The text we want to carefully consider today is our Gospel reading from St. John’s 16th chapter.
The setting is the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the Lord is gathered with His apostles for the annual Passover Meal. This is now the third time they have celebrated the Passover together since He called them saying, “come, follow Me.” This Seder will not go as the other two had gone however. The previous two would have progressed in the customary pattern that they had all grown up with in their good, Jewish homes.
But this Passover meal began with Jesus humbling himself and washing their feet and commanding them to be just as eager and willing to humble themselves and be the servant to each other.
At the meal itself, the Lord would replace the normal and expected explanation of the meaning of the foods that were eaten with the strange and mysterious explanation that the bread is His body and the wine is His blood.
And then after the meal was finished, the Lord led a rather lengthy discourse to prepare them for what was about to take place, before departing for the Garden of Gethsemane. All of this is recorded in chapters 13 through 17 of John’s Gospel, which is to say that almost 25% percent of John’s gospel is devoted to this Passover in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Which tells us just how important what took place there is.
Today, our attention is focused on a small portion of our Lord’s discourse which begins with His telling His disciples, “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.”
These “things that are to come” include His arrest and suffering and crucifixion and burial and His resurrection on the 3rd day. The fact that all of this will throw them into all kinds of doubts and fears and despair is not something that Jesus intends to prevent in them. He will not open their minds…yet.
Only after these “things that are to come” will He visit them again and begin to “open their minds” and later, send the Spirit of Truth who will guide them into all truth about why these “things that are to come” had to happen and the meaning of great victory that He would accomplish for them and the whole world by these “things that are to come.”
First, they must experience the doubting and worrying and despair…
and then He will open their minds…
and then they will learn the meaning those “things that are to come…”
and then their hearts will rejoice and be glad…
and then their faith will be strengthened in a way that it never would have been strengthened if He had opened their minds beforehand.
This is the way it works in the Kingdom of God. Our Lord does not promise to spare us the times of doubts and the fears and despair doubt produces in us. He doesn’t say, “if you are really one of My believers you will never have your ‘dark night of the soul.’”
There will be times when things don’t make any sense for the one who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord, just as the Apostles believed that Jesus Christ is Lord. Just as they were not able to bear or understand the “things that were to come…” we too experience our times of deep confusion and have our doubts and fears and we wonder where things are headed and maybe even, “is Jesus Christ really Lord”?
The Apostle’s inability to understand the “things that are to come” is borne out in what follows. “A little while you will see me no longer; and again a little while and you will see me.” “So some of His disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me;’ and ‘because I am going to the Father’? “So they were saying, ‘what does he mean by ‘a little while?’ We do not know what he is talking about.”
Seeing their bewilderment and confusion and taking pity on them, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
He is telling them ahead of time how they will react to His suffering, death and burial. And then, how they will react when He rises from the dead on Easter. The time of weeping and lamentation will be their ‘little while.’ And no doubt, it would seem like a ‘great while’ while they’re in the midst of it.
When you don’t how long your ‘little while’ is going to last, it feels like it’ll never end. And the greater the distress and misery and the deeper the despair, the slower time seems to move, and even a ‘little while’ can feel like there is no end to it.
In addition, the very things that cause the believer to despair and sorrow and weep over are the things that this world rejoices and celebrates.
Here, the Lord is teaching His apostles that they dare not put any stock in what may appear to be advances and victories of the world over Christ and His church. The world will rejoice at the death of Jesus and seek to eradicate His church just as it continues to do to this day. And they will be scorned and ridiculed when they weep and lament and refuse to rejoice let alone celebrate the things that this world celebrates.
But this much they must trust and believe, even if they cannot yet “bear it.” The Lord promises a blessed exchange. Their sorrow will be turned into joy. And the world’s joy will be turned into sorrow. They need only be patient. Both the sorrow of the Christian as well as the rejoicing of the world each have their “little while.”
This is something that we all need to learn really well so that we might maintain the right perspective in our own times of trial and troubles and sorrow. And in those times when the unbelieving world seems to be making advances in its opposition to the Kingdom of God.
Paul describes the blessed exchange that the believer must cling to when he writes to the Romans, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)
Luther puts it this way, “here on earth, Christians experience an ever-recurring alternation of ‘a little while and again a little while.’ Now it is a dark night; soon it is day again. Therefore the lamenting does not have to last forever, even though it seems and feels that way when we are in it. But even though we cannot see or determine the end, Christ has already done so. He points out to us in advance that we must bear this suffering, no matter how bad and unpleasant the devil makes it. Even though we do not see the end, we must wait for Him who says, ‘I will put an end to it and will again comfort you and give you joy.’ (LW 24:382).
Here in the Upper Room, the Lord is not concerned for Himself. He knows what the outcome of His “little while” will be. He knows that the victory He will win… for these apostles whom He loves… for all people of every age and every place whom He loves…
The writer to the Hebrews declares that it was “for the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and was seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2).
Rather than focusing on how long our “little while” might last, our Lord would have us set our sights on the “joy that is set before us” which will transform even the deepest, darkest times into “little whiles.”
He uses an illustration. “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 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.”
Whoever has this kind of confidence in the Word of God will come through every time of trial and trouble in fine shape no matter how heavy the burden may be. But apart from this kind of confidence in the Word of God, we can barely endure even the smallest and lightest trials and troubles that come our way.
So, we need to remain very close to God’s Word and read, learn and take it to heart, so that when the “little whiles” come, which they are bound to do, “the Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.”
So, rather than dwelling on our suffering and pain or on how bad and unfair things are in the world, let us fix our eyes on our risen Lord and Savior and learn to depend on His promise, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Our Lord kept His promise to His apostles on Easter when walked through the locked doors and said, “peace be with you.” “In a little while you will not see me and again in a little while you will see me.” From sorrow and despair to happiness and joy.
His Easter joy is His wonderful gift to His church even today, even here and now. But this “joy” is still not complete for it can be stolen and interrupted with “little whiles” of sorrow and suffering.
But there is yet another day that is coming just as surely as Easter has come. Our Lord will come again on a day that He calls ‘the Last Day.’ And on that day, all of our “little whiles” will be over. And our joy will be complete and no one will take your joy from you.”