Sermon for Cantate – Fourth Sunday after Easter
Isaiah 12:1-6 + James 1:16-21 + John 16:5-15
Today, the Word of God before us, we are taught to sing for joy. And it has nothing to do with the tune. Maybe you liked the old tune we just sang in that hymn (“I Will Sing My Maker’s Praises”). Maybe not. Maybe you loved the poetry of that old Lutheran hymn writer, Paul Gerhardt. Maybe not. But you can’t argue with the content of his song as we sang in stanza after stanza of God’s great love that “abides for aye,” that remains forever.
God’s great love does abide for aye, but Jesus’ disciples, on the night in which He was betrayed, couldn’t fathom how God’s great love could abide for aye, if Jesus was going away, as He told them He was. He told them He was going away to the Father. And they felt sorrowful and sad and abandoned. But they wouldn’t be abandoned. We won’t be abandoned. Jesus assures us of that in today’s Gospel. On the contrary, Jesus’ departure to the Father was a good thing for us.
We can understand the sorrow of Jesus’ disciples. Where Jesus is, there is life and forgiveness and mercy to be had in abundance. Where Jesus is, there is divine truth and teaching and authority. Where Jesus is, there is peace and protection against every evil, even against the Evil One himself. Where Jesus is, there is access for sinners to God. Where Jesus isn’t, there is no access, and no protection, and no truth, no heavenly authority, no divine teaching, no mercy, no forgiveness, no life.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away, Jesus told his disciples. How on earth can that be? for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. Jesus’ departure doesn’t just refer to His ascension into heaven. It also includes the path He would walk before ascension day. He departed to His Father by way of the cross, and the tomb, and the resurrection from the dead. He departed to His Father, having fulfilled God’s Law for us, having shed His blood for the sins of the world, having crushed the devil’s head, having conquered sin and death for us. By His merits, He earned forgiveness for sinners and eternal life. Truly His departure was to our advantage!
But God’s grace and favor and forgiveness are tied to Jesus. How would He distribute the treasures He had earned after He departed to the Father? He would send the Helper.
The Helper is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Third Person of the most holy Trinity. The Spirit of God was not a stranger to the world. He was active in the creation of the world. He had been the one inspiring every prophecy and every word of Scripture that had been written in the Old Testament. But now, Jesus would send Him to His Church with all the gifts Jesus would win on the cross. Now Jesus would send Him to His Church to reveal Jesus to the world and to empower the preaching of the Gospel—everywhere, all at once, when and where the Word of God is proclaimed in its truth and purity and the Sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution. The Helper brings Jesus to us with his mercy, peace, life, forgiveness, grace, protection and access to the Father. And so God’s people sing for joy that Jesus has departed and has sent back to us His Holy Spirit. No, it’s not the same as having Jesus here visibly. But in a way, it really is better, at least until the Helper’s work is done.
And what is that work? Jesus tells us. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
He will convict the world. Notice, “He” will convict the world, not apart from the preaching of Christ’s apostles, but through it. It doesn’t say that we will convict the world, or that He will help us to convict the world. He will convict the world. Now, some will say, “A really good preacher can convict a lot of people.” That may be true when it comes to earthly things, but when it comes to spiritual things, it’s an absolute lie. Neither a preacher’s eloquence nor his level of sincerity nor his friendly personality will move people a hair’s breadth closer to Jesus. Nor will his lack of those things prevent the Holy Spirit from doing His work. Some will say, “If you really engage the world, attract the world, impress the world, give the world some of what it wants, then you’ll convict the world.” That’s a lie. The Church is not called to “woo the world,” as a Lutheran pastor once put it. Our only calling is to proclaim the Gospel that was first proclaimed by the prophets and apostles and that has been passed down to us in Holy Scripture. The Holy Spirit alone convicts.
The Helper convicts the world through the weak and powerless mouth of Jesus’ apostles. He chooses the weak things of this world to shame the strong, and the despised things to shame the noble things. The Helper brings Jesus to the world in the humble message of Christ crucified and risen.
He will convict the world of sin, Jesus says, because they do not believe in me. What is sin? Ask the world what sin is, ask a lot of Christians what sin is. What will they say? At best, they’ll agree that breaking some of the Ten Commandments is a sin, although most people aren’t even convinced of that anymore. When more than half of our country can’t even admit it’s a sin to kill a little baby in her mother’s womb, it’s pretty clear that the truth about sin has gone out the window.
What is sin? Yes, it’s the abuse of drugs and alcohol; it’s disobedience to one’s parents and to those in authority. It’s murder and theft and sex outside of marriage, it’s homosexual behavior and unscriptural divorce. It’s also greed and lust and hatred and bitterness and holding grudges.
But Jesus doesn’t mention any of these here. What does He call sin? “They do not believe in me.” That is the chief sin, from which all other sins flow: not to believe in Jesus, the Son of God, the seat of God’s mercy. Because where there’s faith in Christ, he wipes out all sin. Sin can’t exist where Christ is. He forgives it all, because he paid for it all. The righteousness of Christ cancels out all sin in those who believe in him. Not to believe in Him is to reject God’s own Son, and God’s own plan of salvation. Not to believe in Him leaves a person guilty of everything.
He will convict the world…of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more. The Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness, because the world seeks to create its own righteousness. Who would have thought? That righteousness does not consist in giving to charity. Righteousness does not consist in making lots of money or in nice and proper speech or in social justice. Righteousness does not consist in a dedicated prayer life or in going to church. Righteousness consists in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, buried, risen and gone to the Father and reigning at His right hand. He is the world’s righteousness. But the world doesn’t want Him.
Righteousness ascended into heaven with Jesus. How, then, can God declare us down here on earth to be righteous? The answer is, the Holy Spirit brings the righteousness of Jesus to us in the world, and it is received by faith. Faith in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ is that righteousness that counts before God. And where there’s faith, then the heart that wasn’t able to do a single good work now produces good fruit as naturally as an apple tree produces apples, or a grapevine produces grapes.
Finally, He will convict the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. What a horrifying message for the world: its prince, the devil, has already been judged. Judgment happens here and now. The Spirit convicts and announces the judgment—condemnation for the devil and for all who are found in his kingdom. All false belief stands condemned. All adding to or subtracting from the Scriptures stands condemned. All the works of the world stand condemned. Not by you or by me, but by the Spirit of God.
And as He convicts the world concerning judgment, His Word is always effective—it always produces some result. Either people will be convicted and hardened in their unbelief, or they will be convicted and brought to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus in whom there is now no condemnation, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, in whom there is no judgment or answering for sins, because His blood has already answered for sins and blotted them out for all who believe in Him.
This is the Spirit’s work. This is the gift Jesus sent back to His disciples from heaven, and it is better than having Jesus here as He once was with His disciples. Because this way, by the help of the Helper, Jesus can be here with you today, with each one of you, and wherever His Word is preached and wherever baptismal waters are poured and wherever His body and blood are given to eat and to drink.
The Helper has brought Jesus to the world and will continue to bring Him until His work is done and the world is convicted and those who have been called out of the world to faith in Christ are brought safely home. You and I have never known Jesus in any other way than by the work of the Helper in the Gospel. And if we can know Him and love Him here and now by the work of His Spirit, without seeing Him, just think of the joy there will be when we do see Him face to face. If we sing for joy now, we will truly sing for joy then. Amen.