One of my favorite children’s books is a book by Max Lucado called The Tallest of Smalls. The story takes place in a town called Stiltsville, a town that sorts people each day into “talls” and “smalls.” Every evening at 6 o’clock, the “talls” are picked among the crowd to use big high stilts and strut above the too-smalls that day. The “talls” are chosen if they are pretty, clever, funny, or interesting in the eye of the stilit-givers.
In the town of Stiltsville is a little boy named Ollie, the smallest of smalls, who wants so badly to be picked for stilt wearing—to be high up and proud. But each day when the clock strikes 6, he is disappointed again and again when he isn’t chosen.
One day, Ollie is finally chosen to get stilts, but unused to the height and perching birds, he tumbles and falls—almost as quickly as he had risen. Down and hurt, Ollie is right back where he started, the smallest of smalls. As he sits on the ground bruised and dusty, the stilt-givers didn’t offer to help, they just took his stilts and moved along. Ollie felt totally defeated until someone reached out for him.
It was Jesus, there to pick him back up. He said, “You’re precious my Ollie, not too short or too small; I made you, remember, you’re mine after all.” Jesus assures Ollie that he was good all along. So Ollie races home to take his clock off the wall, unconcerned with the 6 o’clock hour anymore. Because now he knew, with Jesus, he was tall as a small.
Growing up with two sisters meant constant battles over the bathroom mirror, fighting over borrowed clothes, and clashes over shared toys. My favorite dolls as a little girl were called groovy girls. They looked kind of funny with long limbs and big feet (sort of like me!) but they came with the most glamorous house, custom groovy girl car, and fashionable clothing. The little house had blue shag carpet and psychedelic looking art you could Velcro on the walls….I know—its as awesome as it sounds! They were my absolute favorite dolls to play with, but one day I realized my sister had ripped the shiny blue material on my Groovy Girl car. I was devasted and infuriated—this was the complete worst thing that had ever happened to me. My life was ruined, as I so dramatically told my mother. Now, of course, the problem seems small, trivial. But at the time, my little world had been totally shaken.
Maybe you have memories like this one, memories of getting upset as a kid about something small. And now it seems silly, even though it felt colossal at the time. To be fair, small as it may have been, it was still a big problem to me. But I had someone to help me manage it, parents to fix my problem and a grandma who stitched up my car. But as we get older, our problems can start to feel bigger and more unmanageable. We move past the stilts and the popularity contests. Losing a toy becomes overwhelming debt. A squabble with a friend becomes a loved one having cancer. Wanting the latest outfit becomes hoping your family member makes in out of the hospital. This year, the world has been plagued by a global pandemic, despicable racism has been publicized for all to see, wildfires have ravished the west coast, and let’s not even begin to talk about the presidential debate I watched last night. 2020 has been a true testament to the fact that life has a way of hitting you with the hard stuff all at once.
In chapters 13-16 of the gospel of John, the disciples are in one of these moments—they are being hit with some truly big problems. These several chapters in John are often referred to as Jesus’ Farewell discourse. In a small upper room, Jesus takes advantage of his last night with his disciples, offering them words of wisdom for a difficult time ahead.
The Farewell Discourse begins with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet after their last meal together. As always, Jesus approaches the situation with humility and care for his brothers. But immediately following this act of love, Jesus begins to share the bad news. Jesus will be departing his beloved disciples very soon and before he does, one of them will betray him and one will deny him three times. In the future, the disciples will be heavily grieved at his absence, full of sorrow. Moreover, Jesus tells them that they will be viciously persecuted and sought after to be killed.
Whew. Y’all talk about some unfortunate after-dinner conversation! And we think 2020 is a bad year!
But in chapter 16, where our text is from today, Jesus does what Jesus does best—He gives the disciples reason to hope. Despite the sadness and grief, despite the hard times ahead, Jesus offers light into a world that is too often full of darkness. He presents the disciples with three reasons that their grief will turn into joy:
[A] First, the disciples will know joy even in the midst of their sorrow because they will come to know the Holy Spirit. Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit to his disciples in John 14:16-17 saying, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you “a paraclete” to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” The paraclete, a word in Greek meaning to come alongside, meaning advocate or counselor, will be given to the disciples. And this spirit of the Lord will dwell inside of them and he will “guide them into truth” as it says in John 16:13.
