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As Paul was heading back home from his first mission journey, he stopped at some of the cities where new churches had started in order to strengthen and encourage them in the faith. Did you catch what his message to them was? It wasn’t, “now that you are Christians your lives are going to be so much better. You can expect all kinds of good things to happen.” No, you probably know what his message was by heart. He told them, we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. He told them that because they were Christians, they should expect trials and tribulations. They should expect that their earthly circumstances would not always be happy. But they had the kingdom of God to look forward to. Looking forward to eternal joy with Jesus would give them the strength they would need to be joyful even in unhappy circumstances.
What Paul did for these new mission churches Jesus did for his disciples as he spoke to them during what we call holy week. Jesus was preparing them for some very trying, unhappy circumstances. In a little while they would not see him. And it wasn’t that he was going to a secluded place to pray alone as he had done on occasion in the past. He was about to be arrested, condemned, and crucified. There would be a time when they would think that he was gone for good, that they would never see him again. They would mourn as they never had before. They would weep and wail thinking that any hope they had that he was the Messiah had died with him. And to make matters worse, the world, the Jewish leaders and Roman officials would be rejoicing that they had gotten rid of what they considered a problem and a threat. Jesus wanted them to know that their circumstances were about to get very unhappy.
It is helpful to have some advance warning that things are about to change, and some unhappy circumstances are coming. It enables us to prepare our minds, maybe save some money, or stock up on food, or buy a generator. But it doesn’t make the unhappy circumstances happy when they come. Think of Ukraine. They saw Russian forces massing at their border for months. They knew an invasion was likely coming. They had time to make some preparations, but experiencing war is never happy no matter how much you have prepared. Even though Jesus had told the disciples repeatedly that he was going to die, when it happened, they still were filled with sorrow, weeping, and wailing.
Just knowing that unhappy circumstances are coming doesn’t enable you to have joy when they come. But Jesus gave the disciples something that would give them joy no matter what circumstances they faced in the future. He told them that a little while after they thought they would never see him again they would see him again. They would become sorrowful, but their sorrow would turn into joy.
They didn’t understand what he was talking about at the time, but in just a few days they would. The women came back from the tomb on Sunday morning reporting that the tomb was empty. Peter and John raced to see if what they said was true, and it was. Jesus’ body was not there, only the grave clothes and the napkin that had been over his face neatly folded on the side. Then, as they gathered that Sunday evening, Jesus appeared to them in the upper room. They were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Their sorrow had turned into joy that was beyond description. Not only was he alive and they could see him again, but because he was alive their hope was restored. Seeing him again meant that he was indeed who they hoped he was, the promised Messiah, their Savior.
But that’s not the end of the story. The unhappy circumstances Jesus talked about weren’t limited to his suffering and death. He had told them that in the future they would face unhappy circumstances of being expelled from their Synagogues. There would be times when people would call for their execution thinking that they were doing God a favor by killing them. Paul had been one of those who thought he was doing God a favor by executing Christians. Now that he had become a Christian, he was experiencing what that was like. He had people chasing him out of synagogues and trying to kill him. He knew more than most that it is through much tribulation that we enter into the kingdom of God. And he also knew the joy that is victorious over unhappy circumstances. As he sat in jail because of his faith, he wrote these familiar words, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
What are Jesus and Paul trying to teach us?
They are making it clear to us that we will not find lasting joy in our circumstances. The joy you have when you get something you thought you always wanted doesn’t last. Whatever it was you thought would give you joy will at some point disappoint you. The new toy breaks. The new car, or tractor, or combine, gets old and needs repairs. Even that child you prayed for, who fills your heart with joy, becomes a teenager and sasses you and goes off to their room and slams the door. A bullish stock market makes you joyful as you see your investments grow, until it crashes, and you see all your gains vanish. Your heart is filled with joy on your wedding day and after the honeymoon you realize that marriage is hard work. There is no earthly circumstance that can provide lasting joy.
It’s good to know this and to be prepared but knowing that earthly circumstances can’t give lasting joy doesn’t point us to the source of lasting joy. Jesus reminds us that the only thing that can give us lasting joy is seeing him. Seeing him as our risen and living Savior in his word and seeing him face to face on the last day.
When I read Jesus’ example of childbirth I thought of the birth of the first child, Cain. When that first child was born Eve’s heart was filled with joy, not just because of the birth of a child. Her pain in childbirth was a reminder of her sin. That pain was a part of the consequence she and all women would experience because she had disobeyed God. But a possible translation of what she said when her first child was born is, I have gotten the man from the Lord. It seems that she was also thinking of God’s promise to send her and the whole world a savior. Her joy in the midst of childbirth, and the unhappy circumstances of being expelled from the garden came from her faith in God’s promise to send the savior. As Jesus told his disciples, that’s a joy that no one can take away.
There are lots of circumstances in life that make us unhappy, even make us weep and wail. But none of them are able to rob us of the joy that is ours in Jesus. No matter what trials and tribulations we might face we can always find joy by remembering that the disciples did see Jesus again. He died and rose again. No matter what happens no one and nothing can take away the fact that he is the promised Savior. No matter what happens, no matter how much the world or anyone in the world hates me, I have the joy of knowing that Jesus loves me. He proved it by willingly suffering my punishment in my place. He continues to prove it by reminding me of my baptism and giving me his body and blood in the sacrament. When I focus on Jesus and all he has done and continues to do for me no one and nothing can take away my joy.
But that’s not the full extent of our joy. Like the disciples, one day we will see Jesus again, not just in his word and sacrament, but face to face. The joy we will experience when we see him is beyond our comprehension, your most joyful day on earth multiplied by infinity. We hear John picture it for us in our reading from Revelation. Imagine the joy of a place as beautiful as one that has huge gates carved out of a single pearl, a place where God provides perfect light, a place where you never have to lock your doors because no one and nothing evil is there, a place that is filled with the glory and riches of all nations, a place where there are not and never will be any unhappy circumstances because all the effects and consequences of sin are gone. And you’re not just there for a visit. This is your home for ever and ever, time without end.
As long as we live on this earth, we will have unhappy circumstances. We will experience the effects and consequences of sin, our own and that of others. As Christians, we will find ourselves at odds with the world. What makes them joyful, like thinking there is no Jesus, makes us sad, and what makes us joyful makes them hateful. Knowing this helps us to be prepared, but only seeing Jesus can give us joy. Now we get to see him in his word and sacrament, in a little while, as measured by eternity, we will see him face to face and we will experience an inexpressible and glorious joy that will never end.