There is something that Jesus says to us today in his Word that just…well, it made me think. Our lesson starts out with some confusion. You see this phrase “in a little while” batted around and repeated seven times in the first three verses we are looking at. The disciples, they weren’t sure what Jesus meant when he said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” And it is kind of a confusing statement from Jesus, but he starts to explain himself in verse 20. Let’s just read that quickly – verse 20 – “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.”
Jesus here is talking about his death and resurrection. In a little while, hours in fact, his disciples would no longer see him because he would be arrested, crucified, and killed. That’s the first “little while” that Jesus is talking about, and that moment of arrest, trial, and death would be one of weeping and mourning for the disciples.
Then Jesus gives us this vivid illustration in verse 21, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” Verse 22, “So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” This turns out to be Jesus’ explanation of his second “in a little while” statement. Three days after his death at that moment of his resurrection, the disciple’s grief would turn to joy; they would see him and rejoice forgetting all their grief. But here is where I had to pause and ponder. Notice what Jesus said about their joy, “no one will take away your joy.” I struggle with that statement.
If you stop and think about it, your entire life is focused on having, and obtaining joy. We need joy like we need food and water. Joy makes life better, tolerable. But here is the thing about joy, joy is elusive. Just when we think we’ve got a handful of happiness, we watch it run through our fingers and vanish.
And so for many of us, this quest for joy leads—with terrible irony—to despair. We pursue joy in materialism, and we never have enough or get stuck deeper in debt. We pursue joy in our children, and we gnaw ourselves with worry over their well-being. We pursue marital perfection, and we grumble when faced with our spouse’s faults. Again and again, we aim for joy, but we end up finding something less. And yet, no matter how hard we are let down, and no matter how hard we fail, we cannot stop looking for joy. It drives us.
And you see this in your own life and the world around you. All the self-help books, all the life hacks, all the gimmicky apps, and that never-ending quest for balance, these are the things we turn to in order to declutter and reinvigorate our lives – to find joy – as if our main problem must be some failure of focus. We think that “if I just have a plan” I can find true and lasting happiness…joy! And, yet here is Jesus saying there is this joy that exists, and it can’t be taken from you. Do you see why I’m struggling with this? I don’t have never-ending joy, and I don’t think you do either.
Now, I realize that Jesus promised that joy specifically to his first disciples, but surely his plan would include joy for you too, right? So where is it? And maybe just as importantly what is this joy that Jesus says will not be taken away? Maybe we need to start there…
There’s a story that’s been told of a man whose horse ran away. His friends upon hearing this said to the man, “Oh, what a bad thing has happened to you! Just terrible. You’ve lost your horse.” The man appreciated their concern but replied: “You say too much. We don’t know what is good or bad. You should only say that my horse ran away.” The next day the man’s horse returned on its own bringing with it a dozen more horses. The man’s friends saw this and said, “Now we know what you mean. What a good thing it was that your horse ran away, you now have 12 more! The man smiled and replied: “Once again, you say too much. We don’t know what is good or bad. Only say that, now, I have 13 horses.”
A few days later that same man’s son broke his leg while trying to break in those 12 new horses. What do you think the neighbors had to say about that awful news? What do you think they had to say a week later when that same son avoided being drafted into a war because his leg was broken? Each time these neighbors opened their mouths and labeled a new development in this man’s life as something good or bad. In so doing, they were convinced that they knew things they couldn’t possibly know for sure, whether a circumstance would turn out badly or end in happiness. And, each time, the man replied: “You say too much.”
Do you get it? In this life, we are tempted to believe that joy is something that can be seen, something good, but often we don’t even know what good is. It’s just like the death of Jesus. The disciples didn’t understand how there could be any good, any joy, in the crucifixion of Jesus, and how could they? The death of someone you love is bad! But Jesus’ death was good…and it led to a joy that would echo across time and finally rest on you. Let’s think about that for a moment.
