“WHAT'S THE GOOD WORD?” (b)
Bill had lived a blessed life. In high school he was a good student and star athlete, and he then did well in college. He enlisted and went to Vietnam where he served with distinction. He returned to his small town a hero. He took over his dad’s farm, the biggest in the area, and made it even larger and more successful. He had a wonderful wife and three healthy children. He had a nice new house and money to travel. At age 42 he was envied by all. Yet, he was hopelessly depressed. He did not understand it. He had everything he ever wanted, everything he had worked so hard for. He had always been happy and loved to work, but now he had no ambition and no desire to live.
Bill had always been a member of the church, and he went when he felt like it. He had been confirmed and knew the basics of the faith. If you were to ask Bill questions about the Christian faith, he would give all the right answers; Believe in God? Yes. Believe in Jesus? Yes. Believe Jesus rose from the dead? Yes. Believe God is with you always? Yes. Believe God forgives your sins? Yes-- and so on. Bill would know all the right answers and believe all the right things. But Bill had paid little attention to God or his Word, and now those words gave him no hope or strength. They were as ‘idle words’ to him.
Our grasp of God’s promises is always incomplete and we all fail to take hold of all the hope and joy that is our to have. And we know that despair can overwhelm anyone, even people of great faith like Jeremiah or Elijah or Luther. They all went through times of deep despair, but they were sustained in their despair by God’s Word. But Bill, who had always paid little attention to that Word, now found it to be of little comfort in his affliction. Bill’s salvation may not be lost. That is another question. He does believe in Jesus. But it is clear that he is getting no comfort from God’s Word right now. He is not like the Roman centurion, ready to take Jesus at his word. Bill has God’s word on so many things, but it is to him only an ‘idle word,’ giving him no strength or hope.
Ruth, on the other hand, though she had much to be depressed about, was not depressed at all. Ruth was 62 years old and dying of cancer. She did not like talking about her illness. People could see she was not well and they had heard it was cancer. But Ruth evaded their questions and just talked about everyday things. People said of Ruth, “She is in denial and not facing up to the truth about her condition. She is dying, but she will not admit it.”
I didn’t think that was true, but I wasn’t sure. I was Ruth’s pastor, but she did not talk to me about her illness either. Then one day she called for an appointment. Ruth came to my office with her well worn Bible in hand and said, “Pastor, I want to discuss with you some things about my funeral. I don’t have much time left and I wanted to do this while I am still able.” Ruth then gave me a list of hymns she wanted sung at her funeral, telling me why each one meant so much to her. She then listed several Bible verses she wanted read, and she had something to say about each of them. Then Ruth said she had an idea for a sermon text if I would want to use it. She opened her Bible to Joshua 23:14 where Joshua was speaking to the people one last time before his death. He said to them, “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”
That is a wonderful verse, but someone could have argued with Ruth about the selection of that verse. No promise has ever failed her? Ruth had much to be disappointed about. Her death would mean that her many fervent prayers for healing would go unanswered, and she would be dead before her 63rd birthday. Her husband had just retired after many years with the railroad, many hard years when he would be gone all week every week. Now they had the money and the time to enjoy life together, but now, her life would soon be ending. They had always wanted a family, but they were not blessed with children. They had lived in poverty for so many years and had endured so many disappointments. Now, finally, all was in order, but now their life together would soon be over. Yet, to summarize her life, Ruth chose these words from God’s Word: “Every promise has been fulfilled.” Ruth had already listed some of those promises when she told me the Bible verses she wanted read at her funeral; promises like, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord...these slight and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory, for what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal...Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for though are with me...” These and other verses just flowed from within Ruth’s heart and soul. These were not ‘idle words’ to her, they were her hope and strength and joy even in that most hopeless and sad situation. It is a great blessing to see someone die well like that, able to face death not with fear and self-pity, but with gratitude for the life she did receive, with courage to face the uncertainty and the coming pain, and with an eternal hope that not even death could destroy.
The Roman centurion said to Jesus, “Just give the word” (yesterday's meditation). That was all he needed. He would trust in the power of that word. In the end, all Ruth had was that word, but it was enough. It was enough because after a lifetime of looking to that word every day, she had learned to depend on it. And that word did not desert her. “These are not idle words; they are your life.”
Bill, you remember, had everything-- everything, that is, except that Word-- and he was sad and without hope. Ruth, on the other hand, had nothing left-- but she did have God’s Word, and with that Word she was strong, confident, and full of hope.
Deuteronomy 32:46-47 -- Moses said, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day...They are not just idle words for you, they are your life.” (NIV)
Joshua 23:14 -- (Joshua said), "Now I am about to go the way of all the earth. You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the promises the Lord your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed." (NIV)
Romans 10:17 -- ...Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (NIV)
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. --Book of Common Prayer