Third Sunday after Easter
April 26, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Like scars, sorrows fade over time. They never entirely go away, but we forget about them unless someone or something reminds us of them. We tend to remember the good times rather than the bad. And because of this, we sometimes wrongly think that if we could just go back in time to the good ol’ days, we’d be much happier. Times were simpler, people were kinder, more outgoing. They went to church more.
But the good ol’ days weren’t as good as we fondly remember them. Partially it’s because—at least as I’ve found—as we grow older, our spheres of awareness increase. When we’re kids, we’re concerned about who’s available to ride bikes, or what’s for lunch at school tomorrow, but as we grow into our teen years and young adulthood, we become aware of more and more things in life. The same sorrows and heartaches and difficulties existed then, but they didn’t present themselves as entirely important to our existence. And the sorrows we did experience heal first with a protective scab, then an ever fading scar.
But present sorrows—present sorrows are intensely visible. Sorrows are most intense when you’re right in the middle of them. Time seems to stop and they begin to consume you. It feels like there’s no escape and they’ll never come to an end.
It’s a false promise of a false Christianity that following Jesus will rid your life of its sorrow. And too many preachers peddle these lies. The most they can do is distract you from sorrow with a pulsating light show, or swelling praise choruses, or a heaping pile of platitudes. Most of what passes for Christian worship is really just an hour long diversion from the realities of life couched in pseudo-spirituality. And what passes for Christian preaching is nothing more than a program for how to replicate these happy feelings throughout the week and mask the sorrows.
I’ve used the term before: the therapeutic model of ministry. In a study done about 15 years ago of youth and religion, Christian Smith defines “therapeutic” religion as “centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.” And so in this view, your pastor becomes your therapist and worship becomes your therapy session.
But the problem is that it’s only a momentary distraction. The therapeutic methods only last a little while and then you’re right back down in the muck again. And there’s an increased danger with such a view of Christianity. It feeds an unhealthy rhythm, a sort of spiritual manic-depressiveness, going from high to low to high again. And lower lows require higher highs until the whole thing just comes apart. The same teens who were interviewed in the study 15 years ago are now the adults who don’t come to church anymore.
Because eventually you come to realize that Christianity does a pretty poor job of making people happy. If you spend only a small in the Scriptures, you find a lot of sorrow. If you are a serious student of the Bible, you realize that it’s an anthology of sorrow. There’s even a prophet called The Weeping Prophet (Jeremiah) and he writes an entire book on sorrow (Lamentations). Isaiah prophesies that the Messiah will be a man of sorrows (Is 53:3). Half of each Gospel is dedicated to the suffering and death of Jesus.
There are much more effective means to happiness in the world. Jesus says as much in today’s Gospel. Amen, amen, I am saying to you: you will weep and you will mourn, but the world will rejoice (v 20a). If you’re looking for a momentary diversion from life’s sorrows, don’t go to church. Go to the bar. Go golfing. Go for a run. Go to a movie. Don’t go to church. Because Jesus won’t deliver what you’re looking for.
But if you’re looking to turn the whole idea of sorrow up on its head, you’ve come to the right place. Amen, amen, I am saying to you: you will weep and you will mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will be sad, but your sorrow will be borne unto joy (v 20). Christ did not come down from His throne above to provide a temporary distraction from sorrow, to put a mask on the sadness. He came to turn sorrow into joy. And he says precisely what it is that can do such a miraculous thing.
The Joy of Seeing Christ Makes All Sorrow Forgotten Sorrow
A little while and you will no longer see Me, and, once again, a little while and you will see Me. Then some of His disciples said to each other, “What is this that He is saying to us: ‘a little while and you will not see Me, and, once again, a little while and you will see Me;’ and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” They said, therefore, “What is this ‘little while’? We don’t know what He is saying.”
The first thing that Jesus teaches is that sorrow is for a little while; not joy. The purpose of the Christian faith is not to provide a temporary distraction from the sorrowful realities of life, but to endure sorrow until that sorrow gives birth to eternal joy. Sorrow only lasts a little while. You know this from experience. Present sorrows always seem like they’ll last a lifetime, but they fade and are mostly forgotten with time. How much more, then, will your present sorrows become forgotten sorrows when Jesus returns to raise the dead and renew creation? St. Paul writes to the Romans, For I consider the sufferings of the present time are not worthy compared to the glory that is going to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).
The second thing Jesus teaches is that joy is the result of seeing Christ. The disciples had presumably seen Jesus every day for the past three years. In a few short hours, He would be lifted up on a cross for the world to see, then buried beyond all sight in a tomb. But it was only a little while until the disciples saw Jesus again. And they truly saw Him. Risen, glorified. But it was only a little while again until they would no longer see Him. He ascended to His Father’s right hand, and hid Himself from sight once again.
Does this mean that sorrow wins? No. The third thing that Jesus teaches with a brief parable is that the eternal joy we anticipate when Jesus returns is already begun, though it’s now hidden under the cross and sorrow. When she is giving birth, Jesus says, a woman has sorrow because her hour has come. But when the child is born, she no longer remembers the tribulation because of the joy that a man has been borne into the world. Therefore you also now have sorrow. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice and the joy that is yours no one will take from you (vv 21-22). Joy is not a momentary interruption of sorrow, but sorrow is a momentary interruption of joy. Joy, however, does not cease during sorrow. It may be hidden or obscured, but only for a little while. A wise professor once said that the difference between happiness and joy is that joy also exists under the cross.
So why should cross and trial grieve me? Christ is near, with His cheer, never will He leave me (TLH 523:1). This is the purpose of going to church. Not for therapy, but to see Christ. I have written on the top of every one of my sermon manuscripts the question of the Greeks on Palm Sunday: Sir, we wish to see Jesus (Jn 12:21). That’s the purpose of preaching, the purpose of worship, to reveal Jesus. He is hidden from your eyes, but revealed in His Word, in His Sacrament.
And so your eternal joy is hidden. But it’s revealed in the same Word, in the same Sacrament. Because the Word of God and the Supper you’re about to eat reveal Christ. Sorrow, suffering, affliction, pain, loss—none of these can take this joy from you. Christ is yours, so rejoice!
In the name of + Jesus.
 Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.