Our Gospel repeats the words “a little while” seven times. Now seven is a holy number. This is consistent throughout the Bible. This isn’t overly pious speculation, some cabalistic spiritualizing of the text, reading into it some meaning it doesn’t have. It’s quite the opposite. The number seven matters and the Holy Spirit uses it here with specific purpose as He does throughout the Bible. Three is the number of God, because God is three in one, Trinity. This is why, with the seraphim who sing to God in Isaiah 6, we repeat three times every Sunday, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.” He is the three in one. And four is the number of the earth, because there are four directions. We heard this a couple weeks ago in our Old Testament lesson, in Ezekiel 37, where God orders Ezekiel, “Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” Again, this is consistent throughout the Bible. Three for God and four for the world. And seven for the number of God’s interaction with the world, three plus four equals seven. It’s the number that represents God’s control, his loving control over the world and over your life.
This is what Jesus insists on today. He speaks of two things that make us doubt His control over this world and over our lives. The first is that bad things happen to us. That we have sorrow. The second is that we can’t see Jesus. And these two things go together. When you do see Jesus you will have no sorrow. When the time comes that the Son of God wants you to look at His face, there will be no pain anymore, no worry, no doubt, no selfish ambition, no filthy thoughts, no betrayal or hate, none of the things that hurt us Christians – it will all be gone.
But so long as we don’t see Jesus, sorrow and pain will be with us, and so Jesus tells us before they happen, that they will, and that he’s still in control. This is really not a sad passage of the Bible. It goes well with the name for this Sunday and the next Sunday, Jubilate, Shout for Joy and Cantate, Sing. Jesus is convincing his disciples that their sorrow will last but a little while, and that it’s better for them this way. Jesus suffers for them for the joy that lies before Him, and He has us suffer for a little while for the joy that lies before us.
Now we don’t believe in purgatory because purgatory isn’t in the Bible. There is no place called purgatory where Christian souls will have to suffer for a time before they get to heaven. The Roman Catholics simply made it up. They do that sometimes. But just because there is no purgatory doesn’t mean we don’t believe in purging. God does purge us Christians. He takes us through pain to focus us on heavenly things. Martin Luther had it right when he said that the suffering of the Christian in this life, our confronting death, our confronting our own self-righteousness, our confronting our sins, our humbling ourselves and wanting to do better, our mourning over the pain and destruction sin has brought into this world and on us, our struggling with doubts and disbelief of God because we can’t see what we believe, this is the real purgatory, the real purging that God gives us Christians.
This is what we confess with the Apostle Paul, “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
And Jesus says it’s better this way. No one thought that it was better for Jesus to suffer and die. But Jesus insists it is, because only then will He send the Spirit who preaches the peace with God that our Lord bought by His blood on the cross. And no one could think that it’s better for Christians to suffer. But it is better. Because we find our true joy and our righteousness in Jesus only when the Spirit first convinces us that we need Him, that we have no answer in ourselves to pain and sin and death, that we need the sinless One who gave up His life for us, we need His righteousness and we need His judgment against our enemies. Whatever pain our God sends us He sends to drive us to love our Lord Jesus more, to want to see His face, to find our rest in Him.
I know many of you are dealing with cancer, in your body or in the bodies of those you love. I know many of you are dealing with family conflicts, of being sinned against and having a terrible time confronting it, forgiving it, and letting it go. I know many of you have chronic pain in your bodies. I know many are overcome with loneliness and anxiety. I know your struggles with nagging lusts that you wish would just go away and yet you have to face them constantly. And I know the devil, that his constant temptation is for this pain to make you despair, to deny what you can’t see, to doubt your God because He insists on sending you pain, to give up on fighting sin because it seems so much easier just to indulge. This is the Christian’s pain, the Christian sorrow. And Jesus knows this. He does. It’s why in last Sunday’s beautiful Gospel he says, “I know my own and my own know me.” He’s the good shepherd. He knows His own. He knows the pain and the temptation, and the doubt of God and the anxious anticipation that comes with it. And He knows it not in some merely intellectual way. He knows it because He’s faced it Himself. He’s the shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. Never forget that. When you’re in pain, when you’re sick of dealing with it, when it makes doubts of God and fear of death and despair rise up, remember what your God says to you. My sheep hear my voice. Hear His voice. Don’t let your sinful flesh rebel against it. Don’t let the pain of this life drown it out.
By His knowledge, the Father says, shall my righteous Servant justify many. For He will bear their iniquities. By His knowledge, by knowing you, Jesus justifies, saves, and helps. And what is this knowledge, how did He come to know you? For He will bear their iniquities. He knows your pain and death, because He suffered it, and He knows your sin, because He’s borne it, He knows worry and anxiety because He’s sweat blood in expectation – this was His little while, which was an eternity, as He knew us, knew our sin and our death and our pain, so that now He can know us as children of God. I know my own. And I lay down my life for my sheep, He says.
So believe what He tells you. He never hides it from you. You will have sorrow. Like a mother in childbirth. The pain will come. It’s unavoidable for the mother. By virtue of having that baby in her tummy, she will have pain. But it’s precisely that baby that will make the pain fade into insignificance, compared with the joy of seeing that baby, alive, the one for whom she suffered. By virtue of being a Christian, of holding to Jesus in your soul, you will suffer with an expectation the world cannot understand. You will believe and not see. You’ll know sin like no unbeliever can; you’ll know the pain of it as a violent intrusion into your baptized soul. You’ll be restless until your soul finds its rest in Jesus. But after the little while, in Jesus, the one for whom you wrestle like the Syrophoenician woman and like Jacob by the River Jabbok, your joy will be full.
And unlike the disciples on the night Jesus spoke these words, you know the outcome. You know it clearly. It was a little while. Jesus suffered on Good Friday and rose on Easter Sunday. He has ascended to heaven and He will come back for you. He does not leave you orphans. You belong to His Church. He doesn’t simply make you wait for joy and happiness. He gives it to you now. He gives you a foretaste of bliss untold. He pours His Spirit on you. He makes you know that you are a child of God now. He announces your peace with God. He feeds you with His body and blood. He gives you your Christian brothers and sisters who love you and pray for you. He gives you the power to hate sin, to endure pain, to believe what you can’t see, to look forward with joy to the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.
And this means to know that whatever you suffer now is for a little while. Because your Jesus is in control. Seven times He says it. A little while, that’s how long we have to deal with sin and pain, and then our Lord asserts singularly and emphatically that the little while passes away and is replaced by an eternity, “But I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.” As surely as He knows you, as surely as he has lived for you and died for you and risen again, as surely as He has baptized You and made His Father your Father and given You His Spirit, as surely as He speaks His forgiveness to you here, and gives you the joy of communion with Him, so surely will you have the indescribable joy of seeing His glorious face. And no one will take that joy from you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.