Your Grief Will Turn to Joy April 6 and 7, 2019
John 16: 16-33
Today we’re continuing our Lenten journey with our Table Talk sermon series. We’ve been sitting in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples, listening to and reflecting on these intimate teachings recorded in John’s Gospel, the last teachings Jesus will offer before he heads to the cross. We’ve learned about servanthood and friendship; we’ve learned about the power Jesus shares with us and how He expects us to continue His work through the presence of the Holy Spirit. And today we turn our attention to the topic of joy. Would you read with me?
You might’ve heard in the news that a cyclone has recently ripped through several African countries, especially Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which were hit pretty hard. I’ve spent some time praying for the safety of my friends and colleagues, and as I’ve been praying, I’ve been recalling some of the wonderful moments and conversations during my time in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. It’s been three years, and I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember, but one conversation I’ll never forget was with my new friend Amos. Amos and his wife were some of our first hosts in Zimbabwe.They lived in a remote area with no electricity or running water, but they did not lack in the area of faith. When we arrived, Amos’ greeted us with a big smile, then quickly took us on a grand tour of his homestead. There was one building in particular that I found intriguing, only because it wasn’t a building; it was the remains of a building. Amos started to tell us that this used to be his pride and joy- his store, where he would bottle and sell honey- but it had been destroyed during a political firestorm. Amos went on to tell us that he had been part of a group hoping to bring change and renewal to his beloved country, but instead, political corruption won the day, and with their victory, came destruction, fear and physical violence. And as I listened to Amos tell his story with passion and hope, the question I could not stop wrestling with was this: How did this man live with so much joy in the midst of so much pain?
Joy is at the heart of today’s passage, but it’s not the first theme that pops up. Quite frankly, the entire conversation leading up to this moment feels like someone just emptied a thousand-piece puzzle on the floor and asked, “What do you think this means? Because after listening to Jesus talk, the disciples were confused. Loving and serving each other was one thing, but this notion of seeing Jesus, then not seeing Jesus, was pretty confusing. What does this mean the disciples asked. Where’s He going? Why is He going? And what’s Jesus trying to say? All those questions are understandable. You know, I’m not sure any of us would’ve gotten the picture Jesus was trying paint. But then the conversation takes an unexpected turn that brings the confusion into focus: Jesus begins to talk about grief.
We don’t typically expect Jesus to talk so bluntly about the things we’d rather avoid. I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here today to hear about suffering or pain or loss. Those just aren’t the topics we expect to hear at church. But that’s probably more to do with our expectations than anything. We can’t read the Bible without reading of crosses and death and pain. And we can’t make it through this broken world without much of the same. Pain is a normal part of life, and grief often comes with it. I’m guessing that you could name at least handful of times when you’ve experienced those trying moments in your life. Trevor Hudson, a retired South African Methodist minister, would often remind himself before stepping on stage to speak that almost everyone in his congregation was sitting by his or her own pool of tears. Maybe that’s your reality right now. Maybe a loved one passed away, or a friendship ended too soon or a dream disappeared or an opportunity was taken off the table. And those moments cut deep.
When I think back to my own moments of grief and despair, I can almost feel those old emotions building back up. Yet at the same time, I recognize that those moments are part of my story. We probably don’t spend enough time acknowledging that grief and loss have a place in our story. For many of us, we need to give ourselves permission to grieve. When we experience loss, we need to know that it’s ok to be sad. When his good friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept like any of us would weep. He grieved. There are entire books of the Bible dedicated to prayers known as laments, which read just like they sound: painful prayers and groans uttered from the hearts of people who are desperate and broken. Just listen to some of these. “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me” (Psalm 56:1). “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Psalm 55: 4). “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me”’ (Psalm 42:9). Sometimes we just need to cry out to God from the depths. But more often than not, our approaches to grief, loss and pain just aren’t healthy. Like Peter, who took out his sword in the garden to defend Jesus (and himself) from the fear of loss, our responses look a lot like swords that try to take out the pain. We write a scathing Facebook post. We spread gossip about the one who hurt us. We hold grudges and try to get even. Those are all “swords” that we wave around, hoping they’ll be the sort of coping mechanism that will dull the pain. But Jesus invites us to put the swords down… because grief is not the end. Somehow, Jesus promises, our grief will give way to joy.
