A Faith That Sings: When The Waters Are Deep
I Corinthians 13:13
This is the word of God.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Great King David once said, “There is but one step between me and death.” Just one step. Tell me about it. Some years ago—it might as well have been yesterday—on a stormy night in the first hour of December the 21st, our son, our only son, John David, took that one step. On streets made slick by driving rain, he lost control of his car and smashed into a tree and in an instant, the candle of a life which had burned brightly for 22 years was snuffed out. Just one step, King David said. “Just one step between me and death.”
The telephone’s ringing jolted Trisha and me out of a deep sleep. The voice on the other end of the line said, “There are Orlando policemen at your door. Will you please let them in?”
Foreboding began to rise like flood waters about the two of us and then out of the rain, out of the night, and into our home stepped an Orlando police officer and the Orlando police chaplain. The chaplain’s name was Barry Hinson. He was a man I had known and respected for a number of years, but that night, I came to love him. For you see, he came delivering the very worst news that any parent can ever hear, but he did it with extraordinary care and sensitivity. I shall never forget what he said and what he did.
What he said. Very gently he said, “There has been a terrible automobile accident. Your son did not survive.” He then went on to tell us the circumstances at least as they knew them at that point.
And then what he did. He reached out with his great big, strong, loving arms and he embraced both Trisha and me and he prayed a deeply moving prayer. With what he said, our hears were shattered into a million pieces. And what he did, our hearts began the long, slow, and I would confess to you, still continuing process of mending. “There is just one step,” King David said, “just one step between me and death.” Just one step.
Today I do not so much wish to preach a sermon as I wish to open my heart and let you see something of what I have learned all over again through the death of our son. To be sure, I’ve learned all over again that life is frightfully uncertain and I’ve learned all over again that yes, for all of us, there is just one step between us and death. But I’ve also learned all over again that in the face of life’s terrifying uncertainties, there are some things which last. Three things, to be precise. There is faith, there is hope, there is love. These three remain. These three last.
It was, there is no other way for me to put it, the toughest thing that I have ever had to do in my life. I had to go down to the Medical Examiner’s office to provide positive identification for our son. Two of my great friends went with me and I needed them there desperately. As I stood in that cold, white, sterile place looking down at the now lifeless face of John David, his electric blue eyes closed in death, suddenly I said out loud, “It’s over, but it’s not over.” Yes, it’s over. His life on this earth was over. There was no denying that. And there was no denying the pain of that. But my faith would not leave it there. It was my faith which added the phrase, “But it’s not over.” And there is no denying that, either.
I will see John David again. Later on, I reflected on what I might have done under that circumstance if I’d had no faith. If all I’d been able to say was, “It’s over.” I think I might have gone mad or I might have tried to take my own life. And I wondered then and I wonder still, how in the world can anyone face that kind of tragedy without faith? You see, it was faith that allowed me to say, “It’s over, yes, but it’s not over.” And that phrase, “But it’s not over” turned unbearable grief into bearable sorrow.
There was a time when the great Scottish preacher Arthur John Gossip lost his wife to a tragic and untimely death and when he returned to his pulpit, he preached a sermon of uncommon power. The sermon ended with these words. “I don’t think we need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely, but we have a wonderful God and as Paul puts it, what can separate us from God’s love? Not death, Paul says immediately, pushing that aside at once as the most obvious of all impossibilities. No, not death. For I, standing here in the roaring of the Jordan, cold to the heart with its dreadful chill, very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I can call back to you who one day in your time will have to cross it, be of good cheer, my friend, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.”
That’s how I feel now. You see, I do not preach from the pulpit a rose-colored glasses, health and wealth, pie in the sky kind of faith. When I stand in the pulpit, it is not some carefully rehearsed performance akin to the theatrical stage. When I am preaching, I am not pandering to my ego nor playing word games with you. No. And please, please, please don’t dare suggest that because I am a preacher, I am somehow isolated or insulated from the real workings of the real world. Dear friends, I have been to the bottom. I have been to where few of you ever have been or ever will be. I have been to where life hits the hardest and cuts the deepest and hurts the most.
So listen to me, please, when I tell you today that faith in Jesus Christ is not some sideline pursuit, not some pleasant diversion, not some enjoyable hobby in your life. Faith in Jesus Christ is not something you engage in when it’s convenient or when it helps you along your career path or when you wish to appear respectable. No, faith in Jesus Christ is not just a part of your life. You must see it as the very center of your life. It is nothing less than the very foundation stone of your whole existence.
The reality is, listen to me. The reality is, nothing else in your life really matters. Nothing else in your life will last. When the police chaplain says to you, “Your son did not survive,” I can tell you, you learn right then and right there that you have nothing left except your faith. But it is my faith, my rock solid faith in Jesus Christ, that leads me to say to you today, “Be of good cheer, my friends. Do not be afraid, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.” Faith lasts.
William Sloane Coffin was, for a number of years, the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. Bill Coffin and I came at the Christian faith from radically different theological perspectives but we shared a common bond. You see, in January of 1984, his 24 year old son, Alex, lost control of his car on a rainy night in Boston and the car plunged into Boston Harbor and Alex perished in the accident. Afterward, Bill Coffin said, “Alex beat me at every game in life and now he beat me to the grave. But if he beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a light went out it was because for Alex, the dawn had come.”
