Originally preached at Grace Lutheran Church in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and just as the Apostle Paul brought greetings from the churches he served throughout the Mediterranean, I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus makes three promises to his disciples. For the moment, we’ll take a look at the first two that Jesus makes: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” and “In this world, you will have tribulation.” To be sure, both of these promises taken together seem somewhat…antithetical. The Father will give us whatever we ask of him so that our “joy may be full,” but we will receive trouble in this life. How can one’s joy be full when one will also experience hardship and tribulation? Certainly it is a great comfort to us to know that God hears our prayers; as Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), but what about those times when one asks God for something and appears to receive trouble? How can one’s joy be complete then?
When Jesus told this to the disciples, he was preparing them for their future. They were about to experience sorrow that they could not have imagined when Jesus would be taken to be tried before the religious leaders and Romans, and ultimately, to be killed. Jesus needed to let them know that, even without him, God would still be with them and would still care for them. They would feel sorrow for “a little while,” but their joy would be restored, and they had the assurance that they could boldly ask God for whatever they desired in their prayers. But how did they square this good news, that God would give them whatever they asked in Jesus’ name, for the completion–“filling out”–of their joy, with the fact that Jesus told them that they will have tribulation?
Of course, Jesus had told them all along that they would experience the coming sorrow of losing him, but on so many occasions they had disbelieved him, thinking that what he had told them about his coming suffering and death at the hands of the authorities was something that wouldn’t happen, or that Jesus was being a pessimist. Do you all remember what Peter said? “Far be it from you that any of this should happen to you, Lord!” But he also told them that life wouldn’t go easy on them. To be a follower of Christ is to suffer with him; to take up one’s cross and follow him. Christ’s telling the disciples that they would experience tribulation–thlipsis, as John writes in the original Greek, a literal crushing or pressing–in this life is a warning for them. This life will be difficult. You will face crushing opposition. The disciples don’t know it when he tells them, but they will all be sent to the furthest reaches of the known world, and all of them will suffer for Jesus’ sake. Sin will try to have its way with them. They will be attacked in body and soul.
Our world is certainly one full of tribulation. We see it in the news every day. There’s conflict in the Middle East and West Africa. Terrorist activity in Southeast Asia. Shootings here in the United States. Rampant destruction of the unborn. The Chinese Uyghirs are being placed in reeducation camps. There’s suppression of the Gospel in China, North Korea, and elsewhere. There is terrible flooding in the midwest, and farmers unable to plant crops. Famine and economic collapse in Venezuela. The world is full of troubles and trials. But there are common everyday tribulations, too. Illness, crime, and poverty affect our communities. Interpersonal conflict and stress threaten our families. We are subject to worries about paying the bills, doing well at school, and excelling in our work
Imagine this individual, described by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters. Imagine “…a man hag-ridden by the Future–haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth–ready to break [God]’s commands in the present if so by doing [he thinks] he can attain the one or avert the other–dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see” (Letter 15). Does that sound like someone you’ve ever known? Someone who feels like the fate of the world depends on human action? It’s easy for all of us to give in to the temptation to make the cares and stresses of the world our own, to believe that we can or have to fix the world ourselves or else fall with it. Today, we feel as if we experience more anxiety than previous generations have, likely because of our intake of mass-communications. Stress has become the norm. Our own personal struggles, as well as the struggles of the world, seem to crush us, weigh us down, make our lives miserable, and attempt to squelch any hope we have in this world. How do we overcome them? Can we?
On our own, we cannot. The world is full of sin, and sin is the cause of all this pain and tribulation. Being sinful creatures ourselves, we cannot overcome this sin that defines and pervades the world. That’s like trying to remove an ink stain by pouring more ink on it. But Jesus gives his disciples a third promise in today’s reading from John: Jesus has overcome the world.
Because Jesus has overcome the world, the tribulations that afflict his followers ultimately have no power over them. The disciples will go through all manner of troubles and affliction; in fact, all of them except for John will suffer and die for their faith. Peter, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, and Jude will be crucified. Matthew will be axed to death. James the Greater will be put to death by King Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, with the sword; James the lesser, stoned and clubbed. Simon the Zealot will be killed, and Thomas speared to death. John himself was imprisoned and eventually released in his advanced old age. He still suffered the afflictions of this life. The oppression and crushing— the thlipsis— of this sinful world brought death and suffering to the disciples. But, through Christ’s overcoming the world, they too triumphed over it with him, sharing his victory.
And notice the confidence with which Jesus says: “I have overcome the world”! When he says this, he has not yet died and risen for the sins of mankind. But Jesus has won the long-game. He knows that death holds no power over him, and that his dying and rising will redeem the world and open the way to eternal life for all people. His disciples will live, though they die and suffer. Those who trust in him will be delivered from tribulation, if not in this lifetime, then at the resurrection of all flesh, and their joy will be complete.
This promise is for us, too. Though we see and experience so much current suffering, though the Enemy tries to distract us with the cares of this life so that we despair or make gods of ourselves and our ability to fix the world, you and I can take comfort and solace in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and its tribulations. We can trust in him for our deliverance from sin’s oppression. We can look to his second coming with expectant joy because we know that, having defeated death already at his resurrection, at his return, our joy will be truly complete and fulfilled.
So if you are care-worn and have been ground down by the world, beset by sin and in need of relief, take heart! Jesus has overcome the world and sin and all their combined powers. He died and rose for you so that you might have new life in him, a new life freed from sin’s oppression and life’s tribulations. Though you might still experience those pressures and troubles, with Christ, you too shall overcome and be freed from them. Christ has overcome. He is with you.
Going back to the beginning of this sermon and our reading, because Christ has overcome the world, we can boldly ask the Father for whatever we need because he has made our joy full in Christ’s resurrection. In Christ, we have been made his children, and so he will hear us when we ask, and he will fulfill our happiness in Christ. He may not always give us what we want when we want it (like any good father), but he will give us what we need when we ask him, not always in our time, but in his. You might remember how the Rolling Stones put it— “you can’t always get what you want…but you just might find, you get what you need.” God is in control. This is what Job learned in his afflictions— God is in control of all things; all of his vast creation is under his care and dominion. Even those things that wish to do us harm are subject to him. Luther called Satan “God’s Devil” because God can even use the schemes of the enemy to achieve his purposes. Because Christ has overcome the world and its suffering, we can, with full trust in him, go to our Father in Heaven and ask him “as dear children do their dear father,” and he will give us whatever we desire to bring us joy out of our sorrow and an end to our troubles. As we sang in our hymn of the day,
4 Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Let your soul be still! Christ has overcome the world. The Lord will fulfill you joy. Amen