We call this a Celebration Service – and that's right and good. But I must admit that as I was preparing for this I was aware that for many at the moment the mood is not obviously one of celebration. We're going through a very uneasy time in our nation's life. The church in our land is in a mess. Many of us are in the thick of really testing times in our personal or family lives. Some of those I'm aware of; others no doubt I'm not. You may be going through a time of real hardship yourself. Maybe not many know about it, because you don't want to talk freely about it. Maybe no-one knows about it except you. Though, of course, Jesus knows.
So my title this evening seemed appropriate for the occasion. It is 'Sorrow and Joy'. We're continuing our series through John's Gospel, chapters 16 and 17. We've got to John 16.16-24. Please have that open in front of you - it's the section headed 'Your Sorrow Will Turn into Joy'.
Two weeks ago there was a Thanksgiving Service here for the life of Anne Johnston. Anne was a dearly loved member of our church. At that service we heard from her brave family the story of how a few years ago Anne found out that she was suffering from cancer, and that it was terminal. Those who knew Anne best say that Anne's faith was steady and sure all through those years and right up to her death. Anne belonged to one of our women's Bible study groups, and on one occasion Anne distributed around the group a definition of joy. It came from Kay Warren, the wife of Rick Warren who is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California. Kay herself is no stranger to sorrow and grief. Their son who had struggled with severe mental illness committed suicide. And Kay says of herself:
"Finding joy is a challenge for me. I'm not naturally an upbeat person; I'm more of a melancholy… In fact… my own inability to live with joy… led me to explore why my experiences didn't line up with Scripture. My problem was my definition of joy. I thought joy meant feeling good all the time. That's impossible!"
So from her study of Scripture, Kay Warren came up with a definition of joy. Anne Johnston read it and clearly it chimed in with her own convictions. Kay Warren makes this comment about it:
"You'll find nothing in [this] definition about happy feelings, because, as we all know, happiness is fleeting and temporary."
Here it is then:
"Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation."
Settled assurance. Quiet confidence. Determined choice. That was Anne's experience of joy, even in the midst of a terminal illness. So how can we share that experience of joy, when maybe sorrow threatens to overwhelm us? Well, there is so much to learn about that from this brief encounter between Jesus and his disciples shortly before Jesus went to the cross and to death. And I have three main points. So:
1. Jesus explains to his disciples what their experience of sorrow and joy will be.
Jesus has been teaching his disciples, and they're confused. Now he says something else that just confuses them more. It's comforting for all of us who sometimes read the Bible and think "what does that mean?" Jesus says – John 16.16-19:
""A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me." So some of his disciples said to one another, "What is this that he says to us, 'A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and, 'because I am going to the Father' [which is something Jesus had said to them earlier on]?" So they were saying, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about." Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "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'?"
It is what they're asking. So Jesus then explains to them what their experience is going to be. Verse 20:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice."
That's the 'little while' after the death of Jesus on the cross, when they've lost him, and before the resurrection. Jesus goes on:
"You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy."
Then Jesus uses a powerful illustration of what that will be like. Verses 21-22:
"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."
So their joy will be unshakeable, but nonetheless it won't yet be full. It won't be complete. They will still have needs and those needs will be met through prayer. They won't any longer have Jesus physically with them so they can ask him as they were then, but they will have open access to God the Father in Jesus' name. Verses 23-24:
"In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."
I don't remember the occasion, but I was there when I was born. My mum has never gone into details about what she went through to bring me into the world. Suffice to say it hurt. A lot. In fact the pain started some time before the birth. Late on in her pregnancy, my mum had a bit a cold. I was such a big baby that when she was coughing, my mum actually cracked a couple of ribs. But she tells me that it was all worth it. I was over ten pounds when I was born. No rude remarks please. And please don't tell our daughter-in-law Sophie, who is due to deliver in a few weeks.
Mind you modern medicine can give significant help with relieving the pain, I'm told. There was none of that when Jesus was using this illustration of childbirth to help us grasp how sorrow gives way to joy for those who know the reality of his resurrection from the dead.
So the experience of the disciples would have three phases.
- First, Sorrow – without Jesus. Grief caused by the absence of Jesus, with no hope.
- Secondly, Incomplete joy. That is, joy mixed with trials and marked by prayer to the Father in the name of Jesus. Jesus would be with them - not physically, but by his indwelling Holy Spirit. That would be the condition of their lives after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.
- Thirdly, Complete joy. This would be their experience after the return of Jesus in the new and eternal heaven and earth, when they will see him face-to-face and he will never depart from them again.
Jesus explains to his disciples what their experience of sorrow and joy will be. That's the first point.
2. Our experience of sorrow and joy reflects that of the disciples.
That's very clear from the apostle Peter, who was there listening to Jesus that day before the crucifixion. He wrote in these terms to believers who came to faith later, including us – this is 1 Peter 1.6-9:
"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials … Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."
And also in 1 Peter 4.12-13
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed."
So like the first disciples of Jesus, despite the differences in our circumstances before and after the cross and resurrection, our experience of sorrow and joy also has those three phases.
First, sorrow – without real joy. That can be the result of having no knowledge of Jesus, no living faith in him. This is what the apostle Paul describes as the experience of grieving like those "who have no hope". If that is you, can I gently say to you that the truth is you will not and cannot find real, true and lasting joy apart from Christ the Son of God. So please, get to know him. Turn to him, and believe.
