This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-10
Text: Matthew 5:4
Catechism: Lord’s Day 10
Sermon prepared by Rev. Phil Stel, Rocky Mountain House, Alta
The following sermon was adapted from a message by Rev. Philip Stel, first preached one month after the death of his wife by a drunk driver in a car crash that injured him and his two daughters, only five minutes from his home in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. This sermon was one in a series on the Beatitudes under the title "The Road Less Traveled." Five central Alberta Pastors each wrote a sermon on the Beatitudes and then preached their messages in each other's churches.
(Suggestion: Catechism Lord's Day and Scripture can be read in the sermon where indicated and not beforehand.)
Related Scriptures: Isaiah 55:6, 8; Genesis 50:20; Proverbs 3:5, 6; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:6, 7
Why Me Lord?
As with many families with older children, the kids were coming home for Christmas. On Thursday, the Stel family's 18-year-old daughter arrived from college after 30 hours on the bus. On Friday their 20-year-old son came home from a stint of working in the oil field. On Saturday, the parents and youngest daughter, a 16-year-old, went to Calgary to pick up their daughter from the airport, flying in from Denver, for a week with the family. Only three days until Christmas!
The family did some shopping on the way home and phoned ahead to ask their 18- year-old to put the supper on. They would be home in less than an hour. They never made it. Their waiting teen at home saw the emergency and police vehicles race past their house on the highway. Then she saw some come back. Waiting anxiously, she began to read her Bible and pray. A knock on the door confirmed her worst fears. "There's been a bad accident involving your family. Your sisters are fine. We don't know about your parents. You need to come to the hospital."
Five minutes from home the small family vehicle had been hit by a drunk, uninsured driver who came from a paved side road and never slowed down for the T-intersection. Within hours the family's life was horribly and forever changed. The girls were injured but alive. The father was airlifted to Calgary Foothills Hospital and has no recollection of the accident or the first days afterward. His wife of 27 years, though conscious and alert at the scene and in the hospital, died within an hour of massive internal injuries and bleeding. Her husband never saw her alive after the accident.
Since that time, they have been trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.
Writing a message on this beatitude was important for two reasons for Pastor Stel:
1. This beatitude is for mourning people.
2. Preaching on this beatitude would draw support.
There are times to give and there are times to receive. Oftentimes, we give and are urged to give. We give because we have received so bountifully.
But we must also be open to receive. That too requires grace. Times of tragedy are times to allow ourselves to receive God's grace as that is particularly ministered through his people through whom he channels his grace.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 5 and in the Heidelberg Catechism to Lord's Day #10.
Read Matthew 5:1-10 and Lord's Day #10
In his second beatitude, Jesus declares, "Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted." But we need to notice the first of Jesus' beatitudes, the one that opens the sermon and that precedes this one, because it is on this basis that all the following statements of blessing, and the rest of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount are built.
Jesus begins his sermon, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The poor people Jesus has in mind have nothing. Nothing to bargain with. Nothing to buy with. Nothing to find security in. They have no money in the bank, no nest egg for the future, no envelope under the mattress for a rainy day. No rich generous uncle. No connections. Not even a dish with change in it. They live from day to day. If they don't get paid that day, they won't eat. And their family won't eat.
The poor people in Jesus' day know the only one they can appeal to, the one they are fully dependent on is God. They have learned to pray to their heavenly Father, "Give us this day our daily bread."
The "poor in spirit" then, are those who believe deeply in their hearts that their only hope, their only trust, is in God alone. In their spirits, in their lives, they honestly confess their utter dependence on God.
It is to these people, then, Jesus goes on to say, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
In other words, if you have a spirit of trust in God, if you believe that your only hope is in God, if, in your loss and grief, you turn with your emptiness to God, God will be gracious and minister to you in your pain. Your grief and anguish will become a womb and workshop for blessing.
