of spiritualists and religious con-men, have attempted to make this mortal coil that we call life an end in itself, a good in itself, and they have attempted to make death appear good as well. But they deceive themselves, and they would deceive you, denying that you are more than dust and ashes, skin and bone. For the truth is that the sweetest of your life’s sweet moments are but a faint and distant cry compared to the joy that will be, and already is, yours in Jesus Christ who promises that, while “you have sorrow now, […] I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Certainly, of all men, your Lord Jesus was, as Isaiah prophesied, a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”. Though He had no sin or guilt of His own, He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. Jesus knows what it means to be a man, to experience the bitterness of pain and sorrow, grief and suffering. He wept bitterly at the death of his friend Lazarus and He had great compassion upon a little girl who had died and tenderly raised her to life saying, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” He knew the anguished isolation of those cut off from their families and friends, even from worship in the temple, such as those with illnesses like leprosy and others declared to be unclean because they were sinners, like tax collectors and prostitutes. He knew the vulnerability and the suffering of the poor and the widowed, and He knew the hopelessness, despair, and dreadful loneliness of the imprisoned. Jesus knows man’s fear and dread of death and his fervent desire and futile attempts to avoid it, to deny it, to euphemize it, and to explain it away. And, as a man, He suffered the torment and the torture that men suffer when facing death, and He did not seek a way around it, but He commended Himself into His Father’s hands that His will be done.
Apart from faith in Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, grief and sorrow, pain and suffering, and death have no meaning or purpose at all, but they are a reality that must be tolerated and endured, whose cause and purpose is unknown and therefore is dreaded and feared, rationalized, euphemized, and explained away. But, because of Jesus, you do not have to dread and fear suffering and death, for they have been defeated. Indeed, your Good Shepherd Jesus has given Himself into death and has passed, alive, through it. Now He leads you, His precious sheep, purchased in His holy blood through suffering and death as well. For, the Valley of the Shadow of Death is not some distant foreign place you have yet to arrive, but it is here, and it is now. The Valley of Death is this world in which you live and breathe, go to school and work, raise your families, and experience pain and sorrow, bitter suffering, and death along with a multitude of sweet joys. What the poets and philosophers and the false teachers tell you, however, is that this is all there is – birth, life, death – and that you should embrace suffering and death as good friends, that it’s all part of the great circle of life. But that is a lie! You were not created for death, but for life with your Creator. You were not meant to suffer loss and pain as your loved ones are snatched from you in death and as your own body succumbs to decay and withers away, but you were born into an eternal family, in the beginning, and now. Do not listen to the spirits of this world, but listen to the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has sent into the world to counsel and console you and to guide you on the path to truth and life.
In preparing His disciples for His own suffering and death which He was about to accomplish, Jesus taught them, likely on the Thursday night before His death as they were finishing the Passover meal, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Jesus was talking about His death and resurrection, but His words have meaning for us beyond that immediate context. Though He had taught them repeatedly that He must suffer and die and on the third day rise again, the disciples did not understand or believe Jesus’ words. When He was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed on Friday, they were all terrified and they fled – they all believed Him dead and gone. Even when Jesus rose on the third day, just as he said, and appeared to them, they did not believe Him until He showed them His hands and His side – then they were filled with joy in the presence of their resurrected Lord. But, forty days later, Jesus was taken from them again as He ascended in glory to the right hand of His Father in heaven. Then, ten days after that, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them. The ministry of the Church of Christ had begun. From Pentecost on, the Gospel proclamation of the Church of Christ has remained: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
But, the disciples asked, “What does He mean by ‘a little while’?” It is a bit ambiguous, isn’t it? When your child asks “When can I watch TV?” sometimes you answer, “In a little while”, then you go off and forget all about it altogether, right? And, what may be a little while to you can seem like an eternity to someone else. Indeed, the little while between Jesus’ death and resurrection was approximately thirty-six hours (three days by Jewish reckoning). But, the little while between Jesus’ ascension and His return? Well, it’s been almost 2,000 years, and we’re still waiting for a little while.
Or, are we? Before His ascension, Jesus commissioned His disciples, then apostles, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He had commanded them. And, He promised them, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Jesus has kept His promise to be with them, and He is keeping His promise to be with you, now. Jesus is present with you and for you with the rod and staff of His Word of Law and Gospel. Jesus is present with you in the cool, cleansing waters of Holy Baptism. And, Jesus is with you at the table of His body and blood which He has prepared for you in this Valley, in the presence of enemies who want you stay in the Valley of the Shadow of Death forever, and not enter into the Father’s House, where sheep may safely graze.
Your Good Shepherd Jesus is with you in this little while, faithfully shepherding you through life, with all its griefs and sorrows, with all its bitterness and sweetness. Your Good Shepherd Jesus is with you in this little while, faithfully shepherding you through death into joy that no one will take from you. Your enemy wants you to not believe this. Your enemy wants you to believe that this life is all there is so that you live for the now, seeking to avoid, deny, euphemize, or explain away suffering and death and so miss out on the joy of eternal life. Your enemy seeks to keep you in bondage to desires and passions of the flesh so that you seek and clamor to store up treasure on earth, to feed your pride and every selfish indulgence, to view your brothers and sisters and neighbors as competitors to keep you from attaining your insatiable goals.
Thus St. Peter exhorts you to live as sojourners and exiles, pilgrims passing through this life and world. Receive, enjoy, and share the worldly things you have as rich blessings from your gracious Lord and God, but do not live for them and thus make them your masters and gods. Treat all persons with respect and love that they may see Christ in you and glorify God. And, when you are persecuted because of your faith, remember that they so persecuted your Lord and that the student is not greater than the teacher. And, know this: that you will sorrow and the world will rejoice, but only for a little while. Then you will see Jesus and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
Jesus sets joy before you as an objective reality. The joy of which Jesus speaks is not a subjective emotion, but it is communion with God, it is life as it was meant to be, life of which the sweetest moments now are but the dimmest shadows of, a life and joy that no one will ever be able to take from you. This joy is as sure and certain and real now as is the child that will be born at the end of a woman’s labor. The joy that a mother experiences at the birth of her child far eclipses the sorrow and suffering of her labor so that it is no longer remembered. In a similar way, this life of yours is but the travails of labor. When you are born into new life in the resurrection, you will no longer remember the sorrow and suffering, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for you an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.
This Jesus, who is your Good Shepherd, is also your God who made you and loves you and who will faithfully see you home. He gives power to the faint and to him who has no might he increases strength. They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. He will preserve you during this little while. And, what is a little while of bitterness and sweetness from the perspective of an eternity of the sweetest joy? It is true that you have to experience the bitter to enjoy the sweet, but even grief, sorrow, suffering, and death have become less bitter because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And, in a little while, the bitterness will be no more.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.