I mentioned earlier how we spend our lives focused on this desire for happiness, for joy, but the problem is joy in this life is not only difficult to obtain, it’s impossible to maintain. There is a reason for that. God is not concerned with your plan to carve out your own little utopia on this earth. That was never his plan, and I think that’s often where we get tripped up in this life.
You see God has his joy and we often have our own, and our own joy is often focused here on the things around us the things we can see, and touch, and enjoy. And those things certainly can fill us with joy, but they’re not “God Joy.” God Joy is different. It’s unique. God’s joy is gathering people to himself, bringing them into the knowledge of his Son, Jesus. And sometimes for God’s joy to be complete, he allows bad things to happen – things that actually rob us of earthly joy – and turns them into the greatest good. That’s God joy.
God joy is God’s plan to save. It’s his plan to pursue you relentlessly and bless you endlessly but – and this is key – to do all of this as he sees fit and not necessarily as you want. And this is where we need to be oh so clear. Look, in this life you and I need to acknowledge that there are worse problems than not getting what I want. There are worse things than being unhappy. And, yes, as hard as it is to believe, there is even something worse than losing someone you love. And you wonder, what could be worse than that?
This is worse: thinking that happiness must be found here, and that my life’s sole purpose is then…what? A stable family? A meaningful career? Nice friends? To be remembered? Those things are nice, they may give you joy in the moment, but they don’t last. You won’t last. It is absolute folly then to live, even for a moment, as if this life is anything but a prelude to another life that is better by far. But we love this world, and that right there is our mistake, our sin, because our love for this world tends to be far different than God’s love for this world. We often love this world believing we can find never-ending joy here in the things we do and the things we think are good. So it is when those fall apart, well, whom often do we blame? The very one who wants to give us his joy. God though?
God loved this world because he knew you and I would never find true lasting joy here. And so, while we are often running from him, chasing happiness, he was running towards us, sprinting toward the pain it would cost to take us back, to give us that joy we will never find on our own. It was something bad that won us this joy, “in a little while you will see me no more…you will weep and you will mourn.” – Jesus would die and suffer hell; forsaken by God. But what we call bad God made good, “then after a little while you will see me… and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” Jesus rose. He was victorious over sin and death. Showing himself to those who lost all hope and becoming their joy
In these simple Words Jesus lays out his plan for your joy. A never-ending joy. And that joy is himself. Now, it makes sense that Jesus says this joy can’t be taken away from us, because joy is not found here in the circumstances of life, but in the person of Christ. And that person, Jesus, doesn’t just give you the confidence, but the ability to stand before God the Father, and to ask – as we see in verses 23 and 24 – for anything. In this way, your joy is now complete because you’re not looking at the good and the bad of everyday life and just hoping that some joy will come of it. Instead, you’re focused on what did happen “in a little while” and what will still happen for you in a little while longer.
Behind us are the moments of history that tell us how much we are loved by God. Ahead of us is the certainty of an eternity with him. In circumstances that bring no lasting happiness because of all the wishes and wants that won’t and didn’t turn out, ours is the joy that looks back and ahead at what Jesus has already done and will still do. That nothing can touch.
So, let me just end then with this story. Are you familiar with a man named Christopher Parkening? Christopher Parkening was this world-class guitarist, the Washington Post once labeled him one of the greatest guitarists of our time. He was rich and famous and for a time happy, but it wasn’t enough for him. So, at age 30 he got into fly-fishing, and apparently this guy was super gifted because almost instantly he became this champion fly-fisherman. Here too he found joy…until he didn’t – he needed something more.
Well, one epic day he visited some friends and they invited Christopher to church. There he found a new source of happiness, a new source of joy. By God’s Spirit, he came to know Jesus and what it’s like not to receive glory and praise, but to give it to his Savior, and that filled him with a joy apart from this world.
Friends, you and I are all going to do something to try and be happy on this earth, why not do the something that endures forever? Why not daily seek that complete and never-ending joy that only God can give? After all, ever since the fall into sin, God’s plan, his desire, has been to give you that joy; the joy of being with him forever.