Gerald Sittser wrote a book entitled A Grace Disguised. In 1991 he was a 41-year-old father of four whose minivan was hit head on by a drunk driver at 135 km/hr. After the collision, he awoke to discover that he himself had been spared in the carnage, but in the bloody, twisted wreckage, impaled forever in his memory, he saw that three members of his family had been killed: his mother, his wife and his four-year-old daughter. Three generations had been senselessly, tragically snuffed out. What an incredible tragedy. Here is a person whom others who are suffering can listen to.
Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn ..." Present tense. Not, "Blessed are those who have mourned." Past tense. It must be all right to speak to others from the midst of our pain and grief. That's where many of us are at.
This sermon was written in the midst of grieving. May it be a new and challenging and hopefully blessed experience of God's presence and power to receive, not from a position of resolution and finality, looking backwards, but rather from a place of confusion and pain and struggle and weakness, looking up. In the words of a line from Jesus Loves Me: "I am weak but he is strong."
But let us have our thoughts go beyond death and someone else's car accident. There are many other griefs. There are other griefs that are worse. One man said to Pastor Stel in the hospital, "This is the worst way to lose a wife." Pastor Stel responded, "I think your loss was far greater." Fifteen years before, his wife had taken their two children and walked out of their marriage into the arms of another man. He has never seen his children since. He knows their hearts have been poisoned against him.
There is the loss and grief of losing a job, suffering injustice, chronic unemployment, infertility, being raped or abused, aloneness, terminal illness, mental illness, disability, the weight of caring for a disabled child or spouse for years or a lifetime. Which is the worst pain?
But what does that question help? What can any of us change, anyway? Still it is helpful to open the eyes of our hearts to the pain of others, for then we gain a new and more balanced perspective. Chances are we would not desire to trade with anyone else's pain.
It is healthy and healing and honest to focus on mourning from the midst of our struggles, before we have reached some resolution. It is probably helpful to journey together with others in pain, when we can share both our pain and our questions. God desires that we turn to the Bible in the depths of our grief.
As we wrestle with the pain and brokenness that has been thrown into our lives, these are some of the perspectives that God's word urges us to clutch onto with all our being so that we may experience God's comfort in incredibly hard times.
(To the reader: Say the numbers so that people hear each point stated clearly.)
1. (Number 1.) What happened was not an accident.
A man whose father had a stroke at age 48 which left him mentally disabled, and who was later killed in a car accident, commented to Pastor Stel shortly after the accident, "Phil, our only comfort is to believe that God was in charge. Because what are the alternatives? God missed a beat? God isn't all powerful? God doesn't care? The devil is in control? There is no God? "
Deep down inside we know that God is in control. We have heard enough stories where people experienced huge pain, but in the end saw the grace and working of God. We need to remind ourselves and our children that God is sovereign and God is love. He is working all things together for his — and our — good.
We need to remember the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. It was painful. Here was a young man, only 17 years old, who loved God and obeyed God, even in the midst of injustice and attacks. All he got for his devotion was pain. Even the names he gave to his sons reminded him daily of his years of suffering rejection and injustice. (Gen. 41:50-52) But in the end he recognized the hand of God. Genesis 50:20: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."
The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
Through his prophet Isaiah, God reminds us in Isaiah 55:8, 9, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.... As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." God is in charge. We may hate or not understand what he is doing to us and our family at this time. We hate the pain, the deepening loneliness, the sickening feeling of finality. But we may rest assured that God loves us. Deep inside, and from God's Word, we know he's doing what is best. We know he always has the big picture in mind.
If we could always understand what God is doing, we would not be impressed with him and we could not worship him. We are not that bright. Nobody is. Not even the greatest leader, philosopher or politician compares to God. God is so much greater than any or all of us.
A verse from the Bible that helps put things in perspective is Proverbs 3:5,6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths."
Did you catch what these verses are saying? Don't try to understand. Don't try to figure out everything that is happening in your life. Just trust and obey, just live in deep reliance on God, and it'll be all right. Also in times of incredible pain and injustice and tragedy.
Actually, it's even better than that. It's a matter of living in expectancy. This is the next point.
