Thursday, February 09, 2006

It is Well with my Soul

SJF • Epiphany 5b 2006 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The man of God said to his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite woman. Run at once to meet her, and say to her, Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child alright? She answered, It is all right.”
I don’t know about you, but somehow that modern translation doesn’t quite ring in my ears the way the old one did: “Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child? She answered, It is well.”

But whether “all right” or “well” — what a strange thing to say — given the fact this woman’s child has just dropped dead out in the field, and is now lying cold and still in the little room that she and her husband had prepared for the holy man. As she is quick to remind the prophet, she didn’t ask for this child; it was a gift God gave her, which he then seemed to snatch away. Yet still she trusts, still she says, It is well. And therein lies her great faith.

For her trip to see the man of God isn’t simply a trip to the complaint department, a chance to berate this man of God, and God himself, for having deceived her by giving her a wonderful gift and then snatching it away. If a desire to say “I told you so” is all she is up to, we would hardly remember her story today. No, she has a greater cause and a greater hope than this, for her trip to the man of God is not simply to complain but to appeal. And she will not be denied. When she says, “It is well,” she is making a radical affirmation of trust, trust that God doesn’t play this kind of game, and that God will do something to set this situation right. This is her trust and her faith.

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I almost titled this sermon, “Be careful what you don’t ask for.” This woman doesn’t ask for this child — it’s the servant Gehazi’s idea. She doesn’t ask for this child to be born, and yet he is born. And when he is stricken and taken from her, she appeals to the man of God, and throughhim to God himself — to restore what has been taken from her — the life of this child — even though she never asked for him to be born.

But who of us asks to be born? Who of us can ask to be given the gift of life before we have received it? And who of us can ask for our own life to be restored after we have lost it? When we lie, each of us someday, still and cold — in a small upper room, in a hospital or hospice bed, alone or surrounded by our family, it will not be for any of us to say, Let me be restored. But it may be for us, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, to have said those other important words: it is well with my soul.

It is well: these are the words of faith, the faith that knows that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s — that even when we sleep in death there is a restoration yet to come, not merely a restoration to this transitory life, this life of aches and pains, of suffering and weakness — even if it is also a life of joy. No, it is well — because the restoration that is to come is assured by the same Lord who gave us our being at the beginning. The Lord who formed our souls and implanted them and brought them to life, is the same Lord who will raise our corruptible body from death. So we can say with confidence, It is well, it is well with my soul.

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Our gospel passage today shows us why this trust is well-founded in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — even though we do fall sick, even though we continue to perish and die — still it is well. For our gospel shows us, that even though Jesus does cure Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever, and cures many who are sick with various diseases in that town — still, at the end of that day, after spending the night in prayer, he speaks plainly to his disciples, telling them that his mission is not simply to heal a few people here or there, but rather to set in motion the great saving message that will reach to the four corners of the world — for that, as he says, is what he came out to do.

The mission of Jesus and his church, although it includes caring for the sick and the suffering, does not limit itself to this gracious and important task: the mission of the church is not merely for the bodies of the few sick it can reach, but for the soul of the whole world which it can embrace. The church works and strives in its mission, and reaches out in the knowledge that even if we cannot heal every sick person, or save every injured person, yet still — it is well! It is well because in spite of death and injury, God reigns. It is well because in spite of suffering and loss, Jesus lives — and in him we too will live and reign for ever.

This is the testimony of faith that we hold as Christians, faith like that of the woman from Shunem. We do not ask for the gift of life before we are born, nor — once it is gone — can we of our own efforts call it back. And yet, it is well, it is well with my soul. For we know that our Redeemer lives, and that at the last he shall stand, and with our own eyes we shall behold him, who is our Savior and our Lord, and who is on our side as Mediator and Advocate. This is nothing less than the hope and faith in the resurrection unto eternal life — not the mere recovery from illness that we all might hope for when we fall sick or wounded — but the restoration to new life that can only come when the seed that is planted perishes and the new life springs up green and fresh from the earth. And as Saint Paul assures us: the new life will not be like the old, but incomparably greater.

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Let me close with a true tale that ties all of this together. In 1873, Mrs. Anna Spafford and her four small daughters sailed for France. In the middle of the Atlantic, tragedy struck, and the ship on which they were sailing was rammed by another vessel that split the ship in two. The terrified mother and her children were swept into the sea, as the ship sank beneath the waves. Fifty-seven people survived the disaster, and Mrs. Spafford was among them. But when she reached port, it was her sad duty to send a cable to her husband, Horatio, back in Chicago, a simplenote consisting of two terrible words: “Saved alone.” Horatio set sail to bring his wife home, he too crossing the Atlantic; and it was on that ship, as it sailed over the waters in which his four children had drowned, that he sat in his cabin and wrote the words to an immortal hymn:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea-billows roll,

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say;

“It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Now, you might think that was the end of the story. But it isn’t. The Spaffords had two more children, a son and a daughter — yet tragedy seemed to dog their path as the little boy perished from scarlet fever when only three years old. It was then that this unhappy couple chose to travel to the Middle East, to Jerusalem. Spafford wrote to a close friend, “Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered, and I, too, wish to learn how to live, suffer and, especially, to conquer.”

So it was that late in 1881, the Spaffords became founding members of what would come to be known as the “American Colony,” in the Old City of Jerusalem.

And in the city that saw Christ’s resurrection, a different kind of rising came about: for in the Spafford’s home, expanded and growing with wing upon wing added, for years after, and even up to this day, a refuge for sick and orphan children was created and thrives: the Spafford Children’s Center. New life came from death.

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Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child? It is well. It is well with many children today because the Spaffords — in the power of faith and following the example of their Lord — turned their tragedy to good. It is well with the souls of many today because God gives us the power to turn to the light he gives, in the hope he offers, for the ends he desires. It is well with my soul, my friends, for he has taught me to know it, and to say it. And I trust that you will join me in this, now and for years to come, to place your trust and faith in our Lord and God, who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and who will raise us too! It is well, my friends — it is well, it is well with my soul!+


1 comment:

Bill said...

I suspected that I knew the answer, but out of curiosity I looked up what the Hebrew was for the "all right" or "well." It was "shalom." This makes the woman's statement even more radical and powerful, because "shalom" means so much more than "all right" or "well."
Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I hope to have the opportunity to use this this weekend at a youth retreat where I'm taking my daughter.