Jesus is risen to give us joy, overflowing and unending joy.
Our Gospel text is from John 16, and we will hear readings from this chapter for the next four weeks. Jesus is talking on Maundy Thursday, the night when He was betrayed, and He is preparing His disciples for what is about to happen: His crucifixion and resurrection.
It seems like the disciples were hearing these words in a mist. The heard Jesus tell them that He was going to die, and they were troubled, but it is almost as if they could hear Him talking about the resurrection. Three day later, after Jesus had come out of the grave, and things were crazy all over the place, they start to remember, “Hey, didn’t Jesus mention something about a resurrection?” But now, the night before Jesus’ death, the disciples are just hanging on to get the idea of Jesus dying, and they don’t like it.
Jesus was for them hope, and life, and salvation. He was their Teacher and their Savior, the Messiah, the Redeemer, the One who would rescue Israel and bring about the kingdom of God. All their hopes in life and in death were bound up in Jesus. Now, they probably had a bad idea about what the kingdom of God would look like. I think they were still unravelling this idea that the Messiah would have a physical kingdom on this earth from the truth of what Jesus was taking. Changing your mind about a thing takes a while, and the idea that the Messiah would overthrow the Romans had been a big part of Jewish thinking for quite a while. But the disciples were beginning to understand that the kingdom of God was not a place, but a man, this Man, Jesus. And the hope to which they were to cling was not a hope of power, but the authority of Jesus. They had heard Jesus preach the law and the Gospel. They knew that their real problem was their sin, and that they would have to stand before the face of God one day, and be judged for that sin. And they knew that for this last great stand, they needed Jesus. And they needed Him alive.
All their eggs were in one basket, and in this the disciples were exactly right. All of their hope, all of their peace, all of their faith, all of their salvation, all of this is with Jesus, bound up to Him. But they have it all bound up to His life (not to His death), and so, when Jesus dies, all of this is lost, and the disciples plunge into despair.
Jesus knows this is going to happen.
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. You will be sorrowful… (John 16:19b-20a).
This kind of sorrow is difficult to imagine. They have not only lost a beloved friend, they have lost their Lord, and with His death all joy and hope has died. We see this in the account of the two disciples on the Emmaus road. Jesus comes alongside them, but He hides from them so they don’t recognize His face.
While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel…” (Luke 24:15-21)
That last “we had hoped” captures the sorrow that Jesus promises, the sorrow that took hold of the disciples. “We had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel,” but our hope is lost, our hope is crucified and buried, our hope of redemption and forgiveness is gone, and we are handed over to sadness and despair.
This is the despair of the law. The despair of knowing that you will have to stand on the last day before the holiness of God and there, in the brightness of His countenance, all of your sin will be exposed, there will be no hiding, and so there will be no joy, only eternal horror.
Now, contrast this despair of the disciples occasioned by the death of Jesus with the joy of the world and the devil. Jesus does, again, in John 16. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” The world rejoices at the death of Jesus. The devil and the demonic hordes rejoice at the death of Jesus. Those who want to justify themselves, those who are handed over to darkness and death, and especially those who want to establish their own righteousness rejoice at the death of Jesus. The have no use for Him. In fact, Jesus threatens to overturn their entire system, and they can’t have it. The rulers of this world take council together against the Lord and His Messiah, and they execute Him, and they rejoice.
We sing this in the Walther Easter hymn (He’s Risen, He’s Risen, Christ Jesus the Lord, 2-3),
The Foe was triumphant when on Calvary
The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.
I’m not sure if the devil was triumphant, but I suspect he thought he was. It was, after all, the devil who threw it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. And it is stunning for Walther to put into our imagination the picture of the demons throwing a victory party at the death of Jesus. “In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer, For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.”
Now, dear saints, I would like you to consider this for a moment. It must be, if you could interview the devil, and ask him what his greatest victories have been, that he would have a list of his triumphs: the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the fall, the utter corruptness of Noah’s generation, and of Sodom and Gomorrah, the apostasy of King Solomon would all be on this list. We wonder if the events of this past week, the terror in Boston and the explosion in Texas, and all the increasing violence that is brought to this world would be somewhere on that list.
But it must be that the devil’s greatest triumph is the death of Jesus, and this death is the devil’s undoing. The devil’s greatest victory is his own defeat, for in the death of Jesus the devil is overcome, and his power is taken from him (see Hebrews 2:14). In the Lord’s mysterious working out of your salvation, the devil gives you the great gift of the cross of Jesus, the blood that is shed for your forgiveness. I hope there is comfort here for you.
We look around as see the world falling to pieces, and it seems to us as if the devil has won the day, but the devil can’t help but bring about God’s gifts, all of his work is his own undoing. Luther loved to call the devil “God’s devil”, and I suspect this is why. So even as the devil attacks God’s institutions he does us the service of reminding us that they are real things, that marriage is a real thing, that life is a real thing, that man and woman are a real thing, that family is a real thing, and that the church is a real thing, all instituted by God. (As the old theologians loved to say, “The abuse does not destroy the essence, but confirms it.”)
But back to the days of Jesus resting in the tomb. The disciples are full of sorrow, and the world and the demons are full of joy, but all of this is about to end. Jesus being dead is about to end. And this turns everything on its head.
But short was their triumph, the Savior arose,
And Death, hell, and Satan He vanquished His foes;
the conquering Lord lifts His banner on high.
He lives, yea, He lives, and will nevermore die.
As 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” (John 16:20b-22).
The disciple’s despair is turned to joy. The devil and the worlds joy is turned to dread. Despair and joy switch places, and you are on the side of joy. Jesus is alive. Our Redeemer is alive. Our Savior is alive. And this means that when we are called to stand before God on the Last Day, we will not stand alone. Jesus will stand at our side, with the robe of His righteousness covering our shame, with His blood covering our sin, with His death and resurrection turning God’s anger into a smile.
Jesus is risen to hand you over to joy, to a joy that cannot be stolen; to a joy that will not fade, to the joy of life and life eternal, to the joy of salvation, to the joy, dear saints, of the Absolution, your sins forgiven, and the absolute certainty that when your last day comes, you will not face judgment, but you will rather see the face of Jesus, your Jesus, a face alive with delight in you.