I would have said it differently. I would say John David didn’t beat me to the grave. John David beat me to heaven. But while Bill Coffin and I look at the faith from different perspectives, we shared a common bond and a common hope because, you see, for our son John David, the dawn has come. It was our great Presbyterian ancestor John Calvin who said, “What would become of us if we do not take our stand upon hope, if we do not move through this world on the pathway which is illumined by the word and the spirit of almighty God?” That’s the hope on which I stand.
That hope was so wondrously and beautifully confirmed for me in a phone call I received a couple of days after John David’s death. The call came from a young man named Robert Midden. I had not known him before that. He called to tell me that he was following John David’s car the night of the accident. He saw it occur. He immediately stopped, jumped out of his car, rushed to John David’s car, reached in, felt for a pulse, found none, and he said, “Dr. Edington, I want you to know that your son died instantly.” And then he went on to say something else that sent a jolt of new life into my badly damaged sense of hope. He said, “I called the police and I waited there until the police came.” He paused for a moment and then he said, “Dr. Edington, I am a Christian. I want you to know that I held your son in my arms and I surrounded him with prayer until the police arrived.” Do you have any idea what it means to me to know that when for John David the dawn came, there was a disciple of Jesus Christ there to pray him home? What would become of us if we did not take our stand upon hope? What would become of us, indeed? Hope lasts.
My guess is that most of you, maybe all of you here, know the words by heart. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” You see, God our Heavenly Father had an only Son and God gave His only Son to die for us. And then God sat by the grave of His only Son and mourned a while. Until, on Easter Sunday morning, God gave to His only Son and to our only Son and to all who believe in His only Son, the gift of eternal life. God’s love lasts.
Do you understand what I mean when I say the great tragedy in life is not to die, not even to die young? The great tragedy in life is to die without having really lived and the ultimate tragedy is to die without having lived in, with, and for Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.
Back when our children were young—John David was 9, Beth was 12, Meg was 13—the five of us in the Edington family traveled to the Holy Land. One of the things that we did there was to drive to the top of Mount Tabor. It’s also known as the Mount of Transfiguration. It’s located very near the town of Nazareth. The road to the top of Mount Tabor is very narrow and treacherous with all kinds of switchback curves. For some reason known only to himself, our driver that day decided that he was going to get us to the top of Mount Tabor in record time. And so here we went, careening along this twisting, treacherous road, flirting with disaster the whole way. I was sitting in front seat, Trisha and the three kids in the back. Suddenly, John David leaned up over the front seat and he said, “Hey Dad, give me that little Bible you always carry in your pocket.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I think we’re going die on this mountain. And when I die, I want to be reading the Bible so that God will know that I belong to Him.” Well, needless to say, I gave him my Bible. And we’ve so loved telling that story in our family ever since. But of course, of course, of course, God already knew that John David belonged to Him. For God gave His only Son for our only son.
The loss of our son still hurts. For Trisha and me, that pain will never, ever leave. The wound is deep, but the wound is clean. Because you see, I know how I loved John David and I know how John David loved me and I know how God loves the both of us. So please, please, please, dear people. If you do not remember anything else in this sermon, remember this. If you do not hear anything else in this worship service, hear this. If you do not do anything else in response to this experience, do this: Love. Love while you still can love. Make the most of any moments which are yours in life. Because all too soon, they may be gone. And then you will be left with nothing but your memories. So build good memories in your life. Love, I plead with you, in the name of Jesus Christ, love, love those whom God has given you to love. And love them while you still can. I did that. And now I am so glad. Love lasts.
I have been helped as I try to make my way through the valley of the shadow of death by remembering that back in 1873, a Chicago lawyer named H.G. Spafford, he was a deeply devoted Christian, he placed his wife and children on an ocean liner, the Ville du Havre, destined to sail from New York to France. It was his intent to take care of some other business first and then later on, join his family abroad. The voyage began beautifully but on the night of November the 21st, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck broadside by another vessel, the Loch Earn. In 30 minutes, the Ville du Havre had sunk with almost all the passengers on board. Miraculously, Mrs. Spafford was rescued by the sailors of the Loch Earn. But the four Spafford children perished. She then sent a wire back to her husband. The message was just two words, “Saved alone.”
Beginning when he received that message through the next day and all the next night, H.G. Spafford walked the floors of his rooms in a terrible agony and in deep, deep prayer. And finally just as the dawn was beginning to break, he turned to his friend, Major Whittle, who had come to stay with him. He said to Major Whittle, “I’m glad that I can trust my Lord when it costs me something.” As soon as possible thereafter, he booked passage on a liner sailing for France. And when that vessel on which he was sailing reached the spot in the North Atlantic where the Ville du Havre had gone down and where his four children had perished, H.G. Spafford sat down and wrote some words. Some absolutely incredible words. Later on, Philip Bliss set those words to music and Philip Bliss named the tune he composed after the ship on which the Spafford children died. He called the tune Ville du Havre. Ah, but those words. Those incredible words have strengthened many a soul through the years and now they strengthen mine. “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”
My beloved people, it is costing me terribly to say this to you, but when the waters are deep in your life, when the sorrows like sea billows roll, you can say and know it will be true, in Christ, in Christ alone, it well. Yes. It is well with my soul.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.