This was big news. The disciples were so used to Jesus being there, they hadn’t really thought about what it would mean for him to be gone. Just as their hearts were filling up with sorrow at the news that Jesus would be leaving them, Jesus introduces a new player into the mix. The paraclete would be a link between the historical life of Jesus and the future life of the church, offering an inward ministry to the church for generations to come. And this spirit would give the disciples two major gifts:
- The spirit of the lord would be a source of comfort. As Jesus said, the spirit will be with them and live in them—it will abide in them. The presence of the paraclete will give testament to Jesus’ deep love for his disciples, that he did not leave them alone but left them a piece of himself, because there are no spatial limits to Jesus. Despite being physically gone, he is able to offer an advocate to stay behind.
- Secondly, the spirit of the lord would be a source of wisdom. One of the tasks of the paraclete would be to prepare God’s people to face new things that come along life’s way—the difficult terrain and the joyful moments. Rather than offering a rigid dogma from the past that must be followed, Jesus offers a counselor to guide people into truth, to give insight and courage. He offers a piece of himself that is unchanging so his people would be able to face changing times.
We don’t talk about the holy spirit, the paraclete, in church often. Perhaps because it is tricky to understand but the gospel of John places core emphasis on the spirit of the Lord. The Holy Spirit is so pivotal because without this spirit that comes alongside, that dwells within us, we would not know Jesus as intimately. Jesus would be a story that we read in a book, but because of Jesus’ remarkable gift of the paraclete, the spirit of God dwells within us, offering us comfort and wisdom each day. And that is a reason for our sorrow to turn into joy.
[B] Jesus goes on to say that the disciples will know joy even in the midst of their sorrow because of the Father. The bulk of chapter 16 is about the spirit and the son, but Jesus does offer a few key truths in his farewell discourse about God the Father.
(1) Jesus says of the father: “I am not alone. The Father is with me.” An important truth that Jesus offers the disciples is that the Father does not abandon. Just as the spirit will linger on with the disciples, so will the Father. God the Father will be present with them, just as God the Father will be present with Jesus. God the Father does not abandon people.
(2) Then, Jesus says in verse 27, “The Father himself loves you because you loved me.” God, the heavenly parent—father and mother—creator of the universe and mysterious force of all good in the world. That God loves the disciples. And that, is no small thing.
God loves us and never abandons us. And that is a reason for our sorrow to turn into joy.
[C] The Farewell Discourse comes to its conclusion as Jesus explains that the disciples will also know joy because of him. He says, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me….You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve but your grief will turn to joy.” The disciples are not able to understand him yet, but Jesus’ reference here to his resurrection starts to bring his discourse to a close. As he concludes his farewell, Jesus offers two promises to his disciples about the resurrection:
(1) The resurrection will bring present joy. Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Others may take Jesus away—ridicule him, beat him, kill him—but no one can take away the joy the disciples have because they knew him. Because they knew intimately the character and love of Jesus, they have joy-filled life. What’s amazing to me is even though the story of God—from creation to now is so grand and large—Jesus takes the time to spend hours in a room with his friends before he dies, telling them things and reassuring them, offering them comfort, so that their joy may be complete. A quarter of the whole gospel of John is dedicated to this time with his friends. His devotion to these people is the perfect indicator of how Jesus is simultaneously a magnificent force and an intimate friend.
The world is not perfect, far from it, but Jesus makes it clear that the disciples joy can indeed “be complete” while on earth. They can live with hearts full of joy, even in the midst of sorrow, because they knew Jesus. And so can we.
(2) Secondly, the resurrection will give hope for the future. He leaves them with this: “In this world you will have trouble but take heart, I have overcome the world.” Jesus’ promises in this passage the disciples will face trouble, but they will not be stuck in their sorrow because of Jesus’ victory over death in just a few short days. Instead, they will receive the peace and life that only God can give them, because Jesus overcame the world. The world did everything it could do Jesus—rejection, hate, death—and he overcame it. He lived. So not only can we have joy in the present, but we can have hope that in the future, we will spend forever with a loving, comforting, and joyful God.
