Disclaimer: I usually don’t publish my sermon manuscripts. Sermons are proclaimed to a specific people at a specific time, and I don’t believe they are for “general consumption.” Additionally, I write my manuscripts early and by Sunday morning they serve more as outlines than a transcript of what I proclaim. Keep this in mind. Your mileage may vary…
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark!
I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.”
Lewis Carrol wrote this in his poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” There’s something to it on a few levels. Repeated phrases, repeated things are important. Once, twice. Three times a lady. Repetition is the mother of learning, the Latin phrase goes.
It’s even more important when Jesus says it—when Scripture records something three times. And so the strangeness and awkwardness of our Gospel reading takes on a different light. “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me because I go to the Father.” This phrase, this strange phrase repeated three times.
Three times a truth.
We sound just like the disciples. What in the world is Jesus talking about? Why did John find this so important that three times in a row it is repeated? Why did John want this truth, this saying etched in our memories and understanding? “A little while and you will not see me, and again in a little while you will see me.” This text cuts in two directions, has two meanings.
Jesus is speaking about His death and resurrection.
Jesus is speaking about His death and resurrection. St. John places this speech on the night of Maundy Thursday, after Judas had left to go betray Him, Jesus says these things and more to the disciples gathered around. And so Jesus is telling them, “Hey, in a few hours I will be taken from you. And the world will rejoice, and Herod and Pilate will become friends, and the Pharisees and Crowds will yell ‘Crucify him.’ And you will be in denial and confusion and fear. But then in a little bit, a few days, you will see me again, because I will be raised from the dead.”
And three times John records this so that we may know it. So that the Cross and Tomb are at the center of our lives and understanding. This was the work of Jesus, to give His life for us. This is the work of Christ, to take our sins from us. To defeat the curse of death for our sake. His three days rest is the center of our faith and His return to us the focus of our life and worship together. So much, that in many senses, every Sunday we celebrate Easter. For Christian worship, every Sunday is a day we celebrate what happened that First and High Sunday of Jesus’ return to life.
Jesus is speaking about Now
But there is another angle to all this, and the reason we hear this reading today, weeks after Easter and Holy Week. Jesus is also speaking about now. These days. Right now. He is saying, “Hey, there’s going to be a little bit—fifty days or so—and I am going to go to the Father. But then in a little while again I will be back. Now the world will be glad I’m gone. There will be trouble. It will be like a woman in the midst of labor, but then I will return and it will be like holding that little infant in your arms, and your joy will cast away all sorrow.”
Is He Right? It seems like Jesus was wrong. Wait, we’re good Christians. We wouldn’t say that. It seems like I’m wrong in putting these words in Jesus’ mouth. Except I’m not. No, Jesus speaks this way about the time between His Ascension and Return all the time.
A Little While
First, it is a little while. Not by our standards. Nothing compared to the three days in the tomb. But by God’s standards, this is short. His days are not our days, after all. By our standards, Jesus has been gone so long it’s like He never came. But do not let that temptation capture you! No, He tells us to think of this as just a short time. And your 70 or 80 years here is compared to eternity. The 2000 years since He ascended is short compared to the generations before He came and to eternity with Him.
Second, He is correct. He is returning. We are foolish sometimes when we don’t consider this or live like it. Even as Christians who affirm so much, we often go through life as if we have forever to repent, and as if the world will continue forever. But it will not. We confess it every single Sunday. “And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” Woe to us if we have been giving lip-service to this the whole time.
Yet He comes to judge the living—and that means you. Despite our sins, you and I are the living ones. Our demerits and sins and blinded actions are forgiven and washed in the waters of baptism. Christ has died for you and counts nothing against you. Not even living as if He is gone forever. He counts nothing and comes to judge you, living one, and give you heaven! A judgment of innocence, a decree of His own righteousness!
Third, these days of His absence from us are troublesome, like a woman in childbirth, just like He said. Think of it this way: as Christians we desire everyone to repent and believe in Christ, to find the joy and freedom we have, to be freed from the decisions and sins of fear, to be freed from the way of emptiness. We desire peace. Our kingdom is not of this world. Yet we live in a world of chaos. Of bombs. We live in a world where children are murdered and we are accused of hate because we oppose it. We live in a world where Christians are disregarded, mocked, sidelined, our beliefs held in derision and called barbarians, and in some nations jailed and executed.
This is where our Eucharistic prayer is so powerful: I hold aloft the Body and Blood of Christ and say, “As often as we eat this bread and drink this cup…” and you respond “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus”. This is eschatological— this is pointing to the End days. They are here and Christ has not left us. He is Here in Body and Blood, giving us life and joy, even in the midst of sadness and chaos and blame and confusion. He remains with us even in these days, even in these short days, holding Him aloft and receiving Him ourselves.
Now the Peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.