2. (Number 2.) God is working out his plan for our lives.
We may ask ourselves the question, "What is God doing in my life? What plans does God have for me? For us?"
We are invited and urged to live in the confidence and deep assurance that God is working out the details of his plan of redemption. Each of us is part of that plan. God is working things out. We go to the same Bible verses as in point number one.
We are led to wonder what God has in mind for us next. We are grieving deeply. But we need to balance our grief with this deep-seated perspective. Our life has a specific divine purpose. We need to remind ourselves that things do not just happen by chance. What God is doing to us, to our children, to our congregation, to our friends has eternal purpose and significance.
Some of you know of a woman by the name of Helen Steiner Rice. Rice was her husband's name. Did you know that her life of writing poems was spurred by tragedy? When her husband of less than one year lost all his money in the great stock market crash of 1929, she went to work to pay the bills. She was a writer. Three years later, her depressed husband committed suicide. She had to keep writing. How many millions haven't been blessed by her writing? Still today, royalties from her writings are used to help the elderly and needy. Can you see the big picture? Can you discern the hand of God?
Have you heard of Elizabeth Elliott? A young married woman just out of Bible School. A little baby in her arms. Looking to do the work of God as a missionary couple. Before they could start their missionary work, her husband was massacred by the very people they had hoped to bring the gospel to. If you know the rest of the story, you know that God's plan was greater than theirs. The people were indeed brought to Jesus, and the writings of Elizabeth Elliott have inspired millions.
We could go on and on. Perhaps you have your own story to tell.
Sometimes we do not get to see God's purposes. One man shared, "When I was ten years old, I kissed my dad goodbye. I never saw him alive again. He got killed in a truck crash that day. I have never been able to see any purpose in my loss."
We relate. Sometimes we do not get to see God's purposes. Maybe most of the time. But that's where we need to trust and obey or we have nothing left to live for, or to hang on to. We can find a measure of peace and blessing in our mourning when we realize and appreciate that God is creating more of the person he wants us to be. We probably need to remind ourselves of that reality repeatedly every day. Because we don't know if the rest of our days will work out like Helen Steiner Rice's or like the man whose father was killed in the truck accident. We don't know how clearly we will be allowed or able to see and appreciate God's hand.
At the same time, we need to know that God's good purposes for us will not work out automatically. We need to continue do his will and trust his leading.
That leads into point number 3.
3. (Number 3.) If we are to be blessed in our mourning, we need to choose to move ahead in a positive way.
The apostle James begins his letter, James 1:2, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance ..." Etc.
The word "consider" is very, very significant. "Consider" has to do with making a certain choice. The people to whom James is writing to could also "consider it pure hell" when they faced trials.
James is saying, when stuff happens in your life, you are faced with a decision. You can decide to react negatively or you can decide to react positively. You can choose to respond in a way that builds you and others up, or you can choose to respond in destructive ways.
The same kinds of terrible things happen to people. Some will react in a way that brings healing and growth and blessing. Others will react in ways that destroy and cripple themselves.
The man who lost his mother, wife and four-year-old in a single accident makes these very insightful, instructive comments: "... the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us... Choice is the key." (p. 36, 37)
A little later he goes on to talk about the inmates of Nazi death camps as related by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish survivor of the camps and the author of Man's Search for Meaning. He writes, "Frankl observed that the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to their circumstances displayed dignity, courage, and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering. Some chose to believe in God in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. They chose to expect a good tomorrow, though there was little promise of one. They chose to love, however hateful their environment in which they lived.... They grew spiritually beyond themselves." (p. 39)
Perhaps you are more familiar with Corrie Ten Boom. She chose to love in the midst of hatred. And that made all the difference. It was that that created a ministry that touched millions and brought glory to God.
Some people choose not to move forward. They choose to remain in their anger, in their past — nurturing feelings of loss, bitterness, victimization, doubt, senselessness, meaninglessness, unforgivingness. They isolate themselves from others and from life.
