Friday, April 23, 2010

A Little Patience

My third sermon in two weeks will be coming to a St. Louis LCMS church this coming Sunday, Easter 4 (Jubilate), based on the one-year-series Gospel from John 16:16-22.
"A little while, and you will no longer behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me." Some of His disciples therefore said to one another, "What is this thing He is telling us, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me'; and, 'because I go to the Father'?" And so they were saying, "What is this that He says, 'A little while'? We do not know what He is talking about." Jesus knew that they wished to question Him, and He said to them, "Are you deliberating together about this, that I said, 'A little while, and you will not behold Me, and again a little while, and you will see Me'? Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy. Whenever a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she remembers the anguish no more, for joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you."
Listen again to the last verse of today’s Gospel: “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you.” These words, in Luther’s German translation, form part of a beautiful aria for soprano and orchestra, inspired by Brahms’s grief at his mother’s death. This music from “A German Requiem” has comforted many who have lost loved ones. Forgive me if I am boring you. Have a little patience, and you will see that I am coming to a point.

Later in the same piece, Brahms quotes from the Apocrypha. In Martin Luther’s translation, Sirach 51:27 says: “A little while I had trouble and labor, and have found great comfort.” This echoes what Jesus says in our Gospel: A little while, and again a little while; sorrow and anguish, like when a woman gives birth, and then joy that will swallow up all memory of sorrow! In John 16, Jesus is predicting his arrest, suffering, and death, when He was taken away from His followers. He is promising His return from the dead.

The same words could apply to Jesus’ ascension, when He went away to His Father in heaven. For a little while—that is, until the end of this age—Jesus will no longer be visibly present. Either way you cut it, Jesus is saying exactly what I said a few moments ago. His message is simply this: “Have a little patience.”

The same Brahms piece also has a bit of Isaiah chapter 66: “As one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.” This is like Jesus’ promise in John 16, the promise that makes it possible to have patience: “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you.” So when Jesus asks His disciples, when He asks us, to have a little patience, He isn’t demanding the impossible. With His request for patience, He also makes a promise: He will comfort us.

In John 14, part of the same farewell speech to His disciples, Jesus promises to send a Helper, or Comforter, to be with us forever: namely, the Spirit of truth. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” He says. “After a little while the world will behold Me no more; but you will behold Me; because I live, you will live also.” Later in chapter 14, Jesus says of anyone who loves Him and keeps His Word: “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him... The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things... Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”

In chapter 15, Jesus gives us even more comfort. He explains that our sorrows are like how a vinedresser prunes a vine to make it more fruitful. He promises those who abide in Him, like branches in a vine, will bear much fruit. He promises that what we ask in prayer will be given to us. He declares: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” He observes: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends... No longer do I call you slaves.” He states: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” He commands: “Love one another.” He explains: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before you.” The reason the world will hate us is that we are not of the world; rather, we are His. “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” He concludes, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me, and you will bear witness also.”

These words held special comfort for the apostles. It was they who bore eyewitness testimony to Jesus. It was they who suffered hideous deaths because of it. But these same promises hold comfort for us, ample comfort to provide what Jesus desires us to have: a little patience. A little patience when we see God’s enemies pretending to obey to Him, as we heard in the Introit. A little patience when life seems to treat us unfairly, and we’re tempted to doubt whether God is paying attention to what we’re going through. Isaiah addresses this problem in our first lesson: “Why do you say... ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God’?... The Everlasting God... gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power... Those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”

Jesus calls for a little patience when our flesh and its desires make war against the soul, as Peter says in today’s Epistle. A little patience, Peter says, may also be needed when we are mistreated for doing what is right, or when we are expected to submit to leaders and masters who behave unreasonably. A little patience in a world and national climate that hates Christianity. A little patience in a workplace where management treats you like scum. A little patience in a neighborhood where malicious gossips accuse you of bad things—patience enough not to sink to their level, and patience to do nothing to deserve their vile gossip. A little patience when people are just plain stupid, and when retaliating against them will only give more scope to their foolish talk and evil behavior. Patience, above all, when your struggle to hold on to faith, or to fight against sin and guilt and temptation, becomes so hard that you don’t know how you can keep it up. Patience, because Jesus isn’t visibly here to take your hand and smile and say the word you need Him to say right at this moment. Patience when you feel alone and helpless, or dirty and worthless, or just plain insignificant.

