This seems to be God’s motto: “In a little while.” Kids hate that. It sounds like a promise, but not always, or not necessarily. “In a little while” has the same force as “I’ll think about it,” or “Maybe later,” or “We’ll see.” Kids know what that means. Or what a parent hopes they mean. “Maybe something else will come up.” “Maybe I can avoid it and bed time will come.”
So, when God says, “In a little while,” it’s hard to hear our dear Father and his dear Son who love us so much. We hear it from so many sources. It’s cliché. “This too shall pass,” is just another way of saying, “In a little while.” “Just grin and bear it,” again, “In a little while.” “In a little while,” are you kidding me? I’m a bird in the hand kind of guy.
“In a little while” is conveniently vague. Can’t the Word made flesh come up with something more specific than that?
And this isn’t just you or me. The disciples puzzle over it. Three times John repeats these words in our little pericope. Jesus says them, “In a little while?” The disciples question them, “In a little while?” And Jesus asks if they’d like to ask, “Do you wonder about ‘in a little while’?” The disciples show admirable restraint by not shouting, “Yes, of course we do, you dope!”
“Ok,” Jesus says, “I’ll tell you. Things are about to get rough. I’m going away. You won’t see me. Well, you will, nailed to a cross. Dying. Dead. Buried. Then I’m gone. In a little while. You won’t see me. How will you handle it?”
How will they handle it? How would you? We don’t like the unknown or the unpredictable. They prevent us from doing things. We paralyze ourselves by analysis. Not many can handle Michael Jordan’s philosophy that multiple failures made him great. So we don’t want to let Jesus go. We don’t want to let him do what needs to be done, because, after all, bird in the hand. Ministry is much easier with him around.
Same for us. We like it safe, easy, and comfortable. We have these things. Why risk it by expanding? Why challenge what we’ve done? Why stretch? We might fail. Separately, it’s also easier to come down on the side of rules and laws and demands – “we’ve got this wonderful policy” or “give until it hurts” – than the side of the gospel, the gospel that acknowledges the mess: sinners sin, God forgives, trees grow slowly, you won’t always see results. A gospel that says, “In a little while.” We want the world and we want it…now!
Jesus tries to calm us down with his story about childbirth. This is the great unknown for a married couple. “Will it hurt?” Yes, of course it will. “Will I survive?” I don’t know. “Will I love my child?” I hope so. “Will I be a good parent?” Oy! Jesus talks knowingly of the pain and agony that leads to the birth, and then he says again, “In a little while.”
Pregnancy, especially the labor, is painful and strenuous. Jesus calls it tribulation, using a word that sometimes gets paired with persecution in the New Testament, as in “in this world you will have trouble,” or Paul’s list in Romans 8, or the “suffering” that produces perseverance in Romans 5. This is the pain, the trouble, the stress, the pressure, the oppression of living in the now which Jesus dubs “in a little while.”
But, on the other side. I’ve been in the delivery room four times and I can tell you that the first moments after labor ends aren’t about replaying the labor and talking about the agony, they are that happiest most tear-filled moment ever: holding a child that’s come into the world, a child you do, in fact love even as you stumble in parenting.
Jesus doesn’t say “resurrection” here in John 16, but it’s all over the place. “In a little while: you will see me.” “I will see you again.” Jesus will end the agony and return the joy, a joy that will exceed anything you’ve ever known. “The world will rejoice when I’m taken from you, but you will rejoice and they can never take it from you when you experience me again, when you see me again, when you touch me again, when I am alive…again! In a little while.”
We’re living in the “in a little while” again. Christ is risen, He is risen indeed! And he left! He ascended. And said, “In a little while.” And the world rejoices. They mock, “Where’s Jesus!” They blaspheme, “If God loved you, he wouldn’t…” They swirl around, closer and closer, treating you like they treated Jesus, trying to trap you, trick you, destroy you. We see it in our country as the movements for tolerance and equality swirl ever closer with ironic coercion. And we say, “In a little while? That’s not good enough!” These words you speak, this water you pour, these crumbs you feed me on, they don’t help me enough!
But there’s Jesus: “I tell you the truth. Your grief will turn to joy.” An unending joy. It’s the words of the beatitudes: Blessed are those who mourn, who hunger, who thirst, the meek, the insulted, the persecuted. Blessed? Sounds like more “in a little while” talk. Yes: they will be comforted. They will be fed. They will inherit. They will receive the kingdom of heaven. Like Paul, we possess nothing, but we have everything. Even in these words, this water, this less-than-a-snack meal. Because in those things God shows us, better, gives us, what comes after the little while: resurrection! Because the Eleven touched Jesus. Not dead, alive. The little while over. A new little while begun.
Jesus says we’re in the labor pains. He has his medications to help us in the process: word, water, meal, not deadening us against pain, but strengthening us as we suffer, giving us God’s solid food: forgiveness, life, and his repeated promise: in a little while. In a little while the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised, and God will set up that great feast on his mountain, the best meats, the finest wines, with death defeated, no longer seen, heard, or talked about. And in Christ we have hope in this “little while.” “Because Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive…Then the end will come…The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” In God’s time. In a little while. Until then, Jesus puts his hands upon us, he washes us, he feeds us, he talks to us, and in every word he says, “I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy!” Amen.