It was early on a Sunday morning several years ago that my telephone rang, and the voice was from out of the past-a mother who had been a member of a church I had pastored in another town. After a few moments of identification, she simply said, "My husband is dead. He got up a couple of hours ago, put his feet on the floor, and, suddenly, fell over dead. He was only 50 years old." We talked a few moments to clear the air, and then she said, "Bill, you have to tell me why God did this." What do you answer? You're talking to a grieving widow in the midst of her shock, and she asks straight out, "Why did God do this?" What would you have said?
Several years ago a college friend of mine living on the other side of the city called me to say that his son had died. His son was a graduating senior in a fine prep school in our city, and after he had completed all of his class work and had finished his tests, he had a day or two before graduation. He was driving his brand new Jeep to the graduation party, and as he went up a hill, the Jeep turned over. His neck was broken, and he died. The father asked me to do the funeral, which was held in the school. All his classmates were there, and the happy occasion of the graduation had been challenged by the grief of the moment.
I was sitting in a preparation room before the funeral, and one by one there were knocks at the door. Teachers and administrators came in and asked, "What are you going to say, preacher?" What would you have said at the funeral of a fine young man like that? He had all the hope and prestige a young person could have, and his future was as bright as the promises of God. Then his Jeep turned over, his neck was snapped, and we're burying him. What shall we say and what is usually said at these times?
Today you may have some protests of what I have to say. I am opposed to some of the things we say at times like this because words become vehicles for the worst theology we could ever give to people. I am tired of seeing our people loaded up with what I call funeral-home theology. There are three statements I will never make, and I hope you will never make at times like these. Have you ever heard someone say, "God is in control. Even this must be God's will"? Can you tell a grieving widow whose husband dies in mid-life that God is in control and this death is the will of God? We blame God. Is it really fair to blame God?
One night while struggling with this issue, I was pacing the floor in my study and, finally, cried out in my anxiety, "Lord, I am tired of trying to explain what you do to people when you don't really give us a clear picture of what you are doing!" And God said to me simply, "Be quiet. Get back to work."
Paul was right. We see through a glass darkly; but, somehow, other people claim to see through the glass clearly. I think it's absolutely immoral to tell someone when natural causes have been very clear, "This must be God's will."
The second statement I call funeral-home theology is, "This is tragic, but God doesn't make any mistakes." This still blames God. God has some great mystery involved here. He didn't make a mistake. This implies tragedy as something God caused. If you want to try out that theology, I invite you to talk with the families of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City. I invite you to go to that little church in Alabama that was destroyed by a tornado on Palm Sunday in 1994. Most of the children in that church were killed as they were getting ready to present the Easter pageant. Tell those people that God doesn't make any mistakes. I invite you to come with me to Oklahoma City and find all the families whose lives were interrupted by the tragedy in 1995 when the government building was blown up. Let's tell them that God doesn't make any mistakes. You can't make the Bible say what God didn't intend for it to say.
The third statement I want us to drop from our vocabularies is simply, "God won't put more on you than you can bear." I talked one day with a lady broken with grief who said, "I know God won't put more on me than I can bear, but He is really getting up to the edge." I know there's a passage of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 10 that alludes to this, but that is in the context of temptation, not in the hardships and burdens of life. The idea suggests that God is putting something on us, knows our limits, and takes us right up to the limit to see how strong we are. There is a sense in which God tests us, but this is not the case.
In my first pastorate when I was right out of seminary, I went to a small church in North Carolina. The matriarch of the church was in the hospital, and the entire church was involved with her heart attack. After she was released from the hospital, she invited my wife, Carolyn, and me over for dinner. She served us a sumptuous meal of greasy fried chicken, biscuits to die for with butter and jam, and pecan pie with ice cream for dessert. She told us the doctor had warned her to watch her diet, but she did not intend to comply. Three days later she went back to the hospital in a very serious condition. I went to see her, and when I walked in, she looked at me and said, "Why did God do this to me?" I didn't know any better, and I blurted out, "God didn't do this to you. You did it to yourself!" I didn't stay long after that. The meal we had shared was designed to damage the heart and clog the arteries.
I can no longer say the phrases that imply that God puts things on us, sends us these enormous tragedies that devastate and fragment our lives. Read the Gospels if you want to know what God is like. Look at the life of Jesus. Do you find Jesus pulling triggers or putting burdens on people? No. Jesus heals, feeds, opens eyes. The only people Jesus had problems with were the religious authorities who knew more about religion than God knew in their mind. The Jesus I see in the New Testament doesn't go around saying, "I think I'll just roll this boulder over their lives to test them." Jesus does not condemn, destroy, or frustrate. He does not pull triggers, wreck cars, or send dread diseases to people. Jesus is opposed to all unnatural death. The theology of the funeral home is outrageous.
Have you ever heard that God takes children out of our families because he needs someone to be with him, because he is lonely? I actually had someone tell me that at a graveside, and it's hard not to respond. God does not take the father from the family leaving a widow with four children or little children from their parents.
When William Sloan Coffin was pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, his 24-year old son Alex was killed in an automobile accident in Boston. Coffin has a sermon on Alex's death, which he preached about 10 days after Alex's funeral. He told the story about a gracious lady who came in with some food for the family and then talked with him about how it was the will of God for Alex to die. Coffin replied and I quote, "Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed the windshield wiper on his car? Do you think it was the will of God that he was driving too fast for the storm and there were no streetlights on the road? Do you think it was God's will that there were no barriers separating the road from Boston Harbor? Of course not!" Coffin was saying that we live in a world bounded by natural law. We live in a world where cars crash, diseases abound, people do foolish things. We live in a world where rational people, when they see an apple fall from a tree, will say, "That's the law of gravity," but when we see a child fall from a window, we hear irrationally say, "That's God's fault." People do and say foolish things. That is the kind of world in which we live.
So what do we say? Let's look at what the Scripture says. I want to give you three things to say in the face of these unimaginable tragedies. First of all, you can say that God is for us. The Scripture says, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" It is implied that God is for us. Don't go around thinking that you are God's pet hate. God is for us! I wish somehow I could write that on our hearts. Never forget that God is not our enemy.
The second thing that you can know is that God is with us. Jesus, Emmanuel, the name itself means God with us. There are two things that you can know in tragedy. God is for us and God is with us.
Now look at the Revelation passage. The meaning of the Book of Revelation is that God has the last word. It was directed to the Christians who were concerned about the Roman government and the persecution of Domitian. But may I remind you that while on Patmos, John said, "The kingdoms of this world will go away, but the kingdom of our God and his Christ are forever." God has the last word.
Tragedy is real. We can't deny that, but it is never the ultimate. Whatever tragedy you are facing or are carrying, God has the last word. God has the last word, not cancer. God has the last word, not depression. God has the last word, not violence or racism. God has the last word, not poverty. God has the last word, not anxiety or despair. Not even death has the last word.
You remember that last Easter we said that God was triumphant over death. We need to remember this. Death does not have the last word. God will have the last word. God is for us. God is with us. God will have the last word. These are the most honest words we can say in awful times.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, give us the strength to care and the courage to believe and to walk in the light of your care in that belief. We pray in the strong name of Christ our Lord. Amen.