By Paul Koch –
I first met Raymond Whitt when he entered into my study in Kingsland, Georgia and shook my hand. Though he looked quite old he still had that firm grip of a man who worked hard throughout his life. Raymond had recently lost his wife, and when he began to talk about it his strong and conservative appearance dissolved into tears of immense grief. His bride was a believer; she had been throughout their marriage, but Raymond never bothered with church. He didn’t try and stop her. In fact, he liked it that she went to church, only he didn’t see it as a necessary thing to have to worry about. Because of her faith, she had always provided that certain confidence and direction for their marriage. Her faith added something crucial that wasn’t realized until she was no longer there. But now that she was gone he was adrift, confused, and terrified. And so, there he sat unsure of what to do next.
We began by simply talking about his life and especially his marriage. We, of course, discussed the faith and the gifts of Christ. I was prepared to give him a Catechism so he could have something to begin reading. But he then confessed that he couldn’t read, at least not very well. He had been quite successful in his life but did so by hard work, caring for animals on farms both large and small. It was back in the day when you simply grew up learning by doing and not by reading in a book. So we talked instead, and I’m glad we did. His eyes seemed to light up as we spoke about forgiveness and the assurance we have in Christ. It didn’t take too long before he became a member of our congregation and joyfully participated in the fellowship of God’s children. His invigorated faith was a joy and blessing in his life.
Then we didn’t see Raymond for a while. We found that he was making the long drive out to the VA hospital in Gainesville Florida. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and was getting treatment. Their attempts to prolong his life weren’t very successful and I remember sitting by his bedside when the hospice workers were busy setting things up. This man lived a long life without bowing before the Lord, without calling upon His name, without receiving His gifts. And now, after losing his bride, after being humbled and brought low; now after clinging finally to the gifts of Christ, now it comes to a hurried end. He was in pain and he slept a lot. Deep down inside you began to wonder about terrible things. On the surface you confessed that at least he finally came into the fold, at least the Lord embraced him before he would die. But secretly you had those terrible thoughts; did it really matter? How did this new found faith change anything? Would it have been any different if he had never showed up in my study in the first place?
Such thoughts are scary, because such thoughts can lead to a life that willingly moves away from the things of God rather than towards them. When troubles mount, when hardships pile on us in our lives, we may very well wonder what good our faith is doing us. People always talk about how they needed their faith to get through the tough times of their lives, but there are also those less vocal ones who begin to see their faith as a useless thing when the trials come. We may not like to listen to them, but their voices can’t be silenced. Where was God when my marriage was falling apart? Where was God when I lost my job? Where was God when the love of my life was consumed by cancer? Where is He in my darkness and depression? The danger is to just say, “forget it all,” and turn from faith. After all, we might as well eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. And so many chase after the evil desires of their hearts. They no longer even try and fight it. What difference does it really make?
The truth of the matter is these voices have always been around our Lord’s people. Time and time again the children of God have turned from Him, casting their faith aside to follow their own wisdom and understanding. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 gives us but an abbreviated history of this turning away. Though they walked through the sea on dry ground and were protected by a cloud throughout the day, though they ate the manna that fell in the morning and consumed the quail God provided, though they drank water flowing from a rock in the wilderness, in their time of great trial and moments of despair they turned to idolatry. They formed the infamous Golden Calf and worshiped it while Moses was on the heights of Sinai. They grumbled and complained in the midst of their wanderings, longing to return to the slavery of their former years in Egypt. Time and again they saw that their faith didn’t give them an easy way through this world, and so time and again they turned to other gods: gods of their own making, gods of their hearts’ desires. And the result, why, the result was horrific. Death and destruction hammers those who turn away from the true God.
Now, Paul gives us this history lesson not to simply scare us into some sort of obedience. He gives it as a heartfelt, passionate warning. He says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” The history of God’s people, even when they witness His mighty hand at work, is one marked by failure when the trials and hardships come. And he doesn’t want that for us. He doesn’t want to see us turn from our God because of the darkness and destruction in our lives. This, I think, is one of the great tools of the devil. He uses the hardships, the unexpected tragedies, the sorrows and tears of our lives as the means to pull us from our faith. “Where was God?” he whispers. He would have us find security and hope in anything else.
And it’s tempting, sitting next to the bed of a dying man, to think that the gift of faith is a hollow thing, that it didn’t really change much after all. But then, Raymond opened his eyes. He winced a little from the pain and asked me in a quiet voice if I would read it one more time. The “it” he was talking about was the parable of the lost sheep, where the Shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one and rejoices when he finds it. Things were not the same for Raymond. He knew he was dying but he knew he had a Shepherd who searched and searched to find him and bring him home. His faith, whether it was strong or weak, courageous or terrified, was enough. For Christ would not let him go.
Throughout Paul’s warning we see this joy woven right in there. Christ was with God’s people throughout it all. He never left them, never abandoned them. He tells us that they drank deep from that rock in the wilderness and that rock was Christ himself. And when the people grumbled about the food they were fed in the wilderness Paul says they were putting Christ to the test. Christ was there the whole time. Throughout it all he had never forsaken them, he had never abandoned them. Sure it was hard, sure there were tears and trials and sorrows but there was love as well, there was forgiveness, there was hope for there was Christ himself.
So we too drink and eat the gifts of Christ. We too gather together in the midst of joys and sorrows to receive the blessings of our Lord. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Instead of water from the rock and manna in the wilderness we have the very body and blood of our Lord in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We are invited into a fellowship of His blessings where our sins are forgiven and life is promised. Do not go off after other gods, do not turn from His blessings, for Christ is here for you.
We may find ourselves mired in struggle and hardship, we may endure each day as a new and powerful fight just to get through, but we go well equipped. For we go with this simple promise, “God is faithful.” We may be unfaithful, we may have doubts and fears, we may chase after evil, but God is faithful. He who declares that your sins are forgiven is faithful. He who says “take and eat, take and drink here is my body and blood given and shed for you,” is faithful. He who sent His Son to die for your sins is faithful.
He is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability. It may be dark at times; it may be bleak, but in Christ you will endure it. He won’t let you go. He won’t forsake you to the darkness. That was the reminder Raymond graciously gave to me. It is the reminder I now give to you. God is faithful.