Sorrow into Joy

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 16:20-22

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. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

John 16:20-22 rsv

Listen to these words of Jesus about sorrow and joy. They’re from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John, beginning at verse 20: “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. When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”


Let’s look first at the sorrow. What Jesus is speaking of here is something deep – not a mere inconvenience, not a trifling hurt, but a profound sadness. He says to His followers on this last night He is to be with them, “You will weep and lament.” He’s envisioning the kind of sorrow in life that breaks our hearts and leaves us desolate. Overwhelmed, almost incapacitated, we can only groan and grieve.

Further, this is especially painful because others will at the same time be celebrating. The Lord says, “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.” Our sorrows are always more poignant when we sense that others around us are carefree and jubilant. That’s why holidays are sometimes such difficult times for those who have lost loved ones. These are supposed to be times of merriment. Everyone else is celebrating, having a good time, but we have no heart for that. The ache of loss is strong and persistent, and our sadness seems all the more bleak against a festive background. Some of you may have felt that recently. The family circle has been broken for you. A well-loved face is missing. Somehow this year your heart can’t join in the fun.

Jesus speaks of this sorrow as something in the future and yet certain to come. Three times in this brief passage He predicts the anguish of His followers: “You will weep and lament…. You will be sorrowful.” And He senses that it’s already beginning. “You have sorrow now.” Come to think of it, that’s a fairly safe prophecy for anyone if we consider a person’s whole lifetime. Few of us live very long without passing through some deep waters. I remember how when I was a young pastor a veteran Christian minister once quoted a Dutch proverb to me. I can’t say the words as he said them, but the translation runs like this: “In every house there’s a cross. In every heart there’s a smart.” Haven’t you found it so? We can say to people with some degree of assurance that somewhere along the way in life, they will weep and lament. They will be cast into sorrow.

In this case the sorrow referred to is that of separation. Jesus has been telling these followers and friends that He will go away. That in itself cast a pall over the group. He had been their leader, the light of their lives. He had made God real to them, had touched their lives with a marvelous, accepting love. He had given them something to live for and now He was leaving them.

And He had given them hints that there was something somber, something ominous about the way in which He would leave. He was going out of this world to His Father, yes. That was a wonderful destination, but He was going, as all of us go, by way of death. And there would be rejection involved, shame, and agony. Jesus, they were beginning to realize, was about to be crucified. That’s how He would leave them. That’s why, with especially bitter grief, they would weep and lament.

It’s true for us too that the worst sorrows in life are the losses of loved ones. How hard it is when a beloved mom or dad is taken away from a child, when you have to lose a brother or a sister with whom you’ve shared everything, when you stand by the grave side of a child who was the joy of your life in whom all your hopes and dreams were gathered up! Or what is it like when you say goodby to the one with whom you’ve shared a lifetime, a beloved wife, a cherished husband? It’s like tearing yourself apart, leaving someone whose been a part of you, the best part. And all of that can be compounded if the circumstances of their dying seem especially cruel. Think of what it would mean if the most important person in your life were to be crucified before your eyes. That’s what this little band of men gathered in the Upper Room was soon to face. Their master would be hung up on a cross to suffer, to be reviled and to die.


But if the prophecy of approaching sorrow was sure, the word about a subsequent joy was even more certain. “Your sorrow will turn into joy, your hearts will rejoice.” The gospel is always a message with a supremely happy ending. “Weeping may endure for a night,” the psalmist says, “but joy comes with the morning” (Psa. 30:5).

Jesus said it will be like the joy of a mother after the anguish of childbirth. “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21). The pain has been intense, the labor of bringing forth arduous and exhausting. But when the baby is born alive and well, joy so floods that mother’s heart that the memory of pain recedes into the background. It has been transformed, almost swallowed up, by joy. It was worth it all and more. Now she holds at her breast a precious child.

That’s what the joy of these disciples will be like. Their grief will be intense, their sorrow inconsolable. But when it arrives, the gladness will be so great as to make the sorrow actually seem light. Joy now will fill the whole horizon of their lives.