The situations are varied: A broken engagement. Sexual abuse. Infidelity in marriage. Divorce. Unemployment. Unhappy singleness. Infertility. Disappointment. Death.
Is that where you want to be one year, five years, ten years from now? Life is too short. Too precious a gift. Too significant to be wasted or destroyed by our attitudes.
We constantly need to make choices in life that will bless us. The most basic choice is to make God first and Lord of our lives. All blessing will flow from that choice when it is lived out in our daily decisions and lives and relationships.
We never know how many years God still has in store for us in health and productivity. Let us not lose or waste any of those years. There are too many things that need to go on. Our children's lives go on. Our congregation's life goes on. People continue to live and die without the Lord. And so we will cry. We grieve. We talk. We get hugs. Everything hurts. But in and through this all, we desire to move forward. With God.
Sittser tells of a phone call he received six months after the accident from a stranger. The female caller, a stranger to him, told him about how she had lost her mother at age 10. She told him how, ten years later, she had gone to a counselor for six years, to deal with her loss.
But it was not the loss of her mother she went for, but the loss of her father who was still alive. When her mother, his wife, had died, he had withdrawn himself and become emotionally distant and inaccessible. She had lost someone who was still alive and could have loved her but chose not to. Sittser says that phone call was a pure gift.
It is an important reminder to us also. Our journey will be different from those of others, even in our own family. No, we are not talking about "getting over it," as some people phrase it with such little understanding. It is a matter of grieving and integrating our grief and loss into a life in which we are moving forward.
4. (Number 4.) Forgive.
In his letter to the believers living in the center of official persecution, the apostle Paul urged Christians to leave all vengeance to God. Romans 12.
In a message on dealing with anger and bitterness, Charles Swindoll talks about an unforgiving spirit. He said it can be a real delight to burn with anger. We will justify our words and attitudes as "righteous indignation," of course. It can be such a delight to attack our enemies. He compared such attitudes in terms of a feast. The problem, however, he said, is that the carcass we are gorging ourselves on is our own.
Anger and rage and bitterness only destroy us. They eat us up from the inside. They kill our joy and prevent our growth and keep us from fruitful service.
Two months before the Stel's accident, their 16 year old daughter had raised the matter of death by a drinking driver. She said to her mother, "If a drunk driver killed someone in our family, I don't think I would ever be able forgive that person." The two of them had quite a conversation. Her mother impressed on her daughter that an unforgiving spirit would serve only to destroy her for the rest of her life.
The night of the accident the daughter wrote out an accident report. She had been the only one to see the lights of the vehicle from the side and to realize that an accident was about to happen. Toward the end of her writing, she was informed that the driver of the other vehicle was drunk. She recalled the conversation with her mother. And she concluded her report, "And I forgive him."
Not forgiving will not bring our loved one back. Healing for us will only begin to happen when we forgive. We know that. Healing for the others involved also can only happen with forgiveness.
Forgiving and forgiveness will lead people to reflect on the gospel, and perhaps give Christ a second consideration.
Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, as it is in no other religion. The God of the Bible is a God who loves us and forgives us. Remember Matthew 18: we have been forgiven billions of dollars in comparison to the thousands that others owe us. We too live only by the grace of God.
It may seem incredibly difficult. But it is the only way. It was incredibly difficult for God. We are told in Romans 5:8, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Blessing in mourning cannot happen if needed forgiveness is withheld.
Many more points could be made. I wish to mention four more briefly in closing.
5. (Number 5.) We find huge comfort in knowing where our believing loved one is.
We are assured that she is in heaven with Jesus. That she is rejoicing and praising God as we never could in our earthly state. That brings us comfort.
We find deep peace in the awareness that the heart's desire of our loved ones who believe has been fulfilled. He or she has begun to worship God in fulness, in eternity. We don't understand it, but were they given the choice to return to us, they wouldn't. They have fought the fight, finished the race and received their crown. We find deep joy and peace in that realization.
6. (Number 6.) We know that our parting is only temporary.
Someday we will meet again. Shall we meet and recognize our loved ones again?
