24 April 2016

The Joy of Christ in the Midst of Sorrow

The Words of Jesus are hard to understand, and they are harder still to bear when, by the grace of God, you understand them and take them to heart.  You cannot do any of this by your own wisdom or wherewithal.  Neither could the disciples.  They were not able to understand the Words of Jesus until after He was glorified by His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  Nor were they able to bear the Glory of the Cross until after they had received the Lord’s gift of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit could not be given to such poor, miserable sinners apart from the forgiveness of their sins and the reconciliation of God and man in Christ Jesus.  That is why the Spirit could not come until Jesus had returned to the Father.  That is to speak, not only of His Ascension, but of His entire journey from the Father in heaven, into the flesh, into the depths of our sin and death, and then back to His Father in our glorified flesh and blood by way of His sacrificial death upon the Cross, unto the justification of sinners through His Resurrection from the dead.

At the heart of it all is the Cross, which is at once both the key to understanding everything and the reason it is so impossible for you to understand.  It is by and from the Cross that Jesus hands over His Spirit to His disciples and to His Church on earth.  And so does He now breathe the Spirit into your body and soul through His Word of the Cross.  But the Cross is never subject to your intellect or understanding.  You shall not master it.  Rather, it crucifies you, puts you to death, and buries you.  Only then, by His Word and Holy Spirit, is Christ raised up in you, and you in Him.

It is only by His Spirit of Truth that you and any disciple of Jesus are able to understand, to bear, and ultimately to share the Glory of His Cross and Resurrection.  This is the goal and purpose of the Holy Scriptures and of preaching, that the Spirit be given by and through the Word of Christ, so that, by the grace of God, you believe in Him and live the divine Life with Him forevermore.

So has the same Spirit also been poured out generously upon you through the washing of the water with the Word of Christ in Holy Baptism.  You have thus been clothed in the righteousness and holiness of Christ and granted the Name of God, the Lord, and by that gracious adoption you call upon Him as your own dear Father in heaven.  For by your Baptism into Christ, the beloved Son, you have been united with Him in His Cross and Resurrection.  And by His Spirit of Truth, you do not simply understand this Glory of God with your head, but you live and die by faith in Him.

It never is by your own reason and strength, neither to begin with nor to continue from one day to the next unto the life everlasting.  But the Lord Jesus continues to give you His Holy Spirit, to breath His Spirit into your body and soul through His preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness, and in particular by His spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  You likewise partake of Christ Jesus, and so also of His Holy Spirit, as often as you eat His holy Body and drink His precious Blood in faith and with thanksgiving.  For in His Supper, as in His Baptism, you share the Glory of His Cross.

Bearing and sharing the Cross of Christ, however, is a painful and difficult thing.  It remains so hard to understand.  Indeed, it is impossible for your fallen flesh, your mind, and your emotion ever to comprehend the Cross, which puts you to death in this world until you shall be raised in glory at the last.  It is a pointed challenge to your faith, because, in all these ways and means by which Christ Jesus comes to you and gives to you His Spirit of Truth, it is by faith and not by sight.

Has He not told you ahead of time, “A little while, and you will no longer see Me”?  That was true for the disciples in the first place, when the Lord Jesus was about to be crucified, dead, and buried.  Thereafter, following His Resurrection from the dead, He would ascend to the Right Hand of His Father in heaven, and they would no longer see Him as they had over the previous several years.

So is it also true for you, that you do not yet see the Lord Jesus face to face with your own eyes.  For now you “see” Him, so to speak, only by faith, only by His Word and Holy Spirit, as He comes to you and deals with you through the Ministry of His Gospel, by and with and under His Cross.

And the Cross being what it is, there are those days and times when your faith falters and it is so hard to perceive Jesus in any way at all.  When you despair of His promise, and you cannot feel His presence, then all you can sense or discern is sin and death, guilt and regret, discouragement and disappointment, sorrow, crying, and pain.  Perhaps you are in the middle of such dark days and difficult times even now, as were the disciples between Good Friday and Easter.  And, like them, for a while you weep and lament, while the wicked world around you rejoices in your sadness.

We are but mortal, and we live only for a little while in this sinful and perishing world, in which we are surrounded by constant reminders of our frailty and transience.  So it is that every surgery, no matter how routine, is a type of death, and every sleep is a little burial, and every goodbye is like a final departure.  By the same token, every birth is a reminder of our sinful condition and of our frail mortality — and of God’s redemption in the flesh and blood of His own incarnate Son.

In the midst of this precarious mortal life, in the daily bump and grind of this life on earth with all its trials and troubles, you grieve and mourn because you lose sight of the promise and perceive only that your hopes and dreams and faith and confidence have been shattered and destroyed.  As far as your senses, your head, and your heart are able to tell, it appears that Jesus has simply gone away for good and forgotten all about you.  On your worst days, you wonder if He was ever really there for you in the first place.  At the very least, He no longer seems to love you, if He ever did.

