In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. When our Lord first spoke the words of our Gospel text, the disciples must have been thoroughly confused. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). What do you mean, “it is to [our] advantage that [you] go away?” How does that make any sense? Human reason suggests quite strongly that physical presence with others is by far the preferable option. No one who has communicated long-distance with another would ever suggest that communication over distance is preferable. Even in today’s day and age with technologies such as Zoom and live-streaming, there is no replacement for fleshly presence with one another. And yet, we must take our Lord’s words seriously. It is advantageous for us that our Lord go away, but this hinges upon the question of where Jesus is going. This is the point that the disciples are missing. Our Lord says to the disciples: “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). The disciples miss the point. They fail to ask, “Where are you going?” (John 16:5), and so they fail to understand how it is to their advantage that our Lord go away. So, before we can consider how it is advantageous to us that our Lord go away, we must first consider to where He goes.
2. Despite the disciples’ failure to ask the all-important question, our Lord twice tells us to where He goes: “I am going to Him who sent Me” (John 16:5), and “I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer” (John 16:10). Jesus was sent by the Father to make known to humanity the invisible God, as we read in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known”. Jesus came to win salvation for the world, as we read in John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him”. But having accomplished these things, Jesus must return to the Father, just as He said in verse 7 of today’s reading: “for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). We will consider this point more deeply in a few moments, but for now we must recognize that when our Lord goes away, He is going to the Father. This is significant because it demonstrates to us that even though there are a couple of senses in which our Lord goes away, both senses are united. Ultimately, our Lord goes away to the Father, and this is to our advantage.
3. When our Lord first spoke the words of our Gospel text, He was speaking to the disciples on Holy Thursday. In no more than a few short hours He would be arrested, punished, and put to death. Our Lord would go away from this world as His life was ended upon the cross—and this is to your advantage. If our Lord did not go away through His death on the cross, then you remain in your sins. If Jesus did not suffer the punishment for sins in your place and so make atonement for you before the Father, then you remain dead in your sins, having no hope and no promise of eternal life because you must answer for every manner in which you have broken the commandments of God. Every sin which you have committed would fall upon your shoulders. In short, if our Lord did not die for you, then you are sentenced to die eternally. This is why it is to your advantage that Jesus go away toward His Passion and death. We need Him to die for us. We are lost and condemned human beings. The Scriptures repeatedly discuss our hopelessness apart from God’s grace: “The wickedness of man [is] great on the earth, and…every intention of the thoughts of his heart [is] only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Apart from Christ we “were dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked” (Ephesians 2:1). “And you…were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh” (Colossians 2:13). “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). This is how the Scriptures speak of your condition without Christ. You are not simply lost and misguided. You are not sick and need to be made well. You are dead; and only through the death of your Savior can that death be taken away from you so that through our Lord’s resurrection you might be given new life. You need Jesus to die for you. You need Him to go away to the cross. When Pilate said, “I will therefore punish and release Him” (Luke 23:22), your response must be, “No! He needs to die! I need Him to die!” It is to your advantage that our Lord go away to the cross.
4. But as we read this Gospel text just eleven days before we celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord, the second sense in which our Lord would go away is also on the forefront of our minds. On Easter morning, our Lord said to Mary outside the tomb: “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God’” (John 20:17). Having accomplished all things necessary for our salvation upon the cross, our Lord’s resurrection can be rightly understood as a necessary consequence of His death. Similarly, our Lord’s ascension must be understood as a necessary consequence of His death and resurrection. The once-for-all sacrifice must be presented before the Father, just as the author of Hebrews writes: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until His enemies should be made a footstool for His feet” (Hebrews 10:12). It was necessary and advantageous for you that the Lord Jesus ascend to the Father, because in so doing His completed atoning work was presented to the Father, thus purifying our human nature. It was only after His death, resurrection, and ascension that all things were made ready for our Lord’s presence to be with us in a new way.
5. Ultimately, the answer to the question of how it is advantageous for us that our Lord Jesus go away is that this prepared the way for the Holy Spirit to come. The Spirit of the holy, righteous, perfect God cannot dwell in sinners. One need not look far in the biblical text to find examples of men who suffered because their sinfulness was not dealt with prior to approaching the presence of the holy God. God’s holiness is dangerous to sinners like you. But when you have been redeemed and washed clean in the blood of the lamb, the Holy Spirit of God is given not to your detriment, but to your advantage. Christ has died in your place, He has risen to new life, defeating death and the grave, and He has ascended to the right hand of the Father where He has made a way for the Holy Spirit to dwell in you.
6. So, yes, on the surface it seems strange that our Lord would say it to be advantageous to us that He go away. Long-distance communication is not preferable to fleshly presence. This is why our Lord has sent His Spirit to dwell within your flesh. He has not left you alone. Our Lord Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father ruling and reigning over all things in heaven and on earth, but His Spirit is among us in a real way—confronting your unbelief, declaring that you have been made righteous for Christ’s sake, and proclaiming Christ’s victory over Satan. Christ is not just with you, He is in you. He who is of one substance with the Father and the Son has come to dwell within you and declare to you the love that the Triune God has for you. In the incarnation, God is with us. In the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God is in us. This is why it is to your advantage that Christ go away—because when He returns on the last day to make all things new, sin will be destroyed, and God will be with you and in you for all eternity, and God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). For such goodness and love, we “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:1a, 2b). So, “Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice, With exultation springing, And with united heart and voice And holy rapture singing, Proclaim the wonders God has done, How His right arm the vict’ry won. What price our ransom cost Him!” (LSB 556:1).
In Jesus’ name. Amen.