But sorrow can also be the experience of those who have put their trust in Jesus, but who have come to the conclusion that Jesus has gone from their lives and they are utterly alone. If that is you, can I gently say to you that you need to learn to listen less to your feelings, and to look to Jesus and his promises more, as we all do. Because unlike those first disciples we now live beyond the cross and resurrection, and Jesus now never leaves those who belong to him. That is his promise. Learn to trust that promise of his presence.
The second phase of our experience, then, is incomplete joy, with trials to go through and the privilege of prayer to the Father in the name of the Son. The joy is real but it runs alongside the testing times. The suffering is real too. But the experience of suffering is transformed – not taken away but transformed – by the experience of faith in Jesus. And the wonderful truth is that in this present phase of our experience, nothing can take away our joy. Nothing at all. Because the crucified Jesus is risen and ruling, and will return, and is with us by his Spirit, and that is the source of our joy.
Those unshakeable truths are the foundation of our unshakeable joy. That is the joyful experience of faith in Christ crucified and risen; of the love that is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; and the hope that is the certain knowledge that one day soon our joy will be complete and unmixed with trials and tears.
And in the meantime we look forward to That Day which will begin the third and eternal phase of our experience: complete joy, with Jesus face-to-face.
Our present trials are very real. In relation to our national church, there is an accelerating slide towards a revisionist liberalism that rejects the clear word of Christ in the Scriptures. Susie Leafe is the Director of Reform, and has just been attending the meeting of General Synod in York. She wrote to members of Reform in these terms, and with reference to 2 Corinthians 4:
"Thank you to those of you who have been praying for us and sending messages of encouragement. I cannot lie; the last 36 hours have been pretty grim and there is no doubt that orthodox Christians are left feeling afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down...
It is true that wonderfully, in Christ, we are not crushed, nor driven to despair, nor are we forsaken nor destroyed, but we must be in no doubt that what has happened here in York will have serious consequences for all of us in the Church of England…
But, it is not the details of the motions or the numbers of votes that is the real concern; instead it is the 'atmosphere' - there is an arrogance with which God is mocked that we have not seen before - it seems that God may well have given us up to debased minds to do what ought not to be done (Romans 1:28)."
It is in the midst of times of trial such as we are facing in the Church of England that we are to learn to experience joy, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. So Kevin DeYoung, in the introduction to his short and helpful book called 'Amaze Them With God: Winning the Next Generation for Christ', says:
"My hope is that this little book might be of some small use in reforming God's church according to the word of God … Of course the church will always be "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed" [quoting the hymn] … We are sinners, but God is gracious. So the church is bound to be a mixed bag. It is now and will be in the future. For this we can be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Sorrowful for suffering, yet always rejoicing in our redemption. Sorrowful for our sins, yet always rejoicing in our Saviour."
Our experience of sorrow and joy reflects that of the disciples. That's the second point.
3. We can deepen our joy now by looking to Jesus more and more.
There was a period in our lives about ten years ago when we were at rock bottom. We were in the throes of a long-drawn-out family crisis which just seemed to get worse, with no prospect of an end. I have never felt so totally at the end of my resources as I did then – drained, empty, powerless, not knowing how we were going to get through the next day, and then the next and the next. I remember we attended a JPC music group weekend away. And we were taught a song – just a little ditty really, except that it was based on Scripture. The words had extraordinary power for me. It simply went:
"Weeping may endure for the night,
But joy comes in the morning.
Hold on, hold on.
God will see you through."
It refers to Psalm 126, which needs to be familiar to all of us who are struggling, or who will struggle, so that's all of us. Psalm 126.5-6 says:
"Those who sew in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him."
Faithful tears will bear a joyful harvest in the end. That is the promise of the resurrection that follows the cross. So while we wait for Jesus to return, how can we deepen our joy now? Here are six ways:
- Trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Focus on those realities. The more we do that, the more confidence we will have in his saving grace and the more our joy will deepen.
- Love God. Work on that. The more we love God the more we'll experience his love being poured into our hearts by his Spirit and the more our joy will deepen.
- Persevere in prayer to the Father in the name of Jesus. God answers prayer. That is Jesus' promise. Unanswered prayer demands perseverance in prayer. The more we persevere the more we'll see our prayers being answered and the more our joy will deepen.
- Look forward to That Day when our joy will be complete. Think deliberately about that time, even – indeed especially – in the midst of trials and sorrows now. The more we do that, the more our joy will deepen.
- Engage in the discipline of rejoicing. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice," God urges us through the apostle Paul in the Scriptures. The more we rejoice in the Lord, often in defiance of our feelings, the more our joy will deepen.
- Above all, and really drawing all those together: fix our eyes on Jesus. The more we look away from ourselves and our trials and sorrows and look at Jesus – who he is, and what he has done and is doing and will do – the more our joy will deepen.
Joni Eareckson was in her late teens when, fifty years ago this year, back in 1967, she had a diving accident. She was permanently paralysed from the shoulders down. She was also a Christian – from childhood. Decades later she wrote:
"Accepting my wheelchair didn't happen in one afternoon. There was a long series of many days when the Holy Spirit covered my pain and hurt with his gentle grace … Christ has come for our redemption, and we have every reason to break forth with the resounding words [of the carol], 'Rejoice … rejoice'. Long ago and far away in an old stone Methodist church, I was captivated by that haunting melody ... even though I was a child I rejoiced to that chorus of His coming. Thank the Lord, I'm still rejoicing to this day."
Like Joni Eareckson, let's learn to rejoice, regardless of what's going on in our lives, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Then whatever sorrow we're having to cope with, this can also be a time of celebration.