Monday, April 29, 2013

Joy in Knowing the Ending (Sermon Preached April 28, for Easter 5-C)

Sermon Text: John 16:12-22

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alelluia!  Let us pray:

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of (our) heart(s) be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, (our) rock and (our) redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

In the name of Jesus.

            I’ve been reading the Chronicles of Narnia with Naomi and Micah.  We’ll sit down together for “story time,” and depending on their mood, I’ll read a chapter or two.  So far, we’ve made it through The Magicians’s Nephew, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and we’ve just started The Horse and His Boy.  Since some of these stories have recently been made into major motion pictures, I thought it might be a nice reward for them to see the story come to life in a movie.  So when they got back into town, one afternoon this past week, we sat down and watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
            Now, I have to tell you, I didn’t make this decision without any reservations.  You see, in the world of Narnia, where these stories take place, there is good and evil; there are good armies and evil armies; there are battles and war and swords and shields and even life and death.  And so, the movie depicts these things.  And knowing that we’re usually fairly careful about what the kids watch on T.V., I had a sort of running debate with myself about whether or not it would be a good decision to let them watch the movie, and to see certain parts of the story.  But I decided to go ahead with it.
            And do you know what?  I was shocked.  When the movie came to the big battle, which would depict the fiercest fighting, and include some violence in telling the story; when I expected Micah to cower, and turn away, or even cover his eyes, I was shocked.  For there he was, laughing at it all.  Now, he wasn’t laughing at how the enemies were being defeated.  It’s not like he was finding delight in the violence itself.  No, what I figured out, was that he was laughing because he knew the ending.  He was laughing because he know that the good guys won in the end.  He was laughing because he knew, those big bad soldiers of the evil army, could growl as loud as they wanted and do whatever they wanted to show you how ferocious they were, but they were going to lose.
You see, I’ve seen Micah cower and turn his eyes at pictures that were far less intimidating.  But when Micah knew the ending, where there might otherwise be fear, and dread, there was joy and laughter and enjoyment.  You see, Micah knew the ending, and that made all the difference in the world.
In today’s Holy Gospel, when the disciples were gathered together with Jesus on the night of the Last Supper, the ending of Jesus’ story had not yet been revealed to them.  Like a movie preview that gives you glimpses of the story, without spoiling the story, the disciples had been given parts of the story.  Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection at least three times before that night, but without seeing the ending of things, the disciples were still unable to put the pieces together.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now.”  The disciples found themselves in the middle of the story, with the most important parts yet to come.  There they were, living through the events of Holy Week.  If Jesus would have taken that time to unload everything that was going to be revealed, the disciples wouldn’t have been able to bear it.  It would have made no sense to them.
Without his being handed over to sinful men; and without his being beaten and mocked and crucified; and without his being buried in a tomb; and without his resurrection; and without him standing in the midst of a room of frightful disciples, alive and in the flesh, and saying, “Peace be with you,” and allowing them to see him and touch him; without the disciples seeing the end of the story, so to speak, they would not have been able to make sense of all the things Jesus had to tell them.
And so, once it was finished; once he had given up his spirit in death, descended into hell to proclaim victory over sin, death, and the devil, and burst forth from the tomb, he would send the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—to guide them into all truth.  Once Jesus work was accomplished, and the story of salvation had been written, and everything that had to happen had finally happened, then it was time, for the Holy Spirit to come and help put the pieces together, and help them to see, and believe all things about Jesus.
You see, the Spirit would come, and the Spirit would not bring with him some new, contradictory Word that would have to complete what Jesus had failed to do.  The Spirit would simply take the Words which were given to him from the Father and the Son, and the Spirit would hand those Words to those who would hear them.  Like a three-person assembly line: everything started with the Father who had sent the Son, and the Spirit would receive the Words that pointed to the work of the Son, and deliver them to those whose ears would hear.
The Spirit would take the death and resurrection of Jesus and deliver that to the disciples, and with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Spirit would show the glory of Jesus.  The Spirit would teach the disciples rightly to know that the death of Jesus was not the end of Jesus but that place where death itself was be defeated.  And the Spirit would teach the disciples rightly to believe that when Jesus burst forth from the tomb, alive and well, He was simply the first of many who would one day burst forth from their own tombs alive and well because of Him.
That was the work which the Father had given to the Son, and it is the work which the Son accomplished.  And once that story of salvation, written long ago in the Words of the prophets, had finally come to its exciting conclusion in the death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Holy Spirit would act as the Spirit of Truth, and guide the disciples to see, and believe, and eventually, to write all things which were given by the Father, worked by the Son, and taught by the Spirit.
“A little while and you will see me on longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”  In a matter of hours, actually, this statement of Jesus would begin to be fulfilled.  “A little while and you will see me no longer.”  By noon the next day, Jesus would be dead, and in a matter of moments he would be shut inside a tomb, and they would be able to see him no longer.  You and I hear these words of Jesus with the entire story in mind, but when the disciples heard these words of Jesus, they couldn’t make sense of them.  “What is this that he is saying, ‘a little while, and you will not see me?’”  I thought he came to be with us.  What is He talking about, ‘a little while, and you will not see me?’”