The New Testament records three resurrections performed by Jesus. Lazarus, the widow's son and the little girl. Did it ever strike you that none of those resurrections was for the sake of those who had died? It was always for the sake of those left behind. God created families. Jesus was interested in restoring the family circle.
Someday, we pray, our family circles will again be complete. Sometime, we hope, we shall recognize and embrace our loved ones again. But it will be on the other side of glory. And so, in the words of a Puritan after his beloved had died, "Now life will be a little less sweet, death a little less bitter."
7. (Number 7.) Times of mourning are incredible times of experiencing the grace of God as ministered through people and especially his people.
It is often in our times of grieving that we are blessed most intensely by God's people, carried on their prayers and helped in many practical ways. From their helpfulness, we know that God's love is real.
8. (Number 8.) Kris Kristofferson sings a song that captures a way of looking at things that is totally at odds with the way our whole society thinks about life. But this outlook puts the right spin on things. This is the Biblical perspective.
You know, we are taught that we deserve a good life. Everybody should be "looking out for me." Furthermore, God should be happy with me. In fact, he should be pleased if and whenever I pay any attention to him.
Kristofferson sings, "Why me, Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of these?
What does he say he doesn't deserve? "Heartaches?" "What have I ever done to deserve even one of these heartaches I've known?"
That's how a lot of people think the song should go. But that's not how it goes, does it? This is a song that catches up the biblical perspective, not the popular worldly one. We really don't deserve anything. Everything that we have, everything that we are and everything that we hope for is a gift. We live only by God's grace.
Our lament for a particular future that we will not be able to enjoy must be tempered by our gratitude for the blessings we have received. In the words of the apostle Paul from prison, Philippians 4:6, "...in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present your requests to God..." In the words of a hymn, "Count your many blessings, name them one by one ...."
(Reader: do you want to sing this?!)
(Why me Lord?) What have I ever done
to deserve even one of these pleasures I've known?
(Tell me Lord), what did I ever do
to deserve loving you and the kindness you've shown?
Lord, help me, Jesus I praise Him
so help me Jesus I know what I am
Now that I know that I needed you so
help me Jesus, my soul's in your hands.
(Try me Lord), if you think there's a way
I can ever repay all I've taken from you.
(Forgive Lord) — I can show someone else
what I've been through myself on my way back to you.
Lord, help Jesus, I praise Him
So help me, Jesus, I know what I am,
Now that I know that I needed you so
help me Jesus my soul's in your hands.
Jesus, my soul's in your hands.
Proposed Order of Service
We enter into the presence of God
Call to worship: "May we identify with the psalmist who said,(read Psalm 116:1-9, 12-14, 17-18).
Let us spend a few moments in individual prayers of preparation, asking God to help us put aside distractions so that in this time of worship, we may truly hear and experience God. We will conclude our individual prayers with a very honest and searching communal prayer: #259 in our Psalter Hymnals.
God's greeting: read II Corinthians 13:14
Psalter Hymnal #42:1,2,3,7
Service of reconciliation (a reminder of our deadness and God's sovereign grace)
Ephesians 2:1-2, 8-10
Hymn/prayer of repentance and assurance: # 260
Call to renewed living: Romans 12 (select as desired)
We hear God's Word
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-10
Text: Matthew 5:4
Confession: Lord's Day #10
Related Scriptures: Isaiah 55:6, 8; Genesis 50:20; Proverbs 3:5, 6; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:6, 7
Sermon: "Why Me, Lord?"
We respond to God's Word
Hymn #489 (if you know the story behind this hymn, you may wish to tell it before singing the song)
We bring our offerings
Hymn #493 (if you know the story behind this hymn, you may wish to tell it before singing the song)
Blessing: read I Peter 5:10,11
("There are many things we do not know. The verses describe them. But each time the chorus resounds with the words of Paul in II Timothy 1:12. Paul does not say that he [Paul] is able to keep that which he [Paul] has committed... but rather that he (Jesus) is able to keep us faithful and preserve us to the end!")