In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
In the Gospel appointed for today, our Lord Jesus makes reference seven times to the Father. On the secular calendar, today is the occasion in which we honor our mothers. But there is no conflict between the two. For not only are motherhood and fatherhood inseparably connected with each other, both are instituted and given by God. Our Lord gave tremendous honor to motherhood by being born of woman. 1 Timothy 2 even goes so far as to say that woman is saved through childbearing; for every birth points us to the birth of Christ our Savior in the flesh.
The early church father Cyprian said that you can’t have God as your Father without having the church as your mother. Martin Luther said, “The Christian church is your mother, who gives birth to you and bears you through the Word of Christ.”
So just as every Christian has a Father in heaven, every Christian likewise has a spiritual mother, the church. Our Lord Jesus told us that we must be born again. And just as our earthly mothers birthed us amid water and blood and pain and joy, so too we are given new life in the Church at the baptismal font where the cleansing water and blood flows from Christ’s side–from the pain of the Lord’s suffering and from the joy of the Lord’s resurrection. Each one of us has been given this new birth, having a Father in heaven and a spiritual mother on earth, who continues to nurture us all our lives with the words and body and blood of Jesus, with the preached Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Christ.
We need this ongoing nurture and care week by week throughout our lives because of a truth that Jesus speaks at the end of today’s Gospel. He says quite bluntly and straightforwardly, “In the world you will have tribulation...” In this life, our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t promise us prosperity and wealth, freedom from illness and pain, or a life untouched by physical and spiritual struggle–far from it. Of course, there are plenty of religious hustlers out there selling that nonsense. But what does our Lord tell us? He speaks plainly and without figures of speech, saying: “In the world, you will have tribulation.”
Earlier in this same chapter of John 16, Jesus tells us to expect to be ostracized for the sake of His name, and that people who try to kill us will actually think they are doing a good and moral deed. The Greek word for tribulation here literally means “pressure” or even “constriction,” like a snake trying to squeeze its prey. Even though most of us today are not being threatened with death, we do face real pressure to compromise our faith from “respectable” and supposedly smart people who mock Christianity, who scoff at God’s Word. We also have time pressure: the cares and worries of this life that choke out our time and energy to pray, to attend Divine Service, to teach our children the catechism, to study God’s Word, to volunteer to serve the body of Christ. And we have the pressure of the sinful flesh: our own greed and laziness that we indulge all-too quickly. No, instead of tickling our ears with a “prosperity gospel,” the Lord Himself soberly warns us that we will have tribulations, pressures in this world.
Back in the early 400's AD, as the unthinkable was happening and the Roman Empire was slowly collapsing, St. Augustine wrote a book called The City of God. In it Augustine compares the world (the City of Man) with the church (the City of God). The world, he noted, runs by pressure and force. And just like the City of Rome eventually was overrun by Barbarians, this fallen universe is running down and will one day perish. By contrast, the City of God is everlasting. The Church is eternal. It operates based on God’s mercy and grace, as our Lord said: “the Father Himself loves you.”
Right now, you live in both worlds, both cities. The situation for us today is not all that different that in Augustine’s day. We see American power and influence winding down at breathtaking speed as the culture and our institutions collapse. In Augustine’s day, the people were stunned that their country was falling. They wondered how God could let such a thing happen. They were frightened for themselves and their children. But Augustine did what he was called to do: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to forgive sins, to pray for their leaders and for the coming of our Lord. He exhorted the people to store up treasures in heaven, and not to put their trust in princes and fading earthly powers.
For the only thing that can bring us comfort in time of tribulation is the fact that we know how the story ends. We know that sin, Satan, and the world do not win the day. We know that the City of God overtakes the City of Man. For our Lord Himself said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” The Greek word that is used there is one we associate with a shoe brand, Nike, and it means to conquer. Jesus has niked, overcome; He has conquered the world.
So all those things that trouble you now–be it your health, your losses, your brokenness, your sinful flesh–those tribulations Jesus took into His own flesh and bones, and He crucified them at Golgotha. Jesus knew tribulation of the worst sort, being under such pressure in the Garden of Gethsemane that He sweat blood as He prayed, even before His blood was shed. Jesus said in the days before His death, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father glorify Your name.” And the Father’s name was glorified as Jesus was lifted up from the earth on the cross, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. It is the glory of Christ to bear your troubles and sorrows to set you free. Truly, Jesus did overcome the world by taking away the sin of the world. He conquered death by swallowing it up in His own death and then rising on the third day in glory.
And all of this He did for you, so that your tribulations will only be temporary, so that they will not overwhelm you who believe. Jesus’ victory has been given to you, the baptized, as it is written in Romans 8, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” And 1 John 4 says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith” in Christ the Conqueror. That is how we can be of good cheer, even in the midst of tribulation. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32). In Jesus we have the sure hope of the resurrection of the body and all the gifts of the world to come. And already now we have the comfort and the assurance that all things are in the hands of the Lord who is full of goodness and loving kindness. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace,” the calm assurance in your hearts that all things are made right in Christ.
And don’t forget that even tribulation itself can be God’s own instrument to work for your good. By it He humbles you and brings you to repentance–as He did with the children of Israel, who were turned from their sinful grumbling to cry out to Him for help. He lays you low in order to lift you up and exalt you in due time. Prayer happens best when we are bowed down before the Lord.
So as Christians, let us learn to live with and even expect tribulation. Let it drive you to pray all the more fervently. For Jesus is the one Mediator between God and men who gave His life as a ransom for you. He invites you to pray in His name, using His credentials, as beloved children of the heavenly Father. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. Call upon the Lord in your troubles; trust in Him and cling to Him in times of trial. For He will deliver you.
The Lord doesn’t promise that you will necessarily be rich in this world, but He does guarantee that you are spiritually wealthy beyond measure. The Lord doesn’t promise you that if you have enough faith, you will never suffer or struggle, but He does guarantee that you will overcome all these things by His power and grace, His might and mercy. The Lord doesn’t promise you that you will not suffer due to the burdens of your own fallen nature, but He does guarantee that the sin that lurks within you has been atoned for and will be removed from you in the fullness of time.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, it is easy to get discouraged and feel defeated. It is easy to turn away from the faith when life in the world is hard. But Jesus has come to bring you to the Father as beloved children. He has come to bring you to your mother, the Church, where you are fed and nurtured and given all that you need to grow. And Christ our Lord invites you again today to share in His victory when He says, “Take heart! Be of good cheer! Have confidence! Have courage! For I have won the victory. I have overcome the devil and the world, and in Me, you too have overcome and conquered and won the greatest victory of all. Be at peace.”
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)