Of course, Jesus knows what they’re thinking.  He’s sitting with them, and all of them are repeating the question to one another, trying to figure out what he might be talking about.  And so he adds to these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
Indeed, in just a little while, the world would be rejoicing, for the crowd would have its way: Barabbas would be released, and Jesus would be crucified.  The scribes, the Pharisees, sin, death, the Devil, and all who sought to destroy this man from Nazareth would be rejoicing as the blood began to flow from his open wounds, and as the nails were driven through his hands and feet, and as He wondered why the Father had forsaken Him, and finally, as he gave up His Spirit and died.
And as all the world was rejoicing at the death of Jesus, those who had not yet been able to understand why the cross was the necessary conclusion to the story of salvation, would be weeping, and grieving, and could see no possible way how those terrible events they had witnessed could somehow end in anything but defeat.  And so, in their pain, and in their sorrow, not knowing how the story ended, the disciples were overtaken by pain and sorrow, and ended up locked in a room together, dwelling in despair.
When I was reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Naomi and Micah, there were a couple times when I thought one of them might end up doing something similar.  I remember getting to that point in the story where Aslan and the White Witch make an agreement with each other in order to save Edmond, one of the children.  You see, early in the story, Edmond had been fooled into believing that the White Witch was good, and the only way for Edmond to be saved from being taken over by the White Witch and her evil empire is for an innocent life to be given in his place.
As the story goes, Aslan—the Christ figure—walks by himself in the middle of the night to the middle of the enemy army, where they proceed to cut off his mane, and tie him to a stone table, in the midst of wild cheers and jeers.  And then, after making sure that Aslan has been securely fastened to the stone table, the White Witch plunges her dagger into his heart, and the lion is dead.  I remember reading that part in the story, and then looking down and seeing the fear in Micah’s eyes.  All he felt was pain and sorrow, and the only ending he could imagine was the one still in front of him in the death of Aslan.  And so, in the most calm, and soothing voice I could muster, I simple said to him—and to Naomi: “Remember, sometimes a story can look so bad, and still have a happy ending.”
When Jesus told his disciples that they would weep and lament when, for a little while, they would not see him, he also promised them that their sorrow would turn into joy.  In the middle of the story, without seeing any way that the death of Jesus could give way to a reason for joy, the disciples were dwelling in despair, just like Micah was fearful at the death of Aslan.  But in each case, when the end of the story had been written, and the end of the story had been seen or heard, there was plenty of reason for joy.
That stone table upon which Aslan had been slain, would be cracked in two, and there he would stand, with a gloriously new golden mane, and fiercely ferocious voice, that would cry out in prophetic victory across the land of Narnia.  At that moment, all pain and sorrow and fear was gone; the only wonder left in the mind of a once-fearful boy was how quickly the evil army of the White Witch would be defeated.
How much more is joy that is given where sorrow once lived in the heart of the disciples, when Jesus stands in the midst of a locked room, with a risen and glorified body, and the voice of victory, and says, “Peace to you!”?
For just a little while the disciples could no longer see Jesus, and the sorrow in their heart produced weeping and lamenting.  But then, again a little while more, and their sorrow was turned to joy when the crucified Jesus stood before them in a victoriously happy ending that previously they could never have imagined.  All that remained for those disciples was for the Spirit of Truth to help connect the dots, and put the pieces together so that everything Jesus had said and done might now be understood in the light of his death, and his resurrection.
And indeed, knowing the ending would make all the difference in the world.  Like a mother whose joy at the birth of her son or daughter makes all the suffering she endured for the sake of that child a distant memory, the risen and victorious Christ puts his death into perspective.  For just a little while, the disciples were made to suffer by being separated from their Savior, but all of it occurred, so that, in His resurrection, they might have a joy that would never be taken from them.
When Naomi and Micah watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was worried that those scenes involving evil creatures, and a White Witch, and even painful death might be too much for them to handle.  But because they knew the ending; because they knew that Aslan did not stay dead, and that the evil army was defeated, and the White Witch cast out of Narnia, it didn’t matter how gruesome the battle became, their joy was not going to be robbed, and so they watched, and they laughed, and I was amazed.
But I was reminded, that when you know how the story ends, it can make all the difference in the world.  And you, my friends; you know how the story ends.  Sure, you live in the midst of a life in which sin is constantly plaguing your heart; and the brokenness of this world makes you wonder if you’ll be able to stand; and Satan tries to make you fearful that the story of your life will not end well.
But the Spirit of Truth would remind you, my friends, that Jesus did not stay dead, and neither will you who trust in Him.  For the risen and victorious Jesus is only the first among many brothers and sisters who will stand with glorious new bodies, and whose pain and sorrow will be forgotten in the joy of a new creation.  With the Spirit of Truth reminding you that with Jesus, all things will end well, who knows, maybe you’ll even be like Micah, and learn to laugh in the face evil.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  Amen.

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