Think about what it must have been like for the disciples during these days. In the Book of Acts, Luke tells us, “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” The risen Lord was with his disciples during the course of forty days.
Jesus didn’t only appear to his disciples in Jerusalem. They also saw the Lord in the north, in Galilee on a mountain and at the Sea of Galilee. It is likely that the appearance to five hundred believers at one time reported by Paul in First Corinthians chapter fifteen occurred here as well.
The thing about the resurrection accounts in the New Testament is that they leave no room for the notion that somehow the disciples were mistaken about what they had experienced. They leave no possibility that they had encountered something other than Jesus Christ, crucified and now risen from the dead. As Peter told Cornelius, the disciples were witnesses who “ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Jesus was teaching them about the kingdom of God. And there was a lot to learn. In light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the whole of the Old Testament opened up in a new way. Jesus said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then we learn that “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
It was an exciting time as they rejoiced being with their risen Lord and learned from him. In Acts, Luke tells us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” This has often been seen as an indication of the disciples’ lack of understanding. But actually, if you know the Old Testament prophecies it is exactly the right question. It is precisely what one would expect. It just turns out that the fulfillment of those prophecies is even bigger than the disciples can imagine.
Caught up in this wonderful time with the risen Lord, we don’t get any indication that they expected him to be leaving. But our text this morning shows us that Jesus’ ascension should not have been a surprise. Speaking on the night he was betrayed, our Lord says that his departure will cause grief. But he assures the disciples, and us, that his return will bring a joy that will never be taken from us.
In our text this morning Jesus begins by saying, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” That statement does not just drop in out of nowhere. Our Lord had said earlier in this chapter, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.”
Jesus had announced that he was returning to the Father. On Maundy Thursday, the disciples were not yet capable of understanding what Jesus meant. We are told that some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, 'A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and, 'because I am going to the Father'?” In a moment of complete honesty they were saying: “What does he mean by 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about.”
Our Lord knew their confusion and what they wanted to ask. So he said, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.”
Jesus said that he was going away. His absence would be a source of sorrow for those who believe in him. By contrast, it would be a source of joy for the world. Jesus declared about himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Our Lord came as the light who gives life. However, the world does not want his light. John’s Gospel tells us, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The question is whether we really want Jesus’ light. His light – his word – reveals all of the darkness that is in our lives. It reveals all of the sin that we want to keep as our own. We want to gossip about other people because we enjoy it and it makes us feel good. We want to seek payback against others because we it is satisfying. We want to avoid work and have others do it because it makes our life easier..
The world wants to do things its own way. It wants to ignore God. But you cannot ignore the way the Creator has ordered his creation and expect everything to turn out fine. One need look no further than the way our world treats God’s gift of sexuality. Its misuse has lead to the destruction of the family in our culture and all of the dysfunction this creates in the lives of children and adults.
Yet for us who know Jesus Christ, the light of his Word has revealed our sin. It has shown that we have sinned against God in thought, word and deed. But it has also shown us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world. It has shown us that through faith in Christ we have forgiveness and eternal life. We have eternal life already now, and we will live with resurrection eternal life when Jesus returns in glory. Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Because of Jesus we have forgiveness and life. We are those who have been born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Jesus has called us to be his own. And that sets us in opposition to a sinful world. Earlier Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Jesus has ascended into heaven. This is not the way we would have wanted things to work. But our Lord has said that on this it is we who are mistaken. Earlier Jesus had said, “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
Jesus’ ascension has allowed for the sending of the Holy Spirit. We are not told why things work this way – only that they do. But we have been told what the Holy Spirit now does. Just before our text Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The Holy Spirit makes known Jesus’ saving work to us and keeps us in the faith as the children of God.
Our Lord acknowledges the challenge of this time when he is not visibly present with us. But as the risen Lord he assures us that this time will come to an end. And he uses a powerful human experience as a metaphor to help us understand what this means for us. Jesus says, “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The moment of birth is a defining event. When the moment has arrived, either because a mother’s water has broken or because the c-section is starting, there is no turning back. It is a time that is filled with stress and anxiety, and often pain. But when the baby has been delivered there is joy and exhilaration because this tiny little life is now out in the world. The difficulties of delivery are pushed out of mind because after nine months of waiting, there is now a baby to hold and love.
Jesus compares the challenges of this time in which we live to that time in which a mother is giving birth. He does not deny the challenges we face. At the end of this chapter our Lord asserts, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
We live by faith in the risen Lord who has overcome the world. Already now he gives us eternal life. And he has promised that he will return in glory on the Last Day. He assures us in our text: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”