How Long, O Lord?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Historically, the Fourth Sunday of Easter has been known as Jubilate. This Latin word is the first word of our Introit, in which we sing, “Make a joyful shout to God!” It seems strange, then, that the Church should choose the verses of our Gospel reading—verses recording an event which takes place right before the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion—to be read and preached on one of the seven Sundays of Easter. There’s an awful lot of sorrow in this text, and it doesn’t seem quite right in what is supposed to be a season of great joy for the people of God. In fact, it seemed as though the disciples were already in the midst of their sorrow. Jesus wasn’t even gone yet from them for that little while, and in their confusion regarding His words, it was as though Jesus had already left them. The thing is, Jesus wasn’t delivering the goods the way they expected. They expected an earthly King, an Anointed One who would restore the earthly Kingdom of Israel. This business of Jesus going away for a little while, of Jesus going to the Father—it made no sense in their vision of the Messiah.
Of course, it’s easy for us to look at this text through the lens of hindsight and know exactly what Jesus is saying. In fact, as we look at this text, it might be easy for us to suppose that the disciples are rather foolish and thick-headed. After all, Jesus had told them more than once that He would suffer and die and that He would rise from the grave. This would be the last time Jesus would share this message with them before His betrayal and arrest, trial, conviction and crucifixion. These words would begin to be fulfilled before that day had even ended. It’s obvious to us. But we have the luxury of hindsight and the understanding given to us through the Holy Spirit.
Then again, Jesus doesn’t always deliver the way we think He should, either. Jesus tells us, “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy.” Sorrow, and anguish, and the cross will define your life; but your cross will yield to the resurrection! These are wonderful words. But let us be honest: they are not really the words we want to hear. What we want to hear is that the life lived in Christ is a life of ease. We want to hear that being a Christian means that we will always be treated fairly in this life, that others will love us because of who we are. We want to hear that our blessed Lord has not only taken on our sin and died our death, but has also taken away everything that annoys and frustrates and bothers us, every bad thing that can happen to us, every evil word or deed that might be said or done against us. This is why men like Joel Osteen are so popular: they deliver the message we want to hear.
But instead of telling us what we want to hear, our Lord tells us what is true and real. He says: “A little while, and you will not see Me; and, again a little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father.” The message is plain for us who live under the burden of the Law and who daily earn the wages of sin. We need Jesus every moment. It is only the presence of Christ in us that allows us to do good works, that gives us true joy, that opens the gates of heaven to us. But we separate ourselves from Him in our sinfulness, and we become mired in sorrow because there is no hope or help or comfort for us apart from Him. Apart from Christ, the sorrow seems endless because the sorrow is endless apart from Christ.
But this is where we see the great blessing of holy absolution. When we find ourselves deep in sorrow over our sinfulness, when it seems as though the despair cannot be conquered, when the world is rejoicing because you have fallen, when it seems that sin and death will have their way, it is then that the Lord says to you, “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” When you are in sorrow over your sin and crying out, “How long, O Lord?” with King David, Jesus answers you by saying, “A little while.” ‘I will bring your anguish to an end. I forgive you your sin, removing it as far from you as east is from west. My righteousness covers your sinfulness. And I will give you great joy that will never end.’
Even though we may be unable to see the end of our sorrow, our Lord sees it. The suffering in sorrow will end; and until then, He gives us the strength to bear it, nourishing our souls with His body and blood. “A little while,” He says to you. That is all the longer your cross will last. That is only how long it will be until your heartache passes. That is the length of Christian sorrow and pain—only a little while. It may seem like an eternity, as those three days between cross and resurrection surely did to the disciples, and the devil will want to consume your whole life, but it is really only a little while. It will feel as if it is always raining, but after the rain comes the sunshine. And what happens after that little while? Then comes the long while, the unending Day of the Lord. Sorrow and despair lasts but a moment. And then comes the joy which knows no end and the peace which surpasses understanding and the blessing that far outweighs any blessing in this life, the time when the sufferings of this present life can in no way measure up to the glory that our Lord has fully stored up for you.
But first, the little while. Though for now you have sorrow, the Lord even now comes to you when He gives you His life-renewing flesh and pours into you His life-saving blood. Even now the Lord sees you again as He smiles on you with His forgiving Word, even as the angel promised the shepherds when he said, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” Even now the Lord creates in you a clean heart, and renews His righteous Spirit within you, and restores to you the joy of His salvation.
As St. Peter wrote: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now, for a little while, if need be, you are grieved by various trials.” But even in this little while of grief, your heart rejoices, for you have been plunged into a joy that no one can take from you. You hear a Word of blessing that no devil nor any other enemy of God can undo. And you feed on Jesus, whose life no one now can take from you. Let the world have its rejoicing while you weep and lament; for that joy will only last a little while. In His time, the Lord will grant you joy that will never fade away. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.