But the connection is even closer. Jesus says, “Your sorrow will turn into joy.” He seems to hint that the very crisis that crushes them will somehow be transformed. Their worst nightmare will become like a life-dream fulfilled. How, they must have wondered, could that possibly happen? The nadir of their despair, the most tragic moment of their lives would be Jesus’ crucifixion. How could that be anything but a tragedy? What could make that barbaric torture, that terrible indignity, that death of One accursed, into anything but an outrage?

But somehow, marvelously, it happened. It was precisely the crucifixion of their Master that they later were able to see in an entirely new way. The sight of it then would melt their hearts in gratitude and devotion. In the midst of their Lord’s shame, they would see His glory shining more brightly than ever. That sorrow would mysteriously be turned into joy.

And further, Jesus promises that the joy they will know then will be indestructible. “Your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you.” Most of our joys are not like that, are they? Here’s a man who feels waves of euphoria because the value of his stocks is soaring in a run-away bull market. How fleeting that happiness may be! It lasts a little while only to be shattered in the next crash. Many of us find great pleasure when a favorite team of ours is having a successful season, but it takes only one unexpected defeat to break the bubble and dash our hopes. Even the joy we have in loving relationships is fragile, vulnerable. Alienation and betrayal may steal it away. Death surely will. But Jesus said the gladness which will dawn upon these followers of His will be so strong and enduring that no power or no person will be able to snatch it away. It makes us wistful to think about it, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want a joy like that?


Well, we wonder, how will all this happen? What will cause the sorrow to be transcended, almost forgotten? What will turn the worst of it into jubilation? Listen. It’s all here in the words of Jesus: “I will see you again.” The cause of their newfound joy will be the resurrection of Jesus.

We read about that later in this gospel, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, `Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (John 20:19-20). Think of that joy, the joy of reunion, the joy of realizing that He truly was all that He had claimed to be, the gladness of recognizing God’s purpose in it all. It meant for them the scattering of sadness, the banishment of fear. He was alive and all was well.

But their seeing Him wasn’t the whole of it. His promise had been: “I will see you again.” They will not be forgotten by Him. His eye will be upon them. He will never abandon them.

It was precisely this resurrection joy that transformed for Jesus’ followers the meaning of the cross. They saw it now not only as a work of human hatred, but as the supreme triumph of God’s love. Now they realized that out of that terrible suffering had come salvation for them. What had seemed to be a desolating, final defeat was now seen as the victory of God’s saving purpose. In the light of Easter, the shame of the cross was forgotten and gone. Now believers could sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory … God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But how would this sudden, spectacular gladness be an abiding reality in the lives of Jesus’ followers? They would behold Him and talk with Him for only a few days. And then He would be taken up from them into heaven. Wouldn’t that separation chill their newfound joy and bring the old sadness back?

Not at all. Jesus had been telling them there in the Upper Room that it would be best for them if He went away. For only if He went to the Father could He send to them the other Comforter, the other Counselor, the One called alongside to help, the Holy Spirit. The most wonderful thing about the coming of the Holy Spirit to these disciples of Jesus would be this: In the power of the Spirit, He, their Lord, would be present with them always. In the flesh, walking among them, in Galilee and Judea, He could only be in one place at one time. His presence, though close, was still something outside themselves. In the coming of the Spirit, Jesus would take up His abode in their hearts. He would dwell in them and walk with them. They would be closer to Him than they had ever been before. And that presence of Jesus in the Holy Spirit would never be withdrawn. Nothing would be able to separate them from God’s love in His dear Son. They would have abiding joy in His unfailing presence. They would live by His undying life.

Remember how the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord on that Easter evening? That was a wonderful experience. But they learned on that night that their true peace and their effective work in the name of Jesus would depend upon the gift of the Spirit. Remember how Jesus breathed on them at the end of that evening and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? In that symbolic act He let them know that the Holy Spirit was His Spirit and that in the Pentecostal gift He would be breathing into them His own risen life. That, friends, in the most marvelous and lasting way is what turns all our sorrow into joy. Everyone who trusts in the crucified and risen Jesus, who owns Him as Savior and Lord, can hear Him saying to them, “Be of good cheer. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

PRAYER: Our Father, we give You thanks today for Jesus Christ who by His Cross and rising from the dead has turned all our worst sorrow into genuine joy. May everyone who shares this broadcast enter into that gladness through faith in Jesus Christ. In His name. Amen.