I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. (John 16:20-22)
These words sound almost contradictory, don’t they? ‘You will weep, mourn and grieve.’ No wait! ‘You will rejoice and no one will take away your joy.’ So…which one is it? I know which one that I want, but I also want the truth. I know which one sounds more pleasant, but I don’t want to be seeking after some false dream. Help me out here, Jesus. Is it like I hope that is that God wants me to have joy? Or is it what I fear to be the case, that God wants me to endure suffering? Is it true, what I have heard people say many times before, that God wants me to be happy?
Well, if you had to base things only on the other two readings for today, what conclusion would you come to? Jesus’ sermon probably didn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy. It was filled with a bunch of “do’s” and “don’ts” that most likely left you feeling a little guilty. The word of the LORD to Israel wasn’t all that uplifting either. Especially when you hear words like curse, death and destruction. These certainly make it sound like what God wants is not so much our happiness but rather our obedience. But knowing what we do about Jesus – his love for us, his devotion to us – that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? We know our God cares for us deeply, so why wouldn’t he want us to be happy?
I have to ask, though, what kind of happiness are we talking about? What normally makes us happy is getting what we want. What usually makes us happy is doing what we want to do. But what if what I want is to be angry and spiteful towards someone and conjure up all kinds of mean and nasty things to say about them when they’re not around? What if what I want is to be able to look at other people as objects of my desire whenever I feel like it? What if what I want is to be able to walk away from my marriage because I think my partner isn’t trying hard enough? If this is the kind of happiness you desire, then no, God doesn’t want you to be happy. Because this kind of happiness cares only about this life and nothing of the one that is to come. This kind of happiness is only thinking about me and not at all about the God who made me.
You know, the disciples had their own struggle with this, too. Think about it. There was the time that a couple of them argued about who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God. And then the rest of them got upset, not because they thought it was wrong but because they didn’t think of it first. There was also, of course, Judas who went looking for his happiness in money. And so, he sold out Jesus for a mere thirty pieces of silver happiness. And how could we forget Peter, who in his desire to avoid all pain and disgrace denied even knowing Jesus, while calling down curses to reinforce the lie.
We look at those actions as shameful and shallow and awful, yet don’t we at the same time completely understand what was going through their minds? They wanted to avoid the hurt and the grief at all costs. They wanted to have their joy. And do we not do the same? We avoid the hard and tough stuff. We recoil from walking the rocky but righteous path. We try and hide from anything that might make us uncomfortable; that might force me to deny my own desires. We do it with our kids too, don’t we? Discipline gets relaxed because we don’t them to be sad. We buy them and give them more than they need because we don’t want them to get upset. We let them go their own way and do their own thing not wanting to have the difficult discussion of showing them the better way. We do this because we don’t want to see frowns, but smiles. We just want them, and us, to be happy.
But what is at the heart of all this? Sooner or later we must realize that the problem lies within us. What’s really going on deep down in our hearts is that we only care about ourselves. ‘I just want to be happy. I just want what I want. And if sometimes that means going against what God wants, so be it. I know he will understand in the end. If he wants me to be happy, and I’m pretty sure he does, he’s going to see things my way.’ But the truth of the matter is that he won’t. The only right way is His way. And if we keep on insisting that our selfishness is best, that’s only going to lead to the never-ending tears in hell.
So, does this mean I have to be miserable now so that I can be happy later? Does this mean that God is just some cranky old man who can’t stand seeing anyone crack a smile? No, it’s not that God wants you to be unhappy, it’s just that he wants you to have something so much more than worldly happiness!
Remember the picture that he used? As everyone knows, one of the most intense pains imaginable is what comes from birthing a child. Every mother is excited to finally meet their little one face to face. But I don’t know how much happiness is actually going on in the delivery room. There’s no way they enjoy the pain they endure. If anything, they would have liked to avoid it all together. But what happens when the moment comes? What happens when Mom lays her eyes on her little miracle for the first time? All the anguish and pain and suffering just melt away. All that remains is joy. It’s not that the pain wasn’t real, it’s just that it’s overwhelmed by the joy of the child. You see, it’s not that God wants you to be unhappy. Rather, it’s that even as you go through grief and pain in this life, he wants you to have something more: JOY.
Think of John the Baptist. Imagine him as he languishes in prison for the crime of telling Herod that his actions were against God’s will. It had to have been painful. It must have filled him with grief. His entire life was devoted to proclaiming that the Messiah was coming. And now he was locked up for doing his Savior’s will. How could he not be asking himself, ‘Is it really worth all this suffering? Is it really worth all the shame?’ So, he sends a proxy to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ In other words, ‘Tell me it’s worth it. Please tell me that joy is on its way.’ And then the word comes back, ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. I am the one who was promised. I am the one you waited for. I am the Son of God and Savior of the world.’ Even in the dark dungeon cell, John had joy.
Do you see the difference between earthly happiness and heavenly joy? One is a roller coaster and a chasing after the wind. The other is as steady and certain as the covenant that Jesus sealed with his blood. This is what Christ purchased for you and for me with his crimson flood: an abiding and enduring joy. Joy, even when your strength wanes and your hope fades. Joy, even when the heart aches and tears fall. Joy, even when the pain strikes and death destroys. His joy does not fade, for it was achieved eternally through his death. Every minute of selfishness, every second of greed, every moment of self-indulgence, all of it is paid in full. Every bit of offense, every drop of guilt, every bit of shame; all of it is taken away. All the chains of sin, all the weight of iniquity, all the bonds of death; they are broken by his resurrection from the grave. Nothing in all the world can hold a candle to what Jesus has done for you, has won for you. Yes, God does want you to be happy…to be eternally happy, with him, forevermore.
So then, let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame. Let us, who are thirsty from our sins, come to the waters he offers and live. Let us commit to take our positions at the foot of the cross and see the blood that was poured out for us. Let us bring our children to the place where their salvation was won and their forgiveness achieved. Let us seek the Lord together as families, together as a school, together as a church, together as fellow Christians, by finding him in his Word day after day. Let us relish the opportunities provided by this congregation to grow in the knowledge of our Savior Jesus and so grow in our joy. As troubles assail us, let us be reminded of Jesus’ promise: your grief will turn to joy. Let us fix our eyes on him who did not promise temporary happiness, but eternal joy and blessedness by his side. Amen.