Let’s read that again: “In this world you will have trouble but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
That is the message of the gospel. That is THE reason for our sorrow to turn into joy.
In the 16th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus presents the disciples with three reasons that their grief will turn into joy: and those three reasons are the Trinity: the Father, the Spirit, and the Son. The Trinity is one of the most difficult theological concepts to grasp and we may never understand how God can be both three and one. But the gospel of John offers us so much depth in our journey to better understand God. It is both simple and complex, easy and challenging. Simply, we have hope and joy because Jesus overcame the world through his resurrection. More complexly is the intricate nature of the Trinity which allows God to have done so—to be the loving Father, the sacrificial son, and the comforting spirit. From what I learned in seminary, I can tell you all the wrong ways to explain the Trinity—but won’t due my professors the disservice of trying to explain the right way.
But the Gospel of John is so important to our understanding of God for that very reason—because it does not shy away from the challenging concepts and tough stuff in life. John 16:22 says, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” I like this verse because it highlights that pain is real. The sadness of the disciples was palpable, and our own grief is just as important. Our sorrow is just like that of the disciples because we feel it so strongly, Jesus sees it completely, and it’s not going to just disappear because we want it to. It is important to realize that we can’t fix pain with religion. We can’t rid ourselves of grief or depression or anxiety just because we love Jesus. And it’s okay to admit that.
But our relationship with God gives us hope that there is good in this world. That we will rejoice again and no one can take our joy from us, because our joy comes from an immovable and immeasurable force.
When my mom got sick last year, I realized that I had never felt such an overwhelming amount of grief. It was unqualifiable. I could not even put it into words if I tried. When she died, I felt empty and I felt so incredibly small. I wanted to fix my grief, the way that my mom would fix my scratches as a kid. Put a little Lion King bandaid on it and move on. But it didn’t work like that. My problems were bigger now than anything a Disney bandaid could fix.
The weight of this life can be suffocating sometimes to our small human hearts. It can leave us feeling damaged, bruised, down and hurt, like little Ollie from Stiltsville—the smallest of smalls. At times, it can feel as if the world has taken all of our joy.
Some of these problems are probably weighing on you today—maybe a sibling broke your toy, maybe someone at school is mistreating you, maybe a family member is sick or you’re worried about your finances. Maybe you just don’t feel hopeful anymore. See, hopelessness lies to us and tells us that our smallness means insignificance and incompetence. Inability to do anything good.
But God whispers to us, in our smallest state, “It is okay to feel small because I am big. I am the tallest of all.” I don’t know much, anything really—adulthood has taught me that. But I know that God is bigger than any problem we face. That doesn’t mean that our problem goes away or is fixed nice and quick. It doesn’t mean that our pain doesn’t hurt like crazy. It just means that God is present, understanding, and immensely capable of sheltering us in our storms.
There’s a beautiful line in the children’s book, when Ollie meets Jesus. He is beginning to understand the power of God and he says, “I may not be much-the smallest of smalls-but since Jesus loves me, I’m the tallest of talls.” We are small, but God makes us bigger. God gives us strength and hope and courage that sometimes cannot be pulled from our fragile human hearts.
God reminds us to “take heart” because he sent the Holy Spirit to comfort us, the Father to shower us with love, and the son to overcome the world. That complex God, the three-in-one, the good mystery of the universe, the creator, and the manifestation of love–is so much bigger than we can understand. Like the gospel of John, God’s magnitude is both simple and complex…but what we can hold our hope in is that God has overcome the world…that when our problems seem large and we feel the smallest of smalls, we can remember that God is the tallest of all.
God who overcomes:
You are more majestic, mysterious, and mighty than we will ever understand.
You give us comfort, wisdom, love, and hope—none of which we deserve.
You have come to dwell with us, to offer light, in a world where we desperately need it.
Help us to lean on you when we need to feel more brave or capable.
To lean on you when we seek a dose of hope or a bit of joy.
Give us the wisdom to seek your comfort and courage when we need it,
And the provide us with the strength we need to face each new day.
We offer you our prayer and praises in the name of the Father, Son, and the paraclete.