There have been some wonderful moments around this table between Jesus and the disciples. He’s called them friends. He’s washed their feet. He’s promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He’s even stated that together they’ll do even greater things than He has done! But now he cuts to the chase. There are some really bad things that are about to happen. And when they do, the world will rejoice. Everyone around you will think they’ve done something truly good for the world. By getting rid of me, they’ll think they’ve done God’s will. And you’ll feel terrible about it. You’ll grieve, you’ll cry, you’ll mourn for what was. But hold on. Stay the course. Because joy will come again and it will be complete.
In the Fall of 2010, I was approached by a friend who recommended I try a 13-week program called GriefShare. After the death of my father, my friend noticed that I was quick to get back to work- my substitute for the joy I sought. In his book, “Surprised By Joy,” author C.S. Lewis suggests that most of our pleasure-seeking and pain-numbing adventures are substitutes for joy. He especially calls out sex and says that sex is no substitute for what only Christ can give. And for me, neither was work. I hadn’t taken the appropriate time to grieve, and my friend noticed. So I did. For 13 weeks, we tackled what I thought was an unbearable existence- the pain of death. And it was hard. We just sat with our pain, knowing we could do nothing to change what had happened. For many, including me, it was really the first time we opened up our broken hearts. And little by little, as we kept on coming back to those sessions, the pain became a bit more manageable. Soon I discovered that I was able to wake up one day and get out of bed; then I was able to put one foot in front of the other; then I was able to smile again. And somewhere toward the end of our journey, I felt joy slowly returning to my soul. There was a day when I wondered if I’d ever experience joy again. But it came. And it came not because life suddenly got easier or better; it came because of Jesus. I used to think that joy was an emotion I felt, or the butterflies that tickled my stomach or the sheer happiness that I experienced when my plans worked out just the way I imagined. But through this 13 week journey, I discovered that joy was none of these. Joy was Jesus. And He can never be taken away.
Joy is knowing that Jesus will be present when it all falls apart. And take my word: it will eventually all fall apart. Everything we work so hard for will one day come to an end. But Jesus will remain. Even this merry band of disciples is about to be shattered and scattered, but it is not the end. One of the Bible verses I’ve committed to memory is Romans 8: 38-39, which says this: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. That’s the rock on which we stand when it all comes crashing down. It was out of this confidence, a confidence in God’s love, that Jesus was able to look at his friends and say, “Your grief will turn to joy.” It was out of this confidence that Jesus was able to face His own dire straits and believe that a cross and a grave were only the ends of a chapter, and not the end of the story. Our times of grief and pain are real, but they aren’t the entirety of who we are. They play a role in our makeup, but they are not our identity. And in good time, as we keep seeking Jesus, those reservoirs of joy that feel so empty now will be made whole again.
Maybe this is why the author of Hebrews writes this: (12:1-2) “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I think this is what my friend Amos practiced in his life. I think this is his answer to the question I posed at the beginning. He lived with joy in the midst of pain because he clung to a truth that could not be shaken. No matter what others had done to him, they could not undo what Jesus had done in him. No matter how much of his property they destroyed, they could not touch his eternity. And no matter how many times they beat him, Amos held fast to the promise that Jesus had already won the war. And in a way, you could say that his passion for Christ grew even stronger as he shed his tears of suffering. Amos fixed his eyes on Jesus, and in so doing, discovered a joy that not even Satan could steal.
Joy is renewed when we fix our eyes on Christ. When we fix our eyes on Christ, we see the big picture. And what’s the big picture? It’s this: John 16: 33- “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Take heart, brothers and sisters. Jesus has already overcome the world. And that is why we joy can be ours today. Amen.