To ask us to have patience under such conditions is really asking a lot. How can we have even a little patience in urgent times like this? How can we have patience when the household of faith seems to be shrinking and sickening, if not dying? How can we be patient when false teachers offend us with their man-made doctrines, leading many to deny Christ? How can we be patient when schools, TV networks, and the internet are doing more to form our children’s minds than we are, and when the daily drumbeat of the secular world has almost lulled us into thinking that none of it matters? Patience?! Shouldn’t we rather be impatient? Shouldn’t we rather shake ourselves awake, and stoke the fire of urgency and passion that has burned down to a barely-smoking ember?

Isn’t “a little patience” asking for a lot? Christ has the cure for that problem. He gives us the assurance that God hears and answers prayer. He sends us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and brighten our gloom with the light of truth. He even promises to come Himself, together with the Father, to make us flesh-and-blood temples of the Holy Trinity. Because of this promise Paul can write to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” How will Christ come to dwell with us? Through the Word. As he explained in John 14, God’s indwellling takes place as we abide in His Word, and as His Word abides in us. So Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “We constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God’s message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

An ordinary, human word is only effective while people hear it and understand it. God’s Word is different. It goes to work in you, and it grows in power while your attention is directed elsewhere. The letter to the Hebrews calls the Word of God “living and active.” Peter calls it “living and abiding,” an imperishable seed that causes us to be born again. John writes that the indwelling Word of God gives us strength to overcome evil. Paul tells the Romans that faith comes by hearing the Word. This gift of faith comes not only once, but is continually given while we dwell in God’s Word. Hebrews 6 rattles off a list of phrases that mean the same thing: to be enlightened, to taste of the heavenly gift, to receive a share of the Holy Spirit, to taste the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come. The more you dwell on God’s Word, the more the Spirit dwells in you. The more you drink of this living water, the more power God gives you to fight the darkness that is always around you, and often within you.

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. It is akin to courage. Jesus tells the paralytic, “Take courage, your sins are forgiven,” before He healed the man’s paralysis. He could easily have said, “My son, bear this affliction with patience. God forgives you. His forgiveness would just as certain whether you were healed today, or whether you remained as you are. But now I’ll show you how certain God’s forgiveness is. I’ll show you that you can rely on my Word”—and, in that instance, he healed the paralytic. What if He doesn’t heal you? Can you live with the certainty of God’s forgiveness, even while you suffer? Listen to Jesus: “Take courage. Your sins are forgiven.” In this promise, Jesus gives you all that you need to be patient and courageous, come whatever affliction.

Jesus does not leave His disciples muttering in confusion and discontent. Yes, there will be wrestling matches between faith and doubt. Sometimes—as in John 16—Jesus lets these bouts go on for a little while, so He can then reassure us and strengthen our faith. There is an old saying: Hunger is the best sauce. The good Word of God tastes sweeter when we hunger for it. Forgiveness is most precious to the sinner who repents. The blowing of the Holy Spirit is most refreshing when your faith is a smoldering ember. But what if we become impatient because, for a little while, we do not see Jesus in person? What can fill that hunger? Only the promised presence of Jesus can. Jesus, who is present in the message preached, in the words spoken and sung in the liturgy, and in the sin-forgiving word of absolution. Jesus, whose very body and blood comes to us in the Supper we will soon taste. Jesus, who bids us be patient because He is coming back to give us everlasting joy. What could be sweeter and more satisfying?

Are you thirsty? Come to Jesus and drink. That is, receive His Spirit through Word and Sacrament. Are you weary? Come to Jesus and rest, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. How light is it? He has carried all for you. He asks of you nothing except to love one another, to abide in His Word, and to be patient. He asks us to have faith, hope, and love—and then He gives them to us through His divine Word and Spirit. We love Him because He first loved us. We obey Him because He has already obeyed all God’s commandments for us. We trust Him because He trusted God to the last, and then God raised Him from the dead. We cling to hope because of the promises He gives us. We have life because He lives. And we have joy that no sorrow can take away. Why this joy? Because our labor-pains are almost over. Though we cannot see it yet, we have it on the best authority—Jesus’ Word—that the joy to come will be so joyful, we will not remember today’s sorrow. Cherish that promise, little children. Refresh yourselves in it every week, if not every day, as you have opportunity to abide in Christ’s Word. And so treasure the gift Jesus hands you in today’s Gospel—a little patience.

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

FOOTNOTE: After late service the Sunday I preached this sermon, one of the ladies in the congregation told me: "That sermon was exactly what I needed to hear right now."

From my point of view, it doesn't hurt to get feedback like that now and then!