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A Little While.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Tuesday in Whitsun Week

Rivingtons, London, 1875, pp. 456-461.

Second part of Sermon XXXIX. for the Third Sunday after Easter.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.)
What is this that He saith, A little while? we cannot tell what He saith. --St. John xvi. 18. 

What a wonderful power there is in these words, "A little while"!  In the season of affliction, or the hour of worldly temptation, or amidst quarrels and disputes, how soothing and calming is this mysterious expression of our Lord's, "A little while"!  But a little while and all will be over; a little while, and this trouble, this joy, this passion--all this scene will have gone by...
But now to all these duties we must carry on the first expression of the Epistle for to-day; be "as strangers and pilgrims" upon earth, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the Kingdom of God.  "As strangers and pilgrims," says the Apostle; "it is as such that I beseech you, my dearly beloved."  This will form a connexion with the Gospel for the day, which speaks under circumstances the most affecting, and language of the deepest interest and beauty, of the short period of this mortal life.

The occasion upon which they were spoken is familiar to us all; it was now at the Last Supper, when our Lord was taking that solemn leave of His disciples on the night before His death, and speaking in mysterious words which they could scarcely understand, of His departure from them.  Jesus said to His disciples, A little while, and ye shall not see Me; and again a little while, and ye shall see Me.  To the disciple who loves his Lord it is not the shortness of this life, of its business and pleasures, his own short continuance in the world, and that of all his friends that are dear to him; it is not this consideration which lies nearest to his heart, but his absence from Christ, the "little while" during which his Lord is removed from his view.  Thus St. John says, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus!" i.e. it is His absence that appears long to him; and St. Paul, "I have a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better."  Thus the bereavement and sorrow of these disciples would be from not seeing their Lord; it is this which they think of with such heaviness, and therefore He says in consolation, It is but a little while that I shall be absent.  "A little while, and ye shall not see Me," as ye now do; and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me; because I go to the Father.  On which St. Augustine remarks, "For but a little while is the whole space of this rapidly fleeting present world; even as this same Evangelist says in his Epistle, 'It is the last hour.'  To them, therefore, who then saw Him in the body, He saith, 'A little while, and ye shall not see Me,' because He was about to depart to the Father, and they should no longer behold Him as a mortal man, conversing with them as now He did."

Then said some of His disciples among themselves, What is this that He saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see Me; and again a little while, and ye shall see Me; and, Because I go to the Father?  They said therefore, What is this that He saith, A little while? we cannot tell what He saith.  

They knew not of His disappearing for a little while in the grave, and their seeing Him so soon again; they knew not of His ascending to the Father, and after but a little while coming to be with them in the Comforter; they knew not yet of His coming again after a little while with the same body glorified at the Last Day, when they should see Him as He is.  But more than this; in the difficulty of comprehension, in the questioning and inquiry among themselves respecting the little while of which He spake, seem to be represented all Christians unto the end of the world.  There is nothing of which our Lord seemed to speak at various times more strongly, and to repeat more earnestly, than the shortness of the time before His return to Judgement.  "The hour cometh," He said, "yea, even now is, when all the dead shall hear His voice."  And again, "Surely I come quickly."  But from that time when He thus spake, unto this day, all Christians appear to be saying, "What is this that He saith, A little while?"  and I shall call all men forth from their graves? "we cannot tell what He saith."  Is it not eighteen hundred years? how is it a little while?  "It is not," says St. Augustine, "that the Lord delayeth His promise; a little while, and we shall see Him, at that time when we shall have no more to pray for, no more to inquire after; because nothing will remain to be desired,. nothing hidden to be learned.  This little while appears to us long, because it is still passing; when it shall have come to an end, then we shall perceive how it hath been for a little while."

Now Jesus knew that they were desirous to ask Him, and said unto them, Do ye enquire among yourselves of that I said, A little while, and ye shall not see Me; and again a little while and ye shall see Me?  It is with us now as it was then with those who sat at the table with Him, and gazed on His gracious but sorrowing countenance.  Christ knows all these our inquiring thoughts, and He Himself comes to the secret heart of good men, and gives them to know and feel how it is indeed but a short while.  He converses with their thoughts, He suggests the answer, by giving them to know what the mind of God is.  Of Him in all our doubts are we to seek for an answer; He giveth the wisdom which is from above; the understanding heart to consider our latter end, and to know the shortness of the time.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.  As when our Lord was hidden for three days in the grave the disciples lamented and wept, awhile that evil city rejoiced; yet after a little while their sorrow was turned into a joy that fadeth not away; so the Christian now, for the most part, "goeth on his way weeping;" the Bridegroom is taken from him as he fasts, and the more he loves the Bridegroom the more must he be in a state of mourning at His absence.  Christ's blessing is with the poor in spirit, with them that mourn, and with them that weep.  Such is the temper of a Christian in this world at his best estate; it must be that of sorrow and patient waiting.  Yet this, his suffering condition, is but for a little while.  "The time is short," says St. Paul, "It remaineth, that they that weep be as though they wept not."  "Now for a season," says St. Peter, "if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations."  But what does it signify? it is but for a while, and your sorrow shall soon be turned into joy.

A woman, says our Lord, when she is in travail, hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.  Our present  state is like that of a woman travailing with child; one of "earnest expectation," but of sorrow.  "The whole creation," says St. Paul, "groaneth and travaileth in pain together;" "and not only they, but ourselves also which have the first-fruits of the Spirit; we also groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption." [Rom viii. 22, 23.]  That is to say, the mystery of child-birth, "she shall bring forth in sorrow," explains it all; the whole creation sympathizes with her suffering Lord, for never were there such sorrows as in those pangs of travail which our Lord endured for our sakes, when He brought in the New-birth and regeneration, when by His agonies and dying children were born to God; and if nature itself suffers with her Creator, much more must the state of Christians in this world be that of suffering with their suffering Master--the Man of Sorrows.  But it is only for a while, and He will return Who wipeth away all tears, and the anguish shall be remembered no more; sorrow which was but for a moment, and therefore a light affliction, is swallowed up in joy--an unspeakable weight of glory.  Even as the dew-drop which was upon the thorn passes away in the rising of the summer sun.

But in the exceeding tenderness and affecting interest of this day's Gospel, it is all spoken of as a Christian should most love--of the absence and presence of his Lord.  And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.  This was His consolatory answer and explanation to those who were desirous to ask Him what He meant by the worlds, "A little while."  When He returned to them from the grace, and all things were so changed by the Resurrection, it must indeed have appeared to them but "a little while" that He was absent, but a short season of sorrow.  To us likewise He says, "I will see you again," it is but a short time; we cannot in any adequate sense understand His words; but when we look back on life, when we see how quickly our friends have passed away, and the days are gone by which to ourselves once appeared long, we begin to understand in some degree that Christ speaks aright, and that our thoughts, when engaged in this world, are altogether wrong, in our estimate of time.

Yet still, even unto the end, in understanding we are as if we understood not; and so different do the words of God on this subject appear to all that we witness in the world around, that our thoughts continually are suggesting, "What is that He saith unto us, A little while? we cannot tell what He saith."