By and By
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Have you ever experienced buyer’s remorse?
A feeling of regret after you have made a big decision with serious consequences that you think may have been the wrong decision. Whether it’s a dress, shoes, car, house, job, or marriage, we’ve all experienced buyers remorse.
I wonder if the disciples had buyers remorse? They bought into discipleship with Jesus, just twelve of them--an exclusive club, a fulfilling feel-good mission, with easy access to Jesus. So far, so good. They were on the top of a mountain, close to God in heaven, with beautiful views, their heads in the clouds. Life with Jesus was good.
Then Jesus led them down the mountain, on the plain, among the crowds, with ordinary people; people who are poor, hungry and sad; people who are dirty, diseased, and needy. And Jesus healed them.
Wow! The disciples were surely excited thinking about when they got to learn how to do the magic. But, for now, let’s get out of this place and go back up the mountain where the air is fresh and we can be alone with you, Jesus.
But from the plain, among the people, Jesus began to preach--his first sermon.
The text says that Jesus looked at his disciples, to make sure they were paying attention.
I can imagine the disciples listening intently, taking notes, to make sure they didn’t miss a thing.
Jesus began with the word Blessed.
I can imagine the disciples nodding their heads, confirming their hopes and expectations of a life of discipleship, a call to a life of constant blessings and hopefully even materialistic prosperity. They may have even been hitting each other on the back, affirming their choice as good and rewarding.
Jesus continued, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
I can imagine the disciples looking at each other in confusion, thinking surely they misheard Jesus.
Jesus continued, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
I can imagine the disciples’ mouths open in disbelief, but some still joking around, and others putting up their hands to ask Jesus if he really meant what he said.
But, Jesus continued, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”
I can imagine the disciples whispering about how this is not what they expected and wondering if they could get out of this discipleship deal. They didn’t sign up for being hated and excluded or reviled and defamed. And they certainly didn’t want to be poor or hungry or sad.
This didn’t sound like blessing to them. There was nothing blessed about it.
I can imagine we are all thinking the same thing. Today we often use the word blessed to describe someone who has wealth and material possessions, or someone who was spared a misfortune or accident or disease.
But, that’s not what Jesus means. The word Blessed comes from the Greek word makarios which means happiness, but actually has a deeper sense of joy. It’s the word Jesus uses to describe the ultimate blessing: “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
In his book Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote about ”the joy that reminds,” that is, it confirms what we know and believe about God--that we are loved and watched over on our journey, that all our suffering in this life will melt into unimaginable delight when we arrive where we started. Blessed is not the absence of struggle, but the ability to live through it, with an awareness that the struggle is temporary and the reward is great in heaven. It is a deep contentment of being aware in the present of having a place in God’s heavenly kingdom. And that’s what causes us to rejoice!
Surprisingly, it is often the people who are the most poor, hungry, or sad who feel the most joy and blessed. Why? Because they know the reality of their situation. They are totally dependent on God and trust themselves to God’s care. And they trust that their suffering does not have the last word, God does, and it is a word of eternal salvation, perfect peace, unending joy. Therein lies the blessing.
“Stories about the lives of people with great faith almost invariably include situations in which joy emerges in the very midst of deep sorrow--a kind of joy that defies common sense,” writes Marilyn McEntyre, in Word by Word (159-60), and then she recounts the story of Horatio Spafford. He lost most of his worldly wealth, invested in real estate, in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Then, detained by business, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him to Europe, but lost all of his daughters when the ship sank; only his wife survived. It is said that as his ship passed the site where his daughters had died at sea, he wrote the hymn “It is Well with my Soul.” It seems counterintuitive. It seems impossible. How can we do this? Because we are promised a place in heaven, where there will be no more crying, no more pain, but perfect peace. This is what we are called to as disciples of Christ--radical trust, radical hope, which leads to radical joy.
Charles Tindley was by some accounts, a slave in Maryland; by others a hired out worker who labored alongside the slaves; either way, he experienced the reality of the slave plantation with back-breaking work, beatings, inhumane treatment, and not much to hope for. Eventually he was freed and became a Methodist preacher and a composer of African American hymns. He wrote “We Will Understand it Better By and By.”
By and by has a double meaning, as most of the words of the Negro Spirituals did. By and by means a future time or occasion but it also means before long or soon. This phrase did two things: it gave people hope that in a future time, in God’s kingdom, where they would be free and no longer suffer but rejoice. But, it also told people that it wouldn’t be long, that soon their sufferings would end, so to hold on. Blessed is not the absence of struggle, but the ability to live through it, with an awareness that the struggle is temporary and the reward is great in heaven. It is a deep contentment of being aware in the present of having a place in God’s heavenly kingdom. This trust, and only this radical trust, makes it possible to rejoice and even leap for joy!
Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, blessed are you who weep.” Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith today, the blessing is for you--the assurance that your present sufferings are temporary, and your reward is great in heaven. But when? By and by. If you are pleading for God to deliver you from challenges sooner or later, know that the promise is that ultimately, all shall be well with your soul, and that we will understand it better by and by.
Being a disciple of Jesus does not come with a “get out of suffering card,” but it does give you a “get into heaven free card.” It’s free. So there’s no buyer’s remorse. So then, let us rejoice and leap for joy, for surely our reward is great in heaven. Thanks be to God!