Monday, May 20, 2019

Wait. What?

[This was shared yesterday during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

John 16:12-22
The two things that every human being has in common are birth and death. 

And what birth and death almost always have in common for us is pain. 

We may sometimes hear of women who give birth to children almost unaware of being in labor until right before delivery or of people who pass away peacefully in their beds after long, healthy lives. But we note stories of people like these as the exceptions. 

When we are born into this world and when we die out of this world, there is almost always pain.

In the end, the only thing that can make the pain of birth and death bearable for us is the belief in new life beyond the pain

That’s why, long before most of the world had ever heard of Jesus Christ, people created myths of heroes that conquered death by exploits, virtues, or deal-making. The problem with these comforting stories human beings told (and still tell) themselves is that they’re all untrue, happy talk for the fearful

None of us is virtuous enough, or adept enough at making deals, or courageous enough in the face of what we go through in our lives to earn, gain, or steal life beyond pain.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, John 16:12-22, Jesus acknowledges that birth and death bring pain. But He also points to the hope of new life beyond pain, a new life in eternity without pain, for those who follow Him. 

Let’s be clear though. Jesus’ words would be nothing more than another version of the happy lies we tell ourselves as human beings if it weren’t for one simple fact: Jesus, has immersed Himself into our humanity, including its pain and death, so that He can absorb all of our pain, all of our death, all of our sin into Himself.

Jesus does this so that, after dying condemned for our sins, God the Father could raise Him from the dead

It’s Jesus’ dying and rising that makes it possible for all who, by faith, absorb the death of Jesus into our own bodies and lives to be raised to new life beyond the pain of birth and death. That’s what Good Friday and Easter Sunday are about.

At the beginning of our lesson, we find Jesus preparing His disciples for the pain--the grief--they’re about to endure as He is taken from them and murdered. In fact, Jesus has been deluging the disciples with teaching that fills several chapters of John’s gospel. The disciples must have sensed from Jesus’ words, even if they didn’t fully understand them, that a crisis was about to hit. Jesus has been giving them instructions for how to face the crisis. Yet, they must have also wondered, “How can we possibly remember all of this?”

Jesus promises the disciples that He will send the Holy Spirit to His Church. When, Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). It was the Holy Spirit Who would enable the disciples to remember what Jesus taught about the meaning of His death and resurrection for a human race dying in its sin. It was the Holy Spirit that empowered the disciples to remember and so teach us that the pain of life is not the last word over those who trust in Jesus

Their remembrances come to us in the Bible. The Bible then is the Holy Spirit-inspired Word from God, pointing us to new life through Jesus. And this Word has power! Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, “...the word of God is alive and active…” 

When we read or hear the Bible, we encounter the same powerful Word God spoke to bring the universe into being. And this same Word, when we stand under its authority, brings us new life.

Jesus next tells the disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” (John 16:16) 

This incites a confused and almost comical conversation among the disciples that might best be summarized as, “Wait. What?” 

They don’t understand what Jesus is telling them. At that moment, they really can’t. 

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We lose someone we love or a way of life we’ve valued and we wonder how we can go on. 

Jesus tells the disciples that soon they won’t see Him anymore. They’re confused. Then Jesus adds to their fog by telling them, that “after a little while,” they’re going to see Him again. 

When the pain of death comes to us, it’s as hard imagine being able to once again see our dead loved ones as it must have been for my mom to believe that anything good was going to result from thirty-six hours of labor only to give birth to a scrawny blue breech baby who had to be put in an incubator and couldn’t hold up his head for months after his birth. New life out of pain is often beyond our imagining.

It’s because of our failure to imagine that God can bring new life out of pain that Jesus says what He does next in our gospel lesson. “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.” (John 16:21) Jesus isn’t saying that moms develop amnesia about their labor pains. He is saying that that their suffering seems worth it for the joy of the new life they now hold in their arms.

As Jesus speaks here, He Himself is about about to deliver a new creation. He will labor on the cross so that when He rises, new resurrected life will come to Him. 

And like a mother delivering a child, Jesus doesn’t labor on the cross for Himself. Since Jesus was sinless and eternal, He didn’t need to endure the pain of death and birth to have life. He already had life to the full, perfect, sinless, eternal life.

Jesus labored for us. “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame...” (Hebrews 12:2) 

And what was the joy set before Jesus? 

Jesus’ joy, the thing that made Him willing to suffer pain, cross and death, was you

The reward He sought was you, with Him, eternally safe and secure from the sin and death and separation from God into which we are born in this life

Jesus’ joy is to give new birth to you, beyond the pain of this fallen world

Jesus says that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3). Jesus, in the words of the Christmas hymn, was “born to give us second birth.” He died for that end as well. That’s how important you are to Jesus. He simply refuses to imagine spending eternity without you!

The new birth that Jesus brings is a free gift. We can’t earn, acquire, or steal it for ourselves. 

But to take hold of it will cost us our lives. The new life that Jesus secures for us can’t be ours if we insist on holding onto our pretenses of being in control in this life. We must let go of the myths of our self-sufficiency, goodness, or power. That’s painful; but it’s the way of following Jesus. “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy,” Jesus tells us in John 16:22.

So, how does Jesus’ life, death, and resurrected life become embodied in us so that we are part of His new creation? 

Not by anything we do! Jesus says in John 3:5: “ one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” 

Our new life begins when God acts to save us in Holy Baptism. 

In Baptism, He drowns our old selves and the Holy Spirit infuses us with the resurrection life that Jesus, like a mother who endures labor, has suffered to give to us

The apostle Peter says that the water of the flood in which God saved Noah and his family “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also..It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21) Baptism is how God brings us into His new creation.

“Wait. What?” you might be saying right now. “Isn’t there something we need to do do? Don’t we at least have to believe?” 

Yes and no. We do have to believe. Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) And, “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Yes, we must believe. We must have faith.

But faith isn’t something we do. Faith is something we don’t do. Faith is something God, acting through Jesus Christ, does to us. 

I’m not saying that we won’t do things because we have faith. But we mustn’t confuse faith, childlike trust in God, with what we do because we already have received the gift of faith

We can’t manufacture faith in Jesus. 

Faith isn’t “positive thinking.” 

It’s not trying to psych ourselves into buying something as true, repeating in the style of the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, “I do believe in Jesus. I do believe in Jesus.”

Faith is the creation of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Who comes to us in our baptisms

The same Spirit Jesus promises will help us to remember the promise of new life amid the pains of this life

Faith happens when the Word of God--preached, taught, and embodied in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--demolishes our desire to be gods unto ourselves and opens us to trust in Christ alone for life, when we can say of ourselves and Jesus what John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must increase.” (John 3:30) 

Faith is foreign to our inborn sinful natures. That's why the Bible tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) Faith is God's work in us!

Only faith created in us by God the Holy Spirit comprehends that Jesus bore the pain of death and agony to win new life for us. 

When we live in Spirit-powered faith in Jesus, we endure the pain of being separated from all our favorite sins--from gossip to covetousness, from adultery to worshiping ourselves and other false gods, from materialism to prejudice. 

But, born anew in Christ’s new kingdom, the Holy Spirit works to make us over in Jesus’ image, setting us free to live in the freedom of being God’s emancipated children, not yet all God that is going to make of us, but no longer slaves to sin, death, and fear, disciples of Christ with nothing to prove, everything to celebrate, and a Lord we want to spend today and all eternity glorifying! Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]