“A little while, and you will no longer see Me.”  How hard and painful those days and times are!  I’ve been there, done that, too.  But what is it in your own heart and life that so distorts and clouds your faith in Christ that you despair of His love and His presence?

Whatever the specifics may be, the root cause of it all is sin: your own sin, your sinful nature, and the sin of the world and the people around you.  It is sin that shatters you with grief.  It is sin that is doing you in.  It is sin that frightens you with death, as though death actually had the last word.

The solution, therefore, and the only remedy, is the forgiveness of your sins, which is fully yours in the Gospel of Christ.  So are you also strengthened and upheld by His Word and Holy Spirit.

It is the Word and Spirit of Christ that enable you to see and understand, not only His own Cross, but also the Cross that He shares with you and lays upon your body and life in this world, not as a burden and a curse, but as your greatest joy and your glory as a Christian disciple of Jesus.

Not that it’s easy, painless, or fun, certainly not by the standards and expectations of this old world.  Neither does your fallen flesh perceive the Cross that you bear as any kind of joy or glory or life.

However, Jesus does provide you with a beautiful and helpful analogy in this Holy Gospel, which even the world is able to contemplate.  For He points to the common experience of childbirth.

The curse of sin has made the entire process of childbearing precarious, sometimes cut short in the womb, and sometimes deadly for both mother and child.  Even modern medicine has not been able to undo the threat of death.  Under the best of circumstances, labor and delivery remain such a painful and difficult thing.  I won’t presume to tell you mothers what that’s like, but the Word of God is clear enough.  “In pain shall you bring forth children,” He said to the Woman, and in one way or another that Word infects us all.  Just as the curse of sin has nailed the Seed of the Woman to the Cross and put Him to death in place of all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

You also see the evidence of the curse — and of the world’s rebellion against it — in all the efforts that are made to avoid conception and childbirth, and in the rampant and rabid defense of abortion.

And yet, despite the world’s animosity, and notwithstanding the burden of the Cross that God has laid upon it, labor and delivery are the very glory of Motherhood, whereby a woman brings a child into the world.  Not in spite of the great pain, but precisely in and through that painful process of childbirth.  In the very midst of death, life has us surrounded in the mercies of Christ the Crucified.

In much the same way, it is precisely in and through the pain and anguish of His Cross and Passion that Christ accomplishes your salvation, in order to bring you out of the death of your sin, through His own death, into His bodily Resurrection in order to share His indestructible Life.

So also, in your own body and life even now, under the Cross — despite your sins, and though you are dying from the moment you’re conceived — by the Gospel of the Cross, and by faith in the Gospel, you already begin to share the Life and the Glory of Christ Jesus!  By His Word, the Spirit is bringing you through the narrow passage of death and the grave into the Resurrection.  Thus are you conceived and born again as a child and a disciple of the Cross, and by it you learn and grow into the life of Christ.  You learn not to rely upon yourself, your own reason or ability, but to find your comfort, hope, and joy in Christ alone, who by His Cross, by His own death, has conquered death and the grave, and in His Resurrection has turned your grief and sadness into great rejoicing.

It is not that you are called to bear the Glory of the Cross on your own, nor by your own power and strength.  Quite the opposite, really, as the Cross puts all of that to death in you, in order to raise you up in Christ by the strength of His Word, by the power of His Spirit.  It remains the Glory of Christ, who shares His Cross with you as the One who has first of all carried that Cross for you.

It is always by and from His Cross that His Spirit is bestowed upon you with and through His forgiveness of sins.  And with this forgiveness, the Spirit gives Jesus Himself to you in body and soul.  He lays Him upon your heart through the Gospel, unto faith and life and salvation forever.

It is by His forgiveness of your sins that your Cross becomes a blessing, that your grief is turned into joy.  For the death that you die by His Cross is not forever, but for resurrection and new life.

And as the Lord Jesus Christ is with you now in the bearing of His Cross, so will He be with you forever after and for always when He calls you from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.  There, after this little while, you will see Him face to face with your own eyes, even as He sees you and beholds you now and always in His tender mercy, steadfast love, and gracious good pleasure.

And behold, according to His Word and promise, He will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  There will no longer be any death anymore.  There will no longer be any mourning or crying, sadness or pain.  All of these things shall have passed away and shall be remembered no more.

For He is making all things new in His own crucified and resurrected Body, now given for you.  And all things are cleansed and redeemed by His Blood, which He now pours out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.  So does your heart rejoice in perfect peace.  And as no one shall snatch you from the hands of Christ, your Savior, so shall no one ever